They’re Alive! Skyscrapers that Breathe, Evolve, and (Maybe Even) Move

How Tall Can Skyscrapers Go? The More Pertinent Question Is: How Can Skyscrapers Better Serve Us?

June 20, 2019

Contributing Editor, Architectural Record

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Back in the 1960s, Ron Herron and his compadres in the Archigram group envisioned a Walking City standing on telescopic steel legs that would allow it to ramble off to a new place if its residents got tired of its initial location. While no one has tried to build such a nomadic metropolis, many of the ideas behind this exercise in paper architecture are very much alive and kicking. The notion that buildings should respond to the needs of their users and change over time to adapt to new conditions is driving much thinking on high-rise design today. In addition, Archigram’s faith in technology’s ability to make a better future — while perhaps a bit naïve – still resonates with many of us. But instead of creating machines for living, 21st-century architects are aiming to design living machines that breathe, generate energy and listen to their users. “Alexa, prepare the skyscraper for the incoming storm.”

The 825-foot-tall Tencent headquarters in Shenzhen, China, by NBBJ doesn’t stand on legs, but it has arms that reach out and embrace its two towers. The arms don’t move, but they facilitate movement by the workers inside, providing horizontal connections between the towers and serving as activity hubs for exercise, dining and congregating. NBBJ rotated the towers and offset their heights so one shades the other and together they capture the site’s prevailing breezes to ventilate indoor atria. A modular shading system on the curtain wall varies according to the degree of sun exposure, thereby reducing glare and heat gain. The building’s skin seems alive. And its various rooftops support gardens that offer changing outdoor experiences to people working on upper floors.

The obvious question to ask about the future of skyscrapers is: How tall can they go? The answer is: Much taller than they need to. At 2,723 feet and 160 stories, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a notoriously inefficient building with more than 800 feet at the apex unoccupiable and a large percent of its top habitable floors consumed by elevators and core. When the 3,307-foot Jeddah Tower opens in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, it will have more than 1,000 feet of “vanity height.” Structural engineers’ skill at building high now far exceeds the market’s demand or users’ desire for such things.

The more pertinent question to ask is: How can skyscrapers better serve us? Building tall reduces the physical and carbon footprint of our cities, so it makes a lot of sense. Dramatic skylines give our cities their particular identities and manifest values of innovation and progress. As Daniel Burnham famously said, little plans “have no magic to stir men’s blood.” But in addition to inspiring us, tall buildings today must create healthy and beautiful places to live, work, learn and play. Instead of sucking energy and generating waste, these structures must generate their own power, capture and reuse water and make the planet a cleaner place. Most of the technologies needed to do this are currently available; now we just need to make them more economical. Because of the economies of scale inherent in their size, skyscrapers are the logical place to start deploying these green strategies.

While the particular technologies used will change over time, the direction of high-rise architecture points to various forms of biomimicry — design that’s modeled on biological processes. One way to do this is to undermine the hermetically sealed environment inside buildings, by either adding outdoor spaces such as sky-gardens that are accessible to people on upper floors or creating landscaped atria at various heights throughout a tower. Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has been greening his skyscrapers in these ways for decades, adding nature to architecture and in the process reducing energy loads and creating healthier indoor environments. The next step is to make building envelopes that actually breathe — allowing fresh air in and pushing heat and carbon dioxide out. While studying at the University of Stuttgart, Tobias Becker developed a breathing glass skin that controls the flow of light, air and temperature by changing the size of apertures or “pores.” These openings dilate or contract pneumatically like muscles and require little energy to operate.

In recent years, Arup has been developing building skins impregnated with micro-algae that insulate indoor spaces while absorbing carbon dioxide and generating oxygen. The algae can also be harvested and used as a bio-fuel. The engineering firm tested the technology in a five-story building in Hamburg a few years ago and now XTU, a French studio, is proposing to use its own micro-algae system in a high-rise project in Hangzhou, China.

Meanwhile, David Benjamin and his firm The Living have been building structures using bricks made from a fungus called mycelium. Materials that are grown instead of manufactured have lots of advantages, such as requiring less energy to produce and being biodegradable. Benjamin’s most prominent project was his Hi-Fy Tower installed in the courtyards at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, in the summer of 2014. At Cambridge University in the U.K., bioengineer Michelle Oyen is trying to develop building materials made of artificial bone or eggshell, which are stronger and lighter on a per-weight basis than steel. And because they are produced at room or body temperature, rather than more than 1,000 degrees for cement, they require less energy to manufacture. A lot more research needs to be done before a skyscraper’s structural members truly resemble an animal’s skeleton, but we can now imagine a day when columns and beams can be grown and can perhaps even repair themselves.

Haresh Lalvani, the cofounder of the Pratt Center for Experimental Structures, wants to go one step further — developing building systems that are encoded with information on how to shape themselves, similar to the way stem cells and genes are in living organisms. Working with metal fabricator Milgo/Bufkin, Lalvani has created perforated metal sheets that can be stretched out — using gravity or some kind of applied force — to become three-dimensional structures. The process is similar to cutting a piece of paper into a spiral and then pulling it into a telescoping coil. It gives “pop-up” architecture a whole new meaning.

While the gee-whiz factor of such experimental strategies can be either exciting or a bit silly, the main goal of skyscraper innovation should be creating buildings that are more environmentally friendly, more responsive to the needs of their users and healthier for the people inside and around them. Sensors will monitor and automatically adjust temperature, humidity, lighting, air quality and all kinds of interior conditions. Ideally, we’ll be able to tune these buildings to improve performance and erect them so they can clean and repair themselves. I doubt we’ll ever have skyscrapers that walk, but I can imagine a day when they grow and contribute to an urban ecosystem that’s sustainable, resilient and enticing.

Banner image courtesy Vladimir Kudinov/Unsplash.

Tencent sketch courtesy Jonathan Ward/NBBJ; photograph courtesy Terrence Zhang/NBBJ.

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How Can We Make Our Cities More Vibrant?

NBBJ and Downtown Works Host a Seattle Salon on Urban Vitality

April 24, 2019

Senior Associate / Commercial Market Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: NBBJ and Downtown Works recently hosted an event with Canadian developer Robert Fung, president of the Salient Group, who spearheaded the revival of Vancouver’s Gastown neighborhood and the renaissance of New Westminster. Here are a few of the key takeaways on how to create more engaging, livable cities through development and design.

Create a Core If There Isn’t One. A city that treats all of its streets in the same manner can be soulless and centerless. Creating neighborhood hubs and carefully curating a thoughtful mix of retail stores and restaurants, as well as other uses at the street front to complement residential and office uses, is critical to creating a vibrant urban neighborhood.

Focus on the Ground Floor. While residential and office spaces typically drive the financial pro forma of mixed-use developments, it is the ground floor that defines a building’s identity. The places where buildings interact with the street have the power to shape our cities in dramatic ways. Bringing in ground floor tenants that attract diverse groups — residents, office workers, families and tourists alike — is valuable to driving a thriving city. Taking a holistic approach and allowing for highly permeable storefronts that enable the building to engage the sidewalk in a variety of ways improves street life and builds a unique neighborhood character.

Tenant Selection is Key to Success. While an appropriate balance of mixed-use offerings is key, providing retail that is the right scale for an urban neighborhood can dramatically affect its character. This process begins well in advance of leasing, involves engaging the neighborhood’s residents and developing an understanding of the community’s strengths and aspirations. For example, New Westminster, British Columbia’s original capital city, was once a major retail hub in the mid-twentieth century. Many of the stores shuttered, but a retail cluster focused on bridal dress shops organically evolved when other uses declined. Embracing and building on this unique cluster with complementary retail and restaurant tenants was an important part of the strategy to revitalize its downtown core.

Preserve and Build on the Historic Urban Character. Identifying and championing our neighborhoods’ and buildings’ historic elements creates great value, both functionally and aesthetically. Yet it’s more than just historic rehabilitation, preservation and façade retention. It’s also about capturing the unique spirit and history of each community that is embodied in the neighborhood’s historic fabric. Creating engaging pedestrians’ experiences that recreate and capitalize on the texture of heritage can be beneficial in establishing a feeling of comfort and familiarity with a place.

People Need Spaces to Socialize. The most attractive urban neighborhoods offer engaging social spaces that reflect the strengths and diversity of their residents and visitors. This ties back to the street front. With much of the focus on the upper floors of the building, street level components are often an afterthought in mixed-use projects. Placing an equal focus on the first floor and those above is critical to creating spaces and experiences that draw people to a building, help them feel comfortable and provide compelling social hubs that define great neighborhoods.

Our urban places are constantly changing, and to be successful, our cities must champion and celebrate diverse activities, uses and experiences.

If developments are carried through with the right intent and strategic collaboration, our cities will be energetic, lively and diverse — places that our future generations will be proud to call home.

Banner image courtesy of Daria Shevtsova/Pexels.

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Suburban Retrofit

How to Transform Industrial Sprawl into a Compact Neighborhood Supporting Manufacturing

April 9, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Introduction

It has been encouraging over the past couple of decades to see many suburbs begin to transform from car-dependent, land-use-segregated enclaves to more compact neighborhoods that promote walking, cycling and a mix of uses. However, our towns and cities remain surrounded by many areas hosting light industry, which under-utilize adjacent infrastructure, turn their backs on nearby neighborhoods and fail to meet the growing interest in health and wellbeing.

Yet these island-like, unsustainable and amenity-deprived areas can be catalysts for innovative ways to address changing workplace expectations, logistics consolidation, sustainable urban systems — heat island mitigation, multi-modal connectivity, responsible water usage — and housing affordability. The ambition is not to displace industry but to introduce a mix of uses that will not only co-exist with it, but also benefit local industry and workers.

NBBJ researched one of these typical sub-urban areas to explore how it might be transformed, as a prototype for future developments in similar areas. We selected Woburn, Massachusetts, less than 20 miles from Boston, for its close proximity to regional public transport, adjacency of light industrial and residential uses, evidence of natural systems, and clear lack of amenities and services.

 

Case Study: Woburn, MA

The industrial park in Woburn, bounded by Interstates 93 and 95 and straddling the rail line that serves Anderson/Woburn station, typifies the conditions of the low-density, light industrial suburb. Our goal was to explore and demonstrate how this area can be retrofitted such that it will support a walkable, cyclable environment that supports living, working and recreation, and takes advantage of its close proximity to the train station. In particular we focused on opportunities to connect with natural systems and exploit their potential as a connected and civic realm.

The ambition of the project was to propose a prototypical spatial approach to retrofitting under-performing or soon-to-be-redundant light industrial areas, recognizing the socioeconomic implications of any proposed interventions. Critical to the study was the retention of light industry or potential for new manufacturing, research and biotech labs to co-exist with a mix of uses. As manufacturing and warehousing businesses compete for workers, being located in a context that offers amenities and services will increase their attractiveness.

 

Guiding Principles

We first conducted research to gain an understanding of Woburn as it compares to other towns in the region in local demographics and employment. Then, through a combination of on-site observation and informed conjecture, we considered rail usage and audited the businesses that occupy the site to gain an understanding of their logistics requirements.

The outcome of the study was a set of principles/objectives for this type of sub-urban site:

1. Connect to Nature

a. Integrate residential, civic, and commercial uses with pedestrian and green links. Pedestrian pathways and natural systems provide fluid connections between neighboring residential and commercial areas. Community uses like recreation fields, a senior center, multi-family housing, a civic center or library can provide transitions between commercial and industrial areas and residential areas. Similarly, the forging of a bicycle and pedestrian network connecting places of business to the commuter rail station provides modal choice for both workers and residents.

b. Use natural systems and materials to ensure the transformed industrial park is, indeed, more park-like and environmentally sustainable. Reimagine storm water infrastructure as a green amenity; mitigate heat islands through tree-planting and white, blue or green roofs. Sports fields and parkland serve local employees before or after work or at midday. Culverts, drainage systems and tree canopies should be seen as part of a cohesive natural and ecological systems network that links to and, where possible, provides green amenities with both recreational and connectivity benefits.

2. Diversify Land Uses

a. Integrate and expand community-facing uses into existing or former industrial buildings. Industrial buildings can include community amenities by incorporating related public-facing spaces and programming, such as convenience stores, F&B establishments or pop-ups that relate to the manufacturing/commercial activity. Capitalize on existing community-serving assets such as healthcare, education, daycare facilities, recreational facilities and gymnasiums by expanding their footprint and influence to contribute to active street-facing frontage and green/blue open space.

b. Identify opportunities to intensify with diverse residential types and development models. Provide residential choice, with a use mix and flexibility reflective of today’s needs, in order to address living and work space affordability and retain and attract a younger population that will lay down roots.

3. Create a Coherent Block Structure

a. Intensify the existing built form and open space. Add frontages onto buildings with large setbacks to activate streets. Define blocks to create separated routes, concentrating logistics routes and servicing on the interior of blocks. Stack storage vertically to open up building frontages for more active uses.

b. Catalyze adjacent densification through corridor improvements. Creating welcoming streets —generous sidewalks, tree canopies to mitigate heat islands, street lighting — will catalyze densification on adjacent blocks. Increased foot traffic and decreased car and truck speeds will encourage new development and more street-facing uses.

 

Precedents

There are few relevant precedents that attempt to intensify uses at the scale of an industrial district with the same qualities as our case study AND attempt to integrate residential. Similar projects are those that strive for a complete area-wide rebranding and reconfiguration to create an innovation district — a trend sweeping across Western cities that, encouragingly, recognizes that the lines between different activities are blurring. The Netherlands has been quite progressive in redeveloping industrial districts while allowing for the coexistence of manufacturing and housing, often focused around a single repurposed large-scale building that acts as a catalyst for wider redevelopment.

Econinnovation District (Uptown Oakland, Pittsburgh) presents a slightly different context from Woburn, as some residential and commercial exists in a site area characterized by surface parking lots and derelict buildings. However, the initiative is promoting rezoning to allow for a mix of research and work space, housing and community uses.

INIT (Amsterdam) is a multi-company building in the inner-city Oostenburgereiland, a former industrial area. INIT, housing meeting rooms, auditorium, fitness center, restaurant, childcare, exhibition and cultural space, is expected to catalyze the redevelopment of the industrial district and the renewal of a 19th-century neighborhood with housing, offices, culture, leisure, hotel and new bridges. Being situated near to a waterfront is obviously an asset.

Buiksloterham (Amsterdam) demonstrates how an existing industrial area can be intensified and transformed into a mixed-use area containing light industry, offices, culture and housing. The city is promoting an emphasis on sustainability and the circular economy, and (acknowledging that these types of sites are opportunities for diverse development models) self-builders are invited to build their own houses. Again, this site is situated on a waterfront, undoubtedly increasing its attraction.

Northside Studios (Andrews Road, London) accommodates five double-story light industrial units with on street lay-by access and a tight rear vehicular access. The 10 residential units above are set back from the road, minimizing the visual impact of activity associated with the industrial units below and creating a generous terrace. The units are adequate for many businesses, although they will be of limited use for noisy businesses or noxious operations.

The BDM Logistics Management (Royal Albert Basin, London) warehouse component left a plot available for residential development along a blank facade. Separate industrial access routes will be maintained with yard space on the opposite side from residential development, so the warehouse itself will shield noise from truck movements. The administrative elements of the BDM building are to be placed to bring human-scale activity along the street elevation.

 

Conclusion

The suburbs are abundant with places similar to the study area in Woburn — nearby to commuter transportation and employment hubs, developed in an environmentally unsustainable manner, transforming in their industrial needs, with residential neighborhoods in close proximity and natural systems untapped as a connective resource.

These are areas of opportunity, places that can cater to middle- and lower-middle-income households. Similarly, these suburban areas can offer affordable, diverse and flexible workspace — from makers’ spaces to biotech labs to healthcare and learning space — as businesses and institutions, like residents, are priced out of many cities.

It is paramount that we continue to explore typologies and neighborhood structures that allow light industry, workspace, housing and community infrastructure to co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.

Research credits: Carolyn Angius, Charlie Smith (NBBJ interns); Rodrigo Guerra, Kathryn Firth, Chris Herlich (NBBJ staff)

All images courtesy NBBJ, except aerial courtesy Google Maps.

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