New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared that skyscrapers made of glass and steel “have no place in our city or our Earth anymore”. He argued that their energy inefficient design contributes to global warming and insisted that his administration would restrict glassy high-rise developments in the city.
Glass has always been an unlikely material for large buildings, because of how difficult it becomes to control temperature and glare indoors. In fact, the use of fully glazed exteriors only became possible with advances in air conditioning technology and access to cheap and abundant energy, which came about in the mid-20th century. And studies suggest that on average, carbon emissions from air-conditioned offices are 60% higher than those from offices with natural or mechanical ventilation.
As part of my research into sustainable architecture, I have examined the use of glass in buildings throughout history. Above all, one thing is clear: if architects had paid more attention to the difficulties of building with glass, the great environmental damage wrought by modern glass skyscrapers could have been avoided.
Heat and glare
The United Nations Secretariat in New York, constructed between 1947 and 1952, was the earliest example of a fully air-conditioned tower with a glass curtain wall – followed shortly afterwards by Lever House on Park Avenue. Air conditioning enabled the classic glass skyscraper to become a model for high rise office developments in cities across the world – even hot places such as Dubai and Sydney.
Yet as far back as the 19th century, horticulturists in Europe intimately understood how difficult it is to keep the temperature stable inside glass structures – the massive hothouses they built to host their collections. They wanted to maintain the hot environment needed to sustain exotic plants and devised a large repertoire of technical solutions to do so.
Early central heating systems, which made use of steam or hot water, helped to keep the indoor atmosphere hot and humid. Glass was covered with insulation overnight to keep the warmth in, or used only on the south side together with better insulated walls, to take in and hold heat from the midday sun.
The Crystal Palace
When glass structures were transformed into spaces for human habitation, the new challenge was to keep the interior sufficiently cool. Preventing overheating in glass buildings has proven enormously difficult – even in Britain’s temperate climate. The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park – a temporary pavilion built to house the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 – was a case in point.
The Crystal Palace was the first large-scale example of a glass structure designed specifically for use by people. It was designed by Joseph Paxton, chief gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Estate, drawing on his experience constructing timber-framed glasshouses.
Though recognised as a risky idea at the time, organisers decided to host the exhibition inside a giant glasshouse in the absence of a more practical alternative. Because of its modular construction and prefabricated parts, the Crystal Palace could be put together in under ten months – perfect for the organisers’ tight deadline.
To address concerns about overheating and exposing the exhibits to too much sunlight, Paxton adopted some of the few cooling methods available at the time: shading, natural ventilation and eventually removing some sections of glass altogether. Several hundred large louvres were positioned inside the wall of the building, which had to be adjusted manually by attendants several times a day.
Despite these precautions, overheating became a major issue over the summer of 1851, and was the subject of frequent commentaries in the daily newspapers. An analysis of data recorded inside the Crystal Palace between May and October 1851 shows that the indoor temperature was extremely unstable. The building accentuated – rather than reduced – peak summer temperatures.
These challenges forced the organisers to temporarily remove large sections of glazing. This procedure was repeated several times before parts of the glazing were permanently replaced with canvas curtains, which could be opened and closed depending on how hot the sun was. When the Crystal Palace was re-erected as a popular leisure park on the outskirts of London, these issues persisted – despite changes to the design which were intended to improve ventilation.
These difficulties did not perturb developers in Chicago from building the first generation of highly glazed office buildings during the 1880s and 1890s. Famous developments by influential architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, such as the Crown Hall (1950-56) or the Lakeshore Drive Apartments (1949), were also designed without air conditioning. Instead, these structures relied mainly on natural ventilation and shading to moderate indoor temperatures in summer.
In the Crown Hall, each bay of the glass wall is equipped with iron flaps, which students and staff of the IIT School of Architecture had to manually adjust to create cross-ventilation. Blinds could also be drawn to prevent glare and reduce heat gains. Yet these methods could not achieve modern standards of comfort. This building, and many others with similar features were eventually retrofitted with air conditioning.
Yet it’s worth noting that early examples of glass architecture were not intended to provide airtight, climate controlled spaces. Architects had to accept that the indoor temperature would change according to the weather outside, and the people who used the buildings were careful to dress appropriately for the season. In some ways, these environments had more in common with the covered arcades and markets of the Victorian era, than the glass skyscrapers of the 21st century.
Becoming climate conscious
The reality is that the obvious shortcomings of glass buildings rarely received the attention they warranted. Some early critics raised objections. Perhaps the most outspoken was Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who in the late 1940s launched an attack on the design of the UN Secretariat, arguing that its large and unprotected glass surfaces were unsuitable for the climate of New York.
But all too often, historians and architects have focused on the aesthetic qualities of glass architecture. The Crystal Palace, in particular, was portrayed as a pristine icon of an emerging architecture of glass and iron. Yet in reality, much of the glass was covered with canvas to block out intense sunlight and heat. Similarly, the smooth glass facades of Chicago’s early glass towers were broken by opened windows and blinds.
There’s an urgent need to take a fresh look at urban architecture, with a sense of environmental realism. If de Blasio’s plea for a more climate conscious architecture is to materialise, future architects and engineers must be equipped with an intimate knowledge of materials – especially glass – no less developed than that held by 19th century gardeners.
“If I can generalise and group the buildings into three categories, the overwhelming majority aim to maximise area with very low construction cost and no allowance for design,” he added. “So the buildings end up bulky, repetitive and lacking character.
“Some attempt to give a local flavour and the successful ones are commendable. However, if the traditional elements are applied incorrectly, such as outside of their intended scale, function and context, then they tend to appear pastiche and ‘decorative’. Other buildings are contemporary, with a few good and forward-thinking examples, such as the Four Seasons in Bahrain Bay and the Bahrain National Theatre.”
Omari added that, particularly in Bahrain, traditional buildings demonstrate the country’s strong cultural routes and its rich history as a pearling harbour. Built from mud and coral and featuring distinct vernacular architecture, many of these examples are preserved in Muharraq, the country’s old capital, he said.
OAOA’s design for Big Box, a new office project to be constructed in Bahrain by 2021
The comments came as part of a larger conversation regarding OAOA’s new office project in Bahrain, Big Box, which is located within a wider masterplan designed for high density high-rises, while still underdeveloped and exposed to a busy main highway intersection. His client’s commercial desire to have a building that “stood out” from other buildings in the area presented a creative challenge for OAOA.
Big Box consists of four stacked cubes with similar proportions. While retail spaces and a lobby activate the pedestrian level, parking is placed in the aluminium louver-cladded podium box. Office spaces are designated to the three upper boxes, which are visually separated by the lower box, as they are cladded with a ceramic fritted curtain wall.
“It all depends on the context,” Omari said. “Here, there were no existing buildings of historical importance that we would overshadow, and we weren’t disrespectful to any neighbours, so it felt suitable and, if the architecture is well thought-out and serves a purpose, good design adds value.”
Big Box is expected to be completed by 2021, and an in-depth review of the project will be featured in Middle East Architect’s May issue.
What could be more important than sustaining habitable living conditions on Earth? Climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental problems demand changes on an order of magnitude well beyond the trajectory of business-as-usual. And yet, despite accumulative social and technological innovation, environmental problems are accelerating far more quickly than sustainable solutions.
The design industry is one of many industries mobilising to address environmental imperatives. While sustainability-oriented designers are working towards change from many angles, addressing climate change and other environmental problems on this scale demands much more dramatic transformations in economic ideas, structures and systems that enable – or disable – sustainable design.
Put simply, designers cannot design sustainable future ways of living on scale without a shift in economic priorities. Human impacts on planetary processes in the Anthropocene require new types of ecologically engaged design and economics if the necessary technological, social and political transitions are to take place.
World making design
Design is crucial to this debate because it is key to the creation of future ways of living. Designers make new ideas, products, services and spaces desirable to future users. With the shape of a font, a brand, the styling of a product, the look and feel of a service, the touch of a garment, the sensation of being in a particular building, designers serve the interests of customers (generally, those with disposal income). They do so according the logic and modes of governance generated by what is valued by economic structures. Design is the practice that makes capitalism so appealing.
Designers make new products, services and spaces that shape future ways of living – and can use their skills to create sustainable options. But there is a dilemma here. The market rarely prioritises interests that do not pay the bills or otherwise bring capital to the table.
Design sits at the intersection of economic value and social values. Design transforms what economic systems value into new ways of living – which in turn produce certain types of social values. This work is generated by priorities in the design industry, driven by economic imperatives.
Blind spots in conventional economics
Traditional neoclassical economics was developed in an era when all knowledge systems essentially ignored ecological concerns. In conventional economics, value – which is created by generating profit and accumulating capital for owners and investors – is systematically extracted from the systems in which economic systems are embedded: the social and the ecological systems.
Contemporary economic systems reproduce this tradition by rewarding individuals and companies for using (and often exploiting) resources to generate profit, regardless of the ecological or social consequences. The extractive and exploitative dynamics of capitalist economics generate economies locked into accelerating climate change, species extinction and other severe environmental and social problems. This economic system continues to produce ever greater degrees of crises as planetary boundaries are breached in ever more extreme ways.
But there are economic alternatives. Heterodox economic theory (such as ecological, feminist and Marxist economics) challenges the assumptions of mainstream economics. It has shown how neoclassical and neoliberal economics produce unsustainable economies that consistently devalue the natural world, women’s work and the labour of other groups historically denied equal access to capital.
For example, the Iceberg Model depicts a feminist economic framework where non-market activities, including the unpaid labour that buttresses capitalist economics, are made explicit.
The challenges of the Anthropocene demand that we overcome the exploitative and anti-ecological biases in neoclassical and neoliberal economics. One popular alternative is Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics. This would prioritise both social justice and environmental sustainability to create a safe operating space for humanity. Unlike conventional economics, heterodox economics takes the ecological context and planetary boundaries into account – while also addressing the interests of historically disadvantaged populations.
Ecological economics and design
The design industry, like most industries, is governed by economic ideas, structures and systems. Economic systems determine priorities in design studios and design education – including whether or not designers can focus on sustainable solutions.
And so economic factors govern whether designers can direct their energies towards making sustainable ways of living possible – or not. Few of us are employed to do tasks that make it possible to respond responsibly to environmental circumstances because the current political economy is not oriented towards prioritising the preservation of life on this planet.
When the priorities of an individual designer who is oriented towards sustainability conflict with those of the design industry, which is often governed by an economic system oriented towards profit, the designer finds it hard to make a living. If sustainable solutions will not generate profits, they will not succeed in this economic system (without either government intervention or charitable support). The design industry does not systemically prioritise the needs of the environment within this economic system because the way value is generated in contemporary economics depends on the systemic dismissal of ecological priorities.
New design economies
Addressing this dilemma is a severe challenge. It is now evident that the economic system must be designed to reflect priorities and values associated with preserving habitable conditions on the planet. Climate change and other severe environmental threats require dramatic shifts in economic priorities. The fields of economics and design must be redirected so that economic services, structures and systems will support socially distributive and environmentally regenerative design.
Humankind already has the knowledge to make sustainable and socially just ways of living on this planet possible. What we do not yet have is the ability to make these transitions possible in the current political context. New types of design and economics could be a basis for systemic transitions.
Key to this transition is ecologically literate education in both design and economics. Both fields must be radically transformed to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene. With critical, ecologically-engaged design and economic education, new redirected design economies could facilitate sustainable transitions and make another world not only possible – but desirable.
Rima Alsammarae report on Middle East Architect of 9 April 2019 that “Jordanian architect and artist Ammar Khammash is a 2019 laureate of the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, along with four other architects including Dr Werner Sobek, Ersen Gursel, Rozana Montiel and Jorge Lobos.”
Created by architect and scholar Jana Revedin in 2006, the international award recognises five architects each year who have contributed to sustainable development and created innovative and participatory approaches to meet societal needs.
According to the award’s website, Khammash was recognised for his dedication to interdisciplinary scientific research, as well as his artisanal and artistic approaches to architecture.
Khammash’s projects include the Wild Jordan Center, the Royal Academy for Nature Conservation, the Darat Al Funun workspace and the Columbia University Middle East Research Center in Amman, as well as the Church of the Apostles in Madaba. His approach involves the use of locally-sourced, natural materials to achieve context-relevant designs.
“It appears that there is a growing international trend to put architecture back on the track of social and environmental responsibilities, and away from being a hostage of powerful visual output that publishes well in the media,” he said. “Our philosophy and methodology of approach is entirely based on the role of architecture in solving problems, finding creative ways to co-exist with the larger context, which includes society and nature.”
Currently finalising two ecolodges in Jordan (one in Yarmouk Reserve and the other on the hot spring of Al Himmeh in Mukhaibeh), Khammash and his team are also working on a number of competitions in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He noted that the award will help him further his approach and convince clients who see things differently.
“The recognition from this prestigious award will help me change the mentality of clients, politicians and students,” he said, “ensuring that architecture retains some degree of modesty and symbiotic relationship to people and nature, instead of overwhelming, overpowering and outsmarting the very reason we need to build for.”
Khammash will be speaking at the award’s symposium, to be held in Paris in May.
Global chief executive of RICS, Sean Tompkins, calls on governments in the Middle East to find better ways of stimulating collaboration in the construction sector – for the good of all parties and for the future of the profession.
“We have a construction industry globally that is really set up to argue and fight during the process of projects, and that comes right at the point of procurement – how projects are initiated, how they are procured and set up,” Tompkins tells Construction Week.
RICS aims to encourage governments to “find ways to improve collaboration” in the industry, which could help to “improve the construction cost overall and reduce the time it takes to deliver on projects”, Tompkins says.
“One thing we have been looking at, which is really important, is that when there is a dispute, how do you make sure that it is not just wrapped up in the courts for years? This may be halting progress and may not be providing an important piece of infrastructure.”
He continues: “There are alternative ways that you can set these things up, [such as by using] alternative conflict avoidance mechanisms. At RICS, we would really argue that these types of things need to be looked at and embraced within contracts in order to create greater collaboration going forwards.”
RICS is one of the oldest built-environment professional institutions in the world and was formed in the UK 150 years ago. It has launched an industry-wide consultation called Future of the Profession, which explores how the industry can adapt to the disruptions that society will face as a result of rampant urbanisation and technological change. The consultation ended in October and Tompkins hopes it will “provide a real blueprint for the changes that need to take place in this industry”.
The world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and close to two-thirds of people are expected to live in cities by that time. Tompkins describes this as “an unprecedented pace that will hit every city in the world”.
He says “most cities are struggling to cope” with this rate of change in terms of infrastructure, housing, and social cohesion.
“That is the big element of change, and what is happening in the construction industry is that for many, many years, our existing business models have struggled to keep up with the current pace, and here is a requirement for a pace way faster than anything we have ever considered. This is where the challenges are going to come from,” he explains.
“This is where technology [such as] big data [and] artificial intelligence […] will come into the industry as a way of improving and projecting that pace at a much quicker rate. We have to be ready for that and seize it before other people with other business models do.”
While Tompkins admits meeting the demands for infrastructure and housing “will require money”, there are other ways in which RICS claims it will be able to help future-proof the construction sector: “What the world looks for are areas with great transparency, high standards, good ethical behaviour, and professions that you can trust – and that is what we stand for.
“On that level, providing those standards, providing people with competencies, is something that we are supplying to the world in order to deal with these challenges.”
Tompkins says he would like to see “different leadership” in construction that embraces innovation to ensure that the sector is prepared for the biggest challenges currently facing the industry.
The Future of the Profession consultation by RICS is only the first step on an uncertain and challenging road, Tompkins says. Nonetheless, it is one that the industry will need to take note of, if it is to be equipped with the tools and technical expertise necessary to meet future urbanisation head on.
As we enter a more environmentally-conscious age, we are inevitably building more ecologically responsible and sustainable cities. Creating buildings with the lowest possible energy consumption and carbon emission production, while still being aesthetically pleasing, is a challenge bringing together great minds to change the way we think about our living and working spaces. Here are some of our favorite sustainable architectural projects coming out of Shanghai, Paris, Dhaka, and Barcelona.
The green hill
Shanghai, a wealthy city of 24 million people, has a varied complexity serving as a microcosm that contains a lot of what modern China is all about. Shanghai is also the city where Thomas Heatherwick is building his ambitious vision with the 100 Trees Complex in Shanghai, an immense project that will cover 300,000 square meters and transcend the mere notion of being just another skyscraper block in the Chinese metropolis. When completed, the building will house schools, residences, retail units, offices and a hotel within its nine floors and three-story basement. It will also comprise over 400 terraces, many set with plant beds and trees, to enhance the “3D forest” effect and encourage outdoor meetings and recreation. The city’s residents are already calling it their version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and we added it to our to-go list in 2018.
The vertical forest
France has swathes of vast woodlands, but not a single vertical forest. Italian architect Stefano Boeri aims to change this with his Forêt Blanche on the outskirts of Paris, a 54-meter-high tower fashioned from stacked wood and glass cubes with thickly planted edges. The facades of Forêt Blanche will be covered by 2000 trees, shrubs and plants, with a green surface equivalent to a hectare of forest, 10 times the surface area of the lot on which the building sits. Once finished, the site will host residential apartments on the high floors, offices and commercial services in the lower part, with a mix of terraces and balconies on the four sides of the tower. The east and west facing side will allow the passage of sunlight all day, giving natural illumination and ventilation to the apartments and an exceptional panorama on the landscape of central Paris.
The floating university
Among the densest megalopolises in the world, Dhaka’s rapid urbanization has resulted in the displacement of the city’s water bodies, vegetation, open and civic spaces by buildings and industries. Woha Architects will try to remedy this by building a floating university in the Bangladesh capital.
Sited on an urban lake, the vision is to present an innovative and sustainable inner city campus that exemplifies tropical design strategies in response to the hot, humid, monsoon climate of the region while demonstrating the sensitive integration of nature and architecture. Drawing inspiration from the Bengal basin’s Sundarbans mangrove forest that have separate ecosystems above and below tidal level, the design strategy is to create two distinct programmatic strata by floating the Academia above the lake and revealing a Campus Park below, thus reflecting the synergistic coexistence between mankind and mangrove. This approach minimizes the building’s footprint over the lake, and further maximizes space for facilities while opening up the ground level to activity generating interaction spaces and effective additional park land that creates an imageable milieu for a vibrant campus life.
Re-greening downtown Barcelona
If you have ever visited the Catalan capital, you know how warm, noisy, polluted, and busy it gets, especially in summer, when plenty of tourists visit to escape from their routine and catch up on some of the sun and brilliant Catalan atmosphere. The city has already proved its commitment to the environment, wanting now to move away from car hegemony and turn secondary streets into “citizen spaces” for culture, leisure and the community. The administration plans to create several micro projects that merge into green inner-city corridors by moving entire streets underground and banning cars from the center to create the necessary space for new parks. The city has even purchased industrial land for this goal of creating 108 hectares of new green space up to 2019. To involve the entire community, there are cash prizes for the most sustainable ideas from the citizens.
The Beam Magazine is a quarterly print publication that takes a modern perspective on the energy transition. From Berlin we report about the people, companies and organizations that shape our sustainable energy future around the world. The team is headed by journalist Anne-Sophie Garrigou and designer Dimitris Gkikas. The Beam works with a network of experts and contributors to cover topics from technology to art, from policy to sustainability, from VCs to cleantech start ups. Our language is energy transition and that’s spoken everywhere. The Beam is already being distributed in most countries in Europe, but also in Niger, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Japan, Chile and the United States. And this is just the beginning. So stay tuned for future development and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Medium.