Eda Akaltun

A sleek, star-kissing building is no longer enough to dazzle clients and public officials. Towers in the 21st century are redefining themselves as high-performance machines, harvesting energy rather than guzzling it. Sustainability is big business, and some observers point to this as the Performative Age, in which big data and big software can track and analyze how well each square inch of a building pushes environmental, structural, and material standards of excellence to new heights. Literally.

The reason tall buildings look the way they do these days (think more Aqua and less Seagram) is because—to reverse Louis Sullivan’s dictum—function follows form, or, a building must be designed well first to function efficiently later. Building operations aside, what we’re left with is a form that’s shapely, often biomorphic, and unlike anything else around them. “Algorithms can optimize performance criteria while presenting a dizzying array of visual forms and patterns,” wrote Johnson Fain principal Scott Johnson, FAIA, author of Performative Skyscraper: Tall Building Design Now (Balcony Press, 2014) in a July Design Bureau article. And, it raises the question: Algorithms make buildings, certainly, but do they make architecture?

In Performative Skyscraper, Johnson argues that the architecture profession is on a continuous path of performative development in buildings, given the ongoing technological advancements feeding a high-velocity iterative design process. The Austrian firm Architekten Hermann Kaufmann, for example, is moving forward with an experimental 20-story hybrid timber-concrete structure in Vienna. Johnson explains that parametric design and rapid prototyping via 3D printing are redefining the architectural process, allowing for optimization of such criteria as environmental comfort, energy consumption, and structural efficiency or constructability. Early analysis of environmental performance based on simulating physical conditions is at the heart of high-performance design strategies.

“Buildings are becoming visually complex and ‘soft,’ taking forms that were never imagined with a T-square and a triangle,” notes Johnson. With its curved, bent, and torqued responsive façade systems, high-performance design has become central to the conversations about the next decade of practice with remarkable speed, and talk of net-zero towers is increasingly common.

In a few short years, with the 75-story Cayan Tower in Dubai, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has designed a helical tower with a full 90-degree twist from base to top, which helps confuse the wind to reduce vortex shedding. And one of the firm’s latest projects, the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, goes one step farther: it harvests the wind. The sculpted south side of the building drives wind through four openings to accelerate the air and drive energy-producing vertical axis wind turbines. The building’s geometry significantly enhances airflow through the wind turbines—up to 2.5 times the ambient wind speed—and, consequently, turbine performance, helping the LEED Platinum building achieve optimal efficiency. Stateside, curved, wind-defying needle-towers will soon redefine midtown Manhattan along West 57th Street. And Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture has plans for a 38-story, 1.2 million-square-foot net-zero torqued tower in the heart of Nashville, Tenn.

An innovative, integrated, and highly collaborative design process among architects, engineers, contractors, clients, and users is producing these supertowers, and architectural autonomy is arguably the largest paradigm shift.

“Architects may be piloting the ship but, for the architect to maintain creative autonomy in any realistic way, he or she must understand the performance issues, be facile with the digital platform, and locate strategic ways in which to generate meaningful form. A building may have affinities to sculpture but it is not only sculpture,” Johnson says.

For Dana Robbins Schneider, senior vice president at JLL’s Energy and Sustainability Services, and program manager for the energy-performance retrofit of New York’s Empire State Building, a whole-systems integrative design approach not only takes into account the sculptural form, innovative energy systems, and building envelope, but also identifies specific measures for operational energy-use reductions and engages the building’s occupants in crafting and achieving a high-performance building. The overhaul of the iconic Empire State Building, which received LEED Gold certification in 2011, resulted in a reduction in energy use by 38 percent during the first year of operation, which translated directly into an annual savings of $4.4 million.

“It was not just one key decision that led to our success,” says Schneider. “Ongoing maintenance, continuous identification of additional energy efficiency measures, regular reviews with building tenants, and measurement of energy consumption have been fundamental to the cost savings, improvement, and continuity of our program.”

Building owners and occupants ultimately will play a larger role in determining the long-term performance of the building.

“Going forward, embedded microprocessors throughout the environment will allow both people and machines [in the building] to intercommunicate and intuitively make adjustments for the benefit of comfort, efficiency, or the instant retrieval of data for given tasks,” says Johnson. But, as Schneider explains, people must be invested in lower energy consumption.

Gary Haney, AIA, design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and editor of the e-book Efficiency: An Analytical Approach to Tall Office Buildings (Northeastern University, 2013), argues that understanding and agreeing on standards for measuring performance-driven design is one of the most pressing issues for creating useful tools moving forward. Due to the inherent site-specificity of the process and its outcomes, Haney says that local and regional standards and codes are, at present, more effective than federal regulatory bodies in advancing high-performing towers.

“As a profession, we need to speak the same language and define the metrics to create a meaningful baseline,” Haney says. “We are not there yet.”