Aerial of the Smog Free tower, by Studio Roosegarde
Courtesy Studio Roosegarde Aerial of the Smog Free tower, by Studio Roosegarde

Sustainable design typically focuses on energy, water, and material conservation, but these five projects are tackling air and water pollution firsthand while increasing public awareness of pollution's consequences on human health and the environment.

Pim Hendriksen

Smog Free Tower, by Studio Roosegaarde

“Why do we accept air pollution?” That question led artist Daan Roosegaarde and his eponymous studio, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, to build a 23-foot-tall tower around a massive outdoor-air purification system. Unveiled this September in a local park, the aluminum structure captures fine and ultrafine smog particles within a 24- to 82-foot radius, depending on weather conditions, producing a bubble-shaped zone of clean air.

Roosegaarde worked with Delft University of Technology and ENS Europe, both of which are also located in the Netherlands, to develop a patented positive-ionization process that purifies up to 1 million cubic feet of air per hour. The positively charged particulates​ are then attracted to a grounded counter electrode, like a magnet, which are hand-scraped each week. The collected particles are compressed and then encapsulated​ inside glass-cube jewelry that members of the public can purchase through the project’s KickStarter campaign. Unlike conventional ionization devices, Roosegaarde says, the 1.4-megawatt system does not emit ozone.

Courtesy Studio Roosegarde
Courtesy Studio Roosegarde
Pim Hendriksen

City Air Purification System, by Arup and Sino Green

The Hong Kong office of Arup​ and Sino Green, the sustainable arm of Hong Kong property developer Sino Group, developed a patent-pending air purification system that targets street-canyon pollution at the pedestrian level. The prototype, which resembles a bus shelter, was tested at a busy intersection in Hong Kong, where pollution levels are double that of the World Health Organization’s recommended limits. In May, the system was relocated to Tsinghua University in Beijing, where air conditions are even worse.

The air cleansing occurs inside the shelter’s roof canopy, says Jimmy Tong, an associate and East Asia Energy Skill Leader at Arup. Inside, a fan, a pre-filter, and a medical-grade HEPA bag filter circulate the air to remove both large and fine particles. A vent in the canopy directs the newly clean air down to waiting bus riders, where a pressurized air–barrier keeps unfiltered air away​.

Per the sensor and meter in the shelter that track performance, the system in Hong Kong reduced air-pollutant levels in the shelter​ by 40 percent, Tong says. And at roughly $2 per day and a new filter every two months, he adds, the cost to run the system is modest.

Arup and Sino Green are now developing plans for a self-sufficient,​ zero-carbon shelter that includes technologies such as solar panels, smart controls, and piezoelectric floor tiles​.

Phoenix Towers, by Chetwoods Architects

When completed in 2018, this mixed-use development in Wuhan, China, will leverage its location on one of the city’s largest lakes. Designed to draw visitors to this designated environmental supercity, the iconic structure consists of a pair of yin-yang​ skyscrapers that can generate their own power, recycle waste, and improve outdoor air and water quality.

In the taller of the two structures, multiple purification systems powered actively by renewable-energy sources and passively, through thermodynamics,​ will filter outdoor air and lake water. To aerate the lake, water will be cycled in and out of the tower using energy harnessed from photovoltaic cladding and wind turbines​, according to Laurie Chetwood, chairman of U.K.-based Chetwoods Architects. Filtered air– and water-circulation​ systems driven by a thermal chimney and evaporative cooling from the surface of the lake will condition the building. Furthermore, titanium-dioxide-coated cladding on both towers will remove air pollutants by neutralizing smog particles on their surfaces when exposed to ultraviolet rays.

Delhi Pollution Control Committee Head Office, by M:OFA Studios

Now in the approval phase, this proposal for a headquarters for a pollution control committee in New Delhi envisions a six-story building that will function as a self-sufficient “urban sponge,” absorbing air and water pollutants, says M:OFA Studios principal Manish Gulati.

The local firm’s design incorporates active and passive building systems, including photovoltaics, sun-shading screens, rainwater collection, and an evaporative cooling system. Located near a main drain for city sewage, the building employs an on-site sewage-treatment plant to produce methane for a cogeneration gas turbine and to treat graywater, which is further cleaned by a reed-bed filtration system before being used to cool the building.

Smog reduction is no less critical, Gulati says. The building shell will use foam concrete–block cavity walls lined with bentonite clay to filter out air pollutants in the microclimate. Vertical green walls and terrace gardens will also improve air quality while providing shading, and mechanical filters on the roof will further clean the air.

The Living
Pier 35 EcoPark, by The Living, in collaboration with Natalie Jeremijenko

As part of the $165 million East River Waterfront Esplanade development in New York, the Pier 35 EcoPark tracks the health and aquatic activity of the East River. Scheduled for construction in 2016, the permanent installation combines two previous collaborations by New York–based The​ Living and local artist Natalie Jeremijenko: “Amphibious Architecture” and “Mussel Choir.”

Like its predecessors, the new installation is interactive. Submersible sensors attached to 100 buoys will monitor water quality and the presence of fish through LEDs. Visitors can also text a fish through an assigned number​ to learn about its surroundings. A network of floating tubes with sensors will communicate weekly changes in water quality through colored LEDs: blue to indicate an improvement, and red, a decline.

A submerged concrete slab will set the stage for the Mussel Choir, in which the bivalves sing about their environment as they filter water. David Benjamin, principal of The Living, says the frequency and amount at which mussels open and close their shells are “a great indicator of water quality.” A Hall​ effect sensor, which has a variable output, a simple magnet affixed to each mussel half, and a voice assigned to individual mussels will translate the collected data into a “public interface to water quality,” he says. Shifts in pitch, timbre, and tempo will signal changes in the river.