The climate talks in Paris, now in their second week, are taking stock of the international community’s environmental track record. And it shouldn't come as a surprise that we are still missing the mark in achieving our greenhouse gas–reduction goals, with steady annual increases in global temperature averages, resource consumption, and biodiversity loss. The much-discussed and fearfully anticipated ramifications of our behavior are dire enough to provoke yet more public calls for reversing the trend. A recent editorial in The New York Times preceding the talks claimed that the greenhouse gas–reduction pledges made by 170 countries leading up to the summit failed to address the worst consequences of climate change, although they do provide a promising foundation for broader transformation. “If the Paris meeting is to be a genuine turning point, negotiators must make sure that the national pledges are the floor, not the ceiling of ambition,” the paper wrote. The Economist pushed a similar line, advocating nothing short of “radical innovation” through global investment in research-and-development as the key to “reducing emissions over the medium and long term.” Such action-oriented calls for change invite speculation as to how, if ever attained, such transformations would affect the built environment. The following examples explore how radical innovation is already manifesting in architecture and design, and how it might scale to (near) ubiquity.
Integrated Energy Harvesting
Energy is an obvious place to start. From an architectural perspective, one form of radical sustainable innovation would entail that all buildings either supply their own power or achieve net-zero (or net-positive) energy in concert with a group of neighboring buildings. When buildings are treated as vehicles for energy harvesting and exchange, they collectively become a kind of energy field whose morphology is shaped by local climatic conditions. We already know how to do this, and the economics are in our favor. The cost of renewable energy has plummeted in recent decades—with solar power costs, for example, down from $76 per watt in the late 1970s to less than $1 per watt today. Coupled with more rigorous energy-conservation standards, this goal is technically achievable for individual buildings.
But design challenges remain. One is the need for more integrative thinking with regard to building products and assemblies. It makes little economic sense, for instance, to construct a new roof and then install what is essentially an additional envelope of photovoltaic panels, as opposed to choosing a building-integrated solution that incorporates solar cells within the primary roof. For example, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.–based Atlantis Energy Systems’ Sunslate is installed like a series of overlapping roof shingles to serve as the primary weather barrier. This kind of technology is also available in photovoltaic and thermal roof system hybrids.
Another challenge is sourcing diverse energy-harvesting solutions to avoid the visual monotony resulting from the widespread application of a single generic product as well as to continually experiment and refine a variety of renewable-design approaches. One of my favorite renewable façades clads a parking garage and shopping mall designed by Inaba Electric Works in Nagoya, Japan. Called the Eco-Curtain, the façade (top image) powers the structure’s interior lighting and is composed of vertical-axis wind turbines painted in myriad bright colors—a bespoke marriage of art and engineering that is rarely found in the typical product catalog.
Another change brought about by radical innovation should address material composition and processing. One way to do that is by eschewing the use of all virgin nonrenewable materials in building products and systems—as well as eliminating all Red List substances as cited by the International Living Future Institute. This could be achieved through a cradle-to-cradle material cycle whereby product manufacturers collaborate closely with recyclers and waste-management organizations, and collectively identify and separate chemicals from the resource stream. Doing away with virgin materials sounds aggressive, but a true cradle-to-cradle system would enable new products to be manufactured from renewable and fully recycled technical resources. The result would be a built environment that more closely parallels the resource cycles and material composition found in the natural environment. Such an achievement offers possibilities for innovative forms of material expression. A closed-loop system invites the creative reuse of salvaged building components, for example, as seen in the wapan tiling method (shown below) frequently employed by Chinese architect Wang Shu to create building facades from reclaimed bricks, tiles, and shingles.
Not all materials are amenable for reuse in buildings due to inevitable wear and degradation. Therefore, we need better second-life solutions for deteriorating materials and products. Dutch studio StoneCycling, whose WasteBasedBricks masonry modules are made from raw materials sourced from building demolition and industrial waste, is one example. Another is manufacturer 3form and its 100 Percent resin surface panels, which comprise discarded household HDPE containers. Degraded products need not be completely chipped up and recomposed to be functional, as demonstrated by the Germany company Manufract, which creates furniture out of damaged hardwood and uses sustainable bio-resin to fill in gaps and broken corners. Such an approach suggests the emergence of a new reparation aesthetic that is simultaneously dilapidated and pristine—the embodiment of materials reborn.
These two audacious targets for sustainable design, which set absolute goals for energy and materials in holistic terms, are just the beginning of the radical innovation we can bring to the designed environment. There is still work to be done around regional issues such as curtailing unchecked deforestation, developing walkable communities, and improving public transportation. There is also need to develop strategies for partnering with natural organisms and ecosystems, including new ways that buildings may work in concert with local ecologies and derive ecosystem services without depleting natural reserves.
The two approaches explored in this piece, however, establish clear objectives along the lines of the Architecture 2030 Challenge and other familiar models, and show that the primary hurdle is not economic but paradigmatic. For example, despite competitive pricing gains made by renewable technologies, the fossil-fuel industry continues to pursue the consumption of ancient sunlight, and utility companies are hard-pressed to abandon their profit-based, centralized model of energy distribution. Manufacturers also maintain a voracious appetite for nonrenewable materials—notably rare-earth minerals that are increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain—rather than renewable or recyclable ingredients that could function as cost-effective replacements. The importance, therefore, of imagining physical manifestations of such radical sustainable innovations is in visualizing the possibilities. When environmental targets are only discussed in abstract terms of general quantities or broad policies, for example, tangible outcomes are difficult to fathom. Instead, visualizing desired results—an inherent capability for architects and designers—can be a powerful tool in overcoming old habits and achieving the aggressive targets we must reach.
This post has been updated.