Eva Woolridge

In November of 2022, Chris Cooper, FAIA, partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, attended COP 27 in Sharm-al-Sheikh, Egypt, on behalf of his firm. We chatted with him about Urban Sequoia, the innovative skyscraper prototype that SOM presented at the conference, and the importance of architects participating in COP.

SOM has gone to COP and presented [for] the last two years, and both times we’ve used it as an opportunity to share Urban Sequoia as a concept, and then as a developed iteration. Urban Sequoia is, for us, something that we’re very excited about. The project proposes solutions to the climate dilemma that we’re in. We’re focused on high-rise buildings because they are one of the most difficult problems to solve in terms of carbon emissions.

Despite the challenges that high-rise buildings pose—most skyscrapers have a massive carbon footprint—they have specific conditions to work with in order to potentially make them carbon-absorbing structures. With the high-rise typology, for instance, we can take advantage of the conditions of natural airflow through the building using the stack effect. We’re utilizing that as one of our tools—we’re putting direct air capture technology into that airflow that can filter the carbon out of the atmosphere. That is the way to completely offset the embodied and operational carbon for the building. We think we have a working prototype that can be 100% carbon neutral within five years of its construction.

It’s really thrilling to be at COP. The best and the brightest from around the world are bringing together different perspectives on this one topic with enthusiasm. There’s no better place for discussion and exchange of ideas. [As architects], our actions are just as critical as that of a government organization. I think our voice is highly relevant to the topic and COP is an opportunity to learn and to share ideas. We are a critical part of the problem and should be a critical part of the solution.

The challenging thing is that this type of work is not a direct one-to-one client relation endeavor. Architecture is a professional service. The work that we’re doing for COP is research-based, and it’s an initiative tied to a broader sense of our value and our responsibility. That has financial implications. There is value for us to be there, not just in saving the world, but also in terms of making the right connections to others who are focused on this. That translates to the work we do.

[From COP], I took away a renewed energy to make change. I think this is the only explanation I have for why we, as architects, don’t take more action: I think it feels abstract. When you’re at COP, that energy is everywhere, and all the issues are brought forward in a very palpable way. — As told to Katherine Flynn