The net-zero energy David and Lucile Packard Foundation Headquarters, in Los Altos, Calif., by EHDD
Jeremy Bitterman The net-zero energy David and Lucile Packard Foundation Headquarters, in Los Altos, Calif., by EHDD

For architects looking to diversify their portfolios, vying for the longstanding building types—libraries, theaters, office towers—against a litany of established firms can seem futile. But, to take the road less traveled, here are five increasingly important typologies with room for more design experts.

The Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh, co-designed by Gensler and Paladino and Co.
Gensler and Paladino and Co. / Courtesy PNC The Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh, co-designed by Gensler and Paladino and Co.

Bioclimatic Buildings
By maintaining a connection to the outdoors and climate zone, bioclimatic buildings enhance occupant comfort with little need for energy-intensive HVAC systems. These buildings are often oriented to leverage daylight and wind patterns, utilize local or site-sourced materials, and incorporate ancient, low-impact construction techniques adapted for modern use, says Andrew Lee, a senior consultant with Seattle-based Paladino and Co., which co-designed with Gensler the Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh. The 33-story tower is passively ventilated through a solar chimney, similar to those found in termite mounds, for nearly half of the year.

Lee says that the big challenge for this building type is “connecting bioclimatic design to something financially beneficial, such as attracting better talent.” PNC, for one, “had [studied] how much more productive their employees were in a green bank branch versus a standard branch.”

Data Centers
The desire for ever more computing power drives the demand for these specialized facilities, which are packed with computers, servers, telecommunications systems, backup systems and more. Getting a foot in the door can be daunting though. “The clients tend to be quite savvy, so they do value a track record of experience,” says Garr Di Salvo, a New York–based associate principal at Arup, which began designing data centers in the 1980s.

Architects must also anticipate a client’s future business needs—retrofits and upgrades are tricky in buildings that operate 24/7—as well as the possibility of “densification,” or the evolution of more powerful servers, Di Salvo says. “That has implications on the cooling systems in the facility.” Achieving the elusive sustainable data center is the latest challenge. “Everybody’s looking at how to handle cooling solutions, be it air-side or water-side economization,” he says. Arup designed the Citi Data Center in Frankfurt, Germany, which in 2009 became the first data center to earn LEED Platinum certification.

Citi Data Center Arup
Christian Richters / Courtesy Arup Citi Data Center in Frankfurt, Germany

Net-Zero Energy Buildings
All roads in sustainable design are leading to net-zero energy buildings: Title 24 of the California building code mandates that new residential buildings be net-zero energy by 2020 and commercial buildings by 2030, the price of photovoltaic panels has plunged, and concern for the environment is up, says Brad Jacobson, AIA, a senior associate and sustainability leader at EHDD. The San Francisco firm designed one of the nation’s first net-zero energy commercial buildings, the IDeAs Z2 Design Facility in San Jose, Calif., in 2007.

Successful architects need to work in partnership with the owner from pre-construction to post-occupancy. “Just setting the net-zero goal itself transforms the process,” Jacobson says. Verifying the building performance requires an exceptional level of diligence because tools for obtaining post-occupancy data remain “fairly archaic,” he says. “In this day and age when everyone has this incredibly powerful phone in their pocket that’s full of data, it’s shocking how little [information] there is about how buildings actually perform.”

Vertical Farms
At the juncture of architecture and agriculture, indoor urban farms are sprouting up in an increasingly urbanized world that values locally sourced goods. Vertical farms, in which produce grows in multistory racks using lightweight hydroponic or aeroponic systems, are the wave of the future, says Jason Chmura, AIA, an associate at Princeton, N.J.–based KSS Architects, which is designing a 69,000-square-foot facility for AeroFarms in Newark, N.J. “The efficiency in their design is the small footprint,” he says. “As [indoor farms] become more popular, the only way they’ll work is if they keep going vertical.”

The lack of available real estate in urban centers means that vertical farms are often also adaptive reuse projects, which adds complexity to their technical design and permitting process. AeroFarms’ facility, for example, will be housed in a former steel mill. Finally, working with the clients can be a challenge if they’re a startup company, Chmura says. “We’re learning as they’re learning.”

Designed by KSS Architects, AeroFarms, in Newark, N.J., will be the world's largest vertical farm.
KSS Architects Designed by KSS Architects, AeroFarms, in Newark, N.J., will be the world's largest vertical farm.

Resilient Buildings
In the face of extreme weather, resilient buildings are designed to maintain functionality or bounce back quickly in the aftermath. Design strategies may be as simple as elevating crucial building systems to avoid floodwaters, or as comprehensive as specifying materials that allow building ground floors to flood, dry out, and return to service, says Robin Guenther, FAIA, a principal of Perkins+Will, which designed the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, Mass.

That hospital incorporated lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, such as the installation of operable, but lockable, windows in patient rooms. “Staff threw furniture through windows of sealed buildings following Katrina in order to relieve excessive indoor temperatures,” Guenther says. Designing for events that may never happen and that vary by region add to this project type’s complexity, she adds. “We need to take the science seriously and lead our clients, even when they are skeptical.”

Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston by Perkins+Will
Courtesy Perkins+Will / James Steinkamp Photography Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston by Perkins+Will

Note: This story has been updated since first publication.