The visualization of the soundscape of Marina Esplanade in Singapore
MIT Sensable City Lab The visualization of the soundscape of Marina Esplanade in Singapore

Stay-at-home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic have caused an unprecedented lack of urban movement worldwide, decreasing noise pollution in city streets to drop dramatically. In the Sonic Cities project, MIT's Senseable City Lab researchers tracked sounds in five large city parks around the world, comparing noise samples collected before and during the pandemic. Using machine-learning technology, the researchers classified sounds such as bird songs or emergency sirens before using geospatial data to generate visualizations of each soundscape. In their final analysis, researchers detected an increase in bird songs and an overall decrease in human-generated noises, such as construction noise or traffic. In some parks, the study found an increase in human voices but a decrease in human-generated sounds. "COVID-19 provides an opportunity to explore the presence and dynamics of the sounds we hear and how these new soundscapes affect people’s experiences of parks in the city," stated the researchers in their research summary published in Medium. "It’s on us to decide what sounds we value when cities go back to normal." [MIT Senseable City Lab]

Courtesy Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT

The COVID-19 pandemic has also decreased travel and daily commuting, resulting in clearer skies reported around the world. But this dip in air pollution has had an unexpected benefit: an increased energy output from solar photovoltaic panels. In the paper "The Impact of COVID-19-Related Measures on the Solar Resource in Areas with High Levels of Air Pollution," researchers from MIT report that New Delhi has seen a more than 8% increase in the power output from photovoltaic panels. "Results shown here paint a plausible picture: air pollution levels drop notably, and this drop results in clearer air that allows more sunlight to pass through the atmosphere, which increases the yield of PV installations," the report states. "For Delhi, our analysis supports this picture." [MIT]

Aisha Densmore-Bey, upcoming guest on The Nexus podcast
Courtesy Harvard GSD Aisha Densmore-Bey, upcoming guest on The Nexus podcast

The African American Design Nexus, an organization founded at the Harvard Graduate School of Design following its first Black in Design Conference in 2015, has launched a new podcast, expanding its mission to serve as an extensive resource for the intersection of Blackness and design practices by "record[ing] and preserv[ing] the legacy of Black designers working today," according to a GSD press release. Hosted by GSD students Tara Oluwafemi and Caleb Negash, The Nexus will feature Black scholars, writers, designers, and educators, starting with the Boston-based architectural designer, filmmaker, illustrator, and children’s book author Aisha Densmore-Bey, Assoc. AIA. [Harvard GSD]

The Cube
HENN The Cube

Working with the German architecture firm Aib, the international firm Henn has constructed a 2,368-square-foot experimental "carbon concrete" building at the Technical University of Dresden, in Germany. A showcase for Henn's larger research project on adapting concrete into a more environmentally friendly material, The Cube is made from a concrete mix embedded with carbon-fiber threads, making it both four times lighter and four times stronger than traditional reinforced concrete. "The light yet robust carbon fibres of this new building material allow for flexible and resource-saving construction," Henn said in a press release. "Switching to the innovative material can reduce the CO2 emissions from construction by up to 50%." With a curved, sinuous roof and expansive skylight, The Cube "exemplifies the design possibilities of carbon concrete, with the building itself becoming a sculpture." [Henn]

In more concrete news, a research team from the UCLA Samueli School Of Engineering has received a two-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to create a process that converts carbon dioxide emissions into construction materials—specifically concrete. Led by Gaurav Sant, professor of civil and environmental engineering and of materials science and engineering, the team has already created CO2Concrete, "a form of concrete that is made in part from carbon dioxide emissions, which are an underlying cause of climate change," according to an SSE press release. "[T]he product will have a carbon footprint 50% to 70% lower than that of regular concrete used in construction," Sant noted in that release, adding, "The production of cement results in more than 8% of annual man-made carbon dioxide emissions." [UCLA Samueli School Of Engineering]

Courtesy Empa

One final concrete tidbit: Researchers from Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, have developed a new form of self-prestressed concrete elements that make "it possible to build lean structures much more cost-effectively—and save material at the same time," according to the organization's press release. Conventional prestressed concrete—often used in high-load bearing structures such as bridges— places steel reinforcement under stress before the concrete is poured. The concrete, however, must maintain encase the steel with a certain clearance to prevent the corrosion, which requires a larger overall amount of concrete. Swapping steel reinforcement with carbon fiber-reinforced polymers allows for less concrete,, but the cost has remained high and the necessary technology complex, according to the researchers. Empa's solution is a concrete that expands as it hardens, putting the CFRP bars embedded inside under tension and effectively stressing itself. With lab tests displaying that the self-prestressed CFRP concrete elements can bear loads comparable to those of conventional prestressed, the "technology opens up completely new possibilities in lightweight construction,” said researcher Mateusz Wyrzykowski in the same release. [Empa]

Courtesy Lilium

Munich-based transportation startup Lilium has released its designs for a scalable vertiport, aiming to help developers integrate air travel into future projects. Based on a set of prefabricated modules, each vertiport includes three key components: a take-off area, parking stands for flying vehicles, and a terminal. Developers can tailor the size and scale of their vertiport to "to facilitate 20 flights per day or 20 flights per hour," according to a Lilium press release. With the smallest vertiport designs priced at €1 million to €2 million ($1.2 million to $2.3 million) and more elevated, complex structures costing €7 million -€15 million ($8.1 million to $17 million), Lilium hopes "to make it easy and affordable for [developers] to design and build a suitable vertiport," even including plans for retrofitting veriports from existing structures. [Lilium]

Courtesy Danone

With more than 60 million plastic water bottles thrown away annually in the U.S. alone, the bottled water brand Evian, which achieved global carbon neutrality in April, has released a new water bottle made entirely from recycled plastic, save for its pink cap. The 400-milliliter bottles, which use an engraved logo to circumvent the need for a plastic label, will be available in hotels and restaurants in France by the end of the month; other countries can expect the bottles in September. "It’s now more important than ever for us to bring consumers our natural mineral water in the more sustainable way as we owe everything to nature," said global brand vice president Shweta Harit in a press release from Evian's parent company, Danone Evian is committing to become an 100% circular brand by 2025. [Danone]

Thirty years after Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman looks back on how the legislation has shaped design and where it needs to continue to go. In his review, Kimmelman interviews Karen Braitmayer, FAIA, founder and managing principal of Studio Pacifica, in Seattle, and winner of AIA’s 2019 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. Read Braitmayer's op-ed for ARCHITECT's August 2019 issue, calling for a new generation of architects with disabilities, here. [The New York Times]

See the seven winners of ARCHITECT’s 14th annual R+D Awards. Selected from 90 submissions, the winning projects are scalable, thought-provoking, and promising in achieving a more equitable and healthy built environment. [ARCHITECT]