Making Buildings Less Boring

… And Saving the World at the Same Time

When I was younger, I remember staring outside my window during car rides, looking out onto the streets, and just thinking… EWWW

Okay, so that sounds slightly aggressive, but let me explain just why I was overwhelmed with disgust whenever I drove through the city.

You see, the buildings that I saw looked like this…

Not the most appealing site for an overenthusiastic, colour-obsessed six year old…

When the buildings I wanted to see looked like this:

Okay, so, I REALLY liked colour as a kid. This isn’t my style now, but it’s definitely more appealing than those other buildings…

As I grew up, these buildings never really left my mind. I thought about them from time to time, but, I never really dived deeper into this problem.

As I went through elementary and high school, I learned about pollution and climate change. I learned about carbon footprints, energy consumption, and heard about all the ways we were hurting our environment.

Not only were these buildings ugly, but they were also hurting our environment??!! I was not having it.

Why can’t we have attractive buildings that also help the environment?

Then I heard about Bjarke Ingels.

👑 Meet Your New Favourite Architect (and Sustainable Design King)

Ever watch one of those futuristic movies where our cities have been completely revamped? That’s kind of what it feels like to look at BIG’s (Bjarke Ingels Group) architecture.

🌃 The Shenzhen Energy Mansion

The Shenzhen Energy Mansion, China

The Shenzhen Energy Mansion in China looks super cool, but it also has a secret.

It’s designed to mimic a fabric, hence the ‘ripple-like’ appearance at the side of the building. But, what’s really interesting about this project is that the glass of this building has two colours.

The ripple section, where it faces the sun, is all opaque, but, the side of the building facing away from the sun is all glass. When you combine the natural geometric style and the two different pane tones, the energy consumption is reduced by 30%. It’s pretty fitting, after all, the project was designed for an energy company 😉.

And that’s all just because of a couple smart design decisions 🤯

⛷ Copenhill

Copenhagen really prioritizes clean energy. It’s also a country that gets a lot of snow, but, has no mountains. So, how would we combine these two? By creating the Copenhill of course!

ski hill + waste to energy = copenhill 🏔

The Copenhill is a waste to energy powerplant with a man-made ski hill on top! 2/3 of the facility is used to for waste to energy, which is pumped out of the building in water vapour rings, eliminating it’s toxicity.

It’s the world’s cleanest plant of it’s kind, and is also the first to triple as a sports recreation center with artificial ski slopes, climbing walls, a cross-fit area, and 490m of tree-lined hiking and running trails. All of this on top of a mountain of fiery trash.

Now, waste to energy does have it’s downsides and it is a generally controversial topic but, in Copenhagen, it’s a really common form of energy production, making up around 99% of the city’s energy sources.

🌊 Floating Cities

Now, this is probably my favourite of all the projects that BIG Architecture has worked on. It completely revolutionizes the way we approach building cities.

Right now, around 3 million people live at sea. 70% of the Earth is made up of water, and that equates to A LOT of unused space. So why not use it?

BIG’s proposed floating city

This is the proposed look for Bjarke’s ‘floating city’. It harnesses all of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and is the epitome of a closed-loop system. Let’s break down how this works 😉

🔅 Energy

None of the power generation comes from traditional sources, such as fossil fuels. Instead, everything is meant to be created locally. They will be:

  • Harvesting the thermal energy of ocean tides
  • Using wind and optimized solar energy (ex. solar panels w/solar trackers)
  • Using algae bioreactors to cultivate algae for waste treatment, energy storage, etc…
  • Cooling and heating through ‘heat-exchange’ devices, which allow heat to be transferred between fluids
  • Using flywheels as a way to store energy

All of these methods work efficiently, and create clean energy!

🌱 Food

All food has to be grown locally. After all, it’s not like we can just casually ship over a bunch of cows and still maintain a small carbon footprint.

This means that a floating city would have to rely solely on plant-based agriculture, fish, and alternative proteins. So, if you absolutely can’t live without dairy and meat, then, this is not the project for you.

Since these structures are going to be directly on the ocean, getting resources like fish isn’t going to be that difficult.

3D ocean farming allows us to use the entire water column, maximizing out the amount of fish that we can capture, while aquaponics allows us to cultivate fish in controlled tanks (meaning we get the best nutritional value possible 😍)

With plants, they’ll be using both indoor and outdoor farming. By growing food in vertically stacked layers, while using aeroponics and hydroponics, we can cut down the water we use by up to 95% and have crops that are as nutritious as possible. For a primer on vertical farming, click here 😉.

🚰 Water

By using water vapour distillation, atmospheric water, and rain harvesting systems, BIG is creating closed-loop water reuse systems that bring zero-water waste.

That’s BIG (pun intended 😉). In western countries, we waste a lot of water. I’m talking billions of pounds every year. We don’t reuse it all or deal with it in an environmentally conscientious way either. That’s a horrendous approach.

Meanwhile, at Oceanix City, no grey-water or waste water is going to be poured back into the ocean. It’s 100% reusable, doesn’t pollute the nearby ocean habitats, and in turn, it’s SUPER sustainable 😍.

🚮 Waste

There’s literally an entire island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that’s naturally made out of trash. It’s a blatant demonstration of how wasteful we are. Oceanix City runs on the principle of zero waste.

By replacing single use devices with reusable alternatives, and the approaches to water, farming, and energy, the city is already to cut down waste to 90% less than New York City’s average per capita.

They take this a step further by burning non-reusable trash through waste-to-energy systems, composting whatever they can, and reusing any leftover materials.

What’s also super cool about this project is that the cities are designed in hexagonal pods. This means that if they want to grow the establishment from something like a village to a city, they can add more of these hexagons, growing like bacteria would in a cell culture.

How do we Design Sustainably?

When it comes to sustainability, there are three really important aspects: energy, agriculture, and design.

In order to have a sustainable design, we need to make sure that all of those three parts are in balance. We want clean energy, smart water-systems, minimized waste agriculture, and reusable free materials.

Okay… but what exactly do we need to do?

So, once again, in order to see what direction sustainable design is travelling in, we have to break it down by those three sectors.

⚡️ Energy

Energy is the basis of everything we do. If you’re reading this, it’s probably really hard for you to imagine a world without energy.

The thing is, 80% of our current energy is generated through fossil fuels worldwide. This isn’t great.

Sustainable design should be able to take into consideration renewable energy, smart energy storage, and other alternatives to fossil fuels.

We also want to make sure that our ‘bad’ energy consumption (ex. fossil fuels) is being minimized as much as possible, and our designs should optimize off of natural resources (ex. with the Shenzhen energy mansion, they track the sun and adjusted the colours of their window panes to capitalize off of natural lighting).

🥬 AgTech

Agriculture takes up 70% of the world’s freshwater supply, almost 80% of the world’s land, and the cultivation of livestock and crops releases methane, which makes up 16% of the world’s greenhouse gases.

While this doesn’t really have much to do with general building design, it has EVERYTHING to do with city design. We need to design with urban agriculture in mind.

We’re shifting towards a meat and dairy-free diet in the future. Since the production of those resources creates so many problems and wastes so many resources, we have to consider alternative proteins, lab-grown foods, fungi, and plant-based diets as our future sources of food.

Food of the future will follow these technologies and areas

As we revamp and build new cities, there is going to be a shift in the direction of a completely different food future from what we have now.

🤫 Psst… I’m really passionate about food tech. I’ve recently been working on ESCA, a moonshot project where we believe we can achieve a future without food. Go check it out!

🏡 Smart Design

We can’t have sustainable design without the design aspect.

By using the right materials, and taking inspiration from the world around us, we can create better buildings with just a few good choices.

Biomimicry is the study of taking design inspiration from nature. This is also really useful in terms of designing with the environment in mind.

In Japan, bullet trains are modelled after Kingfisher birds. Kingfisher birds have specialized beaks allowing them to dive into water to hunt while making a minimal splash. By implementing this, the trains were silent, consumed 15% less electricity, and were also 10% faster.

The nose of the bullet train matches the beak of the Kingfisher bird 😎

The list of examples with biomimicry continues on.

Of course, materials also play a really big role towards creating better buildings.

As an example, right now, we are experiencing a worldwide sand shortage (well, the sand used in making concrete). Because of this, we’re being forced to shift over to different, more green materials, like mass timber, recycled plastic, and wood.

Material choice means a lot. For example, by choosing to use bamboo as a building material over concrete, our buildings can achieve carbon negative emissions, meaning we’re actually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (Okay, that’s actually insane wow 🤯)

When you think of sustainable design, you could just ask: “What’s the point?”

It’s a valid question. Other then its aesthetic appeal, why should we care about designing with the environment in mind?

Our climate is changing. Most of us know about that already. Now is the time to create tangible solutions that we can execute.

Why would we stick with our old, pollution-generating building designs? Why not convert to projects that not only save money in the long-term, but, in turn, also save our planet?

We have the power to give form to our future.

🔑 Key Takeaways

  • Our current buildings our ugly. It’s possible to create structures that are super sustainable without lessening their function (only improving it 😉)
  • BIG is an architectural firm that is pioneering the sustainable design industry right now. Their designs implement smart choices to minimize waste and create closed-loop systems.
  • Smart design involves using clean energy sources, sustainable agriculture (when applicable), and choosing materials, structure, and shape in a way that’s environmentally beneficial.
  • Biomimicry involves mimicking designs found in nature, which in turn usually produces more sustainable projects

👋 Hey! If you liked my article and would like to read more of my work, feel free to follow me on Medium! I’m also always thankful to hear feedback so, if you would like to get in contact with me (I don’t bite, shoot me a message!), connect with me on LinkedIn!

Currently diving into the intersection of AI, energy, and cellular agriculture. Now, for a pun. What’s a wind turbine’s favourite colour? Blew.