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Skyscrapers of the Future Will Be Engineered to Copy Nature and See How Termites Inspired a Building That Can Cool Itself

     Architects are constructing wooden skyscrapers and transforming high rises into living gardens. And these designs...could go a long way...


Skyscrapers of the Future Will Be Engineered to Copy Nature

   Architects are constructing wooden skyscrapers and transforming high rises into living gardens. And these designs...could go a long way in improving how we live in the future. Skyscrapers are symbols of modern ambition. But the race to be the tallest is fueled by steel and concrete, two materials that account for an estimated 8% of global C02 emissions. Two countries in particular - Singapore and Canada - are attempting to transform the urban skyline. In Singapore, engineering firms like WOHA are coating their buildings with lush, native plants. “To deal with high densities in cities, particularly Singapore where we are land-limited, it is actually important to bring landscape greenery and nature very close to where people alive and interact.” 

   Aside from the aesthetics of this building, these towers of green are also helping to bring biodiversity back to our urban centers. Because this building has vertical gardens integrated into its design, it actually contains 1000 percent more plant life than could have existed on the original plot of land. And having buildings that integrate nature in this way within our dense cities could have a measurable impact on quality of life and the quality of the environment. Some of us may have experienced New York in the summertime. One of the reasons why we get a heat buildup in cities like this is a process known as Insolation. When the sun hits a concrete skyscraper, heat is stored within the building and then re-radiated back into the environment causing the air temperature to rise. However, when WOHA designed the Oasia Hotel, they used plants to combat this problem. “In our projects, we have always tried to aim for more than 100% green replacement. 

   We need to find plants that can handle not just the wind, but maybe also need to be quite hardy as well. Tropical high-rise building skyscraper, when you elevate it, you actually get nice breezes and nice wind. And that actually makes it very comfortable. There's no reason why, I think, when we have high density in the city that we should forget about gardens, parks, and nature. In Canada, architects and engineers are piloting new designs out of a familiar material: wood. “Wood is clearly an advantageous material, because it requires much less resources to be extracted from the forest. It requires less resources to transport onsite. It allows for faster construction.” To construct a wooden skyscraper, engineers use mass timber, which is engineered to handle loads similar to concrete and steel. “Wood has a very, very favorable strength to weight ratio. Compared to how heavy it is, it is almost as strong as steel.” They'll use a technique called cross-laminated timber, where different layers of wood are glued together in a cross-based orientation. 

   Wood isn’t a new material by any stretch. It has ancient roots in medieval European churches and temples in Japan. But it has had a major historical drawback. Fire. Urban cities were wiped out in the early 19thcentury, and steel and concrete eventually became the dominant building materials. But mass timber today doesn't ignite as easily. “All these structural wood elements, that need to be protected from fire, they're encapsulated in drywall. These elements cannot burn anymore, and they're just as safe as if it were a concrete structure.” And wooden buildings have huge environmental benefits too. In all of Canada, the U.S., Europe, the amount of wood growing is significantly larger than the amount of wood that is actually harvested. 

   If we harvest our trees and put them in structures, we actually give an incentive to reforest more areas, and regrow more trees. This trend has spread to countries like the U.K., and Japan, kickstarting the next race for the tallest timber tower. By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people living on this planet, and two-thirds of us will be in cities. To handle the rise of human population and global temperature, native plant designs and timber skyscrapers could go a long way in curbing environmental and economic impacts. And they’ll make us feel better too.

See How Termites Inspired a Building That Can Cool Itself

See How Termites Inspired a Building That Can Cool Itself

   In 1991, architect Mick Pearce had a problem. An investment group in Harare, Zimbabwe hired him to design the largest office and retail building in the country. But they didn't want to pay for the expensive air conditioning needed to cool such a large building. So that left Pearce with a seemingly impossible challenge: How do you design a building that cools itself? In this termite mound. Millions of termites live inside these structures, some of which stretch an astonishing 30feet high. Although these termite skyscrapers may look solid from the outside, they are actually covered in tiny holes that allow air to pass through freely. Like a giant lung, the structure inhales and exhales as temperatures rise and fall throughout the day. 

   This termite ventilation inspired Pearce to use an approach known as biomimicry, imitating the ingenuity found in nature to solve human problems. Meet the East gate Centre. The building is made from concrete slabs and brick. Just like the soil inside a termite mound, these materials have a high “thermal mass”— which means they can absorb a lot of heat without really changing temperature. The exterior of the building is prickly like a cactus. By increasing the amount of surface area, heat loss is improved at night, while heat gain is reduced during the day. Inside the building, low-power fans pull in cool night air from outside and disperse it throughout the seven floors. The concrete blocks absorb the cold, insulating the building and chilling the circulating air. 

   When the morning comes and temperatures rise, warm air is vented up through the ceiling and released by the chimneys. Thanks to this innovative design, temperatures inside stay at a comfortable 82 degrees during the day and 57 degrees at night. Not to mention, it uses up to 35 percent less energy than similar buildings in Zimbabwe. Since opening its doors in 1996, Mick Pearce's 90% natural climate control system has made the East gate Centre a global landmark for sustainability. So, we must ask ourselves: if an architect could design a self cooling building with termite inspired climate control, what other innovations can Mother Nature inspire if we just paid closer attention? 

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