wood, wooden, wooden skyscraper, Japan, Sumitomo Forestry, 2041

Buildings Made of Sky

“Never has there been a better time to be an architect.”
—Paul Hawken

This recent quote by Paul Hawken – author, activist, entrepreneur and Project Drawdown founder – provides the perfect backdrop to last week’s announcement of the winners of the 2018 Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) biennial design competition in Melbourne.

Each of the top three winning designs – from LH Architecture (Melbourne), Olson Kundig Architects (Seattle), and Lu Chao 陆超 and Weng Shenxia 翁申霞 (Guangzhou) – re-imagines urban renewable energy power plants as public art installations, as interactive urban sculpture, as tourist attractions. They are wondrous, playful, and elegant.

LAGI, Land Art Generator, Melbourne, architecture, NH Architecture, solar, PV, renewable
LAGI 2018, 1st place submission: Light Up by LH Architecture. Artist Team: Martin Heide, Dean Boothroyd, Emily Van Monger, David Allouf, Takasumi Inoue, Liam Oxlade, Michael Strack, Richard Le; Mike Rainbow, Jan Talacko; John Bahoric; Bryan Chung, Chea Yuen Yeow Chong, Anna Lee, Amelie Noren. Energy Technologies: flexible mono-crystalline silicon photovoltaic, wind energy harvesting, microbial fuel cells Annual Capacity: 2,220 MWh
LAGI, Land Art Generator, Melbourne, solar,
LAGI 2018, 2nd place submission: Night & Day by Olson Kundig Architects. Artist Team: Kevin Kudo-King, Annie Aldrich, James Juricevich, Evan Harlan, Vikram Sami, Erin Hamilton, Gabriela Frank, MacKenzie Cotters, Lauren Gallow, Jonathan Nelson (Olson Kundig). Energy technologies: mono-crystalline silicon photovoltaic, pumped hydro storage. Annual Capacity: 1,000 MWh.
LAGI, Land Art Generator, Melbourne, PV, wind, kinetic
LAGI 2018, 3rd place submission: Swings by artist team Lu Chao and Weng Shenxia. Energy technologies: thin-film photovoltaic, kinetic wind harvesting (with human assist). Annual Capacity: 1,200 MWh.

For 10 years, LAGI’s free and open call international design competition, held every two years in a different city, has mobilized collaborative interdisciplinary creative talent across the globe, resulting in nearly 1,000 innovative proposals from more than 60 countries. Available online, this collection of proposals is an invaluable resource for urban planners looking for inspiration: how to integrate distributed renewable energy infrastructure into urban settings where the public can interact with and reflect upon the third energy revolution. More than any other organization, LAGI is helping us all to visualize – to imagine – what our post-carbon future will look like. And it promises to be beautiful.

To date, architects have designed some truly extraordinary net zero buildings around the world. My favorite is SOM’s Pertamina Energy Tower, currently under construction in Jakarta. This is the world’s first supertall tower for which energy is the primary design driver.

But after reading two new books – Project Drawdown’s Drawdown, and Bruce King’s The New Carbon Architecture – I now understand that as beautiful and important as net zero design is for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the built environment, it’s not enough. According to King, net zero architecture doesn’t account for what he calls green building’s dark secret – embedded carbon.

Embedded carbon is the carbon footprint of the entire process to retrofit an existing building or to create a new building (even a net zero building). This includes: mining and processing raw materials; transportation of materials and workers; manufacturing cement, paint, caulking and foam insulation; sending construction waste to landfills or recycling plants; refrigerants in air conditioners, freezers and coolers; and, lest we forget, deconstruction/landfill/recycling at the end of a building’s life.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Global Status Report 2017 uses the following graphic to illustrate that the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is the single largest contributor to global warming, at 39% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. This includes 11% for embedded carbon (construction) and 28% for building operations (post-construction).

UNEP, IEA, embedded, carbon, building, architecture, design

For those unable to read the entire UNEP report, the opening paragraph of the preface, written by Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA),  clearly spells out the challenge ahead:

“The global buildings sector is growing at unprecedented rates, and it will continue to do so. Over the next 40 years, the world is expected to build 230 billion square meters in new construction – adding the equivalent of Paris to the planet every single week.”

As daunting as it sounds, global challenges like this can, when viewed through a positive lens, create myriad opportunities for collective creativity and fearless innovation within the AEC industry. According to Drawdown: “Based on what the math shows, there are only two things we can do, only two goals worth pursuing that will make the definitive difference. One, stop putting GHG in the atmosphere. Two, bring atmospheric GHG concentrations down.” Net zero buildings address the first challenge; carbon positive and living buildings address the second. We need both.

Drawdown, Project Drawdown, Brock, Brock Environmental Center, Virginia, Virginia Beach
The Brock Environmental Center – a living building – in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Image downloaded from Project Drawdown’s coming attractions page. Photo by Prakash Patel.

In his interview with the American Institute of Architect (AIA)’s Committee on the Environment (COTE), Drawdown’s Hawken challenged the AEC industry to embrace an even more audacious paradigm shift: to reverse global warming by transforming buildings and cities into carbon sinks.

More on carbon sinks below. First, note Drawdown’s emphasis on the word reverse. Not slow down; not mitigate; not curb. “The(se) verbs are not commensurate with the problem,” explained Hawken in his AIA-COTE interview. “When you are heading down the wrong road towards a cliff, the only thing that makes sense is not to slow down and go over the cliff slowly, but to stop and turn around,” he said in 2017.

Just saying those three words out loud – reverse global warming – makes me sit up straighter in my chair, like an “aha” moment. It magically transforms the gloom-and-doom narrative of climate change into an audacious call to action. Sign me up! I felt the same sense of clarity after reading Solitaire Townsend’s recent Forbes article: “We need swashbuckling daring, bravery and courage, guile and desperate invention, unlikely friendships and alliances forged in fire.” Like wooden skyscrapers.

So how can the architecture profession transform cities into carbon sinks to reverse global warming? By reframing our relationship to carbon, according to Drawdown. “Carbon is not the problem,” says Hawken. “We are.”

According to the AIA, three-quarters of global carbon emissions come from just two percent of the Earth’s land surface – urban areas. With two-thirds of global population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, the AIA concludes: “We believe that the climate change battle will be won or lost in cities.”

“Imagine a building made of sky,” reads the promo for Bruce King’s important book, The New Carbon Architecture. “For the first time in history, we can build pretty much anything out of carbon that we coaxed from the air.”

An astonishing number of solutions already exist to turn buildings and cities into carbon sinks. Building materials that sequester carbon include: wood and bamboo (to replace steel or aluminum), straw and mycelium (to replace foam insulation), industrial hemp (to replace synthetic carpets or textiles), bioplastics (to replace petrolium-based plastic) and low-carbon alternatives to portland cement. Architects can reduce both the operational and embodied carbon production of their buildings by incorporating these materials into their designs in combination with passive design techniques, energy and water efficiency measures, and onsite renewable energy production.

As an example, a unit of wood is 50 percent carbon, absorbed and sequestered throughout a tree’s lifetime. That carbon remains locked into timber construction for the life of a building – ranging between 40 to 100 years (much longer than the life of an electric vehicle) – and is easily recycled/reused whenever the building is torn down.

“For the first time in history, we can build pretty much anything out of carbon that we coaxed from the air.”
—Bruce King

It’s time for a renaissance across the AEC industry. Designing buildings with these and other emerging technologies can contribute significantly to “drawing down” carbon from the atmosphere and locking it into the built environment. If each new and retrofit building becomes a carbon sink, it is only a matter of time before neighborhoods and eventually entire cities could become carbon sinks – not just buildings, but public transport systems, water treatment, waste-to-energy, microgrids. Visit Project Drawdown’s website to see the complete list of 100 diverse, practical and scalable solutions to reverse global warming, the majority of which already exist. Drawdown is filled with positive messages of opportunity in the face of global warming.

Let me end here the same way that I started: with a motivational quote by Paul Hawken: “Reducing GHG concentrations is the outcome we want, not the motive for acting. Our motive for acting is security and wellbeing for all on a livable, flourishing planet.”

And I can’t resist one more! This, THIS: “We see global warming not as an inevitability, but as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change, a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion and genius. This is not a liberal agenda, nor is it a conservative one. This is the human agenda.”

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Addendum: Earlier this year, I walked down the 317-meter-long Corderie dell’Arsenale at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, looking for bold architectural visions of the future, like Vincent Callebaut’s Tao Zhu Yin Yuan carbon-absorbing green tower in Taipei. Of the 64 participating firms in the Arsenale, only a handful made even passing references to global warming, despite the fact that we – architects included – have lived through the hottest consecutive four years ever recorded in human history (2014-2017), and 2018 promises to make that five years in a row.

It is difficult to understand how this prestigious biennial event does not explicitly encourage participating firms to address the pivotal role that the architecture profession can play to cool our planet. Yes, the curators mentioned “this fragile planet” in their manifesto, and yes, I saw the word “sustainable” sprinkled here and there. For example, BIG‘s exhibit Humanhattan 2050 presented climate resilient solutions to protect Lower Manhattan from rising seas, and the Antigua & Barbuda pavilion explored environmental justice. But overall, the 16th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice remained conspicuously, profoundly, silent on climate change. As a photographer focusing on the energy transition, I have to agree with this review by Alessandro Bava: “[The 2018] edition of the International Architecture Exhibition was disappointing and will continue to be until more focus is placed on the emerging technical paradigms that are profoundly reshaping the way this planet is inhabited.” Let’s hope that the 2020 edition will deliver.

(Top image: Design submitted by Nikken Sekkei Architects to Sumitomo Forestry Co., Ltd., for the world’s tallest wooden building: a 350-meter-tall wooden high-rise building in Japan, to mark Sumitomo’s 350th anniversary in 2041. Image downloaded from Two Sides.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focusing on the energy transition. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. She is currently working on a photo book about the men and women building our clean energy future. She also collaborates with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. Her renewable energy construction photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on Ello, Twitter and Instagram

5 thoughts on “Buildings Made of Sky

    • Thanks Candace! I definitely missed my calling – should have studied architecture! – growing up in that beautiful home that Jack built, filled with light and music. I did, however, catch the Sullivan photography bug! Let’s try to get together soon. Big hugs

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