The words we use matter. That’s no less true when talking about climate change. Recognizing this, the Guardian has changed its stylebook, suggesting that its reporters stop using the phrase “climate change” and instead use “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown.” The phrase “climate change,” sounds too passive and doesn’t communicate as much urgency as “crisis” does, according to the editor-in-chief.
There are many industries where people are looking for creative ways to do something about the climate crisis. We look at a few interesting solutions being used in architecture.
Let’s start with the humble leaf. The leaf is a symbol of a lush green earth, and we think of a place with a lot of trees as a place with clean air. The reason for this has to do with photosynthesis, the process through which plants and algae use sunlight to absorb carbon and create energy. Enter the biosolar leaf, a creation from the mind of Julian Melchiorri, CEO of Arborea. The technology involves microalgae and phytoplankton growing on panels that look a lot like solar panels and are said to do the work of 100 trees while using the surface area of one. The “leaf” helps combat pollution by taking in carbon dioxide and emitting fresh oxygen. What’s more, the biosolar leaf panels can then be harvested to make healthy food additives, like antioxidant-rich food coloring.
“When I founded Arborea my goal was to tackle climate change while addressing the critical issues related to the food system,” said Melchiorri. “This pilot plant will produce sustainable healthy food additives while purifying the air, producing oxygen and removing carbon dioxide from the surrounding environment.” The Imperial College in London is currently running a pilot program putting the microorganisms to work.
It seems like a good idea—why not harness the wind by combining skyscrapers and wind turbines? That’s what architects did for the Bahrain World Trade Center, two 42-story buildings with three wind turbines between them; the Council House 2 in Australia, which has yellow turbines on the roof; the Philadelphia Eagles stadium, and a sustainability institute building at Arizona State University. It’s an attractive prospect and it might work in some cases. But many critics say this isn’t the way to go. “This is not a new problem,” wrote Blake Herrschaft. “I am asked at least once a quarter whether we should consider wind turbines for a green building project.” The problem is often that wind in an urban environment is too turbulent, which slows the air flow. And turbines can be quite loud, and vibrate when they move. Technology is evolving, though, like vertical axis wind turbines whose noise level doesn’t rise above a human whisper at low speeds.
There’s a cascading green roof atop the Chicago City Hall building, with vines reaching down towards the sidewalk. There’s the massive rooftop farms of the Brooklyn Grange in New York, growing 80,000 pounds of produce a year. And the sloping sedum and moss on a rooftop skatepark at the StreetDome in Denmark. The reason for sky-high greenery is insulation. The vegetation helps keep buildings cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, leading to less energy needed for AC or heat. It’s so important that New York City approved a bill in 2019 that requires all new residential and commercial buildings have plants, solar panels or mini wind turbines on their roofs, or all three.
One of our favorite examples of this? The beautiful terraces at COOKFOX Architects’ office, featuring their honeybee colonies.
As far as technological advances go, you might think that glass windows haven’t changed much. A pane of glass seems like a simple technology that’s working, so why fix what isn’t broken? When it comes to slowing down climate change, though, there might be something to improve. Consider this: the majority of energy lost in a building is lost through the windows. As compared to a wall, a pane of glass loses, or gains, as much as 10 times the heat as the same-sized wall. That’s where smart glass comes in. Electrochromatic glass can be programmed by a smartphone to tint the glass and limit sunlight coming in, so you’d need to use less AC. They can also sense the daylight to override your settings if need be, to keep the building cooler. The W Hotel in San Francisco replaced conventional windows in the lobby space with smart windows a handful of years ago, and others might be on the way.
Cement has been used in the construction of buildings for millennia, but it has some serious drawbacks—it’s a major source of carbon emissions. According to the Drawdown, a group of researchers and scientists who’ve made a list of the most impactful ways to combat climate change, cement production is responsible for five to six percent of emissions per year. There is a better way: instead of heating limestone in a kiln, which is responsible for 60 percent of those emissions, we should be using alternatives. Like volcanic ash, some clays, ground bottle glass, and a few other materials.
Another innovative idea? A return to timber construction. Some states, like Oregon, have passed new building codes to allow developers to use new high-tech timber materials that are fire-resistant, renewable, and capture carbon as opposed to creating more of it.