Do no harm. That is essentially the premise of sustainable architecture. Design buildings that have a minimal impact on the environment. A stunning garden gracing the rooftop of an office tower or multifamily high-rise, for example, serves both as a social destination for building occupants as well as a means of reducing the heat island effect. Inside, living walls improve indoor air quality and reduce ambient temperature. But architects depend on so much more than their creativity, artistic inclinations, and special materials to design sustainable properties. More and more, architects are relying on technology to conceive their sustainable structural masterpieces, and the reduction of carbon emissions in their projects is top of the list.
The use of computational design in architecture is not new—architects used this computer algorithm-based, data analysis-centric simulation tool to explore any number of design iterations and circumvent potential design problems for Manhattan’s One World Trade Center. Integrating computational design in sustainable architecture is a growing trend. Computational design covers the entire design process from creation to presentation to analysis, allowing the architect to use visual programming based on sustainability-related algorithms to design a property that meets high environmental goals. Computational design can help architects generate highly sustainable building strategies. It’s a system that allows architects to develop numerous ideas and test them repeatedly and in short order. “It’s a way to demonstrate that the strategies we are proposing to reduce embodied carbon are working as well as we want them to work,” said Pablo La Roche, global sustainable design lead with Arcadis, a sustainable design and consultancy services provider. “The power that these tools have in helping us predict the impact of sustainable strategies in building performance is enormous.”
To come up with new ideas for sustainable architecture altogether, designers are turning to biomimicry, or the use of technology to mimic the functions of nature. This technique uses the millions of years of knowledge gained from organisms adapting to different environments. The Pinal County Attorney’s Office in Florence, Arizona, 60 miles southeast of Phoenix, is a model in biomimicry design for sustainability. The building, designed by integrated design firm DLR Group, was built to resemble and imitate the saguaro cactus plant, whose vertical fins act as shading that redistributes heat, allowing it to flourish amid the blistering desert temperatures. The 56,000-square-foot building has its own self-shading fins, made of metal and facilitating the dissipation of heat gain.
Biomimicry extends beyond the building itself to include interior features, such as those found through Xylem, a technology LaRoche developed a few years ago to create a self-sustaining means of temperature management utilizing shading, roof vegetation, and air and water circulation. “We looked at how fluids flow in a tree, and we produced a structure in which these fluids would be cooled by the vegetation above it, and then those fluids would trickle down and cool people underneath and also reduce the heat island effect. We’re using nature to provide the cooling, and it’s working sort of like a tree, but it’s a man-made structure,” LaRoche explained. “At the end of the day, what we want is to have a physical and a natural environment that are blended together into one, where our buildings are really connected to nature and respond to nature.”
The many players in the commercial real estate industry, architects included, are relying on numerous methods to help reduce emissions. But it’s the use of technology in such development activities as architectural design that is going to help expedite the process. Technology-driven architecture helps designers see the impact of their decisions in record time, virtually test different design ideas, and help their finished products adapt to changes in the future. Building a new building will always have some sort of impact on the environment, but now, thanks to new tech, architects can work to keep that impact to a minimum.