How Can We Make Built Environment Futurism Achievable?

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For as sudden as the COVID-19 response has seemed in the United States, the signs were there that something was coming. There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Bill Gates’s expectations for a pandemic, and his assertions that the country would be unable to appropriately respond, but the Microsoft founder is only one of many observers who have been long sounding the alarm. Numerous epidemiologists and doctors had called attention to the risk, as well as a range of government officials. The U.S. Intelligence Community crystallized the risk back at the start of last year in its Worldwide Threat Assessment, saying, “We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”

Of course, politicians took little heed of these warnings and ordinary people probably didn’t even hear them. Who amongst us, except for the prepper set and the biggest Costco diehards, keeps a good supply of food, sanitizer or toilet paper on hand?

The fact that it took a persistent, still-no-end-in-sight, outbreak for people to realize that we need better pandemic protection measures (and small-scale resiliency, as well) is as clear as it is disheartening. The outbreak also affords us an opportunity to test controversial social policies, like allowing local governments to decide what constitutes “essential products and services” and a quasi-Universal Basic Income with most Americans awaiting a $1,200 check from the federal government.

Even if it’s too late to get out ahead of COVID-19, it’s not too late to make a difference in some other areas that the smart money has identified as critical focus points. Chief amongst these is climate change. There are multiple ways to combat the risk of rising global temperatures: reducing energy consumption, producing energy more sustainably, and making energy consumption more efficient. Each of these pathways itself has a huge number of approaches and strategies, too. 

For the world of the built environment, perhaps it is time to get a little more creative and a lot more aggressive. Twelve-percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions come from commercial and residential sources, meaning this is an area where real change can be made. So what are some of the ideas, like UBI, that may have once seemed like a moonshot but could now represent real, actionable approaches for buildings? 

For one thing, buildings could start to be treated as more than simple energy and material consumers. Changing our understanding of the role of property from one where buildings only consume to one where they actually produce will require a big shift, but the framework is there. Already, plenty of buildings strive towards net zero energy consumption, meaning they generate as much energy as they consume. It would be only an incremental step forward to extend that into the realm of actually producing more than is consumed. 

Achieving this goal will take a combination of energy efficiency improvements and onsite energy production as well. One method to achieve this is particularly noteworthy: cladding buildings in algae. The landmark project using this approach is located in Germany, where in 2013, the new apartment building BIQ House was installed with flat, semi-transparent panels filled with a growing medium and locally-sourced river algae. These panels provide passive shade to the building while also generating biomass (able to be sold for energy generation) or heat for the building itself. The algae has a secondary benefit, too: it is a very efficient carbon reducer. 

However, these systems are expensive, often prohibitively so. While BIQ House’s performance has been admirable, and its residents pay no heating bill, the upfront costs to develop the project were high, to the tune of $2500 per square meter. 

“You have to borrow your money for so long in order to pay it back that it makes it look unviable,” said Richard Hyams, founder of London-based architecture firm astudio. While not the designer of BIQ House, astudio has been working on their own algae projects. Richard doesn’t trust policy to help make novel solutions like algae in buildings much more attainable either, saying that “Policy looks at the bottom and chops off the worst performers to bring the whole value of the built environment up. What we’re talking about with this sort of thing is at the top end, where policy is nowhere near.”

Rather than constructing envelopes with traditional inert surfaces, Richard Hyam’s architecture firm astudio is conducting research and development on “living skins.” Credit:

Instead, Richard says we need ambassadors and evangelists to help projects like this become more understood, acceptable and, eventually, financeable. It was an idea ambassador that helped BIQ House get off the ground, Richard said. 

For UBI, the ambassador has been Andrew Yang, and lately, in a way, COVID-19 itself. While Al Gore, Greta Thunberg, and others like them have brought widespread attention to the problem of climate change, perhaps what we need now more than ever is for an influential real estate company to go out and make a stand for novel approaches like algae cladding or other specific, tangible, and above all else, replicable solutions. To get off the ground, these types of projects invariably require a good dash of dreaming but a whole lot of underlying financial sense. If Goldman Sachs can earmark $750 billion for sustainable investments, though, surely a $20 million apartment building is small potatoes.

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