Special Section: Getting the 21st Century Right

(Re)Conceiving Cities

Whether building a city from scratch in Abu Dhabi or retrofitting the Chicago Loop, architect Adrian Smith says 21st-century cities need to be clean, green, and user-friendly.

Architect’s rendering of the Chicago Central Area DeCarbonization Plan

Adrian Smith has designed some of the world’s most prestigious buildings, including Chicago’s Trump International Hotel and Tower and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (which, at 2,716.5 feet, is also the world’s tallest building). Nevertheless, post–Lehman Brothers, Smith was in the same spot as many less-successful architects: When construction financing dried up, his clients put their projects on hold or canceled them outright. Soon after, the 100 or so employees at his Chicago-based firm found themselves with time on their hands. What can designers do when there aren’t new commissions to design?

Plenty, as it turns out. Under the direction of Smith and his partners, Gordon Gill and Robert Forest, about 50 of the firm’s staff members fanned out over a 480-acre section of downtown Chicago, cataloging more than 500 buildings. They weren’t looking for rare architectural details or for a celebrated pedigree; instead, they set out to determine each building’s energy use and to estimate the carbon emissions produced as a result.

With the support of the city of Chicago—“moral, not financial,” Smith notes—they collected energy-consumption data from the local utilities. They fed that data, along with each building’s age and use, into a 3-D computer model that visualizes a structure’s emissions relative to its neighbors’. The result of this self-initiated research is the Chicago Central Area DeCarbonization Plan, which just won a major urban design award from the American Institute of Architects. The plan proposes to retrofit half of the commercial and residential buildings in the central Loop. That effort, along with other strategic initiatives in the plan, would reduce downtown Chicago’s net energy use by 25 percent by the year 2020, and 100 percent by 2030.

Architect’s rendering of the Matrix Gateway

Smith and his team were inspired by the 2030 Challenge, a call to arms issued by the nonprofit Architecture 2030 that encourages architects to drastically reduce the carbon footprints of their buildings, working up to carbon neutrality by the year 2030. “We looked at 2030 and started thinking, ‘What does it really mean to implement it?’” Smith says.

BY THE TIME 2030 rolls around, there will be more than 8 billion people living on the planet, and three out of five of them will live in cities. Right now in the developing world, approximately 5 million people, through birth or migration, take up residency in urban areas every month. As urban living becomes the rule rather than the exception, old problems persist and, in some cases, worsen: social inequality, overburdened public transportation systems, and environmental degradation, to name just a few.

As urbanization and economic growth quicken in developing countries, energy demands intensify. China is now the world’s No. 1 consumer of energy. India, by some estimates the fourth-largest energy consumer, anticipates that its own demand for fossil fuels—petroleum, coal, and natural gas—will jump by 40 percent over the next decade. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that total energy consumption in nations outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will rise 84 percent between 2007 and 2030, compared with only 14 percent rise in developed OECD countries. The effects are clear—and worrisome. First, rising greenhouse-gas emissions will accelerate climate change and its attendant ills (rising sea levels and more frequent and severe storms, floods, and droughts). Second, urban air quality will worsen, since electricity generation contributes significantly to air pollution.

Cars (especially SUVs) are often fingered as the worst energy hogs, but in fact, buildings, with their heating and cooling loads, are more to blame than most people realize. Buildings account for a sizable share of society’s energy consumption and carbon emissions (almost 40 percent in the United States). To address that particular concern, architects are designing new buildings with sustainable features, using natural ventilation to ease the strain on energy-intensive heating and cooling systems, green roofs to curb carbon emissions and help manage storm-water runoff, and natural light in homes and offices to reduce energy costs and carbon dioxide levels while elevating the moods of the people who live and work inside.

Architects are becoming adept at designing green features in new structures that are built from the ground up. But what about buildings that already exist? Each year in the United States, about 1 percent of the existing building stock gets replaced, which means the vast majority of older buildings remain in use, with leaky windows and inefficient heating and cooling systems. Tearing them down usually doesn’t make financial sense, and it isn’t palatable when the buildings are historic or have exceptional architectural value. On that count, Chicago—the city molded by Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Mies van der Rohe—might be especially vexing for a green architect to work in. Or could it be an ideal testing ground for sustainable renovation?

Rendering of Masdar City headquarters in Abu Dhabi

ADRIAN SMITH, 66, SPENT a good part of his career as a partner at the international design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where he built a reputation as the world’s foremost designer of “supertall” buildings. Five years ago, he established his own practice, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG). Although the new firm’s commissions have included some supertall buildings, it’s their other designs that promise true innovation. Take the Chicago Central Area DeCarbonization Plan, which is indicative of Smith’s approach to the design of buildings and cities alike: Strive for radical innovation on a grand scale, but use specific, practical strategies to achieve it. Make the world’s cities more sustainable—and livable—with cutting-edge building technologies. In Smith’s designs, coal and other fossil fuels have been replaced by wind turbines, building-integrated photovoltaics (solar cells that are incorporated directly into building materials), high-performance glass curtain walls, and other advanced green features.

Of course, applying state-of-the-art technologies to existing cities has its challenges. You can’t really turn the places where people already live and work into laboratories. So a lot of Smith and Gill’s knowledge comes from the work they do at the other end of the building spectrum, where they design cities or huge mixed-use complexes from scratch.

For example, in 2007, Smith and Gill won a competition to design the headquarters for Masdar City, a planned net-zero-energy city in Abu Dhabi that will house more than 40,000 people. The million-square-foot headquarters complex will be mixed-use (with office and retail spaces, gardens, and a prayer hall) and is expected to generate 3 percent more energy than it uses, thanks to huge “wind cones” that will allow for natural ventilation and the world’s largest integrated solar roof.

Another example is the Matrix Gateway Complex, a prototype commissioned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, which suggests a compelling new model for sustainable urbanism in the Middle East. A 600-foot-long, 3-million-square-foot cube, the Matrix Gateway would be wrapped in a high-tech skin that blocks heat gain while capturing solar electricity. It would convert humidity from the surrounding air into drinking water. The cube would contain residences, offices, shops, a hotel, a school, a museum, and a prayer center—in short, the essential ingredients of a small city. Though the Matrix Gateway is on hold and might never be built, it nevertheless belongs, with Masdar City, to a trend in city-making that the urban sociologist Saskia Sassen calls “smart cities from scratch”—that is, urban-scale developments that are built in a few years, equipped with sensors and monitors galore, and then treated as huge science experiments. This new kind of city, she writes, “becomes a living laboratory for smart urban tech- nologies that can handle all the major systems a city requires: water, transport, security, garbage, green buildings, and clean energy.”

However, there is another new kind of city, too, as Sassen notes: the new Chinese city, much bigger, less utopian, more practical. Twenty-odd new cities for China are on the boards right now, and one of them is an AS+GG project. The city’s design takes some concepts from the Matrix project—mixed uses in extremely close proximity, high density—and extrapolates them to a larger scale. “We’re building [the] city on a 1-square-kilometer site,” Smith says. “It’s very high density. It’s a live-work city; 50 percent [of residents] will be working there. If you can live and work within a 1-kilo area, you don’t even need public transportation. You can walk or bike.”

Building a city from scratch allows for holistic solutions: In this example, density is desirable not only as the engine of social interaction but because it eliminates the need for a public transportation network, which in turn prevents what would have been significant carbon emissions (and saves the developer money, to boot). “By building a city, you can change the parameters of how you use energy,” Smith observes.

The new city is being designed for 100,000 residents—“a drop in the bucket,” Smith says, of the 300 million people China’s cities will be adding over the next few years.

ON-THE-BOARDS CITIES are exciting to look at, but it’s the proposal for Chicago that holds the most promise—as a road map for re-engineering the cities we already live in, where the big decisions about siting, zoning, and infrastructure were made long ago. More impressive, almost all of the strategies in the plan do double duty as quality-of-life enhancements.

For instance, Smith says that a purely technological solution to provide clean energy for the Loop was straightforward. “You can provide clean power through wind turbines, in a field that’s 14 miles by 14 miles. Or you could do it with a 4-mile- square area of photovoltaics out in Lake Michigan.” But both those ideas had the same drawback. “If you solved it that way, you’d still have a whole city full of deteriorating buildings,” Smith points out. “You wouldn’t have added to the quality of life of the person in their office, in their apartment.”

Aside from retrofitting systems in older buildings, the plan’s specific, aggressive proposals include greening as many roofs as possible to counteract the urban heat-island effect; creating above-ground and subterranean “pedways” to make the Loop more walkable in Chicago winters; and repurposing existing underground tunnels as pneumatic waste-disposal tubes to avoid the emissions produced by a fleet of garbage trucks.

Looking to fine-tune the city of Chicago, Smith applies strategies he’s learned, or is trying out, in the Middle East and China. Perhaps the most important is to mix residential with commercial uses. During the Chicago study, Smith and his colleagues determined that buildings being used as residences consumed only about a quarter of the power that offices did, so an important prong of the plan is to add more residents to the study area. Commercial buildings constructed before 1950 could easily serve as apartment complexes, and many—in comparison with today’s fully equipped, luxury apartment towers—would have affordable rents (because of their age and more basic amenities), ensuring a diversity of income levels in the downtown area.

Smith, for his part, is not promising any quick fixes. “We haven’t even begun to see the [advances] that nanotechnology will bring to us in the future,” he points out. “When we do plans for cities, we need to think about them as hundred-year plans. At the least.”

Whether or not it is fully adopted, Smith’s plan for Chicago is an important case study, one that yields vital lessons for how to foster an efficient, clean, and humane urbanism in the 21st century: For one, retrofit older, energy-intensive buildings. Two, live closer to one another, in compact neighborhoods that can be traversed by foot, bicycle, or public transit. Three, create open green spaces in dense cities. Four—perhaps the most important lesson of all—think of cities as complex, ever-evolving systems, whose processes and impacts can be monitored—and then changed for the better.

Amanda Kolson Hurley is executive editor of Architect magazine.

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