Can Super Tall be Super Green?

Q+A with Peter Weingarten

At this week’s Greenbuild Expo in Chicago, Peter Weingarten will participate on a panel that will examine the role of tall buildings in tomorrow’s vertical cities. His session, “BL15 – Tomorrow’s Vertical Cities: Sustainable Design in Tall Buildings” will take place on Thursday, September 18th at 4:00 in room W196C. I spoke to him in advance, to get an idea of why he thinks tall buildings are important in the context of sustainable design.

Q: The concept of a ‘sustainable skyscraper’ seems like an oxymoron, because tall buildings require so much energy to operate, require elevators to move from floor to floor, sophisticated systems to operate, etc. Why is it important to talk about how to make super tall buildings more sustainable?

A: Super tall buildings often become symbols of the city in which they’re located. As highly visible beacons they present an incredible opportunity to promote more sustainable ways of living.

As hubs of economic development, super tall buildings serve an important purpose. Innovations that occur in their development can trickle down to sustainable models for the rest of the city; fireproofing and elevators are great historic examples of this.

The best thing we can do as architects is to make super tall buildings as sustainable as possible, and approach them as opportunities to test new ideas and technologies. We can also re-invent how they’re used.

Historically, tall buildings were office buildings that might have a public amenity at the top such as an observation deck or restaurant. At night, they were largely abandoned. Today, we design tall buildings as mixed-use communities, and we link them to transit and parks. The way that we conceive tall buildings is an important part of contributing to urban vitality and reducing sprawl.

And right now—facing an urgent need to reduce the way buildings impact the environment—we need them as catalysts for change.

We’re trying to get to a better place with regard to our impact on the environment as quickly as we can in the near term, to reduce the carbon footprint of our buildings and our cities. If through awareness or excitement we can get people focused on urbanization and sustainable technologies, then we’ve achieved something greater than the building itself.

Q: What’s been changing that’s enabling them to become more green?

A: In the pioneering days of super tall building design, it was about getting there. The big questions were: how do we drive elevators to new heights? Can we support building systems at 110 floors or even hold the building up? In many ways, the architecture was a result of innovations in engineering.

Now, we’re at a comfortable point about executing technically, and we’re turning to qualitative needs of building occupants.

For example, if you look at the super tall buildings that currently exist, while they’re usually covered in glass, they’re virtually opaque. You can’t see inside them from the street. Beyond mitigating solar heat gains, one of the primary reasons for this is that an opaque uniformity to the façade is very forgiving in terms of hiding large structural or mechanical dead zones just behind the glass wall that would be unappealing to see from the outside. New technologies and a increased understanding of building behavior through better tools and simulations is enabling us to be more elegant with these systems, while maintaining efficiency.  These more integrated elements are less problematic to deal with in the building facades

Another reason for the opacity had to do with maintaining comfortable interior temperatures without incurring exorbitant energy bills to heat and cool interior spaces. Significant advancements in curtain wall and glass technology now give us the shading coefficients that we want with greater visible light transmittance. In plain English, that means that we can get very transparent walls that are still quite energy efficient.

Shanghai Tower is benefitting from all these advancements, allowing it to have a degree of transparency that just wouldn’t have been achievable even five years ago. We’re using a double-wall system, with incredibly transparent glass, while meeting aggressive energy goals for project. Today, we have both the technological finesse and the attention to qualitative aspects of buildings. We’re designing incredible architecture from a sculptural perspective, and we’re making interior activity visible to the outside, rather than working around the structural and mechanical systems that are required to go super tall.

By Leah Ray


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