The Future of Architecture

If “new” is the answer, you are asking the wrong question

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In the next 35 years, the world will build over 2.5 trillion square feet of new space— equivalent to an entire New York City every month.

Great news for architects? We are in the business of creation and transformation. Yet, we are keenly aware of the climate emergency and how at odds the industry can be with sustainable goals. So, true to the Architects Declare movement committing to a net zero future, architects need to drive change. Looking beyond this decade, the net zero of 2050 is a world where “new” doesn’t exist.

In this context, Grimshaw, has committed to all design work being net zero-ready within the decade. This approach will reduce emissions, taking a whole life approach to carbon using on-site and off-site renewable energy and reducing the embodied carbon in materials. Any remaining carbon from construction, materiality, or operation is offset.

We already have the technology for every new building project to be net zero, and we are seeing the industry coalesce around these standards—the ILFI (International Living Future Institute) provides Net Zero Certification in the US and Canada, and LEED projects can achieve certification by demonstrating net zero on carbon emissions, energy use, water use, or waste.

Assuming the full transition to renewable energy happens, and Passivhaus or net zero buildings become commonplace over the next decade—which will occur only by eliciting sponsorship from governments and clients—the ongoing challenge will be to deliver construction with highly limited raw materials. As a result, in this decade we will not only need to deliver net zero architecture, but must learn how to better manage the worlds finite resources. The current treatment of waste streams in the net zero system is not sustainable. Approaching 2050 we will see a shift of focus, to reducing the amount of new raw materials entering the market.

To reach a true net zero position—beyond solely focusing on energy efficiency—we must be developing design details that enable materials to continue circulating at their highest value in the construction sector, once deconstructed. This approach will require a fundamental rethinking of building materials specifications, with the development of material libraries across cities to track deconstruction, and record recycled material certification and availability timelines.

Sound futuristic? Such systems exist already—for example, Superuse Studios in the Netherlands has developed Harvest Map, an open source digital platform that tracks surplus materials (such as leftover industrial materials and deconstruction resources) for procurement, which has since been exported to Italy and the US. Dutch local governments are considering similar technology, to plan for specific shrinking regions to become “materials banks” for growing regions.

These new techniques are already being tested through pilot projects such as the Bleijerheide (Kerkrade-Oost) Parkstad (or SUPERLOCAL) project in the Netherlands, in which every component in the demolition of 1960s social housing towers is tagged and reused in new builds, including salvaged concrete as a key structural component. Design is no longer the first step in construction—deconstruction is.

Looking beyond this decade, the net zero of 2050 is a world where “new” doesn’t exist
Herman Miller Factory interior before refurbishment. Photo © Grimshaw

In the UK, net zero is also permeating into the architectural mindset. The Architects’ Journal launched their RetroFirst campaign in 2019, championing reuse and lobbying to require publicly funded projects to prioritise refurbishment over new build. This is not new. Lacaton and Vassal’s 2013 Tour Bois-le-Prêtre renovation in Paris demonstrates the feasibility of such projects and shows how great architecture can renew even some of the most dilapidated housing developments.

It should be noted that modernism was a major contributor to the resource crisis by replacing traditional construction practices with one-way systems. Today, a double-glazed unit cannot be deconstructed (although Arup is researching ways to do so). Only innovation across our sector will facilitate the “deconstructability” of the high-tech buildings of the 20th century. Architects have a history of developing and investing in innovative construction techniques and we are seeing this resurgence now, through a galvanising commitment to net zero, on a scale not seen since last century’s modernism movement. At Grimshaw we have already begun looking at these issues, most recently through the transformation of the 1970s Herman Miller Factory into an art school.

Architects are working in projects to drive our industry towards a true net zero.
Herman Miller Factory interior after transformation into an art school. Photo © Crescent Photography

Architects must now learn to design with the understanding that clients and buildings are custodians of materials. Architects can create this change by rethinking component design and application and by reevaluating aesthetics. This requires not just the introduction of design for disassembly into all parts of a building, but for designers to start developing product solutions for a future in which raw materials are rare, and resource optimisation is standard. This scale of fundamental change is not unprecedented. Last century saw the innovative development of the curtain wall system by modernist architects engaging with new technologies to reach an aesthetic goal. The now ubiquitous curtain wall was a development entirely of the architect’s own making.

Unfortunately, it is more cost-effective to tear down a building than reuse it. Current net zero certifications recognise this and encourage certification for a better kind of new build. However, that is only step one in the movement towards genuine net zero and a reduced consumption of global resources. Over the next decade, we hope to see architects working together to make important and courageous adjustments to the profession, lobbying our governments to address harmful legislation, to drive our industry towards a true net zero.

Main image: Herman Miller Factory, existing steel structure retained and reused. Photo © Grimshaw

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