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Building the future

  • Story Highlights
  • Environmental, sustainable design embraced by architects for the future
  • Industrial Revolution transformed building techniques, advent of ventilators
  • 1973 oil crisis encouraged broader re-think of building design
  • 1990s saw introduction of new environmental rating systems in the UK, U.S.
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By Matthew Knight
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- It's easy to overlook the impact buildings have on greenhouse gas emissions, but the places where we live and work contribute over 30 percent of global greenhouse emissions.


An artist's impression of how the Dongtan eco-city will look like when it is completed. The first stage is due to open in 2010.

Although the term "green architecture" was only coined about 20 years ago, architects have been embracing environmental or sustainable design for decades.

Today, architects are transforming our urban landscapes in ways which were previous unimaginable. Aided by cutting edge design and construction techniques, the bold new structures of today owe much to the techniques used by pre and early industrial pioneers.

Long before the arrival of electrically-powered heating and cooling systems, people were compelled to improvise using basic tools and natural materials to construct buildings which protected them from the elements and extremes in temperature. Adobe houses and igloos are just two examples of primitive but ingenious design which are still in use today.

The Industrial Revolution transformed building techniques and some of the earliest examples of more complex climate control were designed by Joseph Paxton -- who used ventilators in the cavernous vaulted roofs of his 1851 Crystal Palace. Italian architect/builder Giuseppe Mengoni incorporated underground air-cooling chambers when designing the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, completed in 1877.

In the U.S., the former Pension Building in Washington D.C. utilized similar techniques to control temperature, and the inset windows of the Flatiron Building (1902) shielded its occupants from the worst of the sun's glare.

Advances in building technology in the early part of the 20th century -- notably steel-reinforced concrete -- meant buildings could rise to even greater heights.

With the advent of air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting coupled with the availability of cheap energy, buildings started to become more environmentally separated from their surroundings. In effect, they became giant sealed boxes where the efficiency of the workforce outweighed any concerns about the environment.

Post World War II, modernist architecture carried on apace, becoming the choice of building for corporations and institutions. But by the 1960s, the backlash against these building had begun. Elitist and ugly, cried the critics.

The publication of Rachel Carson's seminal book "Silent Spring" in 1963 inspired a new generation of environmentalists. Architects were not immune to its influence. Works by Victor Olgyay (Design with Climate) and Ralph Knowles (Form and Stability) served notice of a new era in environmental design.

By the end of the decade, Italian architect Paolo Soleri was talking about "Arcology". His fusion of architecture and ecology is most famously realized in the Arcosanti project begun in 1970.

The 1973 oil crisis encouraged an even broader re-think of building design. The same year, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) formed an energy task force. By 1977 President Carter had created a new Department of Energy in the U.S.. One of its main tasks was to investigate energy conservation.

Architects returned to the drawing board. The famous names of today all set about crafting designs which have since become landmarks in environmental design.

Norman Foster described his Willis Faber & Dumas Headquarters in Ipswich, UK (1975) as: "a pioneering example of energy-conscious design that challenged accepted thinking about the office building."

The Pompidou Centre in Paris opened its doors in 1977. The inside out design dreamt up by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano is still one of the best examples of high-tech environmental architecture. In the same year, Sim Van der Ryn created the Bateson Building in Sacramento, California, a model of energy efficiency and conservation.

After becoming the first person to build a solar-powered house in 1977, the pioneering American architect William McDonough began forging a reputation as a leading light in sustainable architecture. His sedum-covered roof at the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant in Michigan covers 10 acres, and is the largest of its kind in the world.

The 1990s saw the introduction of new environmental rating systems for buildings. The UK introduced the Building Research Establishment's Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) in 1990 and the U.S. introduced its own system, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in 1998.

Advances in computer-aided design (CAD), materials and building techniques have all contributed to an increasing number of bold, eco-conscious designs.

In 1992, Malaysian architect Ken Yeang created the Menara Mesiniaga in Kuala Lumpur. The cylindrical 15 floor bio-climatic structure incorporates aluminum fins and louvers to provide shade and sliding doors assist ventilation. Solar panels on the roof also help to power the building.


Norman Foster's Commerzbank Headquarters in Frankfurt became the world's first ecological tower complete with sky gardens in 1997. Six years later he had completed an instant icon of the London skyline -- 30 St Mary Axe. It consumes half the energy of a traditional office building. Known as "the gherkin", Foster inadvertently borrowed his design from nature -- mimicking the properties of glass sponges which nestle on the ocean floor.

Taking nature's most enduring designs and using them to reshape our own environment is now a thriving branch of environmental architecture. Modern eco-buildings now combine to form communities, like BedZED in the UK. And eco-communities are set to form new eco-cities, like Dongtan in China. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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