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The lure of sustainable architecture

The politics of climate change have begun to usher in a renaissance for sustainable architecture – and the products of the movement are challenging social conventions at every turn

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The vision for Mexico City International Airport. Photo: Foster + Partners  

Sustainability very well may be the buzzword of the 21st century. As climate change cynics slowly dissipate in number, humanity’s impact upon mother earth has surfaced as the top priority of nation-states across the globe. In the next six years alone, European officials are hoping to have slashed 20 percent off of the continent’s 1990 carbon emission levels. That’s no simple task – and, unfortunately, it’s not merely a matter of thinning out the globe’s herd of gas-guzzling automobiles. Everyone has a part to play, and the architectural community is leading the charge.

In the last decade, sustainable design has evolved from corporate PR gimmick to highly sought-after economic driver. Overhead costs for SMEs, including energy consumption and resource distribution, are wreaking havoc on industries across the board and, in turn, the demand for energy-neutral premises has skyrocketed in recent years. Focus has shifted from waste disposal to waste reduction in line with the public’s newly acquired taste to hold businesses accountable for their role within the community.

Across the globe leaders are stepping up to the plate, in turn transforming entire cities into proverbial green havens. Those changes are not only improving the daily lives of mega-city residents, but are also enticing would-be visitors. Today nearly a fifth of travellers choose their destinations based solely upon a city’s green credentials, and so, in order to provide for that market, cities must call upon business leaders of every industry in order to attract custom. That means eco-hotels constructed from recyclable materials, leisure facilities that contribute more energy onto the grid than they consume, and imaginative urban spaces that seamlessly blend earth-shattering innovation with the untouched natural world.

Across the globe leaders are stepping up to the plate, in turn transforming entire cities into proverbial green havens

A warm welcome
Travel hubs have been among the greatest benefactors of the political class’s new global arms race for sustainability. As the first point of entry into a new city, railway stations and airports undeniably set the tone for any extended stay – and nowhere is sending a clearer message than Mexico City. For almost two decades the Mexican capital has fought to erase its notorious title as the globe’s most polluted city. But, thanks to a set of domestic and international initiatives, Mexico City’s green credentials have soared in recent years.

In 1992 the city recorded only eight days with good quality air throughout the whole year, but by 2012 this number was up to 248. Its new $9.2bn airport proves an undying testament to that transformation. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning British architect Norman Foster and Mexican architect Fernando Romero, the travel hub is already being hailed as the world’s greenest airport – and by the time it is completed, it will also be one of the busiest. More than 120 million passengers per year are expected to move through the city’s new travel hub, which is due to begin construction next year. With such a high turnover, one would expect Mexico City International to be an environmentalist’s worst nightmare – but it’s actually a revelation.

Sustainability is at the heart of every design aspect. When Norman Foster designed London’s Stansted Airport in the early nineties, he established a set of new ideals with which to challenge the convention of traditional, multi-concourse airports. Since then, his firm has broken plenty of new ground – most recently, designing Virgin Galactic’s new Spaceport in the New Mexico desert. His superstructure in the heart of Mexico City will draw on many of the tricks that he’s been applying to the prospect of space travel: first and foremost, its all-encompassing structure has completely eradicated the need for ancillary transportation – cutting both cost and emissions. The lightweight glass and steel structure and soaring vaulted roof have been specially designed for Mexico City’s challenging soil conditions, and the building’s unique pre-fabricated system will mean a rapid construction, with no scaffolding and little disruption to the surrounding environment.

Once the structure is in place, the entire building will be serviced from beneath, freeing the roof of ducts and pipes so that its open shell can harnesses the power of the sun, collect rainwater and provide shading all in one swift master stroke. The design actually capitalises on Mexico City’s dry climate in order to fill the airport’s terminals with fresh air using displacement ventilation principles, and as a result, the building should require no artificial heating or cooling whatsoever. By the time Mexico City International reaches its full expansion potential in the 2060s, the capital’s travel hub will have undeniably set a new platinum standard with which to judge the efficiency of the globe’s largest travel centres.

$9.2bn

The estimated cost of the new Mexico City International Airport

20%

The number of travellers who would choose a destination based on its green credentials

The grass is always greener
Last year, the global sports market hit a new high value of $133bn – and with a flurry of major international contests scattered throughout the year, analysts reckon that worth will have enjoyed a far more robust 2014. While international sporting bodies such as FIFA undeniably promote international tourism as a result of that spending, it largely boils down to the responsibility of domestic authorities to try and lure visitors to watch professional contests. The United States has a leg up in that department, as it plays home to a number of niche sports that have yet to spread across to other continents. The NFL proves a textbook example. The average professional American Football team is worth $1.43bn in merchandising, media rights and ticket sales – yet the league’s 32 franchises are anything but energy-efficient. Most NFL stadiums seat in excess of 50,000 fans, who thereby contribute to producing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste every season. But the US’s most innovative and trendy city has since proven that it’s possible for an NFL franchise to have its cake and eat it too.

Since opening its gates last year, the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium has set the stage for a new era of eco-friendly athletics. Not only was the $1.3bn stadium constructed largely from reclaimed building products, but its solar PV roof and 27,000sq. ft. suite tower completely neutralise all energy consumed by the lavish hullabaloo associated with a typical NFL match. More important still is the building’s impressive water recycling system. Internationally acclaimed designer HNTB has ensured that around 85 percent of the water used in the stadium is “grey”, or recycled from nearby plants. As such, the attention really is in the details at Levi’s Stadium: even the grass used on the pitch, Bermuda Bandera, demands 50 percent less water than the typical seed. Concession stand items are responsibly sourced from local farmers to cut down on food miles, and the stadium has set up an integrated cycling network surrounding the complex in a bid to reduce automotive congestion on game days. With all that in mind, it’s hardly surprising the stadium was the first in the US to be awarded a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate. With its close proximity to local travel hubs and astonishing level of sustainability, thousands of tourists now file into the stadium just to tour its energy-efficient corridors – never mind game day.

Garden of vanity
London has always been considered a centre for innovative architecture, and so it is little wonder that the city is turning heads with its highly anticipated (if somewhat self-indulgent) Garden Bridge project. Having only been submitted for planning approval this autumn, the budget for London’s woodland bridge has already spiralled to £175m. However, local officials have continued to press for its completion on the grounds that it will improve the lives of commuters and attract an influx of tourists in one swift stroke.

[T]he romanticism of [London’s Garden Bridge] is difficult to resist – and what’s more, its innovative spirit is certainly due some credit

And they’re probably right: designed by the celebrated Thomas Heatherwick, creator of the Olympic cauldron, the garden is a similar concept to that of New York’s High Line. Running across the Thames from where Temple station meets the Southbank Centre, the typical grey commute for many city dwellers is to be spruced up under the shade of 270 full-grown trees sprinkled listlessly about a 1,200ft suspension bridge. Actress Joanna Lumley has been campaigning feverishly to see this garden bridge come to fruition for more than a decade – and with the joint backing of London Mayor Boris Johnson and the HM Treasury, the project should see completion by 2018 if it is given the green light.

The bridge will undeniably boost north-south pedestrian movement across the Thames, and will improve overall city connectivity by linking residents to nearby underground stations. Yet some critics have called into question whether the costly bridge is more of a vanity project – a throwback to the shameless corporate PR blanket that the realm of sustainable architecture is working so tirelessly to abandon. After all, where others are demolishing heavily-used, energy-inefficient monstrosities and replacing them with sustainable alternatives, London’s Garden Bridge is effectively manoeuvring hundreds of millions of pounds to generate a piece of infrastructure that is, generally speaking, unnecessary.

That being said, the romanticism of the bridge is difficult to resist – and what’s more, its innovative spirit is certainly due some credit. After all, this materialisation of green space is more or less the northern hemisphere’s answer to Dubai’s awe-inspiring manmade islands. Vanity project or no, this latest crop of sustainable design projects proves that sands of thought are shifting across the realm of global architecture. Whilst politicians pledge their nations to meet seemingly arbitrary (and in some cases, unattainable) emission reductions, it’s the greening of workspaces, living spaces and leisure centres that is helping to drive this new concept of eco-friendly living that so many travellers crave. As designs continue to grow in frequency and ambition, it’s safe to say that a new, greener era is well and truly on its way.

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