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Can Super Tall be Super Green?

Shanghai Tower

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.

Reader Comments (7)

Great piece, and some food for thought for the role of skyscrapers in urban planning and our quest to be green.

I'm working on the team that has just launched "Green Buildings Alive" which releases environmental information from 50 existing city towers all around Australia. We created the site to answer questions like "Does size matter" for energy efficiency and "what about age of the buildings"?

Based on the measurements we have Green Buildings Alive thinks maybe both small and large buildings can have efficiency issues based on economies of scale -it is the mid-sized buildings that perform best. However, you can check out all information and come to your own conclusions.

We are also looking for others with data from their buildings to contribute or to host dicussions about what has worked to make the portfolio greener. We can be found at http://www.greenbuildingsalive.com
11.17.2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca Short
I've gotta disagree. Almost everything becomes decidedly less green above 5-7 stories. Is it possible to pull out all the stops to make these buildings waste less energy? Yes. With enough money we can do all sorts of things... but does that really merit the term "sustainable"?

Great places are often built of a fabric of 5-7 story buildings. But a city of towers? Not so much. London & Paris? We can imagine them sustaining themselves for another thousand years. Dubai?
11.17.2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Mouzon
This is like an adolescent's view of density, complexity, and sustainability. But it is probably little more than a corporate architecture firm trying to cling to the superscaled projects necessary to support their overhead.

There is vertical sprawl as well. In fact, once you start getting so high (provided people actually want to fill the space - unlike say Burj Dubai) there is demand for services to stretch vertically as well, thus removing activity from the street.
11.30.2010 | Unregistered CommenterWalkableDFW
Density, complexity and sustainability are intricately interconnected, particularly when viewed through a citywide lense. Tall buildings have a hugely significant role to play in sustaining the life of a developed city, both culturally and economically. London is building tall structures today (the Shard and Pinaccle are both under construction) and are vital to it's continued development. The Gerkhin is now as much a part of the London as Big Ben, with vibrant amenities at street level to support the increased density of population. The key is to see the super-tall buildings within their wider city context, not as stand alone edifices. On that level there is much evidence to support the sustainable credentials of Super-Talls put forward in this article (Shanghai Tower).
11.30.2010 | Unregistered CommenterDuncan Swinhoe
No, super tall cannot be super green! ...The taller the buildings get the less green they are. The buildings that are there should be made as energy efficient as possible, but building more buildings creates a need for more energy...and where is that energy going to come from? Energy conservation is the responsibily of every human and just as much in the city or suburbs, and the upper class needs to realize that too!!! But it get pushed down our our throats that bigger is better.
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