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Fighting Climate Change Through Tall Building Design

Well-designed supertall buildings like the Shanghai Tower, pictured on the right, can help reduce energy usage. Image © Gensler

Barack Obama’s current visit to China could coincide with a new era in environmentally conscious design.

Obama’s pledge and self-proclaimed historic new goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2025 is as welcome as it is overdue. Though China is unable to fully reciprocate by committing to an actual percentage reduction of their own, they have suggested that their emission numbers will peak by 2030. This may not strike the average person as a very impressive promise, given the catastrophic levels of pollution that currently plague China and its northeastern quadrant in particular. It is however, worth remembering that unlike the United States, which has tapped into an abundant supply of cleaner burning natural gas, China can only support its burgeoning growth of urban inhabitants, and their need for more energy, by burning more of the coal found within the country’s borders.

Critics may disapprove of this strategy and there have been cries for China to ask the West for help in implementing a program of renewable energy source. But before such calls can be taken seriously, we must remember that both EU and the United States are themselves struggling to implement the renewable energy programs in any sort of meaningful way. Until the West can use renewables energy to satiate the energy needs of populations that are significantly smaller than China’s, we cannot and should not expect China to become a model of green energy overnight.

As pollution levels rise and the troubling results of climate change become harder to ignore, it’s easy to point an accusatory finger at a developing country like China, which admittedly spews unfathomable amounts of coal based emissions into the atmosphere every day, and proclaim “reform yourself.” But let’s not forget that the EU and the United States plundered coal reserves and dumped pollution into the atmosphere for decades before “climate change” became a salient political talking point. Today China omits almost double the world’s carbon emissions than the United States, but this staggering number is partially due to the fact that U.S. companies have outsourced a significant portion of manufacturing work to Chinese factories. The pollution may be coming from Chinese territories, but its origins are found here at home. We must accept our share of the blame. China’s emissions are set to rise before they decline, but that’s a problem we must agree to tackle in tandem with our Chinese allies.

Addressing climate change and reducing emissions requires approaches that go beyond wishfully thinking that renewable energy sources can solve our problems right away. Another way to significantly reduce ours and China’s energy needs and our shared dependence on dirty coal is more sustainable building design, especially in tall buildings.

Twenty years ago it was unthinkable that the world’s tallest building in 2015 would not be an office building New York or Chicago. But the unthinkable became reality when the title of tallest building migrated eastwards to Burj Khalifa in Dubai (completed in 2010). Now China is set to complete, in early 2015, the tallest building in Asia and second tallest building in the world: the Shanghai Tower. This Gensler designed supertall represents the tip of the iceberg; supertall projects towers are proliferating throughout Asia and especially in China. The skylines of Chinese cities have grown so drastically that 50 story office buildings barely registers as a tall. Secondary and tertiary Chinese cities put urban areas in the western world to shame in terms of height.

This growing market for supertall buildings presents China with an opportunity to pioneer a new path for energy reduction. Rather than focus on the source of energy, the Chinese government can cut demand by championing the design of more efficient supertall buildings, structures that function efficiently while relying less on power derived from traditional, and dirty, sources.

One way tall buildings can reduce energy usage is by capitalizing on certain environmental elements. It’s been shown that the air hovering near the tops of supertall buildings is significantly cooler than the air on ground, even with the tropical and humid air scattered about China’s countryside. This means supertall buildings have access to a natural occurring coolant that, if harnessed properly, could help power a building’s air conditioning system utilizing less energy, thus making the entire building less reliant on outside sources of energy.

There’s also an increasing trend in supertall building design to resist implementing a fixed program for energy usage. Supertalls feature a mix of program uses and tenant types, from residential units to hotels and workspaces, and can take advantage of a more even daily demand for energy. They can supply energy to residential and hotel users in the mornings and evenings and to office workers in hours in between. This allows the buildings to rely on a more precise understanding of when tenants might require “peak demand” energy and to allocate energy in a more efficient manner.

The competitive Chinese real estate market is also help fostering cleaner environmental initiatives. Foreign developers and their investors are learning that the only way to make inroads into the Chinese market is to supersede Chinese development companies by offering to construct buildings with exemplary indoor air quality standards. This has resulted in China becoming the home of buildings whose internal air quality and occupancy comfort level are the envy of commercial office tenants from London to Los Angeles.

So as Obama and Xi Jingping, the leaders of two nations that currently contribute to nearly 45 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, celebrate an “historic” pledge of emission reduction we must remember that alternate ways to reduce energy usage exist and exploring these pathways will help all of us get to our shared goal of cleaner, less coal-dependent world.

Russell Gilchrist is a design director in Gensler’s Chicago office and a global leader of Gensler’s Tall Buildings practice. He specializes in high profile architecture and master planning projects and is active in the Council for Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Contact him at Russell_gilchrist@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (2)

This is providing an intriguing viewpoint of how we see supertall buildings as an opportunity in energy reduction and how architects leverage this opportunity to public good in the big picture. Thanks Russell for sharing this thoughtful article here.
My hometown locates exactly at the northeastern quadrant of China, where coal is still the major energy source for heat providing. Since we are seeing the high rises growing even in small cities, it should be the good timing to rethink about sustainable design. It is not only about architects are using their smartness to take advantage of the benefits brought by the high-rises such as cooler air, but also converting people’s mind, especially local government and developers, that they have to think about the long run in the future. So I really appreciate that the author is trying provide ways to capitalize these environmental elements, which makes a very persuasive argument.
11.14.2014 | Unregistered CommenterBaixin Ren
From the Skyline of Shanghai's PuDong District, I am impressed and happy to see that Gensler is helping shape the city. I am always impressed with the architecture and massive buildings throughout China, but recently most impressed to see that architects are designing major buildings with windows that open. The south wall of Terminal 2, PuDong Airport and a 40 story office building in Shanghai. What disturbs me is architects designing buildings with 90%+ of exterior as glass, but frosting the glass and adding shade, rather than using solar transparent windows to truly make your buildings energy sustainable.

Solar building systems including white curtain walls if you want them. Solar thermal transparent glass now exists for the architects of the world to make buildings you design truly energy sustainable.
01.3.2015 | Unregistered CommenterTom Gleason

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