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High-Rise of the Future Thinks for Itself

Sectional rendering of 'smart' high-rise building
By 2050 the “smart” buildings might include on-site power generated by algae, wind, or photovoltaic paint; phase-changing and self-healing materials; farms that use recycled water for irrigation; flying robots that maintain the building and add and delete functional units; and myriad other technologies that are in development today. Illustration by Rob House/Courtesy of Arup

A conceptual framework for the way buildings might be designed and constructed by the year 2050 includes everything from algae-covered facades to self-healing building materials, and from heat-sensing walls and windows to flying maintenance robots.

February 12, 2013—Imagine working and living in the urban high-rise of the future. After leaving your telecommuting office in a lower part of the building, you enter your residence above, which has been preprogrammed to recognize you as you, and therefore adjusts the lights to your liking, turns on your favorite music, and wafts your chosen scent through the air ducts. In your kitchen you use electricity generated by the biomass of the algae growing on the exterior of the skyscraper and the photovoltaic paint applied to the façade to cook food that was grown within the building itself, irrigated with water collected from the rooftop and recycled from your kitchen sink. As you look out your light-reactive living room window, you see that the flying robots are at it again, cleaning the windows and fixing the sashes.

Science fiction? Maybe not.

For the past 11 years the international engineering and consulting firm Arup has employed experts from fields outside of engineering and architecture to follow myriad worldwide trends in everything from sociology to biology, from psychology to economics, and to translate those trends into glimpses of what the built environment of the future might look like. Arup’s London-based Foresight and Innovation group includes experts in physics, economics, sociology, biology, materials science, and many others, chosen specifically to bring a nonconstruction industry point of view to the built environment. The group has just released a new publication—It’s Alive!—that synthesizes the trends these experts have gathered from conversations with many other experts around the world, amalgamated into detailed illustrations of what a skyscraper built in 2050 might look—and act—like. Although the systems and technologies described in the document may never all appear within one building, all could be implemented in the near future, and are based on technologies that are being tested or developed right now.

“We as a team don’t want to predict the future,” says Arup’s Josef Hargrave, a biologist with a master’s degree in innovation management and the author of the report. “We instead want to create frameworks in which people can have conversations and thought processes about what the future might look like.”

And when it comes to the urban environment of the future “a range of challenges comes to the forefront,” he says, including climate change, food production, and resource scarcity, among others. “What we try to do is translate what those large-scale drivers of change mean within a specific context,” he says. “So for example, food distribution is a theme, so we discussed food production within the building. Transport is a huge theme, so we have car sharing, bike sharing, cable cars, and links to other transport hubs.”

The prototype structure described in the report comprises multiple modules serving different functions, many of them interchangeable (via the flying robots). It’s not so far-fetched, says Hargrave, who points to a demonstration project recently completed at ETH Zürich—the engineering, science, technology, mathematics, and management university—in which flying robots assembled the shell of a building by moving concrete blocks into place. (See a video of the demonstration here.)

 Rendering of the building's reactive facades and heat-recovery windows

Reactive facades and heat-recovery windows will sense the
environmental conditions both inside and outside a building and
adjust accordingly to reduce the need for powered heating and
cooling. Illustration by Rob House/Courtesy of Arup 

“Some people have said the robots are a wacky idea, but even the flying robots are based on studies and developments that are happening right now,” Hargrave says. “It’s still quite a leap toward robots that assemble modular components of buildings, but the essential theory is sound. We’re talking about 40 years into the future here.”

And certainly modular construction is increasing in popularity as builders seek to standardize building components and conserve resources. (See “Construction of Tallest Modular Tower Is Under Way,” Civil Engineering online.) In the Foresight team’s vision, structurally independent modules could be exchanged with one another, Jenga-like, without affecting the core structural stability of the framing and flooring system.

The building of the future as imagined by the Foresight and Innovation group would also produce its own energy, and could even store or transfer that electricity to other users as needed. Hargrave points out that small windmills are already being built into buildings, and the National Science Foundation is funding research into paint that converts solar energy into electricity. Additionally, Arup has designed a prototype building for Hamburg, Germany, that will grow algae along its exterior. (See “German Building to Test Algae-Filled Façade as Source of Shade and Energy,” Civil Engineering, January 2013.) Although the prototype building will produce biomass rather than biofuel, Hargrave says, “There are people working in genetic engineering trying to create algae that do produce biofuel, and that would be the holy grail. If you can combine CO2, water, and sunlight to create biofuels, then you’ve got a very sustainable source of fuel.” 

Having a building that generates its own electricity benefits not only that building, but the entire community, Hargrave says. “A lot of the discussion around energy right now centers on distributed production, moving from large-scale, centralized power stations that push electricity into the system, to more dispersed, smaller units that work intelligently with each other. And that means the individual components—whether it’s a building or even a car with a battery—have to work together as a system rather than individually.” Data gathered from sensors and transmitted wirelessly to a central “intelligent” processor could do this, he points out, using what he calls “the Internet of things.”

“You can imagine a building where systems within the building can intelligently react to how much electricity is produced in the rest of system, and even to the price of electricity, and the availability of electricity, and then have the ability to both produce and store electricity on-site to feed in and out in a much more intelligent way.”

Adaptability is another key attribute of the building of the future as envisioned in the report. Building membranes might be able to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and components could be made of materials that heal themselves when damaged. Again, both types of materials are under study right now. (See “‘Self-Healing’ Product Could Stretch the Engineering Applications of Asphalt, Rubber,” Civil Engineering, April 2008.)

In similar fashion, reactive facades and intelligent heating and cooling systems could detect interior environments and exterior weather conditions and adjust accordingly. “If the building understands in detail how many people are in the building, how much body heat they are emitting, coupled with what the weather is outside, then the heating load that is required can be much more finely tuned,” Hargrave says. 

Another sectional rendering of the building displaying bike-and car-sharing facilities

On-site energy, food, and resource production will enable the
building of the future to be more self-sustainable. Bike- and
car-sharing facilities as well as on-site recycling will improve
buildings’ impacts on the local environment. Illustration by
Rob House/Courtesy of Arup

This data would be generated by sensors located inside and outside the building—and even worn by occupants. Again, the idea is not so fantastical; Hargrave points out that many people now wear some sorts of personal sensors on their bodies, often tracking some element of physical activity or physiology—steps per day on a pedometer or beats per minute on a heart monitor. In the future, sensors could detect far more about a person, even such elusive characteristics as mood. And if those sensors were wirelessly linked to sensors in a building, the building could adjust to fit that mood, perhaps by raising or lowering lighting levels, for example. “There are all kinds of studies about how psychology and space interlink,” Hargrave says. “And there are all kinds of trends in creating workplace environments that are much more flexible and adaptive. Those are the directions we’re taking.”

The building of the future might also include links to all sorts of transportation modes, because transportation concerns are another driving trend in urban planning, Hargrave says. Links to rail service underground, bicycle and pedestrian walkways high above, and even cable cars from building to building could provide efficient modes of transportation that keep cars off the streets and greenhouse gases out of the air.

The concept also references three-dimensional printing and on-site fabrication, technologies that are growing by bounds with every passing day. (See “Design for 3-D ‘Printed’ Building Under Way,” Civil Engineering online.) The Arup team envisions a building that would recycle its own waste, rather than sending it to a recycling center or landfill, and then use some of those recycled materials to print its own furnishings and equipment.

Such a building would also grow its own food, addressing another common problem in cities: the availability of fresh food to urban residents. Meat, poultry, fish, and fruit and vegetable farms are all possible within modules specifically design to accommodate them.

Hargrave says his team members don’t expect every technology to be adapted at once or into one real structure; instead, they hope their work will spark conversations and lead designers to think about how some of the concepts can be adapted to address location-specific concerns. “Solutions within the built environment are always very context-dependent,” he points out. “Rainwater harvesting would not be an opportunity in the Middle East, for example, but in some parts of northern Europe, it could be huge. Same is true for solar power, which will have a different scalability in different parts of the world.”

The team also doesn’t see the report as a blueprint, but rather as a starting point. “We see gaining from other people joining the conversation,” Hargrave says. “We produce outputs that inspire people. Often in very different ways, ways that we can’t predict.”


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