In the 1960s, the London-based avant-garde architectural group Archigram envisioned a new era of technology-infused architecture. They dreamed up robotic cities that could walk around, and cities in which cranes hoisted living spaces and plugged them into an existing framework structure as needed. While the group’s utopian visions have not come to pass, architects, engineers, and manufacturers continue to experiment with new technical strategies to enhance the ways buildings look and function.
In the following ten projects (listed alphabetically), all completed in the last five years, relatively new technologies are applied or existing technologies are used in new ways or at unprecedented scales. From shading structures that open and close as they follow the sun, to a high-tech server center cooled with water mist, to a mixed-use complex in a transparent bubble, they suggest possible futures for the built environment.
1. Al Bahr Towers
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
The Abu Dhabi Investment Council, the investment arm of Abu Dhabi’s government, wanted its new headquarters to incorporate modern technology while reflecting the region’s architectural heritage. In designing the two 25-story cylindrical towers, the local office of Aedas had to devise a way to handle the desert’s average summertime high temperatures, which exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The design team created a contemporary interpretation of the mashrabiya, the wooden lattice used in traditional Arab architecture to shield windows from solar heat gain and glare.
Covering the east, west, and south facades, the 2,100 umbrella-like components open and close as they track the sun’s path across the sky, cutting solar heat gain in half (pictured left). They obviate the need for heavily tinted glazing or fixed sunscreens, which limit daylight penetration and views. Made of Teflon-coated fiberglass, they are designed to withstand strong desert winds and heat. Other sustainable strategies include photovoltaic panels and solar thermal panels for heating water. The towers opened in 2012. 2. Brightwater Center
Photo: Benjamin Benschneider/OTTO
King County’s new wastewater treatment plant, the Brightwater Center, relies on membrane filtration to treat 36 million gallons (136 million L) of wastewater on an average day. Designed by Seattle-based Mithun and opened in 2011, the facility incorporates a number of sustainable strategies, including reliance on natural light and ventilation, photovoltaic panels, and reclaimed materials. It also takes a novel approach to heating the interiors.
The membrane bioreactor separates and cleans water for reuse in toilet flushing and irrigation. After bacteria have digested the waste, the resulting solids are sent to area farms for use as fertilizer. Methane generated by the treatment process heats water for the radiant flooring system in the treatment facility and the adjacent environmental education and community center, also designed by Mithun. Low-flow plumbing fixtures further reduce water consumption.
3. Chandler City Hall
Photo: Mark Greenawalt, SmithGroupJJR
A number of strategies were incorporated into the new Chandler City Hall to reduce its environmental impact, such as high-performance perimeter glazing and solar tubes to bring in natural light, and careful siting of buildings to channel cooling breezes. A work of public art—Turbulent Shade, by Sebastopol, California–based Ned Kahn—shields the five-story office tower’s western facade with 1,800 perforated stainless steel panels that flutter in the breeze.
Atypically, the mechanical system’s cooling towers do not dump large volumes of "blow-down" water and condensate into the sewer. Instead, this water is recaptured, nonchemically treated, and released to cascade down a courtyard wall into a pool, where breezes enable evaporative cooling to cut the Arizona heat. The water supplements irrigation and toilet flushing, reducing usage of potable water. Designed by the Phoenix office of SmithGroupJJR and completed in 2010, the complex includes offices, an art gallery, council chambers, a television studio, a print center, and two levels of parking.
4. Edificio Ignacia
Photo: Nico Saieh
In designing the four-unit multifamily complex Edificio Ignacia in the Vitacura neighborhood of Santiago, architect Gonzalo Mardones Viviani sought an efficient, durable method for whitening the gray concrete structure. The solution he chose, mixing titanium dioxide into the concrete itself, has the additional benefit of absorbing pollutants from the surrounding air—particularly important in a city as smog-prone as Chile’s capital.
Ranging in size from 4,300 to 5,400 square feet (400 to 500 sq m), the residences occupy three full aboveground floors plus a partial fourth floor that is set back to leave room for terraces and swimming pools; a fifth, habitable underground level receives natural light through light wells. Rooms are oriented to face north to maximize natural light with minimal solar heat gain; photovoltaic panels provide some of the complex’s power; and operable windows reduce reliance on air conditioning. The project was completed in 2012.
5. Museum Aan de Stroom
Photo: Sarah Blee / © Neutelings Riedijk Architects
The new Museum Aan de Stroom needed to hold the weight of Antwerp’s history, so architecture firm Neutelings Riedijk Architects of Rotterdam gave it a sense of gravity with ten stories of galleries clad in red sandstone, each floor cantilevered out from the central concrete core. Each floor is rotated a quarter turn, creating a large spiral staircase at the perimeter. Equipped with escalators, the staircase is open to the public at all hours. To give visitors expansive views of the historic port area that the city is revitalizing, the architects wrapped this circulation path in a wall of 18-foot- (5.5 m) high corrugated glass panels.
Corrugated glass provides greater structural strength than flat glass, enabling the use of half-inch- (1.3 cm) thick panels while still handling the wind load. The corrugation is so effective that float glass sufficed; it is less expensive than laminated or tempered glass. Where one corrugated glass panel is stacked on another at the corners, a steel tube provides additional support. The museum was completed in 2010.
6. NASA Sustainability Base
Moffett Field, California
Photo: © César Rubio, courtesy William McDonough + Partners
When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) decided to add a new office building to its Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, the agency wanted to showcase its technology and research and highlight sustainable design. The local office of AECOM, architect of record, and the San Francisco office of William McDonough + Partners, design architect, partnered with the agency to incorporate NASA technologies. The forward-osmosis water recycling system created for the International Space Station treats the building’s graywater for reuse in toilet flushing. Also, NASA’s hybrid diagnostic engine monitors geothermal wells to identify malfunctioning components.
A structural exoskeleton, made of steel to make repair and disassembly easier, provides column-free interiors for workplace flexibility and offers high structural performance in seismic events; it also serves as an armature for shading structures. Radiant-cooling ceiling panels and radiant-heating wall panels reduce energy use. In addition to rooftop photovoltaic panels, an on-site fuel cell supplies electricity; currently it runs on natural gas, but NASA plans to power it with methane captured from landfills. The two-story building was completed in 2011.
7. Parkview Green FangCaoDi
Photo: Courtesy of Parkview Green
Science fiction of the mid–20th century envisioned cities protected by transparent domes. Parkview Green FangCaoDi comes close: the mixed-use development comprises four buildings in a sunken garden 29.5 feet (9 m) deep, all enclosed in a steel-framed microclimatic envelope that has a double-skin facade of glass and ethylene tetrafluoroethylene air cushions. The envelope shields the buildings from the extremes of Beijing’s climate. In the winter, the envelope’s vents are closed, reducing heat loss. In the summer, the vents exhaust warm air via the heat-stack effect.
The two nine-story and two 18-story towers contain office and retail space and a hotel. The design’s pyramidal profile follows the angle of sunlight on the shortest day of the year, allowing neighboring buildings to receive daylight. Designed by Integrated Design Associates of Hong Kong for local developer Chyau Fwu Properties Co., Parkview Green opened in 2012.
8. Prineville Data Center
Photo: Jonnu Singleton
The internet age has created a new building type: the server farm. Housing thousands of computer servers in one building not only consumes significant amounts of energy, but also throws off waste heat that must be dealt with. In designing a data center for Facebook in Prineville, Oregon, Chicago-based Sheehan Partners took advantage of the area’s dry desert climate to address the latter problem. The air handler uses fans to draw in outside air, filter it, and blend it as necessary with warm return air. The system then cools the air with high-pressure mist sprayers.
The resulting cool air is sent down the aisles of the server room, where individual fans direct it across the processors. During the winter months, the warm exhaust air heats the building’s office spaces. Virtually no electricity is required to condition the building. A high-voltage system reduces power consumption, and a solar panel array supplies electricity for lighting and other office functions. Completed in 2011, the data center also uses rainwater for toilet flushing and irrigation.
9. Tianjin Global Financial Center
Photo: ©Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 2012. ©Tim Griffith.
In the historic center of Tianjin, one of China’s largest cities, the Tianjin Global Financial Center rises 75 stories with an extremely slender form for an area known for high winds: the height-to-width ratio exceeds 8:1. In seeking a structural solution, the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the local branch of the East China Architectural Design & Research Institute Co. made an unconventional choice: to incorporate steel plate shear walls into the lateral load resisting system, which reduced material usage by 20 to 25 percent compared with conventional alternatives.
The city’s history as a center for steel production and shipbuilding allowed the project to draw on local labor, local expertise with steel plate shear walls, and recent advances in shipbuilding technologies. Because of the structural system’s novelty, especially with a building this tall, panels of seismic and wind experts reviewed the scheme to determine its safety. Completed in 2011 for Beijing-based Financial Street Holding Company Limited, the tower is clad in pleated glass, referencing Chinese paper-folding art.
10. UCLA Outpatient Surgery and Medical Building Parking Structure
Santa Monica, California
Photo: Tom Bonner
Visiting a health care facility is stressful enough without the hassles of parking in a large structure, walking to the provider’s office, and locating one’s car afterward. The UCLA Outpatient Surgery and Medical Building, developed by the Los Angeles office of the Nautilus Group and leased to the university, has a parking structure that eliminates this problem. Los Angeles firm Michael W. Folonis Architects worked with the Nautilus Group, a software company, and a manufacturer to create a 380-space garage at half the size of a conventional one by relying on automated parking.
Drivers pull up to one of six bays and swipe a credit card. The system takes over from there, drawing the vehicle in and transporting it to a spot on one of the structure’s six levels. When the visitor is ready, another swipe retrieves the car in two or three minutes, rotated facing outward for easy departure. The medical building and parking structure were completed last year.
Notice: Earlier versions of this article said that Tianjin Global Financial Center is being worked on by the Shanghai office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It is actually the San Francisco office of SOM.