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Place – Nature – Energy – Recycling – Materiality

Sustainability is inseparable from nature

To speak about the materials of construction, as a designer, is to take into account the context of the materials. Starting with history: it’s been said that if you want to look far into the future, first look far into the past. History is inseparable from place. Sustainability, similarly, is inseparable from nature.

By Lord Norman Foster

Ever since I began designing, I’ve felt that a building would be healthier if it incorporated fresh air and if it related to the sun, to the landscape – this has now been scientifically proven. Sustainability is inseparable from energy, its consumption and harvesting. In an ideal economy, whether that of a city or a building, sustainability is also inseparable from the process of recycling – which leads us back to materials. As a designer, I may want to dematerialize the material, I may want it to evaporate, to disappear, or I may want it to have solidity. These themes – history, nature, energy, recycling, materiality – weave through my design practice.

MaterialsBook-102a.jpgA green landscape and creative environment

In my first meeting with Steve Jobs about the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, he talked about how Silicon Valley was the fruit bowl of America in his youth. We talked about the possibility of re-creating that landscape, not as the setting for a building, but as the project itself. The challenge of Apple Park was to transform a site of around seventy hectares that has twenty-four buildings and is mostly covered in tarmac into a green landscape and creative environment for twelve thousand people.

The building is shaped like a ring and has a diameter of a half kilometer. The view from above is very different from the reality on the ground. When you’re in the space of the circle, it’s very much about the landscape; the building almost evaporates into the background. The building creates an inner sanctum, the social heart of the community, while appearing to those on the ground as an incident in the landscape.

One hundred percent of the twenty-four buildings that occupied the site was recycled into the concrete for the foundation of the building. The 10,000 trees planted absorb around two hundred tons of carbon dioxide annually. Everything remained on-site so nothing would go into a landfill. The construction was about doing more with less. Concrete, which is inherently basic, was polished like marble, a noble material.

MaterialsBook-106b.jpgThe breathing building

When I first started my design practice, I felt that views and ventilations were of utmost importance. This was scientifically demonstrated in 2016 by the Harvard School of Public Health. A study found that performance in a test environment simulating a super-green building was markedly higher than in a conventional or even a green building. The theme of working with nature, the breathing building, also recurs in a very different context: the Bloomberg Headquarters in the middle of the historical center of London. The building’s facades, bronze set in stone, are its gills. Half of them filter the air and filter out the noise, contributing to the interior environment and reducing the energy load. In most temperate climates, expensive cooling and heating are not needed 70 percent of the time.

The materials of the building were determined by the historical city context. To be a good neighbor to the seventeenth-century Christopher Wren church and the Magistrates’ Court, local stone was chosen for the material. The very form of the Bloomberg building, which is cut through with an internal arcade, is again a response to history. On an old map, Watling Street, the original Roman road, can be seen running through the building site. The new development took away the earlier buildings on the site, and, with the arcade, re-created the line of Watling Street.

If we examine the building internally – its materiality, how it functions – we can see the way it breathes, the natural light, and the movement of pedestrians spiraling up toward the light. The ecology of the building, its sustainability, is embedded in its circulation route. The floor of the workspaces is wood, which in an office environment is unusual because it tends to create echoes and reverberations. But the ceiling, made out of two and a half million petals, works as an acoustic counterbalance. One in five petals has an LED light source. The ceiling goes hot or cold according to the weather conditions, so the air modifies the climate of the building in a very holistic approach. The building also uses the aircraft technology of a vacuum system that uses virtually no water. Rainwater and gray water from the building are collected and recirculated by vacuum flush toilets. With a BREEAM rating of 98.3, it is the most sustainable building of its kind developed so far.

MaterialsBook-111a.jpgA cooler microclimate in the desert

Around ten years ago, in Abu Dhabi, my firm was involved in a project called Masdar. It was a series of experiments to demonstrate the feasibility of a totally solar-powered community for several thousand people and a university devoted to the study of renewable energy.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Masdar is completely powered by a ten-megawatt solar field that only uses 40 percent of the energy it generates. Here, once again, similar themes arise: How do you learn from history? How do you learn from a civilization that was able to create agreeable environments externally and internally in an age before you could flip a switch for plentiful cheap energy? How do you work with nature?

In this typical desert city, the heat, around 66˚C, is modified by the way the streets create shade and are scaled to the individual – which taught us that in Masdar, the motor vehicle should be below pedestrian level. In these cities, traditionally, courtyards with vegetation create a cooler microclimate, and the inner sanctum of the home is a comfortable 27˚C. By contrast, the felt temperature in the center of Abu Dhabi, with its tarmac and typical Western response to a specific climate, can reach 71˚C.

Learning from history, the center of Masdar is a comfortable 33˚C — less than half the felt temperature in the surrounding city. The residential units for the students use desert sand as an aggregate for the building’s outer layer. Behind the outer layer is a deliberate gap to allow the movement of air, and then there is a layer of recycled aluminum. In this experiment, the university building learns from space technology, whose challenge is to create extraordinarily high levels of insulation against intense heat, much hotter than in the desert, that is both lightweight and high-performance.

MaterialsBook-116c.jpgRecycling a village

Thinking globally and acting locally, how do you recycle a village? In Graubünden, in the Swiss Alps, there is a village of 800 people called La Punt-Chamues-ch. Last year forty young people left – 5 percent of the population – to move to cities. The challenge here is to create a center that would bring in people from tech industries in cities like Zurich, London, or Tel Aviv to create a third kind of visitor, a working visitor attracted to the lifestyle that this area offers. The inspiration for the project is first the architecture of the local villages from a time before cheap energy, which used insulating, protective windows, recessed and painted white, to pull in more light through small openings. The second inspiration is the landscape, and the third, the remarkable Swiss artist Matthias Becher. His paintings are a combination of the local architecture and the mountains.

Learning from history and also trying to fit sympathetically into a historical environment, we tried to create a kind of overcoat, or perimeter, that would be protective while also generating spaces within, and whose volumes would be echoed externally, mountain-like, using local materials. The taller volumes are the working spaces and the larger indoor space is the equivalent of a village square within the building. It is a kind of a village within a village where the working visitors and the local community interact.

This building was developed from another one located about a twenty-minute-drive from La Punt. This residential building is a combination of prefabricated high-tech elements and the local tradition of building with shingles. Individual pieces of hand-cut larch, around a quarter million in total, were applied with a high-tech device to the exterior. This is my family’s home in Graubünden, which was created twenty years ago. The local larch – recyclable, sustainable – looks as fresh as ever today, and will lead a maintenance-free life for at least the next hundred years.

Re-materializing Construction

This text is extracted from the keynote address Place – Nature – Energy – Recycling – Materiality presented by Lord Norman Foster at the LafargeHolcim Forum for Sustainable Construction on “Re-materializing Construction” held at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. The full text is available as a flip-book via the link below:

Place – Nature – Energy – Recycling – Materiality

Inspired by the discussions by 350 leading thinkers from architecture, engineering, planning, and the construction industry from 55 countries, Ruby Press Berlin has published The Materials Book that evaluates current architectural practices and models, and introduces materials and methods to maximize the environmental, social, and economic performance of the built environment in the context of “Re-materializing Construction”.

The Materials Book: Re-materializing Construction – Cairo (Ruby Press)

Last Updated: July 21, 2020
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Madrid, Spain
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