Green design brings nature into the urban jungle

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*

Dense RainforestA jungle is green and leafy, and the urban jungle should be the same, right?

Since 2010, more people live in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. The trend is expected to speed up in developing countries, with more than 60% of the world’s population living in urban areas by mid-century, the United Nations predicts.

Bringing nature into cities can make urban environments more sustainable as well as more aesthetic, more comfortable and healthier.

“Many architects today already claim to do green design, some to a greater level of authenticity than others. I contend that in the next five to 10 years just about every architect and student will do green design as second nature in their work,” says Ken Yeang, a principal with T.R. Hamzah and Yeang, a Malaysian architectural firm focusing on ecoarchitecture, and of Ken Yeang Design International in the U.K. “Green design is just one of the criteria for good design.”

Architects often see green design as a matter of certification, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes, or the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) in the U.K. Beyond aiming for certification, “I take the holistic view of an ecologist,” he says. “I see green design as bio-integrating everything that we as humans make and do on the planet with the natural environment in a benign and seamless way.”

That requires integrating flora and fauna, water, humans and the built environment in a holistic way. “We start design by looking at the ecology of the land and see how we can bring more nature back to a location and bio-integrate nature with the physical built environment,” Mr. Yeang says.

The Solaris

The Solaris, designed by Mr. Yeang and part of the Fusionopolis research and development park in Singapore, has more than 8,000 square meters (9,567 square yards) of landscaping—13% more than the original site—thanks to roof gardens, planted terraces and a 1.5-kilometer (0.9-mile) ramp of continuous vegetation that spirals up the 15-story building’s facade, helping to insulate as well as offering a range of habitats that enhances the locality’s biodiversity.

I design buildings as ‘living systems’ and as ‘constructed ecosystems,’” Mr. Yeang says. “It’s not just about green walls. I bring back the native fauna that are not hazardous to humans and match these with the native flora selected to attract the fauna, now set as ‘biodiversity targets’ in a matrix. With this, I create the local landscape conditions to enable flora and fauna to survive over the four seasons of the year.”

The idea is spreading. A primary school and gymnasium in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, now under construction, was designed by architects Chartier-Dalix to be covered with a living shell and house local flora and fauna.

BLG 18 classrooms school and sporthall

Argentine architect Emilio Ambasz built a multi-use government office building in Fukuoka, Japan, with 14 one-story terraces that make the one-million-square-foot building look like a green hill rising from the park in front of it. Mr. Ambasz also renovated the headquarters of ENI in Rome with curtains of vegetation.

Basel, Switzerland, has required since 2002 that flat roofs be covered with vegetation, in part to save energy and in part to protect biodiversity. While the peregrine falcon, one of the first species on the U.S. endangered species list in 1974, reboundedin part through urban nesting programs to nearly 100,000 birds world-wide today, less-glamorous endangered species, from spiders to beetles, also benefit fromthe increase in habitat. In the U.K., the Bat Conservation Trust has published a landscape and urban design guide for bats and biodiversity.

A green exterior is nice, but what goes inside—the design and materials—are important, too. “The building and products sector are seeing that environmental issues are moving up the agenda,” says Martin Charter, professor of innovation and sustainability at the Centre for Sustainable Design at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, U.K. “Construction, buildings and building products are associated with high carbon dioxide emissions on a macro level and big end-of-life waste issues. The sector does have a big-life cycle impact, not just in extractive phase but at other stages of life cycle as well.”

Concrete produces as much as a tenth of industry-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers studying the molecular structure of cement found that changing the recipe to 1.5 parts calcium for each part of silica wouldcut cement’s carbon emissions up to 60% while making the resulting material stronger.

Simple design considerations can make a building greener. The shape and the orientation can affect heating and cooling needs. Natural ventilation with mixed mode systems can alleviate the need for air conditioning even in tropical climates. Mr. Yeang designed the Menara Mesiniaga office building in Selangor, Malaysia, so even elevator lobbies, restrooms and stairwells in the 15-story building get natural ventilation and natural daylight.

Green design includes water management in rainfall harvesting and storing water, so potable water doesn’t have to be used to irrigate the vegetation. Design must close the water cycle within the site, combining water management, water reuse and recycling with sustainable drainage and constructed wetlands for blackwater treatment, he says.

In nature, the only energy is from the sun. If we want to imitate nature, we should use only the sun,” Mr. Yeang says. “In nature, everything is recycled. Waste from one organism becomes the food for another. In human society, we have a throughput system where we use things and throw them away, but in fact, there is no ‘away’ in the biosphere—it just goes somewhere and pollutes the environment. If we imitate nature, we should have a closed system. As a design strategy, we need to study the attributes and properties of ecosystems as the basis for designing our built environment. When this becomes mainstream, there will be a stasis of nature with our built environment.”

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Storage is the key to next generation energy

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*

Batteries

The linchpin in making sustainable energy mainstream is power storage.

Renewable energy sources can’t overtake carbon-based energy without good storage of energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Electric vehicles won’t outsell gas vehicles until they have more autonomy and faster charging.

Batteries have become longer-lived, lighter, cheaper and safer, thanks largely to the boom in mobile electronics; new materials, nanotechnology and new understanding of electrochemistry are leading to more advances.

Batteries are an old technology, but people are really focusing on research and development now. I have no doubt that 10 years from now we will see some amazing batteries,” says Charles Barnhart, assistant professor of Environmental Sciences at Western Washington University.

Batteries remain a black box on a molecular scale. “There’s a tremendous effort internationally to understand in detail the processes during charging and discharging lithium-ion batteries,” says Olaf Wollersheim, project manager of the Competence E program at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), in Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen, Germany. “It’s really complex, because they are multimaterial systems.”

Lithium-ion, or li-ion, batteries have been adopted by the car industry because they are 98% to 99% efficient. However, they can burn “if they’re not treated with respect,” he says, adding that the auto industry has learned to use them safely.

Dr. Wollersheim recently inaugurated Germany’s largest solar power storage park at KIT, consisting of 102 smaller systems of 10 kilowatts each, with different orientations, module brands and inverter brands. The project aims to find the best combination for storage.

Energy plantOne avenue for improvement is software to control batteries. “A battery by itself is a stupid thing,” Dr. Wollersheim says. “It stores energy and gives it back. To do that optimally, you need an energy manager—a masterpiece of software. It has to take into account all the specifics of the electrochemistry of the cells. KIT has software with 10,000 lines of code just to control the storage system.”

Such controls can increase the battery’s lifetime and the return on investment. If the battery charges while the sun is still rising, it might be full and waiting for discharge at midday. That isn’t good for making the battery last. A control system might “charge the battery a little bit slower, in order to have shorter times of full charge,” he says.

Research also is looking at how stored energy interacts with the grid. Dr. Barnhart compared five kinds of batteries—lead-acid, li-ion, sodium-sulfur, vanadium-redox and zinc-bromine—to calculate how much energy it takes to store the electricity, including building the devices, and the amount of carbon they emit during manufacture and operation. He paired the different battery types with wind-generated and photovoltaic electricity, and matched them up against the power grid average to find the optimum combination.

Lead-acid batteries have a low cradle-to-grave energy cost, because lead is abundant and the technology is well established. However, they last only 200 to 400 charging/discharging cycles.

By contrast, Dr. Barnhart said, li-ion batteries have higher cradle-to-grave costs but last 3,000 to 5,000 cycles, making them the winner among batteries when paired with both solar and wind sources.

The cheapest, cleanest way to store power, Dr. Barnhart notes, isn’t a battery but pumped hydro—pumping water up a hill while the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and then releasing the water to turn turbines and generate electricity when the renewable source isn’t working. A similar technology pumps compressed air into an underground cavern to spin a turbine later.hydro storage

Pumped hydro is 99% of the storage on the grid today” in the U.S., says Dr. Barnhart. “These are simple technologies that last a long time and aren’t subject to complex chemistries.”

However, geography limits the easy options for pumped hydro. In Germany, “there is strong public opposition to converting nice valleys into storage systems,” Dr. Wollersheim says.

The demand for electricity rose to 1,626 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2012 from 400 Mtoe in 1973, according to the International Energy Agency. The IEA forecasts electricity demand to grow by more than two-thirds between 2011 and 2035, and for renewables to account for 31% of power generation by 2035, up from 20% in 2011.

A big shift toward electric vehicles would add a large load to the electricity network, says Suleiman Sharkh, professor of  power electronics machines and drives at the University of Southampton in the U.K. “We and others say this would also be an opportunity to reinforce the grid, because those batteries on the electric vehicles are available when the vehicles aren’t being driven around. If we connect them to the grid, they could store energy from wind power or solar panels.”

Such a system would require the system to know in advance the driving needs for the vehicle, to make sure it’s charged enough, as well as information about electricity demand on the grid, he says. Costs would have to be calculated—perhaps car owners could charge for free or be paid for allowing their batteries to be used for grid storage, and for the extra wear and tear on the batteries.

With so much territory uncharted, the first applications of vehicles for power storage are likely to be municipal fleets, especially in China, where pollution concerns are accelerating a shift toward electric-powered transport, Dr. Sharkh says.

“It’s something we think is going to be a good option in the future,” he says.

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

The beauty of renovation is more than skin-deep

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*

Renovating and retrofitting existing buildings can increase their longevity, reduce their energy use and beautify or modernize.

Building renovation

With commercial buildings that need renovation, “usually the target is to have a result that’s aesthetically nice, healthy and at the least cost,” says Marc LaFrance, energy analyst, buildings sector, at the International Energy Agency. “If somebody comes from that approach but says, ‘I want the least-energy-consuming building possible within my budget,’ that would lead to a different set of measures.”

Buildings consume 40% of the world’s primary energy and are responsible for 40% of carbon emissions. Designing new buildings to be both beautiful and energy efficient is great, but new construction is just a tiny share of overall building stock—only 2% in the U.S., for example. Buildings may last from 40 to a couple of hundred years. Their primary uses may change, and even where a house remains a residence or an office an office, the way people use the buildings keeps evolving. Retrofits tend to be “greener” than demolition for new construction.

See a video about Advanced Retrofit and Design Guides from the U.S. Department of Energy:

YouTube Preview Image

The challenge comes in turning a cosmetic facelift into a deeper change that will result in a building that’s more energy efficient, healthier and—in the long run—cheaper to operate.

A deep renovation done all at once can have a big impact on energy savings. “If you do a system-level upgrade, with new insulation in the walls, new windows, new roofing, and at the same time put in new heating and air conditioning, you can significantly reduce the size requirements for the mechanical equipment,” Mr. LaFrance says. “Doing the entire building at the same time can be very economically viable.”

Why don’t more property owners retrofit? “One of the classic barriers to adoption is split incentives,” he adds. “The building owner isn’t occupying the space, so the energy bill is paid by the renter.”

Mandating energy efficiency standards is one way to get incentives aligned. “Anybody who puts in new equipment today is buying something significantly more efficient than 20 years ago,” he says. “There is still room for improvement in that policy.”

Building codes have led to more efficient new construction, but sometimes renovations aren’t held to the same requirements. A roof replacement might not be required to include added insulation that would bring it up to the latest codes for new buildings.

The European Union has set a goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in the building sector by 2050 to 88%, to 91% of 1990 levels. Key to achieving that goal is “nearly zero-energy buildings,” which not only use renewable energy but also have lower energy needs for heating, cooling and hot water.

Similarly, “net-zero energy” buildings produce as much energy as they use over the course of a year—in other words, their utility bills over a year add up to zero. Only a few buildings are so highly efficient as to fall into this category.

Click here to see a map of net zero buildings around the world

The potential market and payoffs are great. Energy-efficiency retrofits in the U.S. alone could come to $279 billion, generating a 10-year energy saving of over $1 trillion, or a 13% compound annual return on investment. On a different timeline, to 2050, the European Union estimates €937 billion of investment for deep renovation, with net savings of €8.939 trillion.

Here are a few techniques and new technologies for energy-efficient retrofits:

  • Building envelopes: In hot climates, reflective roofs and walls with special coatings or materials can significantly cut the need for air conditioning. Green roofs, which use vegetation to insulate and add beauty, can cut air-conditioning demand 75% in the summer, as well as reduce storm-water run-off. Exterior insulation finishing systems add a layer of insulation to the outside of a building, which is then covered by stucco or other finishes. Integrated façade systems and integrated roof systems place photovoltaic panels over the façade or roof, shading the roof while helping to power the building.
  • Windows: Low-emissivity (low-e) coatings and films on windows block heat—up to 96% of infra-red radiation—without blocking views. Curtains and shades, especially ones with a honeycomb structure, can insulate windows from sunshine, but it’s far more effective to block the sun’s rays outside the window, by using shutters, awnings or overhangs , which allow natural light to come in, but indirectly.
  • Lighting: Since lighting can consume 30% of total energy and since investments pay for themselves in just one to three years, lighting upgrades are a popular first step. New LEDs are replacing inefficient incandescent bulbs, which use only 5% of the electricity they consume as light. Cooler lights mean lower air-conditioning requirements. Better controls and sensors turn on lights when people are around and off when they leave.
  • Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC): With buildings that are sealed more tightly and that use passive techniques to absorb or avoid heat from the sun, depending on the climate, property owners often find they can install much smaller HVAC systems. A building that has uncontrolled air leakage means air is seeping in through “all the cavities of the building, which might be home to insects, or decaying animals,” Mr. LaFrance says. “If you have a tight building and control fresh air with ventilation, it’s much more desirable, not just for energy savings but also for indoor air quality.”

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.



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