Issue 02 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 02 is available now

Building for tomorrow

Building for tomorrow

Cities are growing faster than at any previous time in human history.  From Shanghai to London, Jakarta to Nairobi, Sao […]

Tall coloured apartment blocks with a lot of orange and green

Cities are growing faster than at any previous time in human history.  From Shanghai to London, Jakarta to Nairobi, Sao Paulo to Houston, half of humanity – roughly 3.5 billion people – makes their home in a city to build their lives, shape their future. According to the UN another 5 billion people are projected to live in metropolitan centres by 2030 — that’s just ten years away.

Mass migration away from rural towns and villages on the scale we are currently witnessing brings with it the challenge of creating the infrastructure necessary to keep up with the needs of a rising population. The demand on the construction industry is immense, particularly for those firms that are trying to do the right thing by reducing their carbon footprint.

“Carbon reduction is a complex challenge for all organisations, not least those in the construction industry.” says Dominic Burbridge, Associate Director of The Carbon Trust “Taking a cradle-to-grave view of the construction sector value chain means considering all aspects of the design, construction, use and demolition of buildings and infrastructure, beyond simple occupancy itself”.

Buildings and Bridges

Gold statue attached to roof top beside a building with blue and red pannels

Two contracting firms, Skanska and Balfour Beatty, lead the way in Europe each with landmark projects in London, a city that is mindful of its Green Belt and takes on a retrofit approach to development in most cases. The projects have used some elements in the basic principles of cradle to cradle design which set environmental objectives for a project from inception to the moment the ceremonial ribbon is cut and beyond.

“all stakeholders and partners saw to it that the building maintained integrity from a sustainability point of view”

Skanska’s One and Two New Ludgate was named The City of London Building of the Year. Skanska project director, John Birch says “The main challenges were constructing two completely different buildings to a very short programme, with one delivery entrance, in a busy London site opposite the Old Bailey.”

Despite the pressure of timelines, all stakeholders and partners saw to it that the building maintained integrity from a sustainability point of view. It has solar panels and a combined heating and power plant in the basement. There is also a system to capture and reuse rain and waste water. The building was rated excellent by the BREEAM environmental standard.

Bridge over river with several buildings and cranes in the background, against blue sky with clouds

Another design/construction/logistics challenge that used creative thinking to keep a train service running while overhauling one of the oldest bridges in London, was Blackfriars Bridge.

“This meant creating a 350-tonne steel cover for the tube lines, known as a track protection structure (TPS) – essentially a set of steel arches connected to a steel base which was secured to the platform,” explained Chris Evans, Balfour Beatty Project Director.

“Blackfriars Bridge is the world’s largest solar powered bridge”

The firm also made maximum use of the River Thames to deal with access points that weren’t flexible, but bearing in mind the ebb and flow of the river and waterway traffic as well. 14,000 tonnes of material were brought on site via barge, reducing carbon emissions and easing traffic congestion in one of the busiest junctions in central London.

Today, Blackfriars Bridge is the world’s largest solar powered bridge. It has helped to keep up the integrity of the Green Belt, by increasing capacity for commuter train travel and encouraging growth in smaller towns. Alleviating some of the pressure on the capital’s population density all goes toward making London feel like more “liveable” than other global cities with higher densities like Paris or Tokyo.

Steel Magnolias

We recently made a film, Stelligence, that explores the promise of steel as the building material that holds the largest potential for a closed-loop life cycle. Steel is a staple in construction, architects love the beauty of it and engineers can rely on its strength.

And new approaches to reusing steel and elongating its life cycle means construction firms can do more than just pay lip service to their sustainability goals and aspirations.

“Together with supplier, with contractors, and the design team, [the project can be] building in this re-use at inception.” says Kenneth Zammit, Group Director of engineering firm Burohappold.

The success of a low carbon footprint steel-based project lies in the decision making chain that encourages stakeholder and partner dialogue as early as possible between the disciplines of design, build, planning and logistics.

Build a new paradigm

Photo of apartment blocks illuminated by coloured lights

How we build infrastructure in the global north is vastly different from the global south. According to Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics, we tend to retrofit our cities (like London) whereas in the global south, cities grow organically with little by the way of planning. The end result can be seen from the slums of Kinshasa to the sprawl of Guangzhou where informal housing developments mushroom at the expense of social cohesion and quality of life. What’s more, there is no infrastructure in place to support this growth.

This is the living, breathing reality of urban development in the Global South where due process in planning and execution takes too long to implement and is often too expensive to realise. In his lecture ‘Shaping Cities’ at the Venice Architecture Biennalle in 2016, Burdett calls for an “architecture with social and environmental realities and how they [architects] confront them with ingenuity”.

Burdett nods to the work of Norman Foster, the British architect who leads the interdisciplinary architectural design and engineering firm Foster + Partners. Foster developed a prototype for a Droneport for the Venice Biennalle. It was an infrastructure concept that was  “a convergence of the most dynamic, futuristic technology of the drone associated with the military, but here in a humanitarian concept that it could deliver blood, and deliver cargo …. [and] could leapfrog infrastructure in countries that don’t have a road or rail network”

“… our architects, engineers, planners and suppliers need to be working together from initial concept to delivery.”

From an engineering perspective, the Droneport is unusual for an infrastructure build because it doesn’t require steel like airports, shipping ports, or space ports. Foster’s Droneport could be made by using local materials, fitted by local labour and constructed using minimal support because of the geometric arched shape of the overall structure.

Once the engineers and designers agreed on the structure and materials, they found an industry supplier through LafargeHolmcim Foundation who supports initiatives that combine sustainable construction solutions with architectural excellence. They repurposed a product already existing in the market, a dry brick used to build social housing, for direct application to this unique infrastructure project.

So the cradle-to-cradle stakeholder model is at play in the prototyping of the Droneport and if we are looking for creative solutions for highly complex problems that address the environment, our architects, engineers, planners and suppliers need to be working together from initial concept to delivery.

Architecture as a humanitarian mission

LafargeHolcim Award winner Milinda Pathiraja is a Sri Lankan architect who takes the good work done so far in keeping a carbon footprint low one step further. He suggests that altruistic social objectives can also be met if treated as a design function in the same way environmental objectives are treated. In his TEDx Talk, Pathiraja illustrates the enormous potential for architecture to make a difference in rebuilding Sri Lanka after a 30-year civil war. Pathiraja shows how sustainability is not only something to measure in terms of environmental performance but also in terms of economic costs and returns for the local population. “It is vital that architecture looks beyond the technological, so that the social dimension is also an integral part of the design”.

Pathiraja’s project, a design for a community library was built with the support of former army soldiers who were trained on site. They gained experience through learning on the job, making them employable in the future in the Sri Lankan construction industry which sorely lacks skilled labourers.

Colombo is not urbanising as quickly as other cities in South Asia, but now that the war is over and recent foreign investment has been made by the Chinese government to the tune of  £1.1 bn, it is likely the port town will follow global trends Colombo could soon be a global city in its own right.

If integrated thinking and interdisciplinary talks are the approach to design, construct and planning, and if social and environmental objectives set at the beginning of each project, maybe Colombo will be the place to look to for a new way of working that puts humanity and the environment at the heart of what it builds.