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Buildings that breathe: From sci-fi strapline to reality

Buildings that breathe: From sci-fi strapline to reality

It might sound like something from a sci-fi film, but the concept of a breathing building is coming increasingly to the fore in architecture. This is in tandem with making the built environment greener, which demands that we find more sustainable solutions to temperature control and ventilate buildings. Architects and engineers are already innovating at an incredible rate, with remarkable new designs unveiled every day.

One such example is the new 33-story Shenzhen Rural Commercial Bank recently unveiled by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Shenzhen, China. The tower is located at the edge of a public park in the city’s business district and includes a number of strategies to manage the tropical climate.

Combining design and engineering

One of the architects’ flagship strategies is the tower’s eye-catching facade. Clad in an external diagrid, the structure serves to shade the interior from the sun while creating framed views of the South China Sea. These are complemented by two vertical atria that span the building’s full height, with louvres on each floor that allow building users to open and close vents. This allows the structure to ‘breathe’, which is certainly an unusual feature for skyscrapers of this size.

By creating these airways, the building can continuously cycle clean air throughout the building, creating significant savings on energy. This is particularly important in a tropical climate like Shenzhen, where previously, the only other option to maintain a comfortable temperature would have been a heavy-duty air conditioning system.

Making a building breathable retrospectively

Innovative solutions such as these are essential to designing the buildings of the future – especially as designing for climate change becomes imperative. However, there is the question of what to do with buildings we already have. Good ventilation is essential to making a building environmentally and financially sustainable, and crucially, comfortable for users.

Moreover, in the wake of the pandemic, ventilation has also rapidly become a public health issue. Designers need to think about how they can keep the air constantly safe and circulating, especially in large commercial or public buildings, where opening windows on high floors may not be an option.

In this case, engineers should consider highly efficient mechanical air purification systems. Often, the newest designs will be fairly straightforward to install and run, ensuring building users are breathing safe, clean air. Equally, smart building features can help manage running time and enhance efficiency.

Combining new technologies and old wisdom

Ultimately, it seems that the best way to get our built environment breathing is to combine reliable techniques with new technology. While new builds should look to structures like the Shenzhen Rural Commercial Bank for inspiration, there are technologies we can retrofit to make existing buildings better ventilated via sustainable means.

As mentioned, one of the key strategies will be mechanical ventilation and purification managed by smart building features. By monitoring building usage and capacity, we can make sure these mechanical solutions are running at optimal levels. It seems that these monitoring techniques are set to become even more futuristic – who knows, at some point, we may even be checking into buildings with under-the-skin chips.

We’ll be looking at this radical limit of smart building technology in another article this month, so check back soon.

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