Introduction to Advanced Ecological Buildings and Biocities


Modern humans spend 90% of our time indoors. This fact led Sir Winston Churchill to observe “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. Similarly, many people in the era of global climate change have ideas about how to reduce the energy needed to operate our buildings, keep them comfortable, and power the activities they shelter – for example, innovating efficient appliances, turning off lights, or installing thermally insulating windows and doors. However, most people don’t yet realise buildings are responsible for 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide – more than transportation, industry, or any other sector – when we also account for the ‘embodied’ emissions from extracting, processing, assembling, and disposing of construction materials. More importantly, most people don’t yet see that simple natural materials like wood, bamboo, and earth offer incredible opportunities for turning this challenge into an opportunity to both safeguard the planet and improve our quality of life.

Advanced Ecological Buildings and Biocities

Global climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss are among the greatest challenges humanity will face in the coming decades. These challenges appears even greater still when we acknowledge that buildings are responsible for 40% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, that cities and towns often expand into the natural areas that previously provided habitat and ecosystem services, and that there is absolutely no general agreement to stop building anytime soon. On the contrary, due to ongoing human population growth and rural to urban migration, experts expect a doubling of built floor area by 2060. In other words, to house the 2.5 billion new people living in cities, we’ll need to construct as much built floor area around the world as all of New York City – every single month!

Happily this need not be cause for despair. Rather, one of the biggest problems facing climate stability – the erection of new buildings – has real potential to instead become a powerful tool in our efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change, and to reharmonise the relationship between civilisation and ecology. The key is to transform our buildings from major greenhouse gas emitters into massive greenhouse gas capture and storage facilities. Amazingly, doing so can be achieved with intelligent applications of what most of us normally consider ‘basic’ materials, such as wood, bamboo, straw, and earth, amongst others.

Through photosynthesis, plants capture immense amounts of carbon dioxide to fuel their growth. Typically this carbon dioxide is then released back into the atmosphere when plants die and decay. By using bio-based materials in building structures, we can ‘lock up’ that carbon dioxide for as long as the building is in use, and even longer if the materials are reused or recycled after the building is decommissioned – up to hundreds of years! Moreover, buildings made from natural materials certainly don’t need to be ‘primitive’. Recent technologies like cross-laminated timber (or CLT), which is made by gluing together perpendicular layers of boards under pressure, have been found to be stronger per ounce than steel. This allows architects and engineers to design structures which not only support environmental health and wellbeing, but also broaden our imagination of what buildings can be.

A critical question such a bio-based approach to construction raises is whether we can harvest enough material to substantiate our buildings without damaging the ecosystems from which they are sourced. Fortunately, experience and research have proven that sustainably managed forests are indeed capable of provisioning ample material through selective extraction, and that the valuation of bio-based materials can in fact help to protect against other threats, such as forest lands being converted to agricultural or urban uses.

By holistically combining natural materials with integrated renewable energy systems, cyclical waste and water systems, and systems for locally producing food and goods, we can envision a not-so-distant future in which the boundaries between the ‘technological’ and the ‘ecological’ spheres disappear, blending into a ‘unified’ environment where human activities become ‘re-entangled’ with the earth’s natural processes.

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Introduction to Advanced Ecological Buildings & Biocities

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Activity questions

  • Why should emerging designers, architects, and engineers be equally concerned with the materials their buildings are made from as how those buildings look or how they work?
  • Why is the use of wood, or more specifically engineered timber products, such a promising pathway for future buildings - even large buildings in cities?
  • What are the main risks or challenges associated with increasing the amount of bio-based materials used in buildings, and how can they be avoided or mitigated?

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