Architecture has been called to the front in the battle against climate change. And the data justify the call: buildings account for nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 50% of world energy consumption, and 40% of raw material usage. So, what’s to be done? For some time, architects have been questioning the future of cities and towns: on the one hand, as regards the existing building stock, which will need retrofitting to achieve the zero carbon emissions targets, and, on the other, as regards new buildings, which will demand work to achieve the highest levels of sustainability from the outset.
The projects presented at COP26 in Glasgow (United Nations Conference on Climate Change, winding up November 12, 2021) showed us just how much progress is being made towards creating buildings that are green and technologically advanced, and doing it with a combination of approaches, ranging from the use of natural raw materials to the most advanced principles of building and home automation.
One of the best examples of sustainable architecture featured was the TECLA project, by Mario Cucinella Architects, part of Italy’s delegation at COP26, with the first 3D-printed eco-sustainable house made of locally sourced clay. Another was the Eden Project Pavilion, the result of the collaboration between international architecture firm Grimshaw and the Eden Project, and a showcase that highlights the actions we need to take to regenerate our planet. This geodetic design is remotely reminiscent of the Eden Project’s biomes in Cornwall, UK. Although in this case, the building’s panels don’t reflect idyllic nature, but an environment in crisis that needs safeguarding.
The positive here is that these buildings create a narrative of hope and positive change by recognizing our potential for healing our wounded planet.
The concept behind the Eden Project Pavilion has its origins in the two-day Next Generation Design architecture and engineering workshop conducted by Scale Rule, a community interest company focused on working with students aged 11–18. The winner of the 2020 workshop, in which teams created sketches, models, and drawings of their designs, was the Harris Boys’ Academy East Dulwich (HBAED), London. Their unique design was conceived to illustrate the “manipulation of the earth by human hands,” says the HBAED team. “The dome represents the earth, and the hands show humankind. This pavilion represents the damage that humans have done and are doing to the planet.”
At COP26 the Eden Project Pavilion houses a “cabinet of climate curiosities” – that is, objects that represent the urgent transformations needed, which in turn have nurtured an ecosystem within the dome. Plants climb up and through the cracks, as biodiversity returns. The structure, designed by Grimshaw and built by Sir Robert McAlpine, only uses materials that have been grown, reused, or recycled. While visually creating a metaphor for the planetary emergency, its design is inspired by nature: minimum materials for maximum strength, with the reused plywood structure supporting the abundant planting and display elements. The recycled and reused materials are from local construction sites and from the stage used for Eden Sessions, a series of outdoor concerts in Cornwall.
The “curiosities” are a diverse collection of objects, works of art, media, models, and installations, each one offering a perspective, value, or insight that reflects Eden’s philosophical ecology – from automata that talk to our interconnection with the natural world, to planet-positive augmented reality and art, immersive media that reveals the invisible worlds that surround us, and geothermal drill bits and solar-energy trees that hint at the end of fossil fuels.
Grimshaw previously revealed how much his practice has always focused on sustainability and technological innovation. In this docu-film from The Architects Series (a series of bimonthly videos that take a dynamic, entertaining look at life and work inside architecture studios), Grimshaw and Andrew Whalley discussed the work of the group, revealing the philosophy and potential of projects aimed at creating buildings that cater to the needs of both humans and nature.
The project also asks us to consider our shared connections and responsibilities – not as members of nation-states, but as residents of planet Earth who are totally dependent on the health of the only planet in the universe that we know can support life. This constitutes the background of the pavilion as a place to come together, relax, and recharge during these two fundamental weeks for the health of all life on earth.
One of the highlights of Build Better Now On, a virtual exhibition organized as a part of COP26, was TECLA – Technology and Clay, the first eco-sustainable 3D-printed house made of locally sourced earth. Entirely designed in Italy, TECLA is an innovative circular house that brings together research on traditional local building practices, a study of climate and bioclimatic principles, and the use of natural and locally sourced materials. It’s a project with almost zero emissions, the building envelope and the use of locally sourced clay also making it possible to reduce rubble and building waste. The clay is excavated, shaped, and then lived in. And, when it’s no longer needed, it can return to the earth as part of a potentially infinite cycle that leaves no trace. The walls have an organic, cave-like shape that provides structural stability, while also acting as a thermal barrier. The prototype can be built in different settings, its shape and structure adapting to local climates.
We looked at this project and the innovative 3D printing process in this article in The Plan 131: TECLA, Technology and Clay | Jumping the Species Barrier.