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Beyond The Envelope – Biomimetic High-Rise

Stephen George + Partners (SGP) has unveiled a concept for a living high-rise that, like evergreen plants thriving in low-light conditions, uses photosynthesis to organically generate energy even in dense or shaded urban centres. Designed specifically for urban centres in climates that experience greater seasonal fluctuations in daylight, SGP’s concept seeks to address the dichotomy between city buildings’ increasing energy demands and city-wide air-quality and climate change policies.

The designers envisage a new urban architype that draws on principles developed by nature over millions of years, with a biohybrid system forming the building envelope to benefit both the internal spaces and the immediate external airspace around the structure, cleaning the air and consuming carbon in the atmosphere. The building’s mass and form take inspiration from the twisted, closed bud of a flower, utilising the emerging possibilities of computational design and fabrication to create biomimetic, dynamic, thin and incredibly strong structures. The façade has been further evolved to become a self-generating power source for the building and its users, drawing on recent advances in biological photovoltaic technologies that use E. coli bacteria cells to harvest energy – even in low-light conditions or without access to direct sunlight. The integration of bio curtains to a south-facing frame projection will absorb carbon dioxide from the surrounding air.

Importantly, SGP’s concept posits the idea that these biohybrid technologies should be embedded within the design of the building from the outset, instead of being viewed as tokenistic bolt-ons for some BREEAM or LEED points.

Luke Abbott, Studio Director at SGP, said: “In the early part of the last century, Le Corbusier famously wrote “Une maison est une machine-à-habiter” (a house is a machine for living in’). In this modern age, where it is generally accepted that we need to reverse the environmental damage caused by 20th century globalisation and find ways to tackle climate change, can Corbusier’s modernist rhetoric be flipped on its head so that a building is a living machine, helping to purify the atmosphere outside and protecting the health and wellbeing of its inhabitants inside?

“As cities and their buildings become ever more reliant on energy-intensive technologies to operate, we urgently need to find ways of producing electricity effectively and cleanly. As architects and designers, we must learn from nature and understand that there is now much more available to us than traditional manufacturing processes afford to solve the climate crisis. Our concept envisages a building informed by evolutionary processes that, like certain plant species, can create its own energy without producing harmful emissions, even in temperate climates and through cloudy skies.”

Recognising that no one renewable technology can meet a building’s energy footprint, the concept embraces biomimicry on multiple integrated levels:

Flat sheet cutting templates, formed and joined to create ultra-thin and strong structures inspired by shells.

South façade with small apertures and larger areas of bio-hybrid materials.

Photosynthetic Materials 

Photosynthesis is an entirely renewable process of energy creation; the plants harvest the immense and daily supply of solar energy, absorb carbon dioxide and water, and releases oxygen. There is no other waste. But how could a building actually photosynthesise?

Scientists at the University of British Columbia have genetically engineered photoactive bacteria (E. coli) to produce a pigment called Lycopene that can convert light into energy. What is most impressive about these biohybrid technologies, when compared to inorganic silicone PVs, is that they are just as efficient in low light as they are in bright light.

This is an exciting new way to reimagine solar panels in urban areas that don’t always get a lot of sun, particularly the world’s major cities like London, Paris or New York. Recent breakthroughs in solar technology have also given rise to thin, clear and flexible panels that can be can be installed on almost any surface, rather than relegated to flat rooftops.

Taking immediate advantage of these technological advances, SGP’s concept conspicuously integrates photosynthetic panels into the building envelope to create a biohybrid skin.

Revealing layers of the biomimetic design: Naturally ventilated central atrium; Spiralling vertical gardens; Bio-trellis facade.

Algae Curtain

The top curved south-facing frame projection is formed to provide a structure onto which an algae curtain can be hung. These systems are designed to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere whilst releasing oxygen via photosynthetic processes.

Natural Passive Ventilation

The central core of the building can be used to cool and ventilate the marginal occupied spaces, much like the termite mound inspired Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe.

North façade with larger apertures and smaller areas of bio-hybrid materials.

Initial sketch to developed concept.

Solar Shading

The building’s façade responds to the orientation of the elevation, with deep set apertures on the southernly elevation to reduce overheating and less shaded openings on the north to encourage natural light and solar gain. The building has been designed to respond to the shade in a similar way to plants evolutionary response to light and shade.

Mass and Form

The genesis for the concept was an initial sketch of a twisted, closed bud of flowers, like the tulip or lily. Whilst not a literal interpretation, the mass and form of the building is informed by the flower’s intricate display of geometry, narrow at the bottom to provide more public realm and swelling through the middle to create more occupiable floorspace.

Vertical Gardens

Multiple green and garden spaces augment each floor plate, with gardens spiralling up through counter-directional placement lines to create multi-storey oases at intersecting points.

Biomimetic architecture in contrast to Shanghai.

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