A Systems Approach to the Green Skyscraper

Reports from the Field by • 05/01

Event: Designing the Green Skyscraper: A Mixed Greens Lecture
Location: The New York Academy of Sciences, 7WTC, 04.05.07
Speaker: Kenneth Yeang — principal, Llewelyn Davies Yeang, professor, Sheffield University, & author, Ecodesign (Hoboken: Academy Press, 2006)
Moderator: Carol Willis — founder, director, curator, The Skyscraper Museum
Organizers: The Skyscraper Museum; New York Academy of Sciences

The EDITT Tower.

The EDITT (Ecological Design In The Tropics) Tower is a fuzzy combination of organic and inorganic material.

Llewelyn Davies Yeang

A stack of kitchen plates is the basic model for today’s tall building: a series of modular concrete floors in succession, conducive to “instant compartmentalization” and the dreariness of the white-collar office, according to Malaysian principal, professor, and author Ken Yeang. The area in a typical medium-sized building (a 12-story tower on a 20,000-square-foot site) would be equivalent to six acres distributed horizontally. He conceives of skyscrapers as “no longer building design, but urban design.” They pose an opportunity to create a fluid, mixed-use community that meshes with the biological world instead of a solitary structure standing apart from it. “Everything in nature is a combination of the biotic and the abiotic,” he observes. “Look at what we build as human beings… everything [in a typical building] is inorganic except you and me and the bugs!”

Concentrating a multi-acre community on a small footprint, Yeang says, calls for architects “to make the design as humane as possible.” Aesthetically as well as functionally, his work favors fuzziness and irregularities over the “pristine edge” of most corporate towers. His buildings invite in the foliage and sunlight. One of his favorites, the bougainvillea-covered Menara Boustead building in Kuala Lumpur, he terms “the hairiest building in Southeast Asia.” With spiraling and intertwining spaces blending built structures with vegetation, his eco-cells, sky parks, multi-story voids, and sunny-side placement of service cores are all designed to optimize passive energy conservation — an important approach in the tropical climates where he usually works.

Many of Yeang’s designs remain unrealized; he acknowledges the cost premiums involved, giving figures on the high side of recent estimates for LEED-rated buildings, and recommends that anyone building a vertical garden be prepared, like any gardener, to invest resources in tending it. (For greening NYC buildings, he recommends hardy non-flowering species and operable external skins to protect plantings from high wind.) He views the current LEED system as valuable for public awareness of green design, but seriously incomplete as a means of analyzing the full set of interdependencies that constitute a bio-integrative system.

Yeang’s practical design decisions derive from a set of interlocking analyses, using mathematical partition matrices to organize the inputs and outputs of biological and built systems. His commitment to green design runs well beyond a generalized intention to conserve resources; he interprets the principle of biomimicry in organized and consistent ways, comparing buildings within a wider ecologic system to prosthetic limbs attached to a living organism. Even the most sophisticated artificial arms or hearts still require external energy sources, and the ideal prosthesis would run on bodily energy alone. Similarly, what he calls the “truly green building,” one taking all its operational energy inputs passively from nature, does not yet exist, but Yeang’s ideas are bringing that organic/inorganic balancing act closer to realization.

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