Friday, 17 May 2013

One Building, One City

It has been a while coming, and it has been difficult to believe.  The next world's tallest building will be in an empty field in China, it will be prefabricated and constructed in an unprecedentedly short time, and it will not be built primarily as an expression of financial power.

If you don't pay attention to detail, you might be tempted to come to the opposite conclusions, and classify it away with a lot of other hype.  But in fact, this is one of the most plausible, most genuine, most radical contributions to the transformation of the planet through a reasoned application of available technology.  The proponent of the scheme is a visionary industrialist who is putting his money where his mouth is, and equally importantly, has demonstrated the capacity to bring the project to fruition.

Broad Sustainable Construction has released information through TreeHugger that a long and arduous approval process has been completed, and that they are starting excavation and construction on Sky CIty in June, 2013. Inhabitat describes the development as:
Sky City will be prefabricated off site in three months, and it will then be assembled in just seven months. Reaching up 838 meters (2,749 feet), the 220-floor tower will feature residential, office space, organic farms, recreation spaces, schools, a hospital retail and much more. The tower will house 4,450 families in apartments ranging from 645 square feet to 5,000 square feet with 92 elevators at your disposal to reach them. As its name suggest, Sky City will be a vertical city that will accommodate 100,000 people and offer everything that is needed — water, electricity, sewage (unlike the Burj Khalifa), open space, schools, health care and more.
There has been considerable scepticism about the claims of the speed of construction.  It is well to remember that the system has been undergoing continuous development.  Successful entrepreneur Zhang Yue founded Broad in 1988, and made his money through inventing and commercialising a number of air-conditioning technologies.  He became a minor celebrity in international business circles for refusing to enter the refrigerative chiller market in China at a time when he could have established a dominating market presence, based on a matter of principle – that his absorption chillers using waste heat were much preferable from a sustainability perspective.

It was the same principled concern for the welfare of other people that led him to take up the challenge of emergency housing.  Zhang said he had been appalled at how many poorly constructed buildings collapsed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that left more than 87,000 dead or missing. This solution was the prototype of the construction system.  In my mind, the construction system has been well and truly tested in principle, through a number of admittedly much smaller buildings constructed by the company: the 6-story Broad Pavilion in Shanghai Expo 2010 in 1 day, the 14-story New Ark's Hotel in Broad's headquarters in 6 days, the Broad Pavilion in 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in 8 days and the 30-story T30 Hotel prototype near Dongting lake in 15 days. Unusually for reporting of such proposed projects, that Treehugger article contains considerable detail on the "bundled tube" structure, first demonstrated in the Sears Tower in Chicago, and also used in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

In fact, the more interesting and contentious discussion is about the merits of a super high-rise building as a solution to the problem of urban density. Zhang and his supporters contend that with much higher efficiencies for maintaining acceptable environmental conditions, and other sustainability initiatives, the compelling argument in favour of the building rests on the much reduced footprint – and therefore preservation of land from otherwise encroaching urban development.
Despite not being built primarily for any visual effects, the design of the building incorporates a number of features that are thoughtful attempts at more truly bridging the transition from a horizontal or vertical city.  For instance, for the first time ever attempted at this scale, the interior of the building includes a walking street that rises through most of its height.  The idea is fascinating, because it is very likely to give rise to businesses not unlike traditional covered bazaars.  Though who will be fit enough to negotiate its 10km length will be interesting to see.
Lloyd Alter at Treehugger sums it up well: “This is going to be a controversial vision of sustainability; putting 30,000 people in a single building is a hard sell. It is not the bucolic version of green living that most people think of. It certainly is a lot higher than what I have called the Goldilocks Density. But it is the logical extension of the Edward Glaeser / David Owen thesis that the way to go green is to go up, reducing the amount of land used per person and the distances people travel.” A resident of Sky City will use 1/100th the average land per person as a regular global resident and will use only 2 tons of CO2 compared to 5.5 per capita.
If construction runs to its stated timetable, sometime before the end of 2013 the first business or resident will walk into their fully fitted and furnished space in the finished building.  If the engineering has been well handled, the building won't collapse round their ears.  A passionate Chinese entrepreneur may show the world how sustainable density can be achieved on a massive scale.

Update edit:
Clearly, the project has not proceeded to timetable. 
The best place to follow an updated history of its status is at Wikipaedia:



Benjamin Knowles said...

An interesting scheme, one which I believe unfortunally is based on a falsified and preconceived understanding of habitable developments for the future. Although the proposed development effectively identifies modern industrialised methods of construction which directly respond to the requirements of societies globally in the form of prefabrication. The essence of the scheme fails to comprehend sustainable development with regards to continued future urban expansion and growth.
Christian Sottile, the Dean of the School of Building Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design shares the common consensus that that the unnatural containment of human existence within a singular structure is ineffective for future sustainability and growth. Suggesting that such a dramatic manipulation of human’s existence, to be centrally contained is not plausible due to the strong foundation and transcultural connection which humans have development through the occupation of cities (Business Insider, 27.07.12).
Rather, I propose that effective sustainable developments which productively respond to globalisation, growth and urban expansion are defined on the premise of spatial theory, attempting to rather “refine” then to “redefine” humanities habitation patterns. Considering urban space to be rather a series of interrelated spatial continuums without boundaries, defined rather by key reference points within a Cartesian plane, in contrast to the currently perceived understanding, which considers space to be a series of individually and commonly independently contained volumes (A. Forty, p.256-276).
Therefore rather than containing an entire city within a singular building, which effectively doesn’t allow for future adaption in association with urban growth, rather develop a broad modular system which is defined both vertically and horizontally. A system which contains specific functions such as residential, office space, hospitals and retail etc. into individual, but standardised modular buildings, which can therefore be produced and built in an effective layout to minimise required circulation and dependency on private transportation etc. Therefore responding too, and achieving the planning theories of future developments such as Sky City in a manner which effectively and sustainably allows for continued urban growth and expansion.
Business Insider Australia: ‘Why China’s Plan to Build the Worlds Tallest Skyscraper in 90 Days is “Madness”’, Julie Zeveloff (27.07.2012).
Adrian Forty: ‘Words and Buildings, A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture’, Thames and Hudson (UK: 2000).

Steve King said...

I am inclined towards the same view: that single point towers of city scale are unlikely to be the ultimate solution to the rate of urbanisation.

That said, there are two things to be considered about this experiment:

- just because a number of such finite self-contained city scale buildings are built, it doesn't mean that any of the organically developed cities we presently have instantly disappear, and we only have the new prototype. Therefore the future will inevitably hold some mix of different city forms in a complex symbiotic relationship;
- the modularity of the construction proposed here does not strike me as limited to a point tower, and clearly could and would evolve further connectivity, in most likely a complex three-dimensional grid. Much more interesting than the physical technology is the question of the nature of public space – sort of an elaboration of the present problem of the privatisation of public space by shopping malls.

It is well to raise all the issues that this proposal highlights. I think there is a heroic dimension that has seduced Zhang, and the line between altruism and megalomania may be fine and grey. But to be honest, I don't have a huge amount of confidence in academic theories of urban form either, and common consensus in science (if indeed urban form is science) has its own dangers. As often as not it obstructs radical reinterpretation of the observed facts, whether it be in cosmology, human evolution, or even something as in-your-face as plate tectonics. So I am obliged to treat Zhang's experiment as just that, but with the proviso that it's an ethical experiment, I am naturally inclined to consider it as more reliable than mere theorising.

Anonymous said...

Density of a city has been a discussed topic with sustainability. Cities with higher density have been asserted to be more sustainable, for example, Hong Kong has the lowest energy use per capita with the highest density in major cities. The Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence has suggested that cities with low density are not sustainable as they are automobile dependence. Therefore, while the lower the density of a city, the more energy used.

In my opinion, the case for Sky City discussed in the topic will not be the right vision of sustainability. What I disagree the proposal of Sky City is the idea of ‘One building, One city’. I agree with the viewpoints of Lloyd Alter at Treehugger, ‘This is going to be a controversial vision of sustainability; putting 30,000 people in a single building is a hard sell. It is not the bucolic version of green living that most people think of.’ It has been devastating human nature and spirit, and depriving lifestyles. Sustainability is not only about environmental issues, but also interfaces with economic and social activities. In the Gated City, arguments have been made by Economist Ryan Avent that the control on density are stalling economic growth and engines of the country. However, evidences can be seen that it does not procrastinate the growth of economy in high density cities like New York or Hong Kong, rather than in a ‘city’ in one building.

While I agree a city with higher density is more sustainable, New Urbanism, Transit-oriented development and Smart growth could be some strategies to maximize the access to public transport and to reduce the dependent on private automobile. For instance, Melbourne and Hong Kong, both high dense cities, have started TODs. Kaid Benfield, director of Sustainable Communities, suggested that planning for long-term growth and renewal, draw nature closer to people may help making a city more sustainable. These strategies indicate that a sustainable city will never be a single building (skyscraper in this case), as social and economic problems aren’t solved. Therefore, One building, one city may not be the best method to achieve the aim of sustainable.

Ref links:

OGH said...

This is by far the most radical and impressive approach to sustainability in high density living and very ambitious in so many aspects. Small budget, 90 day timeline, highest earthquake resistance level, low energy consumption and construction waste; It is almost too good to be true.
There is no doubt why Sky City One has come under severe criticism.
There is also the question about economics; building such a large project in cities like Changsha will result in empty space for months or years after opening. “There is just going to be a lot more supply than demand out there,” says Patrick Chovanec . Lloyd Alter said it, if it comes to completion it is going to be a hard sell and some wonder how long it will remain empty before it becomes fully occupied and by whom. The design intents to accommodate the ‘rich and the common’, but only a percentage will have the financial means to shop, eat or live in a development such as this.
The present calls for awareness and consciousness in regards to the impact we have in the environment but I remain sceptical about a city in vertical form. I do not think we are ready for such a drastic change. I can’t help it but think about the quality of living of the future Sky City occupants and the psychological impact that this could have in the concept of society as we know it. I will be very interested to see whether the scheme forges a well-integrated community or in the worst case scenario… a slum.

JoshB said...

This is such a great topic to be discussing because I feel that solutions to overpopulation is going to become one of THE most urgent design questions in the near future.

Overpopulation of cities, especially in expanding global markets such as Asia is cannot be discussed as simply an Asian central issue. As those countries require housing expansion due to population overload, it can only become a global issue from there with migration numbers steadily rising and cities becoming more 'global'.

The really exciting progression to me that Broad Sustainable Construction Group is experimenting with here is such a massive scale of prefabrication -and in a development with so many variables to be considered.
They demonstrated their prowess in speed of prefab construction with their 15 storey, 30 day finish marvel - you can watch a time lapse here on youtube:
The idea of prefabrication for a building of this scale should truly help to persuade skeptics of this development's sustainable image. By assembling everything from exterior finish to interior fittings in a factory, the waste created by assembly on site, transport of materials and offcuts are reduced significantly - a prefabricated building also allows for a controlled assembly environment which can be better organised and has little influence from the weather or external conditions which would otherwise halt construction. And at this scale, all of the shortcomings of on-site construction are reduced exponentially.

One must, however, question the quality of life that a structure like this could potentially provide for its inhabitants. Fantastic renderings show perfect conditions, open spaces and a clean and healthy environment for its inhabitants but I can’t help but feel that dystopian models have been fleshed out before in film and literature. What happens when the money to keep it all running is wearing thin or the government overlooks the people in lieu of new, more exciting developments to show off China's power? Issues such as airflow, sanitation complications, electricity problems and so many more are all based off a centralised system which, at the end of the day, could leave people stuck several kilometers above the ground with their basic human needs not met. No doubt there are backup generators, pumps etc. for most of these problems but it often the things that we don’t account for that create the biggest problems.

Chen Tian said...

It cannot be denied that vertical density provided by high-rise buildings contributes significantly to the overall density of the city, therefore, reduce the energy consumption and bring an urban fabric with relative environmentally sustainable qualities. Examples can easily be found especially within some megalopolis own high population density. Hong Kong and New York (Manhattan), for instance, has concentrated their populations vertically. By living together and closer to workplace, walking and public transit are preferred means of travel for residents, thus energy consumption and pollution caused by personal vehicles, which is a big concern of urban sustainability, could be reduced. Also, by covering a smaller footprint of natural land than those that sprawl, provides greater potential to natural terrain and green land.

The 'Sky City' is more like an extreme proposal of achieving high urban density vertically by putting 30,000 people within one skyscraper. There is no automobiles been used with in the ‘city’, instead of that, vertical transit such as elevators will be provided for commuting and outgoing. By doing so the Broad Sustainable Construction claims that the annual energy conservation of the ‘Sky City’ could be 60,000 ton oil equivalent.

Right now, there are two questions comes to my mind. Firstly, is a high-rise building the only way we can do for increasing urban density? Well, if we take a look at some cities which achieved dense urban area without skyscraper, such as Paris, we may find some clues.

"Hong Kong is 2 times denser than Paris in built form and 10 times higher in building height with severe problems of solar admittance, stagnation of pollutants and heat island effect, which show the limits of achieving high-density through very tall buildings." Also, “some high-rise districts of over 45 floors in Shanghai and Hong Kong have similar or lower urban densities than 7 floor neighborhoods of the historical centre of Paris.”

If we look at some low-rise urban blocks of traditional European cities, we may find they are much more efficient (much more dense) than recent high-rise developments in some developing countries. That might because circulation and service facilities usually take a lot space for high-rise buildings, and for concern of shading and wind effects, open spaces need to be presented between high building blocks. This actually limited density growth. Therefore, in my opinion, a mix of differing density solutions with different building types could be more efficient for achieving a dense urban fabric successfully than just focusing on skyscrapers.

Furthermore, a dense city is more sustainable, does that mean we should increase the urban density unrestrictly? For this question, I have to agree with Lloyd Alter, that there is a ‘Goldilocks Density’. For the 'Sky City', I think it is too dense for accommodating 30000 people within one building. It could be doubt about that whether sufficient living amenity could be provided to all the residents with those facilities and green spaces just within the building. It might also cause some ethical and psychological issue for children growing up within such a 'closed' community.

I have to admit that I was impressed when I first heard such a 'visionary' building will actually been built, although, I am not so optimistic for its success. This project may not be applied to other area of the world, just as an individual case, an extreme attempt for vertical accommodation. However, after many years, when the living condition can not satisfied for our population, we may get some benefit form this first giant Sky City.

Some article related to the discussion of sustainability and high-rise buildings:

Reference Links:

Yingyi Li said...

This news really is not a shock to me since that most of energetic construction project now are happening in South East Asia, especially in China. This kind of schemes was raised many times under different circumstance in history, in 1995, Japanese architect envisioned a massive structure called Xseed 4000 which contains 800 floors and more than 4000 meters height. Like this one, it provides space for everything which included accommodation, medical facilities, commercial function, office area and even a little government for this city. That simply because Japan is a high population density nation and lots of natural disasters. Although they have this design, the requirement of finance and technology supports are way too hard to achieved. And in China, nowadays, the problem might not be the motivation and the requirement, but the possible reaction of building it.
Actually, from Corbusier to Rem koolhaas, numerous of architects has a dream about integration of the city in a single building. Their desire of controlling and designing simply amplified the meaning of architecture itself. But without a experience accumulation, they have to be very careful and predictive. How to deals with the vertical transportation system rather than vehicles is one of predictable problems.