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Tina Casey headshot

Skyscrapers Can Make a Statement About Sustainable Design

The world's fixation on taller and taller buildings raises many questions about the misuse of materials and energy resources. But with new technologies, architects and developers can use skyscrapers to make a meaningful contribution to the energy transition.
By Tina Casey
Burj Khalifa in Dubai — tallest skyscrapers in the world

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building. (Image: Alla Rome/Unsplash) 

Even with the climate crisis looming ahead, local governments continue to approve taller and more elaborate skyscrapers, each one trying to outdo the others to capture the attention of the world. That raises many questions about the misuse of materials and energy resources. But, with the help of new technologies, architects and developers can deploy tall buildings to make a statement about sustainable design in a changing world.

Tall is beautiful, but not necessarily good for the planet

In recent years, beauty in design has become the traditional lens through which tall buildings are judged. In December, Architectural Digest posted a photo gallery of 31 skyscrapers rated as the most beautiful in the world. “From the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, to the more modestly sized Agbar Tower, these structures all share one common trait — stunning design,” wrote reporters Hannah Huber and Elizabeth Stamp.

They also note that the focus on beautiful design is a relatively new phenomenon. In past years the objective was simply tallness for its own sake, with predictable results. In 2018, for example, Architectural Digest name-checked 29 of the “ugliest skyscrapers from around the world.”

Now that sustainability is the focus of attention, another evolution in skyscraper design is emerging. But advocates for tall buildings still need to make a strong environmental case for building up instead of out.

That may prove difficult. One argument in favor of skyscrapers is that taller residential buildings enable cities to grow in population while conserving precious open space. However, a widely-cited lifecycle greenhouse gas analysis published in the journal Nature suggests that trading land for height does not result in greenhouse gas savings. The findings support building more densely at lower levels, rather than building upward.

In addition, the proliferation of new cloud-piercing structures is a thumb in the eye of the general public. At a time when people are urged to recycle, reuse, re-purpose and conserve resources, some tall buildings send a message of excessive consumption.

For example, the new Liebian International Building in Guiyang, China, caught attention for incorporating a 354-foot artificial waterfall into its façade. The developer said it took steps to reduce the environmental impact, such as using recycled rainwater, and the plan is to run the waterfall only on special occasions. Still, the overall effect was seen to de-emphasize the importance of conserving water and energy, too.

Overall, the United Nations Environmental Program warns that the construction industry is far offtrack from the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise, despite the use of alternative materials and an increased focus on energy efficiency.

Incorporating nature into tall buildings for more sustainable design

Despite the challenges, there is room for improving the environmental footprint of tall buildings. Huber and Stamp of Architectural Digest noted the confluence of artful design with engineering innovations that enable the construction of ever-taller buildings. In terms of sustainability, the next step is integrating new clean energy technologies and other innovations into skyscraper design. 

That trend is beginning to manifest in buildings that adhere to the Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design (LEED) green building certification standards and other established guidelines.

Standing at 828 meters, or nearly half a mile, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is often mentioned as an example of the heights to which the LEED sustainable design standards can be extended.

Officially opened in 2010, the building features green spaces and energy-saving design elements that deploy natural systems, including a tiered facade to prevent wind vortices and a sunlight-reflecting curtain wall. Other clean technology innovations include on-site solar panels, an energy-saving air distribution system, and an irrigation system that uses water recovered from the air conditioners, National Geographic described in a paid-content article.

Electrification and a pathway for reducing skyscraper emissions

Policymakers are also driving a move toward more sustainable design. For example, a New York City law that came into force this year will phase in requirements for reducing carbon emissions from buildings, with 2030 and 2050 as the key goalposts. 

Described as a “landmark climate measure” when passed in 2019, the law already motivated property owners to install innovative retrofits such as a carbon capture system for a tall building on the Upper West Side.

Developers in New York are also foregoing fossil fuels for heating and appliances. One example is a new 44-story tower in Brooklyn, which laid claim to the title of the city’s first all-electric skyscraper

The building electrification trend provides an opening for new energy storage technologies to play a role in skyscraper design. One notable development in that area involves Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the influential architecture firm behind Burj Khalifa, the Tianjin CTF Finance Centre in China, Willis Tower in Chicago and One World Trade Center in New York, among others.

Last week, the architecture firm and the Swiss-Irish energy storage company Energy Vault announced a collaborative effort to integrate gravity storage systems into the design of tall buildings. The storage technology involves raising solid weights when excess wind or solar power is available. When electricity is needed, gravity pulls the weights downward to turn a generator.

A typical skyscraper using this gravity system could provide enough storage for its own electricity needs and for surrounding buildings as well, according to Energy Vault. The partners also plan to collaborate on Energy Vault’s pumped hydropower energy storage system, which leverages water instead of solid weights.

Moving the needle on sustainable design

“This partnership with Energy Vault is a commitment not only to accelerate the world’s transition away from fossil fuels, but also to explore, together, how the architecture of renewable energy can enhance our shared natural landscapes and urban environments," Adam Semel, a partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, said in a statement.

That remains to be seen, but if the design and engineering challenges can be worked out, the collaboration has the potential to motivate similar sustainable design partnerships among other design firms and energy innovators.

Other areas with the potential for significant impact include the “material bank” movement that encourages circularity in building design and construction and the use of more sustainable materials for indoor spaces.

When all is said and done, extremely tall skyscrapers are not the best ambassadors for a culture shift in the global economy toward an emphasis on circularity instead of extraction, consumption and waste. Nevertheless, skyscrapers can challenge architects, engineers and technology innovators to make a meaningful contribution to the energy transition and inspire others to do the same.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey