Architects Turn to Nature for the Buildings of the Future

Natural disasters such as hurricanes, typhoons, and forest fires have been increasing in number and intensity over the past few years. Simultaneously, the global population is becoming increasingly urban, with projections of up to 66 percent of people dwelling in cities by 2050.

While architecture as a field has been moving toward efficiency for some time now, newer movements are focusing on resilient architecture, in order to make buildings more sustainable and more protective from the elements. 

Most buildings today, even houses, are not built to last. This is not the way it used to be. Simply comparing the craftsmanship and sturdiness of a 19th century house vs. the plywood and sheetrock shells that are thrown up today is enough to see that something in the industry mentality has changed. In part this is out of necessity. Rapid urbanization led to housing demands that needed to be met in a hurry so the short-sightedness is understandable. So too with the financial crisis; people could not afford expensive houses and were wary of taking out the same kind of loans that started the 2008 crash in the first place.

But now, with the economy back on the rise, the apparent results of cheap housing are making people think twice about the materials used in their designs. Building to last is also much more sustainable, since it is both expensive and less efficient to demolish and rebuild every 20 or so years. Demolition is also terrible for the environment in terms of CO2 and air pollution.

Building a durable, long lasting building then requires not only the right materials, but also forward-thinking design. Buildings designed to last should be built with repairs and restorations in mind, as well as upgradeability. This is especially true of smart buildings. 

In terms of the actual building materials, many people are rediscovering natural materials such as wood and stone. These are natural, sustainable materials that are proven to be durable, robust, and often locally sourced. Depending on the climate, of course, some materials may be more suitable than others. Concrete is a very popular choice today for its affordability and flexibility but, depending on the construction method, is actually not as robust as one might think. Poured concrete can be damaged by moisture and even the CO2 in the air, which oxidizes the reinforcing steel rebar causing the wall to lose structural integrity. Pre-poured and pre-stressed concrete is more durable. 

Another incredibly robust material that is also sustainable and locally sourced is brick. Some of the oldest buildings in the world were made with brick using local mud. Adobe houses in the American southwest are prized for their unique style, strength, and excellent thermal properties. But although this material is incredibly strong and robust, it is not the best material for areas prone to earthquakes, as it is incredibly rigid and will break before flexing.

One material that uses a similar source to adobe is rammed earth. This interesting material is created by using a pneumatic tamper to pack down moistened subsoil, creating a rock hard layer that can be built up into robust, load bearing walls that have excellent thermal properties. It is highly sustainable and efficient, while also being extremely durable.

With the threat of climate change and ever-increasing housing needs, architects need to start focusing more on the long-term viability of their projects. Though it may cost more now, building to last is more sustainable, more efficient, and more protective in the long run.


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