Imagining the Future
How will we make buildings in 2030?
Imagine thirty years from now. Will urban areas in 2030 look like Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles in the sci-fi movie Blade Runner—a prelude to Armageddon where the affluent reside in the tops of 400-story skyscrapers, and the less fortunate scratch out an unsavory existence in the seamy, polluted, and lawless regions on the surface? Or will Americans live the utopian dream in self-sufficient, fossil-fuel free communities?
Both industry analysts and savvy practitioners insist that it’s not the best use of time to predict farther out than 10 years. At this moment, however, the future is already taking form. On one hand, materials scientists are locked in laboratories inventing new, smart, and sustainable materials and composites, which are touted elsewhere in this issue as the beginning of a revolution in design and construction. At the same time, building materials that dominated the 20th century still dominate in the new millennium.
The projects presented here, while contemporary, are daring in ways that hint at future trends. In each case, the architect and engineer seem to strain to get more performance from familiar materials—smaller structural members, less environmental impact, greater spans. Success often depends on technological innovation, the side effect of which is increased complexity. This desire to stretch the limits signals another trend that promises to change the relationship between architect and engineer, regardless of materials.
Twentieth-century Modernism prescribed that all buildings be made of three materials—concrete, steel, and glass. The glass industry is constantly innovating and inventing, giving rise to specialties such as facade engineering. Glass research has moved beyond traditional melting processes into coating techniques, solar control technology, and the integration of microelectronic circuitry.
But what role will the so-called smokestack industries play 30 years from now? What will happen to the steel industry, mired as it is in the politics of import tariffs and the economics of overcapacity? Will new materials surpass the “technical audacities” that Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson attributed to concrete and steel in their 1932 manifesto, The International Style?
“Buildings will still be made of steel in 30 years—and in 300 years. Forever, unless someone figures out how to build a 100-story building with a material as strong and as economical as steel,” says Bill Heenan of the Steel Recycling Institute, clearly confident that steel will continue to dominate well into this century.
Innovation happens at a glacial pace in industries dependent on multiple suppliers and cheap energy. In this century, the steel industry predicts several important trends, most of them having to do with complex manufacturing innovations. Architects will be more concerned with the environmental issues affecting steel and concrete, traditionally dirty businesses, as pressure mounts to conserve energy and make sustainable buildings.
Reduction in the amount of carbon needed to make quality steel has been dramatic, but eliminating it altogether is decades away, assuming that it will ever be possible. In the short term, recycling is an effective strategy. Heenan asserts that steel is the only material that is almost totally recyclable. In fact, 95 percent of steel salvaged from demolition sites can be reused without degradation. “When melted at 3,000 degrees, steel loses memory of what it was before and can be made into something completely different,” says Heenan. “As a matter of fact, 200,000 tons of steel removed from the wreckage of the World Trade Center has been recycled to provide the armor plate for a new submarine.” By 2030, the industry predicts that buildings, automobiles, and a wide assortment of products will be made of recycled steel.
Concrete is arguably the oldest building material, in use for thousands of years. Although stronger, lighter, and better reinforced, the recipe has remained much the same—cement, sand, water, and aggregates. It’s cheap, durable, and—in creative hands—a material of considerable beauty. Even more important is the fact that the entire infrastructure of the U.S. is supported by concrete. According to industry statistics, it is the world’s most widely used man-made material and is second only to water as the most utilized substance. Slightly more than a ton of concrete is produced annually per each person on earth—six billion tons. The U.S. produces more than 2.5 tons per citizen each year.
One would reasonably assume then that the future of the concrete industry is as solid and secure as its product. To make sure it maintains its ubiquity, however, the concrete industry has created an ambitious plan for the future called Vision 2030, which defines areas in which research is needed, as well as where partnerships with other industries, government, and academia are required.
To realize its vision, the American Concrete Institute, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Industrial Technologies and other independent organizations, has created a guide called Roadmap 2030: The U.S. Concrete Industry Technology Roadmap. Roadmap acknowledges future liabilities, many of them energy- and environment related, and details the industry’s strenuous effort to mitigate them through research and innovation. For example, the cement and concrete product manufacturing industry consumes a lot of energy, spending approximately $1.5 billion on purchased fuel and electricity in 2000.
Improved High-Performance Concrete (HPC) will make production, delivery, and placement more efficient. Fiber-reinforced HPC components will become an attractive material for rapidly built, low-cost housing. In addition, systems for designing both residential and commercial structures with a low risk of fire, blast, and earthquake damage are a high priority in Roadmap. Acceptance of new technologies and their availability in the marketplace will be reduced from an innovation-stifling 15 years to a competitive two.
The industry is looking for new materials, which it has outlined as research initiatives. Nonmetallic alternatives to reinforcement are a high priority. In 2003, there is increasing world-wide interest in fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP) and carbon fibers to prevent damage caused by corrosion. The search is also on to find lightweight local sources of aggregates in order to reduce the energy required to transport them to building sites. Efforts are presently underway to make concrete an environmentally benign material by reusing high-alkali wastewater, recycling aggregates, and reusing cementitious waste products. By 2030, smart materials ranging from sensor-laced concrete to hybrid products will respond to environmental conditions and warn of failures. As they emerge, embedded technologies and new materials will require more expertise within the industry, as well as among architects and engineers.
Given the rise in material and systems complexity, the role of the engineer, especially the fields of structural and facade engineering, is already expanding. In the last century, the engineer was largely a silent partner—the consultant who invisibly realized the architect’s vision in concrete, steel, and glass. The relationship was cooperative. Now it appears to becoming genuinely collaborative. And by 2030, there is evidence that engineering will be the new architecture, as advanced technical skills draw the engineer deeper into the design process. Cecil Balmond, chairman of Arup’s European Division, emerged from the shadows long ago and is renowned as the über engineer for complex projects. He leads the firm’s Advanced Geometry Unit, which has designed structures for Toyo Ito, Daniel Libeskind, and Shigeru Ban.
The Advanced Geometry Unit builds complex 3D analytical models with its proprietary software, FABWIN, a nonlinear, form-finding program, which can be reprogrammed to meet the needs of different projects. Computer models can be so complex that communicating the design ideas requires both virtual and physical simulations. Arup created wax prototypes of Marsyas (click image to right to view) with a Thermojet 3D printer. But to simulate the experience of something so unusual and enormous, the engineers created a virtual reality machine using the latest 3D gaming technology. This allowed both the artist and engineers to study lighting, texture, and color in great detail.
Like Arup, most multidisciplinary engineering firms today develop their own software or adapt other products, such as gaming software, which, of course, adds another degree of complexity to the process. These firms also reinvest some percentage of their profits into ongoing research and development, such as Buro Happold’s development of cardboard as a construction material. Architects who want to maintain parity with engineers and create the next generation of “technical audacities” from an ever-deepening reservoir of methods and materials will follow the trend, as KieranTimberlake, Kennedy Violich, FTL Design Engineering Studio, and others have done. Still, in an era of engineering virtuosity and genuine collaboration and teamwork, who will own the architecture?