This past fall, COP26 opened the door for discussions about many environmental issues. However, few presentations addressed one elephant in the room — the fact that the construction industry contributes up to 40% of ongoing carbon release. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) used the COP26 platform to offer a sustainable architecture proposal that could reduce the impact of the built environment and implement systems that will result in a carbon-negative initiative.

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A city with buildings constructed in a sustainable architecture style.

SOM’s prototype is a high-rise building meant to act as a model for high carbon-contributing cities. The concept takes its cues from the natural process of photosynthesis and forests sequestering and storing carbon. Urban Sequoia, as the model is called, stands to mirror these benefits by creating “forests” of buildings that could be part of a solution to the climate crisis.

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SOM’s concept isn’t delivered as a single and inflexible blueprint. Instead, the prototype incorporates a broad array of innovations and technology in a sustainable architecture design that can be built today. 

An image looking up at a skyscraper.

With forecasts for continued urban growth, green design elements are more important than ever. SOM’s proposal takes action against the damaging aspects of the construction industry with buildings that not only reduce material emissions but actually absorb carbon. 

Chris Cooper, SOM Partner, explained the strategy, saying, “We are quickly evolving beyond the idea of being carbon neutral. The time has passed to talk about neutrality. Our proposal for Urban Sequoia – and ultimately entire ‘forests’ of Sequoias – makes buildings, and therefore our cities, part of the solution by designing them to sequester carbon, effectively changing the course of climate change.”

A close-up of a building with blue and green accents.

By transforming a building into an environmental solution, the prototype high rise can sequester as much as 1,000 tons of carbon per year, equivalent to 48,500 trees. This is achieved by streamlining materials for maximum efficiency with minimal resources and includes the use of biomaterials such as bio-bricks, hempcrete, wood, and biocrete to replace concrete and steel.

A cityscape.

SOM’s proposal radically rethinks the traditional processes for design and construction in more ways than one. In addition to material selection, the construction blueprint incorporates carbon capture technologies, estimating it could reduce construction carbon emissions by 95%. 

A green cityscape.

According to SOM, the prototype could absorb up to 400% more carbon than it would emit during construction. “This is a pathway to a more sustainable future that is accessible today. Imagine a world where a building helps to heal the planet,” said Kent Jackson, SOM Partner. “We developed our idea so that it could be applied and adapted to meet the needs of any city in the world, with the potential for positive impact at any building scale.” 

In addition to the building model, SOM addresses aspects like replacing hardscaping with plants and even capturing carbon from streets. Collecting carbon isn’t the end of the process though. Once captured, carbon can be converted into a variety of products for roads and pipes. 

Aerial stock photo of skyscrapers in the downtown area of Brooklyn, with the Lower Manhattan skyline in the background in autumn; Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, New York City.

“If the Urban Sequoia became the baseline for new buildings, we could realign our industry to become the driving force in the fight against climate change,” said Mina Hasman, Senior Associate Principal. “We envision a future in which the first Urban Sequoia will inspire the architecture of an entire neighborhood – feeding into the city ecosystem to capture and repurpose carbon to be used locally with surplus distributed more widely.” 

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Images via © SOM | Miysis