Expanding upon the research introduced at COP26, SOM has spent the past year refining Urban Sequoia—a radical reimagination of the architecture and construction of buildings and cities—to create a design that is buildable right now.
At COP27, the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference held at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) presented Urban Sequoia NOW.
Urban Sequoia NOW is a design readily constructible today for a building that sequesters carbon throughout its lifecycle. The plan was presented in the Buildings Pavilion Auditorium.
“We recognize the need to alter the trajectory of climate change by going beyond net zero, we need to take carbon out of the atmosphere through the built environment, and we have developed a design to do just that.” (Chris Cooper)
To achieve this goal, SOM has begun to view buildings as living entities that can dramatically reduce embodied carbon, produce energy during operation, absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and endure considerably longer than the average 60-year lifespan of a building.
By combining these techniques, it can create structures that are more carbon-neutral than net zero.
“We asked ourselves how low we can go in emitting carbon in construction, how high we can go in carbon sequestration, and how long we can go in extending the typical building’s lifespan, our latest concept for Urban Sequoia answers these questions.” (SOM Partner Kent Jackson)
SOM's high-rise prototype for 2021 is now a constructible reality thanks to the design. Compared to a standard high-rise, the building would cut upfront embodied carbon by 70% (only from construction). The tower's first five years of existence would achieve net zero, a 100 percent decrease in whole-life carbon.
Over an extended 100-year lifespan, an Urban Sequoia building would absorb more than 300 percent of the carbon emitted in its construction and operations.
“To accomplish these goals is to radically rethink the way we design buildings, Urban Sequoia is a concept that encompasses every aspect of the design and construction process, reconsidering the way we select materials, design mechanical systems and structures, and integrate innovative technologies—a reimagination that converts them into carbon absorbers.” (SOM Principal Yasemin Kologlu)
Instead, the construction will be combined into a single streamlined process. This is an efficient process as opposed to the typical additive construction method, which involves building the structure, adding the facade, and other building systems, and finishing the interior, all of which contribute to increased carbon emissions.
Every component of the building would have several uses in this reductive strategy. The design is inverted; all MEP equipment and air ducts traditionally hidden in ceilings would be consolidated or removed.
This innovative strategy from SOM raises ceiling heights by removing the ceilings altogether and optimizes the floor slabs to incorporate those systems within the floors resulting in a significant reduction in material use.
Air would enter enormous air capture zones, sky gardens that served as amenities, and underfloor ventilation openings between the slab and a timber floor finish.
Cool air would enter these gardens and open spaces in the building's core, using the stack effect to lift air using direct air capture technology installed in the structure's core and top.
To complete the carbon cycle and lay the groundwork for a new economy based on carbon removal, the captured carbon would subsequently be stored and made available for use in various industrial applications.
Similar to the original idea, Urban Sequoia NOW can be used for any building, at any scale, and anywhere. Each building type uses cutting-edge technologies, such as energy-generating solar glass, to lessen operating carbon emissions and carbon-sequestering materials like wood and bio-concrete to reduce embodied emissions.
The goal is to restore the ecosystem in the world's most populated areas, which also have the most significant carbon emissions, while using a timeless design that can be modified over a century. If this proposal is realized, it will lead to the construction of a network of Urban Sequoia structures that will continuously absorb carbon for at least the next 100 years.
“Urban Sequoia is a systems approach, a philosophy, it is a way of thinking about cities as ecologies, as living and breathing systems that can be reconfigured to achieve dramatic reductions in whole life carbon, reframing the built environment as a solution for the climate crisis.” (SOM Sustainability Director Mina Hasman)