Rethinking Construction: Can a big city be built with a small footprint?

What does the city of the future look like? That is what several experts are discussing in our series #MyFutureCity. In this essay, American architect James Timberlake explains how our houses will be built – and why we might soon be living in transparent plastic houses.

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James Timberlake is the co-founder of KieranTimberlake, an award-winning architecture firm. Timberlake has worked on hundreds of globally recognized projects that explore some of today's most important topics – among them, efficient construction methods, resource conservation strategies and novel use of building materials.

Protecting the environment is a global priority. World leaders are beginning to take steps to prevent climate change, millions of people worldwide are protesting to demand action on climate change – and in the architectural industry, sustainability has moved to the forefront of the design conversation.

“We need to rethink architecture,” explains world-renowned architect James Timberlake. With 33 percent of the global energy use coming from buildings, and 20 percent of human generated CO₂-emissions coming from energy used in buildings, “this needs to change.”

“The UN cites that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, but the current supply of new housing in all market segments does not meet the demand – we outpace our housing needs by nearly 3 to 4 times annually.”

James Timberlake

The main issue: Keeping up with the demand

“We must manage our resources more responsibly,” says Timberlake. “The UN cites that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, but the current supply of new housing in all market segments does not meet the demand – we outpace our housing needs by nearly 3 to 4 times annually.”

Simply ‘keeping up’ is a mantra all countries and localities face, as “maintaining a supply of affordable, equitable, sustainable housing for all is a complex problem for every country, from the richest and most socially progressive to the poorest,” he adds. To solve this crisis, we need to think both locally and globally.

“First, we need better data on demographics and supply and demand, projected at least five to ten years into the future,” says Timberlake. “Then, we will need more housing realigned with those supply and demand figures.” Unfortunately, though, there are quite a few hurdles to increasing the supply of new housing.

The hurdles: Collective intelligence

“Codes and regulations are different throughout the world, and each country and local jurisdiction has uneven measures toward quality planning resources.” Universal planning principles for housing placement – for instance, using brownfield sites rather than greenfield site –are necessary to promote environmental ethics worldwide.

Also, a critical part of increasing housing supply is having enough land resources to build upon. Land ownership is different in each country. Open land opportunities are few and shifting with the effects of climate change. Planning and coordination with resource management agencies can help address the proper placement and availability of land going forward.

According to Timberlake, interdisciplinary collaboration is critical to solving the sustainability challenges of our time and even more important in the years ahead: “Specialists in disciplines outside of architecture should be part of every architectural team. We need special skill sets and knowledge for every single architectural project of the future.”

Climate scientists, environmental managers and materials engineers are just some of the experts who will help plan and create buildings sustainably in the future. “With our collective intelligence, we can develop buildings to manage our natural resources more ethically,” he explains, “and reduce our waste – both the material waste and the waste of energy that takes place in a building.”

“With our collective intelligence, we can develop buildings to manage our natural resources more ethically and reduce our waste – both the material waste and the waste of energy that takes place in a building.”

James Timberlake

The method: New materials

Timberlake would also like to see advancements in both materials and construction methods for new housing. Current modular housing materials range widely, from lightweight, low carbon, wood product “spatial” options to higher carbon, heavyweight panelized options, each with their own logistical and supply chain issues.

“Future materials should be evaluated for low-carbon impact, high resilience, life-cycle benefits, and economy,” says Timberlake. Wood is one such material; it can be regrown naturally and sequesters carbon.

“We have used wood often in modular construction, but we have also explored aluminum and various plastics in our buildings.” Aluminum is not only durable, flexible, light, efficient and low-cost, but it's also recyclable. The sustainable materials of the future might be hybrid combinations of wood, plastics, and metals, optimized for durability and a low carbon footprint.

In terms of construction methods, Timberlake observes, “Planners, architects, developers, and governmental agencies believe that off-site and modular housing, manufactured in plants, with lower time to market, are the way forward. But investors have not broadly embraced this approach. Enticing investors to participate in this market is where true change might happen.”

Examples: SmartWrap and Cellophane House

Timberlake has shown the potential of building with unconventional materials and construction methods: In 2003, he and his partner Stephen Kieran invented SmartWrap, a trademarked energy-generating and lightweight envelope that is wrapped around the frame of a building. “It is made of PET, a recyclable thermoplastic polymer,” says Timberlake, “a transparent, inexpensive, colorless material.”

SmartWrap has several layers to add functions: One layer to moderate temperature. A second one to supply light and allow for information display, as if on a computer screen. And a third, final layer to collect solar energy, integrating all the functions of a conventional wall into a thin, transparent plastic film.

And in 2008, Timberlake developed this even further. His firm KieranTimberlake built “Cellophane House,” a complete five-story house made up of refined SmartWrap envelopes tensioned on an aluminum frame. The refined SmartWrap was made up of four layers: The first one served as a weather barrier, and the second one included photovoltaic cells. The third layer contained solar heat and UV blocking film – and finally, a fourth, interior layer of PET. With this, it was possible to trap heat in winter and vent it in summer. “The different technologies assembled in the envelope of Cellophane House really helped us understand how and where energy loss occurs in a building envelope and how we can improve the design to mitigate the losses,” says Timberlake.

Our future: Learning from the past

Cellophane House was an example of a more sustainable architecture presented at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York for almost six months. Yet it was more than just an exhibition piece: “It was a way to build our ideas and learn from them,” says Timberlake.

He adds: “And it is still only the beginning. Looking to the future, beyond the current models and modalities of living, and beyond the housing shortages, we’ll see an evolution in how people live, what they desire in their living arrangements, and a continuation of diverse options to address those housing needs affordably.”

“We will need to completely rethink our way of living,” he adds, “but we will also need to learn from our mistakes and think about an urban platform that blends our past and our future.”

Brighter Talks - About the host

Being an urbanist and futurist Greg Lindsay focusses on „the city of tomorrow“ and talks frequently about globalization, innovation and urbanization. The journalist and speaker is the director of applied research at NewCities, a global nonprofit committed to shaping a better urban future.

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