SOM propels ingenious carbon-absorbing Urban Sequioa at COP26

Imagine a paradisal-built environment with buildings acting like trees – capturing carbon, purifying the air, and regenerating the natural fabric. Can we possibly break down the futuristic what-ifs and explore its feasibility? This is what Chicago-founded firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) proposed to transform dense cities into man-made “forests” equipped with advanced decarbonization technologies. In line with its commitment to a zero-carbon future, SOM devised a groundbreaking architectural concept dubbed Urban Sequioa that transforms buildings into a resilient network of green urban jungle that sequesters carbon and produces biomaterials.

SOM unveiled its newly designed system at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) event last November 11 at Glasgow, Scotland. COP26 is the 2021 United Nations climate change conference that took place from October 31st to November 12th where world leaders and delegates from different countries were tasked to present ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions by 2030. Considered as the most significant climate event since 2015 Paris Agreement, COP26 tackled climate crisis in urgency with key points on carbon market mechanisms, funding for loss and damage, finance target, and nature-based solutions.

Alongside rapid urbanization within cities, global carbon emissions continue to be inevitable and 40% of such is generated by the building sector. With their progressive approach on climate action initiatives, SOM Partner Chris Cooper expounds the avant-garde plan: “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.”

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Consistent with the team’s driving principle to reduce carbon impact, Urban Sequioa is initially developed through a high-rise building prototype comprising modules of systems. The initial design boasts its feasibility to sequester as much as 1,000 tons of carbon per year which is equivalent to 48,500 trees. Forecasted in 60 years, the initial prototype would absorb up to 400% more carbon than its calculated emissions when built. Dominantly assembled with bio-brick, hempcrete, timber and biocrete, Urban Sequioa’s approach on carbon reduction can reach up to 95%, an evident polarity when compared to the usual usage of concrete and steel for construction.

Its prefabricated archetype is wrapped in curved glass supported through undulating floor framings and mega columns embedded with an algae system for biomass collection. The modules are linked to its central core with vertical circulation acting as the heartwood, and direct air capture system encasing the open-to-below pith. The overall integration of structural and systematic components creates a viable trunk-like edifice that shall soon fill cities with holistic matrix of carbon-absorbing technologies.

The facades integrated with biomass and algae can turn the building into a biofuel source, enabling the structure to sustain heating systems, cars, and aeroplanes; and a bioprotein source for the utilization of various industries. Additionally, the byproducts accumulated by Urban Sequioa shall aid the infrastructure’s maintenance and its surrounding vicinity. The collected carbon and biomass can be used to produce biomaterials for roads, pavement, and pipes. Through the transformation of urban hardscapes and fusing carbon-absorbing techniques on further streetscapes, former grey infrastructure can seize up to 120 tons of carbon per square kilometer, which can eventually lead to saving up to 300 tons per square kilometer annually.

The redwood-inspired prototype is designed to adapt the needs of future cities through optimization of building design and minimization of materials, driving change on a larger scale and unprecedented rate. In the foreshadowing of a more sustainable planet, SOM remains unfaltering with positive potential on building Urban Sequioas in every city around the world, removing up to 1.6 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year.

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“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,” explains Mina Hasman, Senior Associate Principal of SOM. “We envision a future in which the first Urban Sequoia will inspire the architecture of an entire neighbourhood – feeding into the city ecosystem to capture and repurpose carbon to be used locally with surplus distributed more widely.”

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is a global architectural, urban planning, and engineering firm engaged in wide range of international projects with 11 creative studios across the globe. Their interdisciplinary team of professionals has been a renowned merger of architecture and structural engineering through the years, channeling their expertise towards sustainability and innovative change for the future. Some of their renowned technically and environmentally advanced developments include Willis Tower in Chicago, Burj Khalifa in Dubai and One World Trade Center in New York.

Photos by Skidmore, Owings & Merill (SOM)