Reclaiming Nature's Metropolis

Client: Living Future Institute
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Design: Röllerhaus Pictureworks and Design Co. + MWDC
Design Team: Kevin Scott, Alexander Jack, Matthew Wagner, Carl Sterner, Trevor Dykstra
Illustration: Kevin Scott, Alexander Jack, Matthew Wagner, Trevor Dykstra

Featured On:
Trim Tab magazine, cover, Summer 2011
International Living Future Institute

Reclaiming Nature’s Metropolis received the “Images that Provoke Award” in the 2011 international Living City Design Competition, hosted by the International Living Future Institute.

Reclaiming Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago, 2076.

The research objectives for Reclaiming Nature’s Metropolis, a Chicago specific study, result in the creation of a self-sustaining city. Consisting of innovative sustainable strategies for equity, energy, materials, water, and health, our research focused on the underlying behavioral and structural changes necessary to create sustainable communities within the city.

Chicago’s cultural, environmental, and industrial actors have been in near constant conflict with one another throughout its history. More often than not, this conflict has come at the expense of its people and natural habitat. In its attempt to become more livable, however, it has invoked an overwhelmingly engineering-based response. While necessary, this response does not attempt to influence or modify behavior but instead relies on “high” technology to maintain the status quo. The mission of our exploration is to consider a Chicago that focuses on the underlying behavioral and structural changes necessary to create a more sustainable community.

We imagine a Chicago that: 1) relies primarily on public transportation, thereby freeing its roads to become vast networks of agriculture, habitat exchange, park, and general purpose public space; 2) is at its core, a passive solar urban framework responding first and foremost to the innate regional and environmental qualities that define its place; and 3) is a city where builders, untrained and uncorrupt, adapt and re-use the architecture, infrastructure, and industrial output of today, so that tomorrow we might finally be rich with the culture of our people rather than the culture of our consumption.

If the Living Building Challenge can indeed by illustrated as a flower, then EQUITY is its floral axis. It is the defining characteristic in how every petal relates, the genesis of every strategy conceived, and the yardstick by which every decision must be measured. It is also the petal that gives us cause to be revolutionary in our approach since it is so often the element of “green” design that is decidedly absent.

Many of the neighborhoods that Martin Luther King, Jr. visited during his involvement in Chicago’s Civil Rights movement have changed dramatically, but so many others still reflect the same struggles of the 1960s. We illustrated a present day race map showing how divided Chicago remains. Our goal is to use the ‘Loop’ as Chicago’s first LBC community and then grow those ideals outward by using “seed communities” placed in school districts along ethnic borders as a means of bringing different communities together.

Our seed communities are the embodiment of all things intelligent and all things living. Each seed is “planted” in a school district and grows outward through education-centric reform.

When the World’s Fair once again converges in Chicago, this time to celebrate our nation’s tri-centennial, 2076, it will be a prime example of how American culture has embraced a Living Building Lifestyle. Citizens enjoy planted avenues, extensive public transit, interconnected rooftop gardens and a reformed educational system that firmly places us within nature and no longer separate from it.

Our Approach to Energy.

Informed by the work of Amory Lovins, is three-fold: 1) Reduce demand and improve efficiency. We propose a language of passive solar and efficiency retrofits: glass facades to the south and individualized interventions to the north, which cut building energy use by an average of 40%. 2) Match energy supply with end-use needs. A large majority of energy needs are for heating and cooling. These are best provided through thermal sources - sunlight, biofuels, and the warmth of the earth. 3) Meet all needs with 100% renewable energy. Photovoltaic panels cover the city’s southern facades; 2200 MW of wind power is generated off Chicago’s shores; and its municipal and agricultural wastes are harvested for their energy before returning to the earth as compost. These diverse, distributed energy sources help to create a new language for the city - one in which energy production is a part of daily life, rather than an obscure process hidden from sight.

But even these aggressive technical strategies are not enough to get to “net zero”, something more is required. This “something more” is a new mentality, a new mindfulness of the impacts of our lifestyle and consumption choices. Aided by transparency, unprecedented access to information, and a revitalized public realm, citizens are empowered to make decisions that will build a sustainable future. These are the actions - grassroots, bottom-up, messy and democratic - that will be truly transformative, that will get Chicago to net zero and beyond.

As Amory Lovins argued in his seminal Soft Energy Paths, this approach to energy also enhances democracy and equity. Most end-use needs are distributed, small-scale, and require low-grade energy that can be supplied through simple, durable strategies: passive solar, solar thermal, geothermal, and biodigesters. Such technology has a democratizing effect: it is accessible, flexible, adaptable to place, and manageable by individuals and neighborhoods.

Both biogas and biomass can be combusted in combined heat and power (CHP) plants that produce both heat and electricity. Unlike conventional power plants, which lose 60% of their energy to “waste heat,” CHP plants capture most of this heat for water or space-conditioning. Neighborhood scale CHP plants provide district heating and cooling to nearby buildings via hot and cold water loops.

While this system is powered by combustion, its fuel sources are waste streams composed of terrestrial carbon, meaning they are renewable and carbon-neutral. Biogas is produced by biodigesters that treat the city’s organic waste; biomass is agricultural waste, transported to CHP plants from farms within and around the city.

Biogas (essentially renewable natural gas) can also be run directly to buildings through existing natural gas lines and used to power conventional furnaces and boilers, as well as supplant other natural gas uses.

Ideas About Health.

Humans are moving to urban dwellings. In 2010, the world passed the 50% marker for urban dwelling versus small townships, and the rate continues to rise. The benefits of urban dwelling are numerous, but the negative health consequences are obvious: poor air quality, poor, nutrition, and a lack of connection to nature.

The often overlooked aspect of carbon is its positive role in terrestrial ecosystems. Indeed CO2 is a good thing, we just put it in the wrong place. Similarly, we depend upon decomposition, fire, maggots, fungi, disease, and death to complete the natural lifecycle. We have demonized germs and bacteria and have weaponized against them with household chemicals far more toxic for humans than their targets. For example, we could not digest food without the assistance of microbial symbionts.

It is well known that plants and humans have a symbiotic relationship: we breath the oxygen they produce after photosynthesis. NASA has tested common household plants in labs and in their closed-loop biosphere projects. These studies, as well as their ‘Luna Gaia’ research, have found that many plants can break down the complex organics we use in our products and reduce ‘sick building syndrome’. With the assistance of these plants, a building can be airtight during extreme seasons, avoiding the energy costs of conditioning outside air lowering energy demand for HVAC, while improving occupants’ health and wellbeing.

Modifications to existing building stock will vary from building to building. The roofs are converted to a closed loop greenhouse and separated from the ground plane, fulfilling the ‘rights to nature’ philosophy. The core of the building will house the Organic HVAC biofiltration system; this will handle the filtration of the indoor air, provide physiological biophilic benefits for the occupants, and thin the width of the floor plates to optimize daylight penetration and exterior views.

The Organic HVAC is created either by hollowing a midsection, enclosing a courtyard, or carving out space on the north side of the building and then pulling air up and through the chambers. Air is propelled through the rhizosphere of the plant and is evacuated into the space. The roots of a plant can absorb organics, pathogens, and toxins much more rapidly than the leaves when coupled with high-efficiency carbon filters - a 200% increase can be realized. Plants have a natural ability to absorb toxins introduced into the building, such as formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene, xylene, and toluene. All of these chemicals, some known carcinogens, exist in the furniture, goods, electronics, and interior finishes of a building. Organic HVAC systems remove these toxins creating a healthy indoor environment.

Urban rooftops are converted into productive agricultural greenhouses. Rather than soil planting, an aeroponic system with rotation trays is used to produce herbaceous plants. This system requires less nutrients and only a fog of water. In a controlled ecosphere, this method can reduce water usage by 98%, fertilizer usage by 60%, and pesticide usage by 100%, and maximize crop yields by 45 to 75%.

Eliminate the Automobile.

Imagine the possibilities if there were no automobiles. If you’ve never lived in a city with decent public transit, you’re probably wondering how you’re going to get to work every day. But if you have, your imagination is more likely running wild with the possibilities. What would my street look like? Could my kids play in it? Could I play in it? There would be no more searches for parking! There’s no shortage of ideas mainly because there’s no shortage of opportunity. Our nation and its cities are literally defined by their roads.

It wasn’t always like this, however. Chicago witnessed its marshes slowly defined by walking paths, then transformed into equestrian paths, paved to hold the weight of a new automobile, and then paved 12 times over to hold the weight of an entire army of automobiles. Unfortunately, we have been either blind or ambivalent to this creep and its negative externalities. That is, until now. Faced with congestion, poor air quality, and the near complete occupation by this mechanical army on a plane humans have depended on for food and nourishment for hundreds of thousands of years, we seek change.

As automobiles are supplanted by public transit, several patterns begin to emerge as streets become corridors for habitat and human activity. Avenues transform into gathering places, important for community and political discourse. Alternatively, they are consumed by habitat, important for wildlife and ecosystem services (stormwater retention, reduced heat island, etc). They also become a new breed of commons - a locus of commercial activity and exchange that brings the city to life in a way previously unimaginable. On the opposite page are just some of the endless possible manifestations of this new language - the beginnings of a vocabulary that will grow more robust with time.

The ‘U’ train is a modern alternative to the above surface light-rail and the subsurface metro--not to mention the backbone of a Living City. It replaces the noisy/aging elevated train (also known as the ‘L’) as Chicago’s primary mode of public transportation. Lying just beneath the epidermis of the city, it allows daylight and fresh air to circulate throughout the lines. At stations, it crests slightly above the ground to create a visible entrance while not disturbing the circulation of the intersection. Additionally, the ‘U’ is divided into compartments in order to handle increased volumes of inhabitants. The lower section is reserved for the moving of personal goods. Dually, the below grade channel is the new stormwater management system. The subsurface-flow wetlands are critical to handling runoff not absorbed by the topsoil. Overflow from the aerobic system is sent to the biodigesters.

“Now we shall begin to see in detail how the rich and complex order of a town can grow from thousands of creative acts. For once we have a common pattern language, we shall have all the power to make our streets and buildings live through our most ordinary acts. The language, like a seed, is the genetic system which gives our millions of small acts the power to form a whole.” - Christopher Alexander, A Timeless Way of Building

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