towers to purify the air

at COP26 in glasgow, skidmore, owings & merrill (SOM) unveils its concept tower dubbed ‘urban sequoia.’ the new building type is proposed to transform the built environment into a network for absorbing carbon. during the ambitious presentation, the team envisions a built environment which could be a solution to the climate crisis, rather than part of the problem. the towers are imagined to behave like trees — capturing carbon, purifying the air, and regenerating the environment.

the team at SOM looks toward natural processes and ecosystems, envisioning ‘forests’ of ‘urban sequoias’ that sequester carbon and produce biomaterials to create a new carbon economy and a resilient urban environment.

SOM COP26 urban sequoia
rendering © SOM | miysis

the impact of the building sector

SOM unveils its urban sequoia concept at COP26 as an ambitious proposal to absorb carbon at an unprecedented rate. the team has developed the first step toward achieving this goal on a broad scale, with a prototype for a high-rise building that can be built today. created by a global interdisciplinary team at SOM, with the advice of industry experts, the concept was presented by kent jackson, partner, and mina hasman, senior associate principal, live at COP26 in the buildings pavilion in the blue zone.

the group emphasizes the necessity to transform the built environment, underscoring that the building sector generates nearly 40 per cent of all global carbon emissions. as urban populations continue to grow in the coming decades, studies predict that another 230 billion square meters of new building stock will be needed by 2060.

SOM COP26 urban sequoia
rendering © SOM | miysis

a new role for the built environment

in the presentation of its urban sequoia prototype at COP26, SOM’s main proposition is that the built environment can absorb carbon. the proposal transforms buildings into solutions, radically rethinking how buildings and cities are designed and constructed. it is a viable solution that could have a far-reaching impact, with the potential to create a circular economy that absorbs carbon.

SOM partner chris cooper explains the strategy: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.’

SOM COP26 urban sequoia
rendering © SOM

SOM’s vision for a cleaner future

the team explains that its urban sequoia proposal brings together different strands of sustainable design thinking, the latest innovations, and emerging technologies and reimagines them at building scale. by holistically optimising building design, minimising materials, integrating biomaterials, advanced biomass, and carbon capture technologies, SOM’s urban sequoia achieves substantially more significant carbon reductions than has been achieved by applying these techniques separately.

partner at SOM kent jackson continues:this is a pathway to a more sustainable future that is accessible today. imagine a world where a building helps to heal the planet. 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.’

SOM proposes a forest of carbon-absorbing 'urban sequoia' towers at COP26
image © SOM

one tower equal to 48,500 trees

while announcing its proposal at COP26, SOM claims that these strategies can be applied to buildings of all sizes and types. for cities, the prototype takes shape as a high-rise building that can sequester as much as 1,000 tons of carbon per year, equivalent to 48,500 trees. the design incorporates nature-based solutions and materials that use far less carbon than conventional options and absorb carbon over time. materials like bio-brick, hempcrete, timber, and biocrete reduce the carbon impact of construction by 50 per cent compared to concrete and steel. a progressive approach could reduce construction emissions by 95 per cent.

SOM proposes a forest of carbon-absorbing 'urban sequoia' towers at COP26
image © SOM

beyond net-zero

this solution promises that we move beyond net zero to deliver carbon-absorbing buildings, increasing the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere over time. the team at SOM claims that after 60 years, the prototype would absorb up to 400 per cent more carbon than it could have emitted during construction. the captured carbon can be put to use in various industrial applications, completing the carbon cycle and forming the basis of a new carbon-removal economy. with integrated biomass and algae, the facades could turn the building into a biofuel source that powers heating systems, cars, and aeroplanes; and a bioprotein source usable in many industries.

SOM goes on to assert that if every city around the world built urban sequoias, the built environment could remove up to 1.6 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. the team claims that with immediate focus and investment in this prototype, the process can start now and the first urban sequoia can be built today.