Sustainable Design and the Future of Architecture: An Interview with Arpan Bakshi


Image Courtesy of OMA

This interview originally appeared on ArchDaily asBehind the Scenes of OMA’s Latest Tower with Sustainability Consultant Arpan Bakshi.”

It’s not the flashiest sustainable tower out there.  It doesn’t have a green roof, solar panels, or even a lushly vegetated facade. But, unlike those other “conspicuously” eco-friendly skyscrapers, the Essence Financial Building (EFB), a new office tower designed by OMA (the well renowned architecture firm behind China’s CCTV Headquarters), is quite possibly the future of sustainable design.

The innovation in the tower, located in Shenzhen, China, is not immediately apparent — not even to the well-trained eye. So to understand why the EFB could be, in the words of OMA Partner David Gianotten, the first of “a new generation of office tower”, I decided to pick the brains of Arpan Bakshi, an architect, engineer, and sustainability Manager at YR&G (OMA’s sustainability consultants), who led the environmental design for the building.

Not only is Bakshi an expert in environmental design, he is also intimately familiar with the state of sustainability in building design in China today. And (1) with China continuing to lead the way in urbanization and (2) buildings remaining the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, the status of sustainable design in China is of serious concern.

Vanessa Quirk: How was the experience of working with OMA on the Essence Financial Building (EFB)?

Arpan Bakshi: Working with OMA is exceptionally collaborative, and there is never a napkin sketch. The design is a product of a cerebral and often exhaustive process of research and experimentation. In my first project with OMA three years ago, a multi-use development in Jilin, China, I expected to receive some formal studies following the project kick-off meeting. Instead, I was given a 59 page document with research about trends in population, culture, economic development, urban scales, land use, and program, among other topics. No one preemptively arrived at a solution without investigating the context. I have also observed [that] the lines dividing roles between OMA and their consultants are blurred to create an open working environment towards identifying relevant design drivers across disciplines. This is an ideal working relationship.

The EFB hopes to spearhead a new, contemporary office tower typology for Shenzhen — where does sustainability fit into that typology?

Unlike the contemporary office tower, which provides only a visual connection to the outdoors, occupants on every floor of the EFB have the ability to open a set of doors and walk outside of the building to occupy an open air space shaded by an unglazed and open structural grid. What you cannot see from the renderings is that EFB is really a building within a building. The architectural enclosure is separated into multiple planes to meet modern considerations of energy, useful daylight, comfort and biophilia without the use of additional materials often found in the application of external shading devices. This is accomplished by pulling the structural assembly outside and away from the glazing plane. The structure no longer occupies interior floor space and serves the dual purpose of protecting conditioned spaces from the Shenzhen climate.

The facade of the EFB is “designed with reference to Shenzhen’s climate and urban context.” Can you explain how the facade does this?

We started the project with an assessment of environmental resources. We studied both the natural and the urban environment to understand how historical climate conditions intersect with the impact of neighboring buildings. For example, there is a variation in the EFB façade module size and depth, both horizontally and vertically. This was informed by the study of the interactive relationship between the movement of the sun, the city layout, outdoor temperatures and indoor activity which determine the experience inside the building. Balancing these considerations affects the size of mechanical equipment and the energy it consumes.

Considering the speed in which the world, and particularly China, is developing, do you find it difficult to achieve your environmental agenda, when often familiar, unsustainable practices are quicker or easier to implement?

Sustainability is the only way China can continue to grow. It provides a framework for using resources effectively. As we have seen throughout history, there comes a time when it costs more to ignore an environmental situation than it does to address it. During our own industrial revolution, the strain on livability reached a point of saturation. This is when the clean-up started to happen, as it will in China and other rapidly industrializing nations.

How important is sustainable design today for Chinese developers?

Businesses in China equate a sustainable building with a quality building. Project proposals clearly state goals like ecologically-friendly, comfortable and efficient. This indicates a demand on developers for sustainable design from their tenants.

What does sustainable design mean today? How can design tackle the many issues currently facing the world?

Sustainable design today means working at the intersection of people and technology. For instance, technology helps us analyze complex design scenarios and operate building systems with precision. But technology only responds to inputs from the people who operate it. Understanding and informing human behavior, and coupling that with technological innovation can bring about massive change upstream.

What concerns do you think will become more important in the future? Is architecture, as it exists now, equipped to respond to these challenges?

Today’s architecture is shaped primarily by the physical growth of urban areas as a result of rural migration. Urbanization will continue to be both a challenge and an opportunity. Buildings in the future will not only be efficient, they will be versatile. Professionals are equipped with the necessary design tools, but architecture doesn’t exist in a vacuum; finance and politics add complexity to implementing new ideas. Sustainability will inevitably have to shift from prevention to adaptability, as meteorological events become increasingly volatile.