An interview with Stefan Al, Visiting Associate Professor at the Pratt institute and architect, on designing for tomorrow with sustainability in mind.
My grandfather owned a small carpentry factory. Ever since I was old enough to hold a hammer, he would give me little pieces of timber. I enjoyed making small tables and chairs. This eventually inspired me to pursue architecture. One of my first projects was the design of a TV tower. Since it was 2000-feet tall, and briefly the world’s tallest tower, the project changed my trajectory. When a building reaches such a large scale, it is no longer just architecture, but city design. Since then, I’ve focused on how cities have positively reinvented themselves through design. As a professor, I was fortunate to study different parts of the world and saw a huge variation on how cities could be. I was impressed to see cities and buildings that promote sustainability and beauty at the same time. This inspired me to be part of the change.
I believe that sustainability is getting more and more important in future designs. Buildings are responsible for roughly 40% of the world’s carbon emissions. We can no longer just build the way we did over the last century. We need to build with new materials that are kinder to our planet, such as cross laminated timber, which is an engineered wood that is much stronger than regular lumber and with less environmental impact than traditional materials like reinforced concrete. And we need to design so that buildings consume less energy for heating, cooling, and lighting. The challenge is to do this in such a way to create a building that is not only more sustainable but also more aesthetically appealing and inspiring.
I learned that a tower can serve as a symbol of progress. We designed the 600-meter-tall TV tower in the form of a hyperboloid shape, which is a beautiful lattice structure that is structurally advantageous but had not been applied on a building of that scale and complexity. Upon construction, the project was instantly embraced by the public as a symbol of modernity. Today, it is widely appreciated as an innovative structure.
I think before architects would approach an adaptive reuse project with the idea of doing a minimalist intervention. But this became a bit of a cliché. Today, it is more about establishing a dialogue between the old and the new. Architects now have more leeway in doing something original and surprising.
I have been working on designing a pavilion for Burning Man. It is giant portal oriented towards the sunset. It also features photovoltaic-powered lights that will be re-used after the event and sent to people with no or limited access to electric lighting. The message here is that we need to think of the afterlife of our structures. Construction waste does not need to be waste and can be re-used if we plan for it.
Urban design shapes so much of our everyday lives from the way in which we travel to how we can interact with our neighbors. Good urban design can promote healthier habits like walking, encourage more social interaction between people, and strengthen the sustainability of our environment.