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Cheap, green buildings for all?

Aon Building in Chicago once had a marble exterior.

The Aon Building in Chicago. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

When the Aon Center was completed in 1973, it was the tallest skyscraper in Chicago and one of the tallest buildings in the world. The architects had managed to reach an impressive 350 meters (1,140 feet). 

They then sheathed the entire building in Italian Carrara marble, the same Italian quarry Michaelangelo used for his masterpiece David.

As it turned out, though, Italian Carrara marble is not particularly well suited to Chicago’s harsh winters, which can reach -30°C (-22°F). Barely a year had passed before one of the slabs of the exterior – each were about a square metre - fell from the façade and penetrated the roof of a nearby center.

By 1985, bowing and cracking had occurred on all 43,000 slabs of the marble, threatening to rain down on the bustling city below. The building exterior was held on temporarily by stainless steel straps, and after that the entire façade had to be replaced with granite from North Carolina. The process rang up a bill of about US$80 millions – reportedly half the initial cost for the entire building. (And it also left the owners with 5,900 tons of unwanted, cracked marble.)

Building for the environment

It’s not only spectacularly disastrous cases like this one that arise from a building poorly designed for its environment. There's a litany of other minor costs and impacts, from the cost of unneccessary material transport and reinforcements to water wastage and high energy bills.

An architectural think-tank called Collaboratorio based in Venice, Italy, are going to start addressing this issue, focussing at the local level. The group are collecting data on new buildings and creating a database, which will in turn provide qualitative and statistical data that can be used regionally to identify trends and define what type of design is more appropriate.

The first spin off company from Collaboratorio is called Green Prefab, which helps architects, engineers, building constructors and real estates with new digital tools in order to make their work easier and faster.

"Based on industrial production methods dealing with interoperable digital 3D full detailed models of the building, [Green Prefab] guarantees physical performances of the building while saving costs and time," said Furio Barzon, CEO of Collaboratorio.

This is enabled by the VENUS-C platform (Virtual Multidisciplinary Environments using cloud infrastructures). Only one year into the project, VENUS-C is developing, testing and deploying large cloud computing infrastructures for research in Europe.

The first building fully developed within Green Prefab will be realized early in 2012 and it will be located at Manifattura Domani in Rovereto (Trento, Italy). It will include an international competition managed within the system that will be announced in late 2011 at Manifattura Domani's website.

“We feel like pioneers in the right direction to the still untouched gold mine,” Barzon said, and they are planning to open offices in Trento, Italy and San Francisco, USA, this year.

Ultimately, the goal of Collaboratorio and their new online-enabled building industry is to have every person living and working in cheap, environment-friendly buildings, which will hopefully see costly and dangerous mistakes such as the exterior of the Aon building confined to the past.

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