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Embracing Ageing Architecture, Towards a Sustainable Future

Ageing and growth are natural processes that have been largely avoided in modern metropolises. The desire for new and modern has led to a rejection of ageing and growth in cities, as if only the new is meaningful and represents a higher quality of life and civilization. In this pursuit, cities are pitted against nature, using vast resources to maintain a veneer of newness and fight against the natural ageing and growth process. This paper proposes a sustainable design perspective that embraces ageing and growth and examines the relationship between these processes and nature. It suggests ways in which cities can effectively incorporate ageing and growth to achieve a more sustainable future.

1. Introduction

Modernism in architecture has consistently been characterized by its focus on cleanliness, tidiness, and functionality. From Le Corbusier's Five Elements of Modernism to the Chicago School's emphasis on functionalist building and urbanism (Etlin, 1987), it has remained a driving force in architecture. Even in post-modernism, which emerged as a rebellion against and critique of modernism (Dear, 1986), natural ageing and growth have never got enough attention, as exemplified by the Metabolists' proposal for architecture that imitates the functioning of living systems (Koolhaas, 2011), despite the revolutionary potential of this approach, it remains tied to the pursuit of newness and the creation of brand-new architecture.

While it is a natural and inevitable occurrence for all things in the world to age, weather, fade, decay, or disappear over time, we often hold a societal expectation that buildings should remain timeless. Yet, even buildings that are considered timeless, such as the pyramids in Egypt, the Kölner Dom in Germany, and the Suzhou Classical Gardens in China, are not immune to the effects of time and continue to be beloved despite their erosion. Similarly, the Eiffel Tower in France and the Statue of Liberty in the USA (Fife, 2022), symbols of humanity's industrial greatness, require significant resources to maintain their pristine states. This raises the question: why do we place such value on the timelessness of our buildings, and what does this desire for eternal preservation say about our societal values?

Fig. 1 Pyramids (left), Kölner Dom (mid), Suzhou Classical Gardens (right).
Fig. 2 Eiffel Tower (left), Statue of Liberty (right).

The constant pursuit of novelty in architecture has contributed to an unsustainable urban environment. While we often appreciate the cleanliness and modernity of our cities, this obsession with newness leads to the excessive consumption of resources for the maintenance and replacement of building materials such as glass, tile, and metal. This can be a financial burden for developers and operators, and it also results in a lack of consideration for the long-term durability of buildings in contemporary urban design and planning. As a result, many buildings become prone to premature abandonment or require significant financial resources to maintain due to their inability to withstand the passage of time. It is important for architects to take responsibility for the impact of their design choices on the sustainability and longevity of our built environment.

In this paper, we propose a time-based design approach that embraces the ageing process of architecture rather than solely focusing on the pursuit of newness. We argue that architects should accept the inevitability of ageing in architecture and take proactive measures to address it. By embracing the concept of pro-life design, we can create buildings that are able to adapt and evolve over time, rather than becoming prematurely abandoned or requiring significant resources to maintain. This shift in perspective has the potential to lead to a more sustainable and resilient built environment.

2. Ageing

In architectural design, ageing often refers to deterioration and changes in materials, building forms or structures. Traditionally, the ageing of buildings seems to stand in opposition to the concept of sustainability. But ageing brings not only the demise of buildings but also the recovery of nature. Can we, therefore, turn ageing, a design approach based on its natural pre-existing conditions, into a beneficial influence on sustainability by redefining ageing in a way that makes buildings sustainable?

2.1 What Ageing Brings to Sustainability?

2.1.1 Environmental Sustainability

From an economic point of view, in the pre-design phase, designers use cutting-edge means to optimise the building properly in order to better mitigate the ageing of the building. Therefore, the building is potentially wasteful of resources from the early stages, and most buildings require a high investment of design capital to achieve sustainability. Secondly, from the 18th century onwards, designers have been trying to medicalise architecture, with Reyner Banham proposing the 'Environment Bubble' (Banham, 1965) for fragile modern buildings, advocating the use of machines to protect buildings.

Fig. 3Environment Bubble.

So, after the building is built, the building always requires high costs and human resources to maintain its longevity of the equipment and form. In contrast, planned ageing means that our buildings 'die' naturally and do not require long-term maintenance that consumes human and material resources. In economic terms, naturally aged buildings achieve energy savings. In this way, the building under planned ageing is compatible with sustainable building design.

2.1.2 Bio-receptive

As for ecological factors, the demise of buildings also re-supports the conditions for the sustainability of our environment. In contrast to the palaces and castles (Fig.4) of the past, modern buildings with their white walls and large areas of transparent glass dominate the colour of the city. The city is losing its biodiversity and biological acceptability, ageing as a synonym for nature, erasing the communication between architecture and nature as we wear him down. Biological growth is the result of ageing, while the achievement of sustainable development is the result of biological growth.

Fig. 4Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

The modern building does not allow organisms to attach and 'grow'. Biology for us is the foundation that provides sustainability. From moss to climbing vines, these plants are attached to the building, providing space for biology to grow and produce material that benefits the environment (Cruz, 2016). For example, our research promotes urban biodiversity and bio-acceptance through the use of sustainable materials and ageing-related designs that offer the potential for biological growth. Bio-receptivity will lead to sustainable buildings in terms of carbon sequestration.

3. Methodology

In response to the possible benefits of ageing, the transformation and optimisation of traditional ageing may lead to new design ideas for sustainable buildings. The aforementioned obsession with neat and clean design in modern architecture has led to the loss of possibilities for sustainable building development. Unlike traditional ageing, which breaks the circulation of buildings and nature, we advocate ageing as a way of enhancing the sustainability of buildings through planned ageing, restoring the original ecological environment of buildings of the past, but using new methodologies and materials to address the potential problems of ageing.

4. Ageing Approaches for a Sustainable Future

Sustainability at the building level encompasses materials to the functional, economic, socio-cultural, and ecological factors associated with architectural design(US EPA,2021). In this way, we propose an approach whereby buildings can age as planned, eventually transforming into nature-integrating buildings that can absorb CO2.

The interplays between 'ageing' and 'renewal' in buildings are complex, as they are affected by various factors. The ageing of buildings presents comprehensively according to scales. On the micro-scale, it’s about microbes and the properties of the material; on the mesoscale, it’s about the geometry and surface condition; On the macro-scale, it’s about the condition of space, human activities and environmental factors. Rather than viewing environmental factors such as sunlight, rain, and plant invasion as adversaries, they can be understood as integral components of the ongoing construction process (Willis, 1994).

In our approach to designing buildings, we prioritize aesthetics and consider the four dimensions of material, biology, texture, and spatial form, as well as the passage of time and the planned ageing of the structure. While acknowledging the potential for ageing to reduce energy consumption and economic waste, we seek to balance the comfort and aesthetic preferences of human occupants with the use of biological means to control ageing. We hope that incorporating growing biology into the building will not only improve sustainability by effectively absorbing CO2 but also enhance the overall integration of the building as a cohesive entity.

4.1Micro: Materials

At the micro level, biological materials to which organic matter can adhere and grow, as well as materials that change the properties of the material itself through microorganisms, are worthy of research. Organisms that grow naturally on a building are generally not controlled and are disposed of regularly, as the presence of organisms on a building accelerates its ageing to some extent and even affects its safety. However, if a building can accept ageing, organisms can act not only as ageing enhancers but also as eliminators. In the second direction, for example, researchers have already developed a self-healing ageing material, a bio-concrete developed by Dutch researcher and microbiologist Hendrik Jonkers.

4.2 Meso: Texture

In our study of architectural ageing, we also examine the meso-level, specifically the textural forms and structures that align with both biological growth and human aesthetic preferences. We advocate for a 'new' aesthetic approach that involves planned growth, in which the abundance of organisms and the direction of ageing can be somewhat regulated through the design of various textural shapes. Different aesthetic tastes, as well as considerations for biological viability and the ageing of buildings, may influence the preferred texture and form of the facade. For instance, while a modernist aesthetic may favour smooth and polished walls, a certain level of roughness or the presence of gaps or textures may provide a habitat for organisms and facilitate the natural ageing process. By manipulating the number and orientation of textures on the facade, we can artificially control ageing while also reconciling the relationship between humans, biology, and the ageing of the building, ultimately reducing energy consumption and promoting greenery.

Fig. 5 Example of an ageing pattern design

4.3 Macro: Spatial Form

At the macro level, we must take into account various environmental factors and use statistical analysis of environmental data to determine the most appropriate locations for housing, greenery, offices, and public spaces, which can help to minimize costs and energy consumption. Additionally, we must consider the different degrees of ageing that may be acceptable for different functional areas within the building. While certain environmental factors may have a greater impact on the erosion of certain building areas, we can strategically choose appropriate materials and textures that are suitable for plant life in areas where organisms are likely to thrive and designate these areas as those that can accommodate higher levels of ageing. On the other hand, human living spaces should be situated in areas with moderate temperature and humidity, and relatively low levels of ageing. Through this approach, we can allocate the entire building area in a sustainable and rational manner based on the consideration of ageing.

Fig. 6Textured wall development process

5. Conclusion

We propose to bring ageing into the concept of sustainable development of architectural design. Instead of leaving our building to age naturally, the patterns and processes of ageing are controlled by computational simulation at the design stage according to aesthetics, including integration with microbiology. Such approaches allow more autotrophic living to exist in buildings and absorb CO2 for sustainable purposes. Allowing the buildings to age involves a reverence for history and an anticipation of the future, by which architecture will be given a new meaning.



HANGCHUAN WEI (Left), XIAOYING FU (center) & YUHAN WU (right)

We worked together in our master’s study at Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Our research interests are focused on obtaining a more sustainable building environment through bio-design interventions.



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