As Architects and Engineers, we are trained to be optimistic about the future, we believe we can make a difference to people’s lives, we can leave our cities or existing buildings better than we found them. Recent events however such as Covid-19 and rising temperatures around the World (including London hitting its hottest ever recorded temperature of 104oF at the time of writing) are presenting us with new and significant challenges.

The news at times can feel quite overwhelming and a constant reminder that we are living on a Fragile Planet. Rather than considering how or why these things have happened, we choose to focus on what as Architects and Engineers how we find lasting solutions to the challenges we now face.

To see if we can still feel that there are reasons to be optimistic about the future.

This is the essence of our project.

We will travel to Arizona to learn from a number of pioneering projects that explore living in harmony with the Earth, to see what lessons we can learn from them. We will travel to the Sonoran Desert to look at pioneering houses by Rick Joy, the Phoenix Botanical Gardens by Christy Ten Eyck, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and Paolo Soleri’s enlightened plans for future city living at Acro Santi.

Our project will be situated at Biosphere 2 a visionary project currently being run by the University of Arizona which explores sustainable ways for humankind to live in harmony with nature.

Using the very latest environmental and 21st century construction techniques we aim to create a Fragile Research Institute. A self-sustaining centre of excellence where the brightest minds in the planet can gather to explore new ways to design for better tomorrows.

We aim to create a studio that will be inspiring, inventive and thoughtful, with projects that shine a light on architectural responses to difficult times.

The Studio

Our sustainability studio this semester is set in the campus surrounding Biosphere 2 in Oracle Arizona.

“The greatest experiment in ecological self-organisation ever conducted.”
—Mark Nelson

Biosphere 2 was the setting for a 1991 journey into uncharted territory - a two-year endurance test for eight “biospherians” who took up residence in a huge custom-built structure as part of an experiment to test the ability of humans to survive in isolation for extended periods away from the enclosing atmosphere of Biosphere 1 (the Earth). Using only the natural resources in sunlight, plant photosynthesis, and muscle power they aimed to produce the oxygen, food and the water that they would need to survive.

At the time the experiment was condemned as a failure both by both the scientific community and the media. This was mainly because the sealed environment ultimately required oxygen to be added to reduce CO2 levels and avoid malnutrition and health problems for the Biospherians.

In reality though, the scientists learned a great deal about the shortcomings of humans in adapting to inhabiting a closed ecosystem, and about the unintended consequences from things like the soil which “was too rich in organic matter, and its thriving bacteria gobbled up too much oxygen.” The motivation behind the great experiment 30 years ago was to gain an understanding of one of the perceived barriers to interplanetary space-travel and, with an early awareness of the potential impacts of Climate Change, to test the feasibility of perpetuating the human race by visiting other worlds.

The story has been well told in several books (see bibliography) and in the 2020 documentary Spaceship Earth , and so we will not repeat it here, but we will visit Biosphere 2 as part of the Studio travel week to find out more about the Science that continues there in the purpose built biomes. Our purpose in setting the studio in this context is in part to gain an understanding of the challenges that the original experiment faced and to drill into what was learned, but also to find out more about the climate change and ecological research that is happening on the site now as part of the University of Arizona’s Climate research program and to think about how our Fragile Earth Research Institute can add a contemporary but timeless building to the existing facility.

The title of the 2020 documentary references another great sustainability thinker, Buckminster Fuller, whose 1969 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth remains a thought leader for comprehensive climate science. In it Bucky investigates the great challenges facing humanity, how we can go about exercising our option to avoid extinction, offering advice on how to guide spaceship earth to a sustainable future. Much has changed since 1969, both in terms of a more universal recognition of climate change and the technologies that we have at our disposal to mitigate our impacts. Climate Science and the role that we all can have as designers will be an inspiration for our work together over the coming months. The hot and dry Climate of Arizona provides plentiful sunlight and energy, but a lack of water at the surface. Usually as a result, this climate provides a limited capacity to support ecosystems, flora and fauna.

The climate crisis is beginning to present many similar challenges to humanity, particularly in subsistence economies where the fragile earth is increasingly unable to support or sustain the human population that has lived there for thousands of years.

One of the impacts of climate change is aridification—the drying of previously fertile lands and the loss of production and ecosystem services resulting from lack of water. This is just one of the many impacts of climate change that the new Institute will seek to study, drawing on the juxtaposition with Biosphere 2, a living laboratory on a huge scale.

In his important book Architecture from prehistory to the Climate Emergency, Barnaby Calder describes the changing relationship between architecture and energy through the millennia and demonstrates how access to unlimited (relatively) cheap fuel has allowed architecture to transform from vernacular to ‘international.‘ He observes how much good fossil fuels have done us and how difficult they are going to be to give up.

The history of architecture however contains many examples of the ingenuity and adaptability of humans in meeting the challenges of their natural environment; even in the most unpromising of circumstances the shifts in human access to energy have often been a key determinant of architectural change. As we move into a new era of sustainable and renewable energy, how can architecture develop to be more responsive and responsible?

Sustainable Development Framework

Your proposal for Fragile Earth Research Institute will set itself at the centre of Climate Change research. This is a huge subject area and your Institute could potentially incorporate some or all of the following facilities and laboratories for research and development, many of them linked to the Goals set out in the UN Sustainable Development framework (UNSDG):

  1. Sustainable construction and climate appropriate architecture
  2. Food security, sustainable agricultural practices and supply chains
  3. Ecosystem restoration and water management
  4. Sustainable energy, climate action and adaptation
  5. Socioeconomic equality
  6. Disaster resilience
  7. Data science and predictive modelling, applied to earth sciences
  8. Data-informed climate change and resource management
  9. Carbon removal technologies
  10. Use of satellite and drone data to monitor and model fragile earth
  11. Economic/quantitative characterisation of climate change risk

There are also significant methodological topics of interest that include:

  1. Environmental and building physics using data-driven modelling
  2. Machine learning to enhance physical simulations
  3. Causal learning in a complex physical world
  4. Multi-agent systems for participatory modelling that integrate stakeholders into knowledge creation and decision processes.

But it is your choice—your building could include some of the above and you are free to come up with other specific area(s) of Fragile Earth related R+D to establish your own brief as you see fit. All that we ask is that you demonstrate to us through your own research a specific line of enquiry that interests you and where you see potential for a strong connection to an architectural proposition.

The vernacular architecture of arid regions offers a rich history for us to draw on as designers, and your proposals should play extensively on the principles and physics of passive design. We are also very interested in how new and emerging technologies both change the physics and offer new opportunities to build better and with carbon zero or carbon positive outcomes.

Project Brief

Your building or complex of buildings, should be designed to the most exacting 21st Century construction and environmental standards and be designed to touch the Earth lightly. Your buildings must be appropriate to the local location, climate and environment and perhaps be completely biodegradable over time, using materials that are wherever possible locally sourced.

Your buildings should target net zero carbon during construction and be completely sustainable in terms of lifelong embodied carbon. This might be achieved by using advanced technological methods such as 3D printing, modular construction, or casting.

You should develop proposals for the conservation and creation of energy for your Institute and to investigate water management technologies to provide clean potable water for day-to-day use as well as clean sanitation. In addition, the Institute should aim to be self-sufficient in all of its food production using advanced exploratory techniques, perhaps working together with Biosphere 2.

As described above the brief for your building is negotiable but must include all necessary facilities for researchers of all ages and mobilities from around the world, to potentially offer long term living laboratories as well as a location for scientists and researchers to gather in small groups for a semester of ¾ months at a time. The researchers would all be living, working, studying and relaxing at the Institute, therefore everyone’s health and well-being should be paramount throughout the design process in the extreme climate of Arizona.

A Journey of Discovery

Our plan is not to resolve every construction issue of the project, that simply isn’t possible in one semester. The most important thing is to design a beautiful and inspiring place, that is emphatically more than just a building, and to learn more together about truly sustainable development in an extreme climate. The relationship between your project, Biosphere 2 and the surrounding landscape is also a very important sub-text to our studies.

Project Location: The Sonoran Desert in Arizona

For inspiration our Studio trip will begin in Tuscon Arizona, before heading into the Sonoran Desert to meet inspirational Faculty members from the University of Arizona, a visit to the office of the Architect Rick Joy who has had a lifelong career building exceptionally beautiful buildings in this region. We will also visit Christy Ten Eyck’s beautiful Botanical gardens in Phoenix Arizona, a living example of the majesty and variation of the natural flora and fauna of the Desert.

We will then travel onto the location of your projects, Biosphere 2 the American Earth system science research facility in Oracle Arizona where we linger for 2 days. We will travel on to visit Taliesin West, and Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s extraordinary futuristic vision of a more sustainable world.

Time allowing our trip will also take us to the Hoover Dam and one of the largest solar fields on the Planet.

To reflect on all we have learned on our journey together, by contrast our week long study trip will finish in Las Vegas, and a visit to the Springs Preserve a 180 acre visitor centre dedicated to a sustainable future for Las Vegas (you heard it here for first) and we hope here to be taking our own version of “Learning from Las Vegas”.

We then plan to return to New Haven inspired and ready to complete your vision for the Fragile Earth Research Institute in Oracle, Arizona.

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