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SOM

Sustainable Design: Breathable Building Envelopes

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Evolution of the Breathable Building Envelope

The “breathable skin” is one of architecture’s oldest and most fundamental notions. Enabling natural air to move through a building dates back to the wind catchers of ancient Egypt and related structures in the Middle East. Over time, technological advancements, ever-increasing building heights, and society’s growing environmental awareness have spurred exciting new developments in the design and construction of sustainable architecture that "breathes." Here, we present three such projects conceived by SOM, each featuring a different building envelope strategy: the naturally ventilated atrium enclosure, the internally ventilated double wall, and the externally ventilated double wall.

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Naturally Ventilated Atrium Enclosure

Greenland Suzhou Center: Digital aerodynamic modeling was used to help design this 358-meter supertall skyscraper in Wujiang, China. A central 42-story atrium with operable windows acts as a “lung” for the tower. During mild weather months, outdoor air flows into the building and provides free cooling and fresh air. Hot air rises and is exhausted through the top of the building. The atrium also enables interior spaces to be flooded with natural light.

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Naturally Ventilated Atrium Enclosure

Greenland Suzhou Center: On each floor of the atrium, operable panels are tucked into the east and west corners to facilitate cross ventilation. The windows are closed when outdoor temperatures, humidity levels, and/or air quality are not ideal. SOM oriented the building to take advantage of prevailing winds.

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Internally Ventilated Double Wall

Pearl River Tower: This 309-meter tower in Guangzhou, China, was the first supertall building certified LEED® Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council. The building achieves its high performance through a number of strategies, including radiant ceilings and underfloor air distribution coupled with a double-skin curtain wall. Moreover, the building is sculpted to draw wind into two openings in the north and south elevations. The openings contain wind turbines that generate energy for the tower.

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Internally Ventilated Double Wall

Pearl River Tower: The curtain wall is composed of two layers of glass separated by a ventilated cavity. The inner layer contains perforated metal panel inlets, through which indoor air enters the cavity before it is exhausted on mechanical floors. The cavity also immediately exhausts potential infiltration. Automated interior blinds improve daylighting while helping control solar heat. The tower’s breathable envelope greatly improves energy performance, improves indoor air quality, and enhances occupant comfort.

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Externally Ventilated Double Wall

Nanjing Keyne Centre: Sustainability concerns inspired the design of this distinctive skyscraper in Nanjing, China. Resembling a traditional Chinese lantern, the tower's faceted form is an evolution of integrated architectural, structural, and mechanical systems. Of particular note is its double-skin curtain wall, which has helped reduce mechanical cooling by 20 percent.

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Externally Ventilated Double Wall

Nanjing Keyne Centre: The double-skin curtain wall enables the building to respond to the city's extreme heat during summer. The cavity between the two walls is vented to the outside and serves as a thermally insulating buffer zone around air-conditioned spaces. Moreover, vertical sections of the skin are defined by air slots organized in a stack of four-floor intervals. The slots enable natural airflow to occur at anytime. Benefits of the tower’s sophisticated envelope include improved HVAC system performance, lower operational costs, and increased comfort for occupants.