The breathtaking ecotecture designs of Vo Trong Nghia

August 20, 2014

Vo Trong Nghia architects of Vietnam have unveiled a newly constructed eco house project that aims to address Ho Chi Minh City’s treeless urbanism. According the the designers, “only 0.25% area of the entire city is covered by greenery. Over-abundance of motorbikes causes daily traffic congestion as well as serious air pollution. As a result, new generations in urban areas are losing their connections with nature.”

The project perfectly encompasses several core ecocity principles.

Copyright Vo Trong Nghia Architects, 2013

The compound is a single family home constructed of several blocks arranged around a central courtyard. Most remarkably, each of the five blocks are crowned by banyan trees. The trees were chosen for their above ground root structure. The trees are planted in 1.5 meters of soil and the roofs are designed to collect rainwater. Reinforced walls allow the structures to accommodate the weight of water and the growing trees.

Copright Vo Trong Nghia, 2013

Copright Vo Trong Nghia Architects, 2013

The compound provides an engaging irregular angled entrance to a courtyard paved in permeable tiles and grass. Each room opens to views of greenery and the building blocks are connected by shaded sky walks on the second floor. The rooms are oriented towards the communal spaces on the cool lower floors, including the courtyard, and blend the inside and outside environments.

The architects used local and natural materials where possible to reduce the project’s carbon footprint and costs. The exterior walls are composed of  in-situ concrete poured between bamboo lattice. The interior walls are constructed from locally sourced brick. “House for Trees” was built with a budget of only 155,000 USD. If multiplied across the city, these tree-houses have the potential to reduce flooding, pollution, and ambient urban temperatures significantly.

Copyright Vo Trong Nghia, 2013

Copyright Vo Trong Nghia Architects, 2013

Copyright Vo Trong Nghia Architects, 2013

Copyright Vo Trong Nghia Architects, 2013

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“Nothing More Important” By Richard Register

June 26, 2008

The following is a short essay written by Richard Register as the published introduction to the companion book for the “Theory and Model of International Ecological City” subconference of the “20078 China International Architecture Design & Scene Planning Exhibition and Forum on Urban Planning of Senior Government Officials” in Langfang, Hebei Province, China, June 19 and 20, 2008. The book, called “The Living Land,” was published by the Shanghai International Investment Company which is building five “ecocity” projects including Dongtan, near Shanghai, and Wanzhuang, about 80 miles east of Beijing near Langfang.

There may be one or two things as important for humanity’s future, but nothing is more important than ecocities.

If human beings are stressing planet Earth to the breaking point, and we are, it is because of our vast numbers and our enormous rates of consumption of resources and production of wastes in the process. This stands as something broadly accepted in a world of climate change, the coming end of cheap energy and collapsing species diversity on a global scale.

But what is most often missed is the design and layout of our built environment of cities, towns and villages. Could we build cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well? That’s the promise of ecocities and in China some of the most important efforts in exploring cities are underway in places such as Wanzhuang Ecocity Project in Langfang. There we see the strategy of “leading by government, operating by market” which means that there needs to be a design of the incentives to assist and enable the design of the physical thing itself, the physical city as an ecocity.

First, just how important are cities? We have been hearing for some years now that “this year more than half the people in the world will be living in cities.” The figures keep shifting because the data gathered by the United Nations simply accepts and uses the various nations’ wide ranging definitions of what constitutes cities. But what is important to notice is that probably 90% or more of us – almost all of us – live in either cities, towns or villages and at all those scales our built community can be either designed upon the foundation of ecological understanding or without it. In other words, ecocity design relates to practically all scales of development and, if it were applied across those scales would be a solution of sufficient power to preserve and restore the health of the whole planet.

Second, how well recognized is the fact that ecocity design holds this enormous potential for health and happy solutions to crucial problems? Practically not at all! We are dealing with something almost a complete secret when the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali in December, 2007 fails to mention the largest things human being create when debating solutions to global heating. Not a word was said about city form or urban design. Certainly some of the world’s best scientists and most conscientious citizens and politicians were doing their best in all the ways they normally go about their work. But somehow they all missed the connection between the design, layout, planning and building of the largest creations of our species – cities – and their impacts on climate. If one kind of city puts out massive quantities of CO2, but a city built in a very different, ecologically informed way would put out one tenth as much, that is enormously important information. That building a different kind of city has this potential for good is simply an insight that is currently so new as to be almost unheard of. People have gotten used to the idea that an ecologically healthy city is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. The fact that cities do pollute has completely obscured the fact that they can pollute much less, very much less by design – and perhaps the “waste” products of that better design could actually be used for benefit instead of cast off as damage to land, life and society. We have simply not been paying attention to building the best we possibly could.

Third, why haven’t we been moving much more quickly toward ecocities? I’ve been wondering why something that sounds so good – cities designed on the measure of the person, rather than the machine, cities designed to leave room for nature in all its glory, cities to enrich soil as is done in China in a number of other countries in an older kind of agriculture that recycles organics thoroughly, cities conserving energy so well that only a modest flow of energy from the sun or wind could power the whole thing – have not been developed right along with all the other clever humans inventions. For more than forty years I’ve been working on ecological city design, and there have been others in the field too, but practically nothing until very recently has been built, and then on a small scale, as just a building here or there or a small part of city.

Lately we have been recognizing healthy “ecological” patterns in the essence of a much older way of building cities, as we see in the model of old European cities, Nepalese large towns, and traditional villages of compact design in China and around the world defining streets and bringing the full variety of mutual services close together. Why haven’t we earlier extracted the basic principles and techniques from the many pieces that seem to indicate where we should be going? Why has only recently Curitiba, Brazil assembled enough pieces of good layout and design that people are beginning to bring the picture into focus? It would seem strange that Dongtan, now said to be the “first ecocity” could actually be the first or something close to a first when we could have been building right for decades or even centuries. Maybe most important, is there something in the way we are building cities that makes it very difficult to actually progress toward cities good enough to be a positive ecological presence on Earth, a built environment in harmony with the natural environment?

I think there is an answer to this puzzle and it is that we have not been looking at things in their true proportion and we haven’t been exercising imagination fully. We stop thinking halfway to the answer.
Regarding proportionality, for example, the car is a key player in shaping contemporary cities – and disastrously. There is good theoretical basis for seeing the automobile as intrinsically extraordinarily damaging to urban health in simply noticing that the average car is approximately 30 times as heavy as the human body, ten times as fast and about 60 times as big in volume. Designing for something that overbearing in cities has been a mistake few are willing to face. Attempts at making cities healthier come up against desires for speed and bridging distances that have only been possible in an age of very cheap energy and machines that muscle their way across town while completely redesigning it. That’s one big problem in the way.

Another is a notion exemplifying lack of imagination and unwillingness to think through options more thoroughly. That problem exists even in many of the best of European towns and taught in architecture and city planning classes and that notion is that “good urbanism” doesn’t have nature in it. Why not? Who says? In what form and design? Why the lack of imagination here? This idea, embodied in, for example, the compact “walking streets” of old Europe and Asia and the squares and plazas with no plants at all and only pigeons for wildlife, or parks with 100% grass and non-native plants is an idea that has been around for so long it is taken as some sort of rule without thinking through how a much better relationship to nature could be even better urbanism, enriching urban life even more. It’s time to wake up – before nature strikes back for our lack of attention to her.

Another notion is “human scale” in cities – meaning small and often tagged to a four or five story height limit – though many people in China and larger cities everywhere take the notion much more realistically. The benefits of compact, three-dimensional form with real diversity of facilities and services means people can walk and take bicycles and transit very easily, saving enormous amounts of energy, land, time, material investment and money. There is a core of truth to the notion of human scale as small scale but it exists in a dynamic with the larger scale, which is a human product too, and which can be designed very differently than we see generally expressed now. For example, the vital pedestrian city could be one with many taller buildings with terraces linked by bridges, with large sheltered interior passageways on the scale of cathedral interiors, with sunny public space arranged around small waterways and native plants attracting native birds to high places.

I’ve seen people move small steps in the right direction and stop, satisfied that they have arrived. They, for example, might recycle better and buy an energy saving automobile, but they still live a long way from work and their friends and drive anyway. I’ve seen them freeze up the city, opposing any new “density” in already existing neighborhoods or resist adding diversity of services and jobs to a neighborhood, clinging to the segregating single uses of zoning that helped the car scatter the city of car dependent and cheap energy dependent distances. But in projects now being planned in China, such as Dongtan and Wanzhuang, the notion of “access by proximity” – being close to a wide variety of what you need in the city is finally taken seriously and will be the world model for our fast approaching future when cheap energy is gone forever.
But even there, what is missing is going for the full spectrum ecocity now. We need to be thorough. We need to see all the parts connected and understand that to have a better car actually makes a worse city because it perpetuates the same anti-ecocity form with all its excesses. It is time for imagination to explore the whole notion in its fullness. Only then can we get beyond the compromises and the habits of stopping way short of… cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well.


Ken Yeang on Green Building

June 9, 2008

Ken Yeang speaks about the importance of designing buildings to imitate nature (no waste, renewable energy sources) and emphasizes that making the world green is an ethical issue.


Walter Hood at Day 3

May 12, 2008

Walter Hood, Principal, Hood Design, Oakland, CA

In his landscape architecture practice Walter Hood’s interests include the critical examination and development of specific urban landscape typologies for the American city. He likes to reinforce specific cultural, environmental, and physical complexities of the city and neighborhood landscape. He is renown for his much-enjoyed public opens spaces such as “Splash Pad Park” in Oakland.  He is currently working on the Ecocity Builders sponsored redesign of the open space where Center Street is now located in downtown Berkeley where his new design will celebrate and help reveal the dynamics of Strawberry Creek and the connection between city and campus.

Hood Design: www.wjhooddesign.com


Maria Rosario at Day 3

May 12, 2008

Maria Rosario, PADCO/AECOM, Washington DC

Maria Rosario is Senior Architect and Planner, PADCO/AECOM, working in the Latin America from Washington, DC. Her 26-year international career in architecture, urban design and urban planning has been deeply influenced by her work at IPPUC, the Institute for Research and Urban Planning of Curitiba. As IPPUC’s official representative for their ecological innovations, policies and projects, she was one of our key speakers at Ecocity 4 in Curitiba and Ecocity 5 in Shenzhen, China. Her work calls for an integrated macro vision of urban planning: land use, transportation and circulation, plus the preservation of natural resources, combined to promote social and economic development.

PADCO/AECOM: www.padco.aecom.com


ZhengHua Qian at Ecocity World Summit

May 7, 2008

ZhengHua Qian, Director, Ecological Construction Special Committee of Shanghai Architectural Society

ZhenHua (Lincoln) Qian, has been engaged in ecological construction and the protection since 1992.  He has provided leadership for the Ma An Shan ecological garden city planning and Shanghai Wujing regional development plan for 10 cities.  He presided over Huaihe River Basin planning in 1996, the Yangtze River pollution governance in 1998 and the Taihu Lake basin 1999. At the present, he is the president of JingKe, environment and resources conservation, Academy of Science and Director of Ecological Construction Special Committee of Shanghai Architectural Society. Because of his outstanding contribution in ecological environment, in 2004 he received the Chinese Journalists “Remarkable Contribution Award”.


Peter Head on Day 3

May 1, 2008

Peter Head, Arup, London, England

Peter Head is a Director of Arup, the English design and engineering firm, and head of their project for Dongtan, a planned ecocity on an island near Shanghai. He worked at the forefront of steel bridge technology in his early career, leading to his current role as Chairman of the Steel Construction Institute. Peter is a Recipient of the Engineering Silver Medal for an outstanding contribution to British Industry. Asked by the Mayor of London to become a Commissioner on the newly formed London Sustainable Development Commission, he has been in that position since 2002.

Arup: www.arup.com