Sustainable Design at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial

By Christian Jebsen, CEO Kebony

Chicago has long been a leader in the field of architecture. From the Willis Tower to the John Hancock Center, countless feats of architecture span the city, creating Chicago’s one-of-a-kind skyline along Lake Michigan. The city’s architectural accomplishments have been celebrated in photographs, paintings and films for decades, but for the first time in history, the city came together to celebrate architectural innovation at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial—North America’s largest international exhibition of modern architecture.

Read_SC15Q4From October to January, Chicago transformed into a global center of design as it welcomed the exhibitions of both emerging and established architects from more than 60 architectural firms in 30 countries. Exhibits were held at eight venues across the city, including Millennium Park, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Illinois Institute of Technology. In addition to physical exhibits, the Biennial featured a series of performances, speeches and workshops to educate the public about the current state of the industry and instill a deeper understanding of architecture and design.

Keeping with this year’s theme of The State of the Art of Architecture, the diverse exhibits demonstrated how the architecture profession has continued to evolve and adapt to meet the needs of modern societies, whether the focus is economics, aesthetics or sustainability. One noticeable trend at the event was the use of wood. In recent years, the architecture industry has seen a return to wood as the age-old favorite continues to be chosen as the principle building material in an increasing number of projects, including skyscrapers. The move toward wood architecture can be attributed to a number of benefits, including its strength and lightweight nature, but more often it’s the sustainable characteristics that have proven to be the determining factor.

Wood’s popularity is expected to grow as sustainable design becomes the norm. Architects are taking notice and are now committing more budget to the purchase of sustainable materials for buildings, homes and personal use. Displaying the shift toward sustainable design, three architectural offices incorporated wood into their exhibits in innovative ways that stood out at this year’s event for their potential to inspire the future of sustainable design.

Sustainable Housing

Biennial1Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, founder of Tatiana Bilbao S.C., displayed one of the event’s most sustainable exhibits. Bilbao’s team interviewed 2,000 residents in Mexico City to create a structure that would solve the country’s affordable housing shortage. Her exhibit, titled Sustainable Housing, displayed the solution. Using a core of concrete blocks and an exterior built from wooden pallets, this small, colorful home can be constructed for as little as $8,000, depending on the family’s needs and location. The least expensive version of the home includes two bedrooms, one bathroom, one kitchen and a communal space. The most expensive version of the home includes five bedrooms and can be constructed for $14,000.

Place for Gathering

Biennial2Focused on utilizing local resources and encouraging collaboration, Germany-based architectural office Kéré Architecture developed Place for Gathering, a large, community seating exhibit constructed from locally sourced wooden logs. Due to wood’s durable characteristics and abundance around the world, the exhibit combats climate and resource challenges that many regions face. Mirroring the community gathering spaces found in many small villages, the exhibit demonstrates the importance of communal gathering points in all societies, including large cities like Chicago. The space provides an informal location to facilitate interactions and the exchange of knowledge between the event’s attendees.

Chicago Horizon

Biennial3This year’s event held the first Lakefront Kiosk Competition, which asked architects to submit designs for a lakefront kiosk using a budget of only $75,000. Architects Yasmin Vobis, Aaron Forrest and Brett Schneider from Rhode Island-based firm Ultramoderne took home the grand prize for their design, titled Chicago Horizon. The winning kiosk maximized space by incorporating a large, flat wood roof using cross laminated timber, a carbon negative product. Once installed in spring 2016, the kiosk will provide a public space for Chicago beachgoers, including a lending library and vending space, while simultaneously improving the city’s carbon footprint.

The 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial effectively demonstrated the dynamic nature of the architecture industry and its ability to inspire change in society. Exhibits like Sustainable Housing, Place for Gathering and Chicago Horizon are only a few examples of the innovative ways architects are using sustainable materials to build structures that allow communities to gather and reside while ensuring a sustainable future for their environment.

About the Author

Christian Jebsen is the CEO of Kebony, a sustainable alternative to tropical hardwood. Kebony’s technology permanently modifies sustainable softwood species, so the resulting product performs to the level of a hardwood. Kebony is beautiful and long-lasting, having been used in several projects – from decking to marinas to cladding – around the world.

Photos: Steve Hall, Tom Harris

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