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Hacking The City

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This post is not so much a reworking of the 2020 post, Reconstructivism, but an attempt to put its ideas back out there in 2023 as it’s good to have a Plan B.

We all remember the carnage that the 2008 financial crisis dealt the construction industry. This was painfully evident in Dubai with projects being put on hold, others being cancelled, still others having their completion delayed by up to a decade, others left uncompleted and still others being demolished before they were even completed. Dubai still has monuments to that.

And then there was that other hiccup called the pandemic. Again, projects were put on hold for extended periods of time, and others had their construction delayed.

But it’s not the buildings that caught Covid. Their unconstruction was the result of the financial downturn that accompanied Covid. That’s two (relatively) unexpected and very different global catastrophes within twelve years. The “next” global catastrophe looks like being our increasingly changing climate bringing increasingly chatoic weather patterns. Climate change is already bringing havoc to economies and populations worldwide but difference between this crisis and the others is that this next one is not a surprise.

In 2021, the UK government announced it would cut emissions by 78% by the year 2035, and be carbon zero by 2050. This is ambitious but, in line with the commonly believed fallacy that the problems caused by technology will be solved by more technology, the announcement said “The government will look to meet this reduction target through investing and capitalising on new green technologies and innovation.”

It’s reckless to hope the technologies we desperately need will be invented or invented in time to avert a average 1.5°C rise in global temperature by 2050, especially when that limit looks like being exceeded in 2027. But science advances incrementally. Nobody is expecting a lithium ion battery capable of powering a Boeing 737 for 1,000 kilometers to be available by 2050. Nobody is expecting to have electricity produced by nuclear fusion commercially available before 2050. Nobody is expecting quantum computing until quite a while after that. The reason for this is that quantum computing requires huge amounts of energy to supercool atomic particles to near absolute zero in order for it to work. The problem is that quantum computing is supposed to solve the substantial containment problems that, in essence, making small suns on Earth will necessarily involve. We used to call situations like this a Catch 22 after the 1961 book of the same name.

If you go by your media exposure, you’d think the world has many buildings that are net zero for both construction and operation but the problem is they don’t make a single bit of difference in absolute terms. That much-vaunted sea change never happened and efforts directed towards making it happen are beginning to look like denial. This is not to say that innovation or some mass change of opinion won’t occur, but we can’t expect it to be when and where we need it – which, basically, is everywhere and now. Besides, even if all those technologies were available before 2050, they’d still need to implemented immediately and universally and there are huge economic and political obstacles to that happening. In short, placing one’s hopes on future innovation isn’t a strategy. It’s a way of coping. We need a Plan B.

The word innovation tends to be used to describe new technologies but it can also describe innovative non-technological ideas, processes and strategies we might need in order to adapt to our changing circumstances. Innovation needs to be less about maintaining the status quo and more about solving problems in the here and now and planning what we’re going to do should things become truly catastrophic. So then, let’s set a scenario.

It’s now 2045 and carbon targets weren’t anywhere near met. The climate is out of control. All new construction is prohibited, there’s no air or vehicle travel, and the possession and combustion of fossil fuels is outlawed. What happens next? Where do we live? How do we live? What’s for dinner? How much of our built environment can be repurposed to provide minimum standards of food and shelter?

It’s going to be messy. Entire populations will be displaced and this never works out well. Even stability within societies can’t be take for granted when people have to live at higher densities in order to pool labour, resources and accommodation.

So let’s think about how we might be able to re-use our built and natural environment for survival. Even if some of these proposals turn out to be unworkable, it’s a different way of approaching the same problems and may prove a useful backup. I’ll use the example of the city of Dubai because it’s just south of the city of Kuwait that has already had the lethal 35°C wet-bulb temperature. All the suggestions that follow are for a situation in which the climate of Dubai stays fairly much the same and might not even be applicable if the climate of Dubai moves in that direction. Even so, the way of thinking is still valid.

A representative building type in Dubai is the high-rise tower paired with a multi-storey car park. Each has a footprint of 40m x 40m. The car park has about 40 cars per floor on ten or eleven floors so let’s say 500 spaces. The tower has 40-60 floors, each with about 1,000 sq.m of residential or office space. A fifty-storey tower therefore has about 100 sq.m of useable area for each car parking space. This is a favorable proportion because, assuming ideal growing conditions, it takes about 50 sq.m of land to grow sufficient food to feed one person, suggesting that the tower should become a vertical farm and the multi-storey car park become residential space allocated at one car parking space per person.

  • At first, we might want to sleep in our cars but, over time, mud bricks might be used to partition the covered space in a way that doesn’t obstruct natural windflow. Traditional towns used to do this.
  • Communal kitchens, bathrooms and laundries are located around the perimeter of the car park, with grey water feeding reed beds at ground level and blackwater feeding anaerobic digesters. We don’t know if we would be allowed to burn the biogas produced.
  • Let’s hope so because it will make it easier for atmospheric water generators to cool humid air and condense drinking water. An active generator requires 310Wh (111kJ) of energy to make one liter of water but we can use passive ones because Dubai has an average temperature above 19.7° and an average relative humidity above 53%. These are perfect conditions as lower temperatures in winter are compensated for by higher humidities, and vice-versa.
  • Water for agriculture comes from seawater greenhouses that humidify and cool air that’s then distilled by solar heating. The windward side of the tower uses a porous membrane evaporative cooler whilethe sunny side has solar collectors. 
  • Sewage is fed to local anaerobic digesters so Dubai’s new sewer system [to be completed in 2025] can be flooded with seawater to supply seawater greenhouses for the production and supply of fresh water over a greater area. Or, warm humid air could be forced into the sewer system to make it function as one large atmospheric water generator. Either way, the current inspection manholes will become community wells.
  • Glazing panels are hacked and conveted into one or the other. Still others are filled with water and a small pump added to cultivate spirulina. 
  • And let’s not forget evaporative cooling. There used to be an Autralian invention called a Coolgardie Safe. It was a box with hessian sides kept moist by their upper edges resting in a tray of water on top of the box. Latent heat of evaporation kept perishables cool. These devices could be found in Australian houses into the 20th century before the advent of refrigerators run on kerosene. The important thing is that it was a simple and failsafe technology that worked.

These are all known technologies but how to make them work together needs fine tuning. We need to know now what will grow and what won’t, and we need nutritional efficiency to guide our selections. Fortunately, The Sun will provide most of the energy by heating the air so it can hold all that water. As long as there’s not a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C, we can rely upon wind – when it happens – to bring cooling and fresh water. Architecture as we know it will cease to exist for a while but architectural intelligence can still be applied so that mud-brick residences in the former car park have good cross ventilation and a minimum level of illumination.

Importantly, all these technologies exist now and it might be an idea to refine and better integrate them and see how society might possibly continue in the defunct superstructures we will be left with. This is not adaptive re-use anymore. It is hacking things – a sewer system, a building, an entire city – and using it for a purpose it was not designed for.

There are enormous challenges in growing plants indoors to provide a minimum level of nutrition. An existence of subsistence farming will not be easy. Children’s education will suffer and society may collapse anyway but at least we won’t be on Mars, dependent on complex technologies and corporate benevolence for the very air we breathe as we crush rocks to squeeze water to feed the 3D printers printing ice igloos for us. 

Who knows? We might find we like living in sync with the seasons. Our hacked cities might produce a surplus to support educational, commercial and even artistic crossover. If that happens, these hacked buildings will have ensured the continuation of civilization. Our hacked buildings could turn out to be a new type of social condenser for our times. The only reason I’m optimistic is that other peoples have done it in the past.

We know about the 17th century walled houses of the Hakka people of China’s Fujian Province. There are also U-shaped ones so those thick walls may be more structural than defensive, as is usually assumed. They had their own wells, sewerage system and grain stores but it could just be that the Hakka people opted to live like this because it left more land free for agriculture.

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