Practical ways to improve air quality in the built environment

International law firm Ashurst recently hosted an event in partnership with FuturePlanet, the British Property Federation and the Social Stock Exchange on how to encourage collaboration in the built environment sector to improve urban air quality.
Breathe Easy – Practical Steps in Improving Air Quality brought together property owners, developers and entrepreneurs. Eleanor Reeves, Lucy Thomas and Elle Hansen look at latest developments

There are a number of impressive and marketable innovations being deployed globally across the built environment sector to address air quality and help make our cities more pleasant places to live and work. We have selected some examples to illustrate the fascinating developments in this space, reflecting discussions at the Breathe Easy event.

London’s air quality hub

The New West End Company (NWEC), together with its members, is aiming to improve air quality and make London’s West End a more enjoyable place to work and visit. Its new business assessment tool shows businesses what steps can be taken to improve air quality, from waste to construction. For example, NWEC advice includes asking architects to design to BREEAM standards and installing ‘green infrastructure’.

NWEC is also teaming up with a number of businesses to pilot an experiment on Bird Street, Mayfair to transform the space into the smartest street in the world by introducing:

  • Pavegen tiles, which turn the kinetic energy produced by visitors’ footsteps into off-grid energy that can either then be stored or used to power nearby electronics instantly. Pavegen tiles have also been installed at Westfield’s Stratford City shopping centre.
  • In partnership with BT, LinkUK kiosks will provide free wi-fi and wayfinding services. The kiosks have been successful in New York City, with more than 35 million sessions logged, according to the Estates Gazette.
  • Gas phase advance oxidation units provided and run by Piccadilly-based start-up Airlabs, which draw in exhaust fume particles together with other pollutants and expel fresh air.
  • Street furniture which will be coated with paint from Airlite, a substance that reduces air pollutants and bacteria and reduces energy consumption.

Rome and Tokyo: clean concrete

Air cleaning technology is also being developed in various forms around the world, another example is concrete containing photocatalysts. Photocatalysts mixed with concrete can be used to create self-cleaning structures that absorb and neutralise chemicals. This compound has been used in Richard Meier’s design of the Jubilee Church in Rome, and in paving slabs in Tokyo. It also has potential in the future construction of roads.

Living walls, green roofs, and CityTrees

Green infrastructure, such as living walls and planted roofs which filter pollutants out of the air, is another example of development-led innovation:

  • Arup and Grosvenor have trialled a living wall scaffolding system, Living Wall Lite. The temporary wall was designed by Arup and manufactured by Swedish living wall specialist, Green Fortune. It was fitted with sensors to monitor its impact on noise, temperature and air pollution with the aim of reducing localised air pollution by up to 20% and dampen noise pollution by 10 decibels.
  • German start-up, Green City Solutions, has created CityTrees by using high efficiency mosses and lichens which are attached to air vents to accelerate the cleansing process.
  • At its Woodberry Down Development, Berkeley Homes in partnership with the Green Roof Consultancy, has provided enhancements for biodiversity and green infrastructure, such as installing green roofs and sustainable drainage systems.

Milan and Nanjing: vertical forests and forest cities

Milan is home to the Bosco Verticale, (Vertical Forest), pictured above, whose balconies feature over 700 specially cultivated trees, 11,000 plants and 5,000 shrubs. The aim is for the greenery to absorb dust, produce oxygen and absorb CO2.

Stefano Boeri, the architect of the Vertical Forest, has taken his idea to China where in Nanjing two towers are currently under construction. He is also planning a series of Forest Cities in China, the first of which will be located in Liuzhou, and a second in Shijiazhuang.

Rotterdam’s ‘smog-free’ towers

Air purification is another way in which developers and designers are looking to clean up air in urban environments. Possibly one of the most innovative examples is the ‘smog-free’ tower created by Studio Roosegaarde, a Dutch design company. The tower draws in pollution and expels cleaned air. Some of the extracted pollution is turned into jewellery. The designers claim that one of these towers could clean 3.5 million cubic metres of air per day.

American apps

A number of countries are also experimenting with data collection and apps to monitor air quality. For example, the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach have formed a mobile measurement team to assess air pollution and identify potential contributors to poor air quality in the US. Apps are also being developed to enable users to check air quality. The app aims to help users make decisions about when and where to go outdoors, similar to weather forecasts.

The rising value of walkability and fresh air

There is a growing trend towards higher density urban neighbourhoods with workplaces that are either walkable or within cycling distance.

According to data firm, Real Capital Analytics, the price of commercial properties in easily walkable locations show significantly greater appreciation trends than car-dependent locations. The value of properties in less car dependent areas has risen 125% over the past 10 years. The data reflects the premium in rents paid by tenants and the increasing demand from investors who recognise the long-term value of walkability.

Poor air quality can affect our health, wellbeing and quality of life. It is also influencing investment decisions as the issue becomes more high profile and countries, sectors and organisations take action.

As the value proposition to make our urban spaces more pleasant places to live and work gains greater pace, the built environment sector is taking a leading role in the deployment of innovative and marketable solutions. There is, however, still much more to be done to breathe easy.


Photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia


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