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To keep out Beijing's smog, architects think giant bubbles

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 26 Feb 2014 12:15 PM
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An artist's drawing of a bubble enclosing a park. Photo: Orproject
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As China struggles to deal with its ever worsening air quality, the creative minds at a London-based architecture and design company are dreaming of bubbles in Beijing.

Their project, still in the conceptual stage, would create outdoor green spaces covered by giant bubble-shaped domes in the Chinese capital or other places where adverse environmental conditions mean that people are unable to spend time outdoors without risking their health.

Bubbles would “allow people to be outdoors regardless of the weather in spaces that don’t really take anything away from the environment,” said Orproject co-founder Rajat Sodhi.

The bubbles would be built from ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, a lightweight and resilient plastic. It is an excellent insulator and also resilient to dust, so a light rain would be sufficient to clean it, according to Sodhi.

He said that the inspiration for the project came from research on how veins grow in plants and animals, and a trip to pollution-racked Beijing.

“We were discussing the smog and decided we can’t really combat pollution in the developing world but if we could do something that could at least provide a form of public space where you could go out, that would be clean all year round, (where) the temperature and quality of air are controlled, that could make an impact,” he said.

The bubble would be incorporated into the surrounding neighborhood and might even provide resources to nearby buildings. Sodhi said solar cells could be integrated into the panels of the bubble, which could produce electricity to be used in other buildings.  The bubble design, he said, “allows for buildings around it, and it becomes part of the urban structure.”

Bubbles would not necessarily be limited to covering parks or gardens; the project’s website suggests they could be used to cover playgrounds, school yards, or the atrium of a mall.

The technology has been used by other architects and designers around the world. The Allianz Arena in Germany was constructed with an exterior of ETFE panels, as was the Beijing National Aquatics Centre used for the 2008 Olympics. In the United Kingdom, the Eden Project in Cornwall is made up of ETFE domes which showcase different biomes and plant species.

According to contractors and engineers that Orproject has spoken to the project is financially feasible, with an estimated cost of £400 ($640) per square meter.

THE OBSTACLES

The main factor holding back the dream-like project is governmental building regulations: most local governments are not chomping at the bit to enclose a precious bit of outdoor space and turn it into indoor space. They see any building as “development,” which inherently takes away from the natural feel of an outdoor space.

“Usually, architecture is considered a profession that attacks nature, or is anti-nature,” said Sodhi. “This has become the typical role of architecture: you cut down trees, and build something else in that space.”

“Our idea for these bubbles is an enclosed space, but not an intrusive construction,” said Sodhi. “Why can’t architecture and nature co-exist without one replacing the other?”

While Orproject has no clients yet for the Bubbles project, they will construct a prototype in New Delhi, where they have an office and where air quality also is a problem, later this year.

Sodhi said that he and Orproject are not looking to solve pollution and climate change problems, but feel they can improve the lives of people facing those problems.

“As architects, one of the things we are asked about a project like this is ‘Do you think this is a way to battle climate change?’ We feel that’s a policy issue, which governments and scientists need to solve. We can only do our part,” he said.

Samuel Mintz is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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