Our ancient relatives, Homo heidelbergensis, were constructing shelters at least 400,000 years ago, and architectural innovation has been a defining feature of societies since then, changing to suit the needs and desires of the builders and occupants as they evolved. From energy-efficient designs to community-based spaces, these seven designs could help shape the future.
1. Silver Architecture
As the population ages, society is faced with a challenge: How to help people who require special care. The current way that many buildings are designed—and even the way hospitals are set up—makes it difficult for older people to get around and be independent. This is a big problem, because older people are a huge part of the population. As of 2015, there were nearly 50 million people in the United States over the age of 65. By 2030, the Census projects that 20 percent of Americans will be older than 65. “By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million ... under the age of 18," Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, stated in a 2018 press release.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a quarter of people aged 65 or older fall every year. In fact, falling is the leading cause of injuries classified as critical or fatal, which is one of the reasons people who would otherwise live independently are forced into care-based facilities.
Silver architecture aims to change this with building designs that are sustainable, modern, and most importantly—accommodating. Specialized design keeps age-related impairments from becoming debilitating disabilities. The best silver architecture integrates space planning, clear directional layouts, stress-reducing lighting, acoustical innovations to reduce ambient noise, comfortable and accessible furniture, safe flooring, colors that aid psychological well-being, and interactive, health focused interior design (such as plants and artwork) that stimulate and engage residents.
In a 2014 opinion piece for The New York Times, geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson wrote that "These and other strategies are already in use in many long-term care facilities and in specialized areas of hospitals, such as geriatric emergency departments or acute care of the elderly units. But they aren’t nearly as prevalent as they should be." She proposed "prizes for excellence in silver design, just as there are awards for green buildings," adding, "silver architecture and design aren’t about indulging a special interest group. They’re about maximizing quality of life and independence for a life stage most of us will reach. Green architecture is good for the environment; silver architecture is good for humans. The best new buildings will be both."
2. Wounded Warrior Homes
According to the United States Army, 92 percent of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan survive, compared to a rate of 75 percent in Vietnam.
Navigating even a typical accessible home can be a challenge for soldiers who return from war zones after suffering debilitating injuries. The architects behind The Wounded Warrior Home Project took on some of those challenges in two homes built at Virginia's Fort Belvoir, and unveiled in 2011. The residences, designed by and with input from veterans (as well as their loved ones), have a universal focus on accommodation to cater to the diverse needs of injured soldiers. Wide doors and adjustable stovetops are just some of the ways the homes are adapted for physical disabilities. To help with trauma recovery, the houses are designed with large windows and dedicated therapy rooms to help alleviate symptoms.
The homes are geared toward helping soldiers return to duty. "The thing I see now, as I talk to the wounded warriors on this project, they want to know, 'When can I get back to my unit?'" David Haygood, a Vietnam War vet and a partner in one of the design firms behind the homes, told NPR in 2012. Fort Belvoir's then-battalion operations officer, Major John Votovich, told NPR, "We have more of a wounded population today that probably wouldn't have survived in earlier generations. They're still productive members of the military. And they will continue to be so."
3. Dementia Village
According to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, and that number is projected to increase: WHO projects that by 2030, 82 million people will have dementia (and 152 million by 2050). There are 10 million new cases each year, making it "one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people worldwide." But dementia doesn't just affect the people who suffer from it; as WHO notes, it's also overwhelming for the families and loved ones of people with dementia: "There is often a lack of awareness and understanding of dementia, resulting in stigmatization and barriers to diagnosis and care. The impact of dementia on careers, family, and societies can be physical, psychological, social, and economic."
The small community of Hogewey, 10 miles outside of Amsterdam, aims to raise the quality of life for those suffering from dementia and ease the burden for their families. All the residents at Hogeway—also known as Dementia Village—have severe dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and they go about their lives within the confines of this thoughtfully designed town. Nurses and other caretakers act as fellow townsfolk, there to keep the patients healthy and safe. As of 2014, monthly rent was never more than $3600 and often lower because of its sliding scale.
Traditional clinical settings foster isolation and reinforce medicalization of these memory-related illnesses. Hogewey’s approach to dementia de-stigmatizes the condition and creates an environment that people can live in where they require less medication and less medical intervention. According to Yvonne van Amerongen—who had the idea for Hogewey after her father suddenly passed away—"We have Dutch design, Dutch cultures, Dutch lifestyles, but the concept is to value the person, the individual ... to support them to live their life as usual, and you can do that anywhere."
Zoos serve important research and conservation purposes, but unfortunately, sometimes their design leaves a lot to be desired: The cages and concrete enclosures don't even come close to mimicking the resident animals' natural habitats, which raises several ethical concerns.
Enter Zootopia. (It's not just a Disney film; the name was first trademarked by Denmark's Givskud Zoo in 2010.) Slated to open in 2020, this zoo’s design is a reimagining of the caged zoo and a departure from safari parks. Instead of caging in the animals, it's the visitors who will be in enclosed areas. These viewing locations will be disguised to minimize human interaction with the animals. Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the architectural firm behind the plans, says one of their main goals is to hide humans from the animals to provide as natural of an environment as possible for the zoo’s residents. For the animals, everything from their feeding stations to their shelters have been designed to look and feel as natural as possible.
"It is our dream—with Givskud—to create the best possible and freest possible environment for the animals’ lives and relationships with each other and visitors," BIG said in a press release. "We are pleased to embark on an exciting journey of discovery with the Givskud staff and population of animals—and hope that we could both enhance the quality of life for the animals as well as the keepers and guests."
5. Eco-Friendly Concrete
Concrete is the most common material used by humankind, and from 1992 to 2012, the demand for cement (the key ingredient in concrete) more than tripled worldwide. As the demand and use of concrete rises, so does its environmental impact: In 2018, the International Energy Agency said that "The cement sector is the third-largest industrial energy consumer in the world, responsible for 7 percent of industrial energy use, and the second industrial emitter of carbon dioxide, with about 7 percent of global emissions."
Which is perhaps why many are turning their attention to developing better concrete. Rutgers University materials science and engineering professor Richard E. Riman developed a technology to make concrete that stores CO2. Riman then founded Solidia Technologies Inc. in 2008; according to Phys.org, "Solidia Concrete products ... combined with Solidia Cement, can reduce the carbon footprint of cement and concrete by up to 70 percent and can save as much as 528.3 billion gallons a year."
In 2014, Peter Trimble, then a student at the University of Edinburgh, developed what he calls "biostone," which combines sand, bacteria, and urine; he built a machine to create a seat with the material. In 2013, the Structural Technology Group of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech developed "biological concrete" that grows vertical gardens. According to ArchDaily, "The system’s advantages are numerous. The plants capture CO2 from the air and release oxygen. The layer also acts as insulation as a thermal mass. It helps regulate temperatures within the building by absorbing heat and preventing it from entering the building in hot weather or escaping the building in cold weather."
6. Reclaiming Vacant Lots for Gardens
By 2050, two-thirds of the world's population is expected to live in urban areas. Urbanization has its positives—according to National Geographic, people are concentrated in a small space in cities, which makes schools and stores more easily accessed than in rural areas, and also "allows the government and others to provide services such as water, electricity, and transportation to a larger number of people." But it also has its negatives, including crime and pollution, and some studies have indicated that living in a city can affect a person's mental health.
Turning vacant lots into gardens in urban areas brings much needed greenery to cities. Studies have shown that greenery is good for cardiovascular health, boosting concentration, and lower stress levels. A 2018 study found that the greening of vacant land significantly decreased self-reported feelings of depression. Urban gardens can also be a source of locally-sourced, fresh foods.
To see the potential of the urban garden, look no further than Cuba. When Havana's residents found themselves isolated and facing food scarcity following the collapse of the Soviet Union and embargoes against them, they began growing gardens of all sizes on balconies, in windowsills, and on roofs. To assist, the government launched new agriculture initiatives that included organic farming and urban gardening development. Instead of vacant lots going to waste, they became the sites of community agriculture.
7. Turning Shipping Containers Into Urban Farms
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, as much as "70 percent of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go towards irrigation uses." Critics say many irrigation techniques are incredibly wasteful. But there might be a way to farm that uses much less water: Creating gardens in shipping containers.
Founded in 2013, Local Roots Farms creates what it calls "the world’s most productive indoor modular farming solutions," and their model has been hailed as "the farm of the future." Co-founder Daniel Kuenzi told Smithsonian in 2014 that each farm is capable of growing "the equivalent yield of five acres of conventional outdoor farming each year." Each uses hydroponics to cut water use by 80 percent or more, and the controlled environment also means the vegetables produced are pest- and pesticide-free. In addition, because the farms are inside, weather and climate aren't an issue; food can be grown year-round. "Whether it’s snowing, raining or 100 degrees outside, the 'weather' inside is just right for growing healthy plants," Kuenzi said. The contained farms can bring fresh, local food to "urban food deserts."
In addition, the farms are built in readily-available shipping containers (there are 700,000 unused containers languishing in the United States at any given time). "Shipping containers are durable, easy to modify, stackable and can be shipped anywhere," Kuenzi told Smithsonian. "Additionally, there is an abundant surplus of unused shipping containers in the United States that can be recycled and refurbished at low cost. This allows us the flexibility to have a farm on the ground and growing for our customers within weeks, rather than the months or even years required for traditional greenhouse construction."