6 teens designed this wacky green building of the future

This design, which took first place in a building concept competition, might be fantastical–but we could all learn a thing or two from the people who are going to have to live through the worst of climate change.

[Images: courtesy NYAS and United Technologies Corporation]

The dual forces of climate change and population growth threaten to make life in cities extremely stressed for future generations. So it stands to reason that young people–who will feel the effects of these trends throughout their lives–would be particularly invested in finding a solution.

So a group of six teens from five countries–Romania, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Norway–teamed up to design a building of the future, sensitive to both environmental needs and demand for housing. Called Homestead Green, the energy-efficient residential and commercial skyscraper is very much a concept, but the young designers were careful to tailor its features to appeal to current and projected green building trends.

[Image: courtesy NYAS and United Technologies Corporation]
This concept was recently selected as the winning design from a competition hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences and United Technologies Corporation, which invited students ages 13 to 18 to apply to participate in a process to create sustainable buildings. Once the students signed up to participate, they self-selected into teams based on interests and skills, and developed their collaborative designs using Launchpad. Over the two-month design period, from October to December of 2017, the student groups came up with a spate of ideas, ditched ones that, according to Bani Singh, an 18-year-old from Oslo, “were too science fiction,” and zeroed in on a feasible concept they felt would hold up in current and future markets. “We had to make some time-zone sacrifices,”says Ioana-Elena Tarabasanu-Mihaila, a 17-year-old from Bucharest.

On the building’s walls, for instance, the students combined two of-the-moment and very effective climate strategies: green infrastructure and solar panels. A network of vines and climbers will coat the north-south facing walls to help purify the air and to insulate the building, and the east-west walls will be covered in solar panels. The young designers deliberately chose to tilt the exterior walls at a 75-degree angle to optimize sunlight collection. The roof will also be covered in solar panels, but these ones are adjustable, and can be tilted at the precise angle best capable of capturing sunlight at the latitude of the building’s location. “We wanted to design something that could work in every city and context,” says Darius Filip, a 17-year-old from Baia Mare, Romania.

[Image: courtesy NYAS and United Technologies Corporation]
But regardless of context, the building’s core sustainability feature–its on-site water collection system–will remain constant. A central tank will capture used water from kitchens and bathrooms, instead of just relying on a supply of fresh water to power them. “In our research, we focused a lot on water, and found that most wastewater in the home comes from toilets, faucets, showers, and clothes washers,” says Tarabasanu-Mihaila. But water from showers, bathroom sinks, and baths is largely free of pathogens–and as such can be recycled. The Homestead Green water system captures used from those systems, purifies it, reuses it to flush toilets (kitchen sink water is also captured, but because its greasier and more filled with pathogens, it requires more intensive treatment before it can be reused). Recycled water that isn’t used to flush toilets can be used to water the building’s green walls. The students found that this type of on-site recycling system could cut water usage by as much as a third.

The whole building, in the students’ concept, will be governed by a “home assistant” that will connect with monitoring sensors to adjust temperature, light intensity, and other energy-use factors on the basis of occupancy. It will also measure individual energy usage patterns and give residents a “green score” that they can compare with their neighbors, in the hopes that competition will drive down overall energy consumption.

But the global nature of the team, which was awarded $7,500 for its winning design, was part of what made the teens successful. Coming from different places around the world enabled the team to test the viability of their concepts in different contexts. They wanted to create a plan that would work as well in Oslo as it would in Bangalore, but at the same time could adjust to the specific needs of each place and the residents within it. Even though Homestead Green is a concept, “we feel we created something that could actually help the Earth that’s been sustaining us since we took our first breath,” says Sachin Dangi, an 18-year-old from Kathmandu.

Eillie Anzilotti(*) / Fast Company

(*) Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company’s Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies.