World’s smartest buildings: Palazzo Italia, Milan

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Alice Cruickshank

According to the World Health Organisation, 9 out of 10 people living in urban spaces are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution. An Italian cement company has come up with an ingenious, yet elegant solution: cladding that ‘eats’ smog.

Art that imitates nature

The Palazzo Italia is the work of Nemesi architects, created for the Milan Expo 2015. This unique looking building was initially used as the event’s principal exhibition space, and is currently the home of the Human Technopole research centre.

The Milan Expo revolved around the theme “feeding the planet, energy for life”, and this concept is integral to the Palazzo Italia. Nemesi architects explain the 155,000 sq ft building is inspired by the concept of an urban forest, with the outer cladding designed to resemble intertwining tree branches. And just like trees absorb CO2, The cladding ‘captures’ air pollution and neutralises it before releasing back into the atmosphere.

Architecture 1 Luigi Filetici

How concrete can reduce air pollution

The smog-eating properties of Palazzo Italia is thanks to its biodynamic ‘skin’ –a 97,000 sq ft spider’s web of smart concrete that uses patented TX Active technology. This concrete is the creation of Italcementi, part of the Heidelberg Cement Group, and is the result of over 12,500 hours of research. Its CO2 neutralising powers are thanks to photocatalysts created by titanium oxide within the concrete. This substance uses light energy from the sun to create oxidising reagents, which break down the atoms of harmful air pollutants. This effectively ‘cleans’ the air and makes it safe to breathe.

Palazzo Italia’s environmental credentials don’t stop there. The cladding is made from 80% recycled materials, primarily marble and aggregate. Meanwhile photovoltaic glass converts solar energy into electricity, making the building energy neutral.

Italcementi Palazzo Italia

What can other cities learn from Palazzo Italia?

The pollution-fighting properties of the concrete are impressive, and this technology is not exclusive to the building, meaning there is potential for worldwide adoption. Smart concrete can be used for cladding, pavements, roof tiles and even whitetopping roads.

While manufacturers claim the cladding can cut air pollution by up to 75%, photocatalytic cement remains an expensive addition to a building. But as we face increasing levels of pollution and urban populations, this clever material has potential to improve air quality globally.

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