Pearl River Tower, Guangzhou
SOM Architect's Pearl River Tower, Guangzhou

World’s smartest buildings: Pearl River Tower, Guangzhou

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Alice Cruickshank

As city populations grow and ground space becomes even more precious, we are faced with the question: how can we create skyscrapers that are also environmentally friendly?

This issue is nowhere more prevalent than China, with a population of nearly 1.5bn and some of the highest rates of pollution in the world. But one building hopes to set the benchmark for environmental sustainability in urban areas: Pearl River Tower, in the city of Guangzhou.

Pearl River Tower, Guangzhou

A close up of one of the building’s interior wind turbines

Sustainability-led architecture

Pearl River Tower is the work of SOM Architects, and serves as the headquarters of CNTC Guangdong Tobacco Company. It spans over 2m sq ft over 71 stories, and stands at over 1,000 ft. With its impressive stature, Pearl River Tower was built to be one of the most sustainable tall buildings in the world when it was completed in 2011.

Many energy efficient buildings rely on ‘added on’ technology to generate sustainable energy, such as a roof covered in solar panels, or photovoltaic windows. Here is where Pearl River Tower differs: its very structure was built to generate energy.

4 wind turbines are built into the belly of the tower. The sleek and sculpted exterior of the building has been shaped to drive air through to the ­turbines, which can generate 1m kilowatt hours of electricity a year. The shape, angle and direction of the tower is optimised to the sun’s path, to produce electricity via photovoltaic cells within its east and west facades.

SOM Pearl River Tower Interior

The interior of Pearl River Tower is designed with clean air ventilation in mind

A series of other sustainable design and engineering elements, including a double skin façade (an inner and outer layer), chilled ceiling system, under-floor ventilation, and daylight harvesting all contribute to the building’s energy generation. While many of these sustainable technologies have been incorporated into other skyscrapers around the world, the Pearl River Tower is thought to be the first time they have been used together.

Pollution-fighting technology

The tower is an example of China’s goal to reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 by 40-45% compared to the level in 2005. But as well as focusing on the building’s impact on its environment, the tower was designed to combat the environment’s impact on tenants.

Rather than use fans to recirculate old air, fresh air is delivered to every floor. A ventilation system runs underneath floors, where swirl diffusers bring a supply of fresh outside-only air into the space and help to mix the air. This is then filtered and purified to improve tenant wellbeing, and the “once through” approach prevents viruses recirculating.

Pearl River Tower’s internal cooling system also works to improve tenant wellbeing whilst saving energy. Radiant ceiling technology uses piped water to keep the internal space cool instead of costly and energy-heavy air conditioning units. Heat from the sun is trapped between the building façade’s double layer and repurposed as energy to power the building.

Can skyscrapers be truly energy efficient?

So far, Pearl River Tower has been unable to reach the gold standard of energy efficiency: becoming a net-zero building.

However, its sustainability-first design provides a test-bed for the technologies that could prove to be beneficial incorporated into future super tall buildings. Its air purification technology serves as a particularly strong example for other urban areas looking to tackle the challenge of pollution.

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