The Architecture That Comes Next

Well, at some point, we will come to understand that the ocean is the ultimate answer to our plight. When we have finally exhausted the fossil fuels and diminished the fields we will turn to the ocean for solace – for food, energy, and fresh water – the three elements without which the world population will not survive. 

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Bill McKibben, Founder of, the global communications campaign for building public awareness of the impact of global warming, concludes his 2010 book, Eaarth, Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, as follows, “we’ll help build the architecture for the world that comes next, the dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent. Eaarth represents the deepest of human failures. But we must live on the world we’ve created – lightly, carefully, gracefully.” McKibben is a truth-teller; he analyzes the damage we have done to our terrestrial and marine environment, the crises we face, and then, outlines ways we can carry on, and thrive, through decentralized regional self-sufficiencies, community-based systems for energy, water, food production, health, and political discourse. His is a determined, quiet voice, albeit speaking with a global megaphone, advocating responsible ideas and reasonable solutions for survival that are resilient, practical, and hopeful. We should listen.

Bill McKibben advocates a new way of living on the land. Well, at some point, we will come to understand that the ocean is the ultimate answer to our plight. When we have finally exhausted the fossil fuels, diminished the fields, and altered the climate to the point where even Bill’s world may not fease, we will turn to the ocean for solace – for food, energy, and fresh water – the three elements without which the world population will not survive. To do this, however, we cannot expect to perpetuate our present ideals and behaviors, but rather will have to create and accept significant change in how we think, what we value, what we build, and how we work together.

Let me give you one example of such thinking: something called “an integrated biotectural system,” a process of multi-disciplinary engineering on a highly cross-professional level, that will enable the integration of conventional architectural design with natural elements toward the conceptualization and implementation of new structures and institutions that will address these future needs. Basically, this works through the layering of synergistic technologies, over-lapping functions that support and amplify outcomes, with minimal contradictory effects, combined in a facility unlike we have known before.

Recently, in a Ph.d thesis on hydrology and architecture, I discovered a project that combined known technological functions heretofore built separately: water collection, waste water treatment, hydroponic farming, residential living, a public bath, and a forested park into the design of a single urban tower, thereby intergrating fresh water supply with food production with home living with personal health with community recreation in one structure in a new city. A provocative, perhaps very practical idea. 

Another example, beyond theory, is the “seawater greenhouse” that uses the sun, the ocean, and the atmosphere to produce fresh water and cool air, recreating the natural hydrological cycle within a controlled environment. This idea has been developed by a British designer, Charles Paton, whose company, Seawater Greenhouse Ltd, assembled in 1992 a prototype on a site in Tenerife, the Canary Islands. A second Seawater Greenhouse was constructed on Al-Aryam Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in 2000, and a third system and joint research facility was completed in 2004 on the Batinah coast near Muscat, Oman, in collaboration with Sultan Qaboos University. In 2010, Seawater Greenhouse built a new commercial installation on the Spencer Gulf, near Port Augusta, South Australia, now independently operating as Sundrop Farms Pty Ltd, that harnesses the sun’s energy to desalinate seawater to produce freshwater for irrigation, produce electricity to power the greenhouse, provide the energy to heat and cool the facility, and generate biological residues, biomass that can be used to help create and enrich the surrounding soil, or alternatively digested to make bio methane as fuel.

Another similar initiative, larger in scale, is the Sahara Forest Project that has won $3.5 million in funding to construct a 10,000-square-metre site in Qatar that will combine the seawater greenhouse concept with concentrated solar power to produce electricity from sunlight to generate thermal energy to drive conventional steam turbines. In this case, in addition to the outcomes already described, the project designers, as quoted in Wired magazine, indicate that “the saltwater will also be used to cultivate halophytes or sea-loving plant species as well as algae, which can be used for large-scale bio-energy production.” This project was developed by a collaboration between Seawater Greenhouse, Exploration Architecture and Max Fordham Consulting Engineers in London, and the Bellona Foundation in Norway. The project is expected to open in time for visitors and delegates to the COP 18 Climate Change talks in Doha this November.

As we plan for the day-to day needs of this changing world, we must not abandon the inventiveness and imagination that has characterized the history of world civilization. We speak now of mitigation of climate affect, adaptation to rapidly changing environmental conditions that are upheaving our lives. But, I believe, beyond that, we must free our imaginations to invent our way into the future, and it will serve us, and our children, well.


Peter Neill, Director of the W2O and host of World Ocean Radio, provides coverage of a broad spectrum of ocean issues from science and education to advocacy and exemplary projects.