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Koichi Takada on designing buildings that are alive

It’s aiming to become the “greenest residential tower in the world”, in the literal sense of the word, with the “living façade” to achieve 292 per cent site coverage.

Architect Koichi Takada, the founder of the practice behind a 30-storey “urban forest” in Brisbane, started out drawing inspiration from nature and is now also on a mission to save it.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate, Takada said drawing inspiration from nature had been central to the practice’s ethos from the very beginning. Over time, he and his team have realised that the built form can do more than reference nature visually; it can also help heal nature and bring it back into cities and towns.

With one project in Brisbane, the plan is to invite as much nature back into the urban form as possible. The Urban Forest, a 30-storey residential tower to be developed by Aria Property Group, is laden with over 1000 trees and 20,000-plus plants selected from 259 native species.

It’s aiming to become the “greenest residential tower in the world”, in the literal sense of the word, with the “living façade” to achieve 292 per cent site coverage.

The greenery has carbon drawdown and biodiversity benefits. It also provides solar and thermal insulation, and promotes health and wellbeing in residents and passers-by. The building will also have an education centre to educate people about the plants on the building and its performance.

The building is carbon neutral, with clean energy sourced offsite and a mixed mode design to minimise mechanical heating and cooling. Takada expects the airconditioning will need to be turned on for only a handful of the hottest days of the year, with natural ventilation taking care of the rest.

Not only does the project “naturalise” architecture but it also “humanises” it, with the building set atop a raised podium so that the ground level becomes an extension of the surrounding parklands for the public.

The project will also feature a rooftop “wellness garden” with a swimming pool and various other social communal spaces. It will have three metre ceiling heights between floors to allow breathing space and balconies too will be three to five times bigger than usually required.

The initial development application for the 392-apartment project did draw concerns about high maintenance costs. The worry is that high costs will fall on occupants and maintenance will drop off, and the sustainability benefits along with it.

The Urban Forest. CGI by Binyan Studio.

To avoid this, Takada says that the client has committed to maintaining the building past its delivery. While apartments will be sold to individuals, Aria Property Group will keep the right to maintain the greenery so it won’t fall to body corporate.

The owner will also acquire the farmland outside Brisbane where the trees for the building will be grown. The idea is for the farm to continue growing trees beyond the delivery of the building, helping to offset the building’s carbon footprint and also have vegetation ready  when replacement trees and plants are needed.

“The idea is to not just purchase plants and put them in the building. This is a more holistic approach … it’s mass greening 2.0.”

The project is a prominent example of what Takada calls “living architecture” that features living materials that evolve throughout the lifetime of the building. By contrast, buildings made out of “dead materials”, such as concrete, steel and glass, are built and “that’s it”.

“[These buildings] just gets older … you don’t have this continuing relationship with nature.”

A cave-inspired design for the Museum Gift Shop that sits in the National Museum of Qatar. Images courtesy Koichi Takada Architects.
“For 200 years, we’ve destroyed nature and had two world wars which saw cities destroyed and rebuilt and now we’re trying to undo those 200 years in 29 years. Carbon neutrality is not enough to do that. It needs to be carbon positive.”
Koichi Takada

Architects need to show leadership

Takada founded Koichi Takada Architects 13 years ago. Based in Sydney, the practice also has offices in Doha and Tokyo.

The firm has recently been recognised for its nature sensitive design work, winning the Best Overall Winner for New York’s Architizer A+Firm Awards 2021 in the Medium Firm category.

Takada has become keenly aware of his profession’s role in overcoming the climate and biodiversity emergencies, with the industry responsible for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

“It’s about showing leadership in this area.”

Architects have the power to educate clients about sustainability, he explains, and show them that ecologically-sensitive design is about more than an energy efficient building envelope.

He wants to see more regenerative design. The fact is that the climate crisis is the product of 200 years of human activity since the Industrial Revolution, he says, and won’t be solved by a few architects designing carbon neutral buildings.

Takada is also realistic about what can be achieved. While he says we should aim for carbon positive buildings, he recognises the industry is still struggling with carbon neutral.

“And if it’s not carbon neutral, we will make it carbon neutral ready.”

Render of Koichi Takada Architects’ Sunflower House in Le Marche, Italy. Inspired by the sun-seeking sunflower, the building’s roof and each floor rotate on sensors for maximum sun exposure. CGI by Doug and Wolf.

The Sunflower House

An example of carbon positive design by the practice is the Sunflower House. The house in Le Marche, Italy, is dynamic rather than static and changes its orientation to make the most of the sun – just like a sunflower.

The roof moves in response to sensors to make the most of the sun, which is estimated to improve energy generation by 40 per cent. The floors also rotate to maximise or minimise the heat gain depending on the season, following the sun in the winter to cool to warm itself up and the opposite in summer to keep itself cool.

While the building is a prototype, Takada says the project was made using “today’s technology” and it “wouldn’t cost a crazy amount to replicate”.

“It could be comfortably repeated.”