In architecture, sustainability is no longer just about the choice of materials. These surprisingly innovative construction projects have us looking forward to 2018.

The first wooden skyscraper

facade of the Timber Tower with balconies
Wooden high-rise: Penda’s Timber Tower.
Image: Penda

Most cities still resemble deserts of concrete and steel. The architects at Penda aim to change all that. Take their Toronto-based Timber Tower, planned together with the consultants at Tmber. Spanning an impressive 18 levels, the entirely wooden structure relies on a high-tech wood blend called CLT and a special, modular construction approach. To achieve the supremely resilient, 62-meter-high result, Penda will stack wood panel boxes in a particular pattern. The finished apartment building will pay proud homage to its roots by resembling a huge tree.

bedroom in the Timber Tower
The building in Toronto consists entirely of wood.
Image: Penda

The green hill

Sometimes, architects can actually let their imagination roam and realize their wildest dreams. Thomas Heatherwick is one of the lucky few who gets to build his ambitious vision with the 100 Trees Complex in Shanghai. The immense project will not only cover more than 300,000 square meters, but also transcend the mere notion of being just another skyscraper block in the Chinese metropolis. 100 Trees is an entire district with schools, kindergartens, shopping centers, offices, and apartments, brought together in Heatherwick’s nature-inspired, hill-like complex covered in plenty of luscious greenery. Each pillar is topped by a tree, surrounded by more than 400 planted terraces.

vision of the 1000 Trees Complex in the middle of skyscrapers in Shanghai
Liveable landscape – in the heart of Shanghai.
Image: Mir

Inside/outside hybrid

For his latest project in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamese star architect Vo Tronh Nghia decided to turn the planning process upside down: He started with the plants and trees, only turning to the actual living space once the landscaping had been finalized.

concrete walls between trees and bushes
Vo Tronh Nghia built this house around its trees.
Image: Hiroyuki Oki

As a result, the building’s residences are massively influenced and shaped by nature: Rooms are structured around enclosed gardens; concrete walls double as trellises for climbers. Many roofs leave deliberate gaps for growing trees or incoming daylight, infusing indoor areas with a distinct outdoor feel and appeal.

concrete walls with large glass windows
Lots of daylight and lofty rooms.
Image: Hiroyuki Oki

Innovative exterior

Anyone who automatically associates sustainable architecture with natural materials like bamboo is in for a big surprise. Architect Francois Perrin favors an innovative textile woven from aluminum threads.

pyramid-shaped, treehouse-like structure in between palm trees
Francois Perrin’s Air Houses are made of a metallic mesh fabric.
Image: Steve Hall

For the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, he spun this futuristic fabric into distinctive Air Houses: pyramid-shaped, treehouse-like structures based on a lightweight steel frame and an exterior skin fashioned from the aluminum material. The result is reflective, wind- and waterproof, and easily cools the interior without any additional input. Who needs air conditioning?

Like a mountain range

A desert range in Amsterdam might be the most accurate description of the Valley designed by the MVRDV architecture studio. The sizeable project, comprising three towers, 200 apartments, several public institutions, shops, and restaurants, is set to revive Amsterdam’s Zuidas office district sometime after 2021.

Individual segments are stacked like the striations of a mountain range, then connected across several levels via paths and strips of green. Natural stone facades, roof gardens, and water reservoirs are designed to make Valley dwellers feel far-removed from everyday life – towering high above the rest of the city.

entrance to the Valley
Natural stone, green terraces, and water reservoirs in Amsterdam’s “Valley.”
Image: Vero Visuals, Rotterdam

Inspired by the shapes of nature

It’s quite a lofty goal: If Henning Larsen Architects get their way, the Icone Tower will become a new landmark of Manila and possibly the entire Philippines. For their radical design, the Danish firm took inspiration from the country’s Mount Mayon volcano, basing the Icone Tower’s distinctive silhouette on the volcano’s characteristic cone shape.

Inside, a clever mix and match of public and private areas awaits: The net-style glass/steel facade lets in a maximum of daylight while affording great views of the surrounding park. And at night, the illuminated panorama platform on the building’s top promises to serve as a stylized beacon for progress and things to come.

sharp tower with a net-style glass/steel facade
The Icone Tower will be visible for all of Manila.
Image: Henning Larsen
entrance of the Icone Towers
The building was inspired by the volcano Mount Mayon.
Image: Henning Larsen

Saving space

Shanghai is as flat as the Netherlands – but much more densely populated. To solve the booming republic’s lack of living space, the Chinese mega metropolis has increasingly upped the ante by building skywards.

vision of the park„Zhangjiang“ from bird's-eye view
Buildings like a hilly landscape in Shanghai.
Image: MVRDV

This vertical, multi-level approach and principle is also reflected in the latest ambitious project by Rotterdam-based architectural firm MWRDV. All buildings of their Zhangjiang future park (including a library, an event space, a theater, and a sports center) will be embedded at different depths, resulting in a landscape and skyline of rolling hills with walkable roofs. The latter, planted with plenty of greenery, double as welcome insulation, coolant, and water filters.

vision of an asymmetrical building
The future park “Zhangjiang“ – an idea of Dutch studio MVRDV.
Image: MVRDV

Vertical forest

France has swathes of vast woodlands, but not a single vertical forest. Italian architect Stefano Boeri aims to change this with his Forêt Blanche on the outskirts of Paris, a 50-meter tower fashioned from stacked wood and glass cubes with thickly planted edges.

The tower’s sustainable architecture not only boasts more than 2,000 plants (equivalent to an entire hectare of forest), but also a wooden facade, daylight wells, and a unique construction that favors natural ventilation.

„Forêt Blanche“: a tower made of stacked wood and glass cubes
Stefano Boeri is bringing his green facades to Paris.
Image: Compagnie De Phalsbourg Architectes
vision of the facade of the building Forêt Blanche
Stacked glas cubes dominate the aesthetics of Boeri’s Forêt Blanche.
Image: Compagnie De Phalsbourg Architectes

Floating university

It almost sounds like a fairytale: Contaminated swampland becomes a sustainable utopia. Yet this fiction might soon become fact in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The Floating University planned by Woha Architects recently won the world’s most prestigious award for sustainable architecture.

The LafargeHolcim Awards jury praised the project’s idea to place the classrooms on pontoons in the wetlands. Vertical gardens lower the buildings’ cooling requirements while photovoltaic panels and a rainwater recovery system add to the university’s overall sustainability.


a pond in front of the Floating University
Woha’s sustainable university campus within a formerly contaminated swamp.
Image: WOHA

Natural high

The lower levels aim to convey the look and feel of the brightly green rice terraces of Vietnam. Yet the higher you move up the Empire City Towers, the more incredible the illusion: The mega project’s 333-meter-high spiraling towers include mezzanine floors with tropical gardens, lakes, and even waterfalls.

vision of the spiraling towers "Empire City Towers"
Planned highlight of Ho Chi Minh City: the Empire City Towers.
Image: Ole Scheeren

Verdant all the way, the Ho Chi Minh City-based brainchild of Ole Scheeren definitely takes a leaf or three out of Vietnam’s stunning nature. Organic shapes and energy-neutral construction complete the harmonious picture, yet it’s up to each visitor to decide what ultimately takes their breath away: the view or the inspiration behind it all.

vision of Empire City Towers
Like rice fields – high above the city.
Image: Ole Scheeren