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Estimated reading time: 5 mins

Within RMJM there has always been a driving force to produce sustainable and meaningful ‘high performance buildings’. As we continue to strive for progress and transparency, we acknowledge the fundamental relationship between architecture and the deterioration of the environment. In recognition of the upcoming World Nature Conservation Day, RMJM has interviewed Luca Aldrighi, Managing Director at RMJM Milano, about environmental choices and the most significant factors that influence his day to day design decisions.

How would you describe high performance building?
In a nutshell: a building that you want to ‘live’. If we only care about numbers and energy performances, we run the risk of designing heartless boxes. A few months ago work began on one of our projects in Istanbul; a corporate building with 14 floors above ground, plus 7 underground. Last year, in the design phase, we questioned ourselves over what the future of our workplace should be like. In a society that has technology and hyperconnectivity, the doors have opened to smart working. We asked ourselves the question: how do we get people back to the office  whilst also making them feel at home?

We have “borrowed” two elements that belong to nature and treated them as real building materials: greenery and light. Designing for ‘voided’ areas, the building has a large, full-height central hole which seesan organic shape, and shrinks as you go up the floors. All around is surrounded by plants too, adding to the ‘natural’ atmosphere. Walls and floors are entirely in stone, as well as the external pavement to give a suggestion of continuity between inside and out. The building is made up of a double skin; the innermost one, transparent, in glass. While the external one is perceived as a form of rough stone- as if the walls had been shaped by the forces of nature. Additionally, the balconies create a screen that is meant to allow natural light to enter but not directly, thus avoiding the overall overexposure and also the use of artificial lighting.

As it has been reported previously, 34% of people believe that buildings are responsible for depressive disorders and it is also dramatic if we think that we spend 87% of our time indoors. University studies have shown how being in contact with greenery and nature has a regenerative effect on people. And thus wherever you are sitting down to work or any other task, we feel you must have a visual ‘escape route’ to the green. This is a further incentive for us to improve the quality of work and human interactions the way we have been doing. This for me means thinking about a high-performance building.

Which materials are you using in your projects to support the environment?
The choice of materials is one of the cornerstones for the design when  building. The place, if you listen to it, always suggests something that is linked to factors that often differ from place to place. I think about the last project we completed designing last month; a new mixed-use (residential and commercial) settlement in Malaysia covering an area of ​​nearly 100,000 sqm. In this case, the predominant use of wood for the facades were to be a tribute to the traditional architecture of the typical Malaysian houses.

Or using green, as an intended landscape mitigation tool, in the Tammiste school center ofEstonia. The project imitates the shape of a Drumlins, small hill that arises from the movement of glaciers during the glaciation period, a popular landmark across the area.

I do also think of the choice of photocatalytic ceramic used for the “keel” of the hotel designed in Montecarlo. The properties of this surface allow the abatement of air agents produced by pollution. Furthermore, being a building close to the sea, the white glazed ceramic absorbs the sun’s rays and significantly changes the shade to allow the building to undergo a daily metamorphosis-contrasting with the static nature of its size.

What sustainability challenges do you typically face in  projects?
We always talk about sustainability by implicitly referring to the environmental aspect, but we forget that to match it we must also think about the social and economic elements. An example is the project we tackled this year with the sports hall for the city of Zatec. The design idea is inspired by the RIP, a small mountain area in the Bohemian region that was once a volcano. The site is in a border area between the urban center and the agricultural landscape aforementioned. We had no desire to visually overload the landscape with an additional building but rather maintain its natural beauty, from the outside, and thus the project looks like a gentle hill, completely covered with vegetation.

Covid has taught us how important social interactions are and how much we miss them; so by means of large stairways ( that can be integrated with ramps, we can create a large environment that can be used for many purposes. Special attention can also be given to costs; the handling of ground, excavation and fill, which are equal to how the green roofs can act as a natural thermal cushion, and thus containing management costs.

Can sustainable technologies help save the world?
They are certainly efficient tools, but that’s not enough. Like any such tool, if not used correctly, it is completely ineffective in the wrong hands and risks becoming  purley an ‘exercise of style’. I believe that at the base there must be a deep awareness and understanding of the issues and thus a study of the subject. Often, in our imaginary collective, we associate technology with something extremely sophisticated, futuristic and therefore economically inaccessible.

But I ask you: are wind towers in Iran a natural solution to the problem of air conditioning in hot climates, and not ‘real’ technology? And again, the Yakh-chal, literally “the ice pit”, capable of creating the latter thanks to an underground compartment associated with a thick heat-resistant wall.

There is perhaps no more apt phrase than that of Nietzche “the future influences the present as much as the past”. If we are good at studying the past, and then taking inspiration and reinterpreting it, we have a strong tool for change and progress.

Do you believe that progress is more important than perfection?
I find perfection an extremely subjective term, especially in the architectural field. What is perfect for me is most likely not perfect for someone else. I am certainly more interested in the progress that I find as a result of a process or an approach. The mission in our office is to think of a correct project- rather than a ‘perfect’ one. A good architect should have the tools to identify what the client needs, though this does not necessarily correspond to what they want.

Often these two elements travel on parallel tracks that may hardly meet. And it is here that the architect must have the strength to make choices that are sometimes unpopular for the good of the community. If we keep such things in mind and turn them into our litmus test, then what I call “progress” in architecture will be nothing more than a simple consequence of a correct approach.

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