News Story

May 27, 2015

Rethinking the Function of Buildings and Cities

Ali Malkawi, Professor of Architectural Technology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and Founding Director of the new Center for Green Buildings and Cities (CGBC), is passionate about dispelling the many myths surrounding sustainable design. If the greener solution is not the cheaper one, he emphasizes, you are doing something wrong.

This idea is at the core of Malkawi’s research agenda. Having lived and worked internationally and in several different regions of the United States, he is keenly aware that buildings must suit their environments—that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the built environment bypasses the potential for design-based innovation. Raised in Jordan (with several siblings who also went on to become architects and engineers), he earned a B.S. in architectural engineering and environmental design from Jordan University of Science and Technology, followed by a Master’s in architecture from the University of Colorado, and then a Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology in architectural technology, artificial intelligence, and mechanical engineering. As a graduate student, he specialized in building simulation—using computational and software tools that can predict, analyze, and improve a building’s performance. He taught at Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he chaired the Ph.D. Program in Architecture and founded and directed a center focusing on building simulation and energy studies, before joining the GSD faculty in 2013.

His work takes him on the road frequently, often as a consultant on diverse projects including an airport terminal in Mexico, a Ferrari factory in Italy, the World Trade Center in New York City, and developing a performance-based building rating system for the state of Qatar. From his international perspective on the built environment, Malkawi observes that while some issues do affect buildings worldwide, other challenges are very local and require sensitivity to the immediate climate, terrain, and cultural context. Globalization can make it more difficult to retain and cultivate this important sensitivity. Whereas the United States faces the challenge of retrofitting its existing transportation and building infrastructure, newly industrialized countries (e.g. China, Brazil, India) have both the challenge and the opportunity to build better infrastructure from the ground up, benefitting from the increased global emphasis on sustainability that Ali dates to the early 2000s.

What would it mean to rethink—as Malkawi and the CGBC want to do—the function of buildings and cities? As a start, Malkawi says, we might view them not solely as consumers of energy and resources, but as resources in themselves. Take the example of the CGBC’s new home, a 1940s house on Sumner Road, just behind the GSD. Retrofitting such an old house for energy-efficiency is already a challenge, and achieving zero cooling and heating status is an even greater one. But on Sumner Road, the goal is to make the house a net producer of energy. As Malkawi told Architectural Record, “We’re not going easy on ourselves. We are looking at carbon emissions associated with our materials from fabrication to demolition. If you think about materials that way, you’ll want to use less of everything.” Buildings, he emphasizes, are not like cars—they are not self-contained capsules that can be engineered, built, and then deployed. Rather, buildings have symbiotic relationships with both their environments and their occupants, with thousands of different variables influencing performance, environmental impact, and comfort on a daily, seasonal, and long-term basis. With that guiding principle, Malkawi is committed to rethinking how buildings are designed, constructed and operated through long-term research and commitment to architectural education, and sees the CGBC as occupying a unique position from which to influence future generations of architects and planners.

— Mariel Wolfson

This profile originally appeared in Environment@Harvard, Volume 7 Issue 1.

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

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