Picture: ©Philipp Langenheim, philipplangenheim.com

Daniel Schwaag from Elegant Embellishments

Daniel Schwaag and Allison Dring founded their studio Elegant Embellishments to stress the fact that sustainability in architecture is becoming increasingly important. In their Berlin office they develop façade elements that are able to filter environmental pollution from the air. In this process nitrogen oxide contained in the air is converted into calcium nitrate and the noxious greenhouse gas CO2 is reduced. The result could therefore be: In order to protect the environment, more buildings must be constructed. We have met clever head Daniel Schwaag for an interview.

Your office is designing façade elements that are able to filter pollutants from the air  – how exactly does that work We follow up two strategies that deal with two different types of air pollution. The “ProsolveProdukte“ (a perforated curtain made of titan dioxide) fight the urban air pollution that is mainly created by combustion processes in transport and power generation. They break down nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, sulphur, and secondary also particulate matters. The Made-of-Air-Products [products that are made from bio waste which had absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere and is turned into a stable form of carbon by means of a pyrolysis in an oxygen-free furnace] aim to reduce the environmental damaging greenhouse gas CO2.

The photo catalysis can be compared to a catalyst in cars with the difference that it is not operated by heat but by UV-light. The surface made of special titan dioxide converts humidity and photons. The thus created oxygen species break down pollutants in the air. This process requires daylight, active surfaces and a restricted wind speed. ProsolveModules form complex surfaces that encourage the photocatalytic reaction exactly in these aspects.

The approach of “Made of Air“ is a different one. Here we have products that consist approximately 90 per cent of carbon. Each square metre of façade thus stores approximately 25 kg of CO2 directly obtained from the air and does no longer contribute to global warming. In addition, the production process supplies sustainable heat energy in a way that the 25 kg CO2 can be fully credited once all energy consumption has been deducted. The more we produce this material the better for the environment. And that means that we will have to construct increasingly more buildings.

You want to face the global pollution with your projects - how and when did you get this idea? The initial ideas were born during our mutual times spent in London when we ourselves suffered the effects of urban pollution during heat waves. We thought that the surfaces of buildings could really do much more than just fulfilling the classic functions in construction. However, ”Prosolve” never had the intention to fight global pollution. The solutions were to be used locally to reduce air pollution there and then. But “Made of Air“ is really concerned about global pollution.

Your reference project is a hospital in Mexico City…? What did you do there? The project belonged to the Mexican Ministry of Health, a hospital offering high quality health care for economically neglected people. The subject of an air-cleaning façade was very complementary to the healing- and cleanliness approach of a hospital. We supplied about 2500 square metres of façade elements. By enlarging the surface, there were about 5000 square metres of an active façade surface, potentially neutralising the pollution of up to 1000 cars per day.

Sustainability in architecture - why is this becoming an increasingly important subject? The most important activity in the construction business is concerned with resources. Regarding the climate change, we, as a society have concentrated largely on energy production and energy efficiency during the past few years. Focus is now placed more and more on the production of our materials. The world population is said to increase by 2 billion people in 2050. If we continue to build our future cities as we have done so far, we can forget our climate target of limiting the global warming to 2 degrees C by 2100. Much will have to be changed.

Will there only be sustainable architecture at one point in future? That seems to be obvious. However, the climate change is still very difficult to pin down and place. The causes must be searched for much deeper down. The effects of climate change are still too asynchronous with our election cycles. I mean we do really have a communication problem… Our problems become increasingly more complex but our communication becomes more and more superficial, our phases of concentrating increasingly shorter. The climate change will test our political systems to the limit. ​​​​​​​

What will the city look like in ten years’ time? Greener, more crowd-funding projects, constructions made of wood, more experiments, flying cars, many robots and citizens who will have increasingly more data available to turn the city into a humane and harmonic place, meaning that one does no longer and primarily look for short-term economic solutions. And also a lot more open space, once we have got rid of the cars, but also new means to protect cities against stronger heatwaves, winds, floods and dry periods.

And finally: Can you please continue the following sentence: “Berlin is smart, because… it is capable to reinvent itself continuously due to its attraction.