5 Imaginative Buildings That Breathe Pollution And Clean The Air

In the future, buildings could double as “urban lungs” that filter pollution. These designs imagine what that would look like.


Rather than just being places to work, eat, and be entertained, buildings of the future might be used for “systemic” roles: say, generating power, or reusing garbage. Or, as in the designs here–cleaning up the air.


Over the past few months, five teams at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate Design School have been imagining buildings that act as “urban lungs,” alongside their traditional functions. The brief asked the students to consider a specific site–an unused plot of land near Manhattan’s Holland Tunnel. The area has heavy traffic–much of it idling for long periods–and the air is thick with pollutants.

“As a research studio, we were interested in the possible future of buildings as large scalable environmental systems, a kind of socio-technical environmental infrastructure,” says Shawn Rickenbacker, who oversaw the project.

Below, the five designs.


This cell-like design from Haley Padgett, Kelly Berger, and Thomas Jansen uses three air cleaning methods. Hydroponic farms on the roof absorb CO2. Ductwork in the cladding takes in particulate matter. And precast concrete panels, treated with titanium dioxide, deal with NO2 (another pollutant) and capture water. The building, which doubles as an exhibition space, is connected to the subway system, encouraging people to wander through.


Shaped a bit like a seashell, Urban Oasis “seeks to be carbon negative and scrub CO2…while acting as a beacon for progressive change required to combat global warming,” according to Arman Hosseini and Sam Rosen. It does this by pulling wind through tubes in the structure itself, cleaning pollutants using filtration beds.


This design, from Michael Buckley, Daniel Greenspan, and Ryan Koella, focuses not only on immediate pollution, but also on greenhouse gases from landfills outside the city. The team would divert organic waste to make both biogas and biochar (a way to sequester carbon). Then, they would draw up air from the street, so that “passers-by are directly exposed to the functioning system.”



Probably the most outlandish of the five, this design from Jinglu Li and Jayson Potter is fully modular: you add and pull parts away, depending on air quality at the time. The idea of the “pixel cloud” is to maximize surface area and capture as much pollution as possible. The air is driven downwards and heated in pressure tanks, breaking down the CO2. Steam then escapes and envelopes the building in a fog–hence “the cloud.”


Formula (A)lgae is a building surrounded by algae tubes (a bit like this one). Air drifts up from the street, following walkways to the top, where it is captured and fed into the gunk. Through photosynthesis, the algae multiplies, producing biomass that can be burned for energy. The project was conceived by William Bintzer and Sisi Xi.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.