Mega Skyscrapers That Eat Pollution Are Coming to China

The smog-choked nation is coming up with innovative solutions to its air-quality problem.

(Photo: Courtesy Chetwoods Architects) 

Jun 27, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It looks like China is taking on Saudi Arabia for the “world’s tallest building” crown. When construction on the Phoenix Tower, a pointy two-building complex in Wuhan (in central China), is finished, one of the mega skyscrapers will match the Saudis’ Kingdom Tower in height. But the 3,280-foot-tall building will do more than just pierce the atmosphere. It will eat pollution floating in the air.

Designed by U.K.-based architecture firm Chetwoods, the towers will be covered with a smog-eating coating. The building materials and veneers are photocatalytic: That means they are able to use sunlight to turn particulate matter into inert salts, a kind of technology that’s quickly becoming the hottest thing in architecture and design. The Italy Pavilion being designed for the 2015 World’s Fair in Milan is being constructed with a similar material. But the need for air-purifying construction is especially needed in China.

Air quality is so bad in the Asian nation that earlier this month the government announced plans to yank thousands of cars off the roads. New emissions standards are also being tightly enforced on factories, and the average person has been empowered to blow the whistle on the worst contaminators. Officials in Wuhan, which is on the horrifically toxic Yangtze River, are eager to change China’s polluting reputation.

“The most amazing thing for me is that in the U.K. we strive as designers to get things built, and there’s a lot of red tape, but the Chinese seem to have a different view of things,” the architecture firm’s founder, Laurie Chetwood, told FastCoExist. “I think they’re incredibly optimistic.”

Construction is expected to be completed in 2017. While the buildings are an innovative—and tall—approach to improving the region’s air, a skyscraper can’t be the only thing used to curb smog. Let’s hope the world’s most populous country keeps getting those cars off the road. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia, your move.