Mikel Azkona

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Can we think of factories and commercial buildings growing vertically, in order to save land and bring those uses back into compact cities?

I'm an architect and I participate in a research project of the University of the Basque Country. We are doing research on higher density industry buildings and we think the global decision that has been taken in residential areas of going into higher densities, should also apply in industrial areas. Main reasons apply in both cases: shortage of building land and the need of a sustainable mobility.

Here in the Basque Country, the reasons that make us want to turn into higher densities are quite evident: rough terrain, high population density and industry still playing a major role in the economy. It is therefore difficult and expensive to obtain industrial land and the costs are very high. During the XXth century, there was in fact, a tradition of urban industry edification, but as in many other places, urban sprawl has prevailed in recent decades, spreading industrial buildings and emptying city centers.

We have seen many examples where, despite not being motivated by topography reasons, higher models have been recovered in order to prevent industries and manufacture activities being kicked out from growing metropolis (examples in Paris, Vancouver, Brooklyn…).

In our research work, we are examining the main practical problems that exist, paying special attention to the limitations set by the existing technical regulations and urban planning. The alternative may come from the growth in number of floors and merging of uses. So the final aim of this research is to find and work on new building typologies that would give a solution to these problems.

We are hoping the TED community will be interested in sharing and suggesting ideas on this subject, and would like to discuss on what possible solutions there might be. We'd love to hear of similar experiences around the world and would appreciate the sharing of some other interesting examples you may know.

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    Sep 9 2013: I live in New Zealand and as you may or may not be aware we have experienced some devastating earthquakes in recent years, and our capitol city Auckland is built on a volcanic plateau. Because of this plateau, they have not been able to build and underground subway system and have had to try and come up with above ground alternatives. In Christchurch, which has experienced 12,000 aftershocks since 4 September 2010 (when it was hit with 7.1 quake), they have found that the ground is prone to liquifaction, and completely unsuitable for building below ground in most instances. I think though that if you can build underground and have the ability to do so, this is where we are headed. So much of our planet has been taken up with aggriculture and housing that we will have no choice.
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      Sep 17 2013: Thanks LeeAnna. NewZealand and the BasqueCountry are exactly antipodal, not only in planetary location but also in ground conditions, as there are no significant earthquakes that can be felt. As you mention, underground is lots of times our only solution, as we live in a very mountainous area and the only solutions for cities to grow are vertically (underground or tower like) and cutting the bothering mountain slopes.
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    Sep 12 2013: To me Factories should be moved underground, and commercial buildings should become commercial malls, with green roofs and self-healing asphalt parking lots. http://www.ted.com/talks/erik_schlangen_a_self_healing_asphalt.html
    I see residential urban sprawl as much healthier then heat island concrete jungles. If a self-healing-green roof and roads could be developed, it would be even better.
    But really we have no clue as to what the factories and jobs of the future will be, but assuming they will just be an increase of today's life styles, is short sighted. With 3D printing, online education and communication, quadcopter droids, and many other advancements, just more of the same seems highly unlikely.
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      Sep 16 2013: Thanks for sharing Don. There's no doubt that's an interesting invention they have made and it's a great improvement for the near future.

      The underground solution you mention, may be an option worth being studied (some have already mentioned in previous posts here, so there it might be reasonable). What I see is that, a-priori, it is much more expensive than than building over the ground.

      I'm afraid I don't fully share your view on the sprawl. Even if the sprawl may be good for some things, as the individuals may apparently feel closer to nature and more independent, the sprawl occupies too much space and territory, uses tons of energy resources in order to bring all needed supplies to all buildings (roads, electricity, water, gas) and is mainly thought for the use of the car. There are also many other strong factors that in my opinion make this model unsustainable, as it is more difficult to manage and expensive to maintain, as more public services are needed, more equipment, it's less secure…

      I think the best would be to live in compact cities, were one could walk, cycle or use public transportation and free the rest land. Of course, a balance needs to be found between density and health, cause a compact city does not necessarily mean it has to be a "heat island concrete jungle", which of course, I agree with you, should be avoided.

      Anyway, it is true that the way factories and jobs are changing, we can't predict too much about the future. Now that we see 3D printers (and others that may come) evolving so fast, freelance jobs and all this things you mention, industries seem to be decreasing, going back to the home-small factories of the middle ages. If so, cities will tend in my opinion to become more and more compact, not requiring as much space for the production of products. In any case, I wouldn't say that heavy industries are going to disappear... at least not in the near future.
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      Sep 16 2013: I'd love to share with you some examples of the industrial sprawl here in the Basque Country

      As I have mentioned in other posts, this is the problem we have here in the Basque Country: it's a small country with lots of economic and industrial activity, there are also lots of mountains, cities are so dense that their only way to grow is kicking industries off. The sprawling solution for industries is to cut and flatten these mountains in order to place gigantic malls.

      Here are two views of the first example: settlement for a technology park.

      Two more views of the second example: a recently developed ground for a industrial park.

      Costs for these new developments are too high, but then industries built within them are only ground floor +1, which makes not much sense, taking into account all the money and land spent.
  • Sep 6 2013: The most important criteria is designing a 3 dimensional transportation system as the grid on which this city is built. That is when you get the biggest benefit. I have a design, there is only one road in the entire city, and the road is one way for it's entire route. One of the reasons I did this was because of the design of the circulation system in the human body. I integrate cars, subways, bicycles, walking, escalators, elevators, and even a canal.

    I calculate that it is possible to go from any point in a city of 2 million to any other point in 15 minutes, however, I would really appreciate someone who could design a computer simulation to test this and compare it with other cities. I have merely chosen several obvious trips (one side of the city to the other, etc).

    The city is an order of magnitude more compact with all of the financial benefits that entails. Because the road is so simple (it is one way the entire route, and there is only one road, no intersections, no lights, no stops signs, etc) I think it would be ideal for vehicles that have recently been developed that drive themselves. I envision residents using a computer/smart phone app to order vehicles from one point to another. As a result no one owns cars, which reduces the total number by an order of magnitude. Also, you don't need parking, which also saves a lot of space. Also, the road has a very slight downhill grade for about 99% of the route which is ideal for electric vehicles. If they are all electric then I can put the road underground. This way walkways and bicycle routes do not share the road with cars, rather they have their own park. Again, the city is ideally suited for the use of bicycles, especially mixed with the subway. So I see a system where the bicycles also belong to the city. Because the city is so compact it encourages bicycles and walking.

    Finally, every residence in the city has a beautiful view overlooking the park.
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      Sep 16 2013: I like your ideas. It resonate well with the challenge face by the urban planner.
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      Sep 17 2013: Thanks for sharing Stuart. Sounds interesting and challenging. You should ask someone to build you a Grasshopper script to get those simulations. I am sure that the results would provide valuable information.
  • Sep 5 2013: My two main problems with dense urban manufacturing are 1) transportation & 2) property taxes and city income income taxes.

    Transportation-If it takes longer for you to ship your products because it is hard to get a truck with 53' trailer or a 40' container into an urban center. Thus manufacturing needs to be closer to the edge.

    The extra cost of property taxes and and municipal income taxes have to be taken into account versus those in suburban and rural areas. Most urban areas in the US have much higher taxes than rural or suburban creating a disadvantage to manufacturing.
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      Sep 5 2013: Thanks for your answer Spencer. As you say, all these things are basic and shouldn't be taken lightly. Of course we're trying to take all these physical, functional and legal limitations into account.

      What we're seeing here is that we're running out of land intended for economical activities and industrial purposes. Topography in the Basque Country is very rough and development costs are too high for new ground, but despite the little available land and its prices, new industrial areas are built with just a ground floor plus one. Solution should be to re-densify the industrial areas we already have, along with a relocation and reorganization of some activities. Industrial areas are being filled with activities which are not necessarily industrial or manufacturing and could perfectly be located within the cities, as they don't emit noise or smoke at all and don't really have large space needs for transportation or storage. The point is, as you well mentioned, development pressures are so high within the cities that these activities are forced to leave. So now, not only we can find car repair garages, carpenters, warehouses and logistics, but also all these which are being pushed out, such as furniture shops, fashion shops, gyms, restaurants… It seems we are trying to expel all economic activities of our cities, when cities themselves were originally created around the trade.

      It's also very interesting what you mention about the edges, as it makes lots of sense regarding to the traffic flow of a city. But this could become dangerous when cities grow radially, if we continue pushing industrial areas out, as distances also grow till becoming too far and the use of the car becomes inevitable. The optimization of public transport is certainly an important point and an improvement in a more direct communication with the city should be a priority in all cases.
      • Sep 6 2013: As far as transportation one would have to plan for an industrial transportation corridor. So ingress and egress of shipping would be easier. As radial growth occurs maintain those transportation routes for manufacturing.
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          Sep 17 2013: Absolutely. Cities should have these transportation corridors, organized in grids that would not interfere with the rest of the circulation. That's an interesting idea for urban planing and improve our cities from their foundations.
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      Sep 5 2013: (note that when we are talking about economical activities, we're not talking about the largest heavy industries which of course require lots of space and more specific technical needs)
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      Sep 5 2013: Getting our semi truck up to the 15th floor would be a bit of a challenge also.

  • Oct 4 2013: There are two major concern for industrial start ups,lower cost of investment,lower cost of finished goods.Factory location usualy should be considered along with other fixed cost inevestment elements .Enviroment protection and plloutants contor seems to be more expensive in populated areas.I think selected SMEs could be located in industrial comlpeses of urban areas.Several storries industrial buldings are very common ie East Asia.
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    Tao P

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    Oct 2 2013: Look at the absurd amount of land dedicated to roads and parking. 1/3 of land in the average North American city. Eliminate what is extra and put most parking underground. Design people centric cities (walkable neighborhoods) and this will free up some land for industry.
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    Sep 25 2013: Does that zoning requirement prevent mixing commercial and residential applications in a struture? I see no inherent conflict with having a floor of office cubicles in the same building as apartments. In fact, by the percentages you quoted, would including residential space allow for taller structures?

    Though more suitable for the service sector, at least that would free the available commercial real estate for manufacturing or other heavier industry.

    What is the state of infrastructure in the urban areas? If all building is residential, will new buildings be constrained in terms of available power, water, waste disposal, and communications?
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      Oct 4 2013: There hasn't been such a limitation on the past years, but latest planing and zoning trends tend not to mix uses inside the same building... I guess this way it's easier for them to group uses as coloured polylines in a 2D plan. So these areas never combine residential uses with offices, even if it looks quite a reasonable combination.

      In urban areas things are different, but the industrial/manufacture sprawl is becoming more and more evident. There are a-priori no such limitations you mention.

      Thanks for your interest.
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    Sep 25 2013: Fellow architects have shared with us a very interesting example which is being developed in Singapore. We'd like to share it with you.

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      Sep 26 2013: Thank you for sharing the good news.Luckily I could see it. It's really like magic. How can they consolidate 15buildings into 1 .? I am curious.
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        Sep 26 2013: We're also pretty curious... In fact, we're trying to get in touch with them.
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    Sep 24 2013: Who wants to? Why don't we practice birth control and limit population.
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      Sep 25 2013: Well... we actually do. The birth control and the limitation of the population are long-term measures, which would probably have to be studied in the future, but the exaggerated expansion and footprint in the land have already been made. We're seeking solutions that would improve and optimize what we already have.

      Thanks for sharing Michael.
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    Sep 14 2013: It's a good idea but should be weighed against the substructures ability to withstand earthquakes, and flooding. They are doing some very interesting foundation arrangements in Kuwait. You should check it out.


    I think everything should be modular and easily rebuilt. That's just me. Remove the populations dependence on limited resource along with some population control and you don't have to go vertical.
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      Sep 16 2013: Thanks a lot John.

      That's an interesting view, as going back into the foundations already having the knowledge given by the experience is a great point not to repeat errors. I think this ideas have to be continuously taken into account, but I also see that this type of root changes need a long time to be developed. Some places may need urgent or more drastic decisions to take… and yes, that's usually the reason of all human fails: not taking enough time for thinking. But yes, that's a good point.

      For now, the examples we were starting to think of, are more closely related to the modular/temporal idea you're suggesting. Industry and economy are fast changing, sometimes unexpectedly, so the buildings should also be able to grow or decrease.
  • Sep 11 2013: For commercial office buildings, it is reasonable to put them in a multistory building. As a matter of fact, most of the businesses have already done that. However, the industrial buildings are a completely different story. First of all many industrial buildings are simply impossible to be located in multi-story buildings, such as paper mills,automobile and heavy appliances manufacturers. Furthermore, some of the chemical or petroleum industries are simply not allowed in the urban areas anyway because of pollution or risk of fire or explosion.
    On the other hand, I think that residential condominiums should be encouraged not only in urban areas but also in rural areas as well. This setup would save lot of energy use and construction materials and other resources or services.
    Let me use an example, I had worked in a paper manufacturing company many years ago. I first worked in the main business office which was located in the center of the commercial district in a large city, We had two manufacturing facilities in two remote rural areas for the necessary space which is not possible to be housed in urban area at all. However, for the business part, an office in the urban business center is absolutely necessary, so this arrangement was necessary, just look at all the headquarters of most major manufacturers in modern time too.
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      Sep 17 2013: Hi Bart.

      I totally agree with what you're saying about multistory buildings. I guess we are maybe not using the most appropriate term when naming industrial buildings. Note that when talking about industrial buildings, we're mainly referring to industrial parks, where SMEs are located along with many other services & tertiary sector businesses. We're definitely not talking about the largest heavy industries which of course require lots of space and have more specific technical needs. So the bigger ones such as paper mills, automobile and heavy appliances manufacturers, chemicals & petroleum industries, nuclear & power stations, cement, rubber, metal lamination factories… and many other heavy industries wouldn't be that easy to apply in our typology research; although I'm sure new research fields might be certainly opened in order to optimize these buildings.

      That's why we believe there might be other ways to combine all these SMEs activities into some kind of mixed-use hybrid buildings, following a clear hierarchy which would group them depending on technical, physical, timetable, noise, transport… needs and other criteria.

      I found really interesting the practical view from your own working experience. It is true as you say, that big companies place their headquarters in bigger cities, while they keep the rest of facilities in remote rural areas. This also needs to be taken into account. Thanks a lot for sharing.
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    Sep 10 2013: Stability comes to mind when dealing with closely packed tall buildings.
    I wonder if a new form of architecture would include a multi-level girder system connecting all closely packed high rise buildings.

    This would give the entire network a new structural stability that would have vastly enhanced resistance to any type of destabilization to any or all parts as the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts.

    This sort of inter cooperativeness between structures would likely require legal and political support but would obviously be a far superior structure stability wise in the face of issues such as collapse, earthquakes, explosions etc.
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      Sep 17 2013: We'll definitely keep this ideas in mind: "multi-level girder system" & "cooperativeness between structures". They both sound intriguing and are fully related to the way we would like this work to develop. Thanks for sharing Martin.
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    Sep 10 2013: Thank you so much for your support~!There's another new topic by Joshua Poh here related to some new material---floating concrete . Hope it could be some help to your ideas on your architectures. :)
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      Sep 17 2013: I just read it and sounds really interesting. Can't wait to see new improvements on that... I'm sure this would open a new wide range of applications for construction. Thanks for sharing, Yoka.
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    Sep 8 2013: We can not control this at the moment not to have dense and more dense buildings, factories. But I am thinking a different way, are we utilizing fully all those products manufactured or wasting them ? should we reduce the no. of factories there ?

    Food waste

    are we using more of resources than needed ?


    Most industrialized nation has more resource wastage,
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      Sep 17 2013: Thanks a lot Sham. I totally agree with you I found your links really enriching. That would be to fix the problem from it's roots or foundations, the exact way it should be done. But I'm afraid life isn't always as it should be and us, human beings, tend to always do things all the way round... Thanks for sharing.
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        Sep 17 2013: @Mikel, you are right we need to strive hard to fix the problem from it's roots.
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    Sep 8 2013: Well, i guess we have no choice although i don't like this idea and it can get dangerous if there is a natural calamity.
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    Sep 6 2013: I think your concept is sound. Does the Basque Country follow any particular trends in terms of zoning or other regulation that you expect to cause a problem? In the United States, there is a process called 'variance', which is a single exception to the established regulations, designed to be used in cases where the regulations do not cover the dimension in question or the regulatory concern is somehow irrelevant.

    I would estimate that the biggest challenge would be logistical, with so many manufacturing entities using the same footprint. This makes me think of 24 hour use of facilities; some consideration would need to be made for the visual requirements of loaders and drivers, and methods to prevent the disturbance of nearby residential areas from all the light and noise. The underground suggestion has merit; I imagine a robust shipping and receiving center could be built underground without substantially more expense or effort than an underground parking garage.

    Speaking of parking garages, there is an automated one in Germany, I think, which accepts and retrieves your car as though it were a tremendous vending machine. Virtually any size product can be handled via automation; designing for that should be a prime consideration I would think. Also in the United States, we have certain designs of apartment buildings or shopping malls that have a large central open space for aesthetic reasons. A similar design could use that space as an artery to lift raw materials up and products down. Airport luggage handling and postal offices should have good ideas to plunder. Combining the above ideas, why not build elevators capable of taking a semi truck to the fifteenth floor? It can be done.
    Perhaps the structures should be designed with removal external walls by floor, so that modifications to individual sections or new machinery could be swiftly and cheaply replaced.
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      Sep 25 2013: Thanks for sharing Ryan.

      Yes. There's actually an standard which limits the industrial land use up to maximum of %65 for the total floor plan area, and a maximum of 95% for the under-roof built area, which is just insane. This is what avoids buildings growing in height. The "variance" process sounds interesting and would surely help studying each case.

      As you say, logistics are the key to this matter. We're working on that, studying compatibilities not only taking into account building sizes, transport needs, annoying activities (noise/toxic emissions/vibrations) and compatibility with residential areas, but also 24h schedules in use, in order to find the best combination possible. Underground makes absolute sense.

      The automated garages you're mentioning are the new VolksWagen factories in Wolfsburg and Dresden, in Germany, and they both have these robot-towers for keeping and storing the cars:
      It's definitely a great example. Probably not the best, as I guess its been projected more from a commercial and promotional view, rather than a functional or spatial view. Anyway, it clearly shows how height problems can perfectly been solved with the use of elevators… One could argue that land footprint and costs are probably being replaced by power consumption/costs in these cases. But as it an example that is being widely implemented in many european city centers, where there is not enough space for parking, I think it is interesting solution to be considered in order to safe space and also time.

      I like your ideas and proposals and totally agree with you: I'm sure taking a truck to the fifteenth floor is not such a big deal. We've all seen these huge and gigantic port-cranes, handling thousands of enormous metal containers within minutes and as if they were weightless. One of those would perfectly fit the inner open space you propose.

      Thanks again for your ideas.
  • Sep 6 2013: Interesting idea - assume you have an assembly line how would you get the parts and the line between floors?
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      Sep 17 2013: Well... that's the next step of our research. To find new practical building typologies that can solve all these problems. At this initial stage, the idea wouldn't only be to turn horizontal factories into vertical ones, but to also to be able to merge different industrial uses and economic activities into different floors. So the one which needs a long assembly line would keep a whole floor, while smaller activities, workshops, companies could be set in other floors. Same would happen with logistics companies which need lots of space for their trucks on the ground floor, but other activities, offices... could fill the vertical spaces.
      • Sep 17 2013: I would be interested to hear about the typologies and the industries you think you will try to merge. It has been tried putting plants together to feed materials to the final production product line but it usually has failed.
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    Sep 6 2013: Most of the problems of transportation, finance, population movement , etc. can be designed in a functional manner.
    The consideration is not of manufacturing but of product. A steel mill might be difficult. But, what about manufacturing such items as cell phones or computers? There are a myriad of manufacturing products that can be made in a dense urban setting. Most urban governments will waive or reduce taxes and provide services to insure the jobs for their citizens.
    • Sep 12 2013: Yes, cities waive and reduce taxes for incoming businesses, but they increase the burden of taxes on the original people and businesses there. I'm not opposed to inducements, but it tends to be lopsided for large business getting the breaks and small business paying a punitive rate for property taxes. That higher rate stifles small business growth and their hiring ability.
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        Sep 12 2013: A valid point. I am sure the short sighted city officials have passed on the loss from new businesses to the existing tax base. There is a fine line to develop the ROI from municipal incentives. For this reason, I like the local government systems that use a city manager to run the city business. Then all that is needed is to find a very smart, honest individual to take the job.
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        Sep 17 2013: That's the key factor here: goverments should somehow avoid the excessive development pressures on small businesses, in order to keep them alive.
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      Sep 17 2013: Totally agree Mike. We believe these SMEs can perfectly be integrated into the urban grid. In fact, that's the main aim of this work: to search not only new building typologies, but also new ways to organize and manage them, in order to obtain a more compact and sustainable city.
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    Sep 5 2013: I think it's a good idea but if it is on the ground, when the earthquakes or fires occur how can we react or save people's lives? Maybe Underground is another alternative, I think.
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      Sep 5 2013: Thanks for your answer Yoka. Fortunately we don't have earthquakes at all, but of course is a thing that must be taken into account, the same way residential buildings and skyscrapers should deal with this strong condition. Current fire regulations here are very restrictive and should be; we're also taking these security conditions into account from the very beginning and we can say it's not an easy task.

      Underground sounds really interesting. There might be some pros which we should bear in mind, but we can anticipate that building costs grow exponentially, same fire regulations apply and I guess underground working conditions are would not be the best.
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        Sep 6 2013: "we're also taking these security conditions into account from the very beginning and we can say it's not an easy task."

        Yes, it's very important , we had this kind of disaster in Shanghai not long ago, it's in a high-rise and lots of people couldn't escape from the sudden fire, what was worse was the wind helped the fire to cover every layer on the top floors. The firefighters couldn't climb there,lots of habitants and firefighters died from suffocation.
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        Sep 6 2013: And also by that time, people had never thought that would be happening. There hadn't been any case recorded.
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      Sep 8 2013: speaking of earthquakes etc, building underground can actually mess with the stability of the ground, and in earthquake prone areas, building anything underground could make the area more hazardous.
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        Sep 9 2013: Hi, Johnston!
        I'm very glad to see your feedback on my comment. I agree on that the underground construction plans should be based on the soil quality in every specific area. This also happens in China, it's easy for some cities to build underground subway channels(like Shanghai) but in some city the soil isn't solid enough to afford and collapse easily(like Dalian,collapsed 5times). But actually in some earthquake areas, building underground could be much safer and helpful as apposed to hazardous. The great example is Japan. I've been there, Japan is famous for their outmanoeuvring earthquakes and they have a very advanced subway system and underground business industry.

        And I've recently heard a piece of exciting news that people can cremate the dead body in the outerspace(American science). So I can imagine maybe oneday we can bulid some buldings in some outerplaces and the up and down worlds in the film " upsidedown" could come true. :)
  • Sep 5 2013: Yes, but you still have to weigh the pluses and minuses.
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      Sep 5 2013: Thanks for your answer George. As you say, this is what this research is all about: measuring the pluses and minuses, the pros and cons, and concluding if there is any possibility of somehow improving the current situation, using new urban development models or building typologies.
      • Sep 6 2013: Also, I have found that i can learn a great deal in TED when asking simple questions and making simple comments. I will enjoy as this developes more.
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    Oct 4 2013: If you are still interested in continuing with this debate, find out more about the topic or would just like to share other experiences or information with us, we invite you to follow us on the following links:


    **The sites which we are just starting to build, are still pretty much empty. Please allow us a couple days to compile all the interesting information we have and finish the sites.

    Thank you very much for sharing.
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    Sep 19 2013: I'd like to share with you all this interesting article by Bruno Taut [1880-1939]. For those who haven't ever heard of him, he was a German architect, city planner and author.

    Here is the link to the full article: http://socks-studio.com/2013/09/16/bruno-taut-the-earth-is-a-good-dwelling-1919/

    Here's a little quote of the text:

    "As Taut waited for “The stars in the sky and the stars on earth (to) greet each other” another grand phenomenon was about to take place, the one inspired by Alfred Marshall‘s scientific studies on the necessity of delocalizing the industry on the perifery, and the other -real- dissolution of the city: not the epic one dreamed by Taut, by the quite mundane reality of suburban sprawl.

    It was Capital, indeed, that kept holding the structural laws of cities development."
  • Sep 6 2013: We can think of it, but I do not want to live in a gigantic box.