Studio MAKE in Conversation

CONVERSATION #1: Dr Chengzhi Peng with Xiaoyi Yao and Wenjiang Dou, October 2016

Site in BeijingAbout the project

In 2016 MSc in Digital Design and Interactive Built Environments* students, Xiaoyi and Wenjiang, teamed up to collaborate on their Semester 2 studio project - the result is CityLung. They set themselves an ambitious challenge concerning urban air quality in Beijing, China. Due to the increasing emissions from cars, factories and homes interacting with the urban microclimate, Beijing has been suffering from an urban air quality problem known as smog. The site chosen for their project is the currently disused large urban area left by the Beijing Shougang Corporation, one of China’s largest steel-making companies. Its operations were moved out of the city prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics due to concerns over air pollution. Working as a team, Wenjiang and Xiaoyi saw that an urban renewal of the Shougang site could be a great opportunity to develop innovative solutions to Beijing’s acute smog problem. So they came up an approach called Solar-Powered Algae Farming for Air Purification.

For Project CityLung, Wenjiang Dou and Xiaoyi Yao are jointly awarded the Pamela Mann Prize. The prize is for thesis projects which best reflect a response to health, wellbeing and care in the community.

Here are Xiaoyi and Wenjiang in conversation with Dr Chengzhi Peng.

CP: How serious is Beijing’s smog problem?

XY+WD: We remember the concept of smog in Beijing becoming famous in 2013 with reports appearing in all newspapers. In that time, I worked in a studio as a trainee. When I returned to my university I saw many people wearing mouth-muffles and I became more aware of the smog problem. I noticed that my classmates often got coughs and had uncomfortable voices when smog happened. According to many health studies, respiratory diseases occurred more often due to city smog.

CP: Why did you choose the Shougang Corporation site for your Studio MAKE project?Site plan

XY+WD: Beijing Shougang owns a large area of land with a complex environment, giving us a lot of useful data to work with on the project. We were attracted to the sharp contrast presented by the site: heavy industry vs residential; abandoned urban area vs. costly redevelopment.

XY+WD: Very much like Sheffield, the steel-making industry has been an important chapter in the development of modern Beijing which has attracted investments and resources. But the city of Beijing in the 21st century is moving on and the large-scale heavy industry has to make way for avoiding air pollution. However, with a steel industry heritage, there are many interesting machines and workshops. It is a big challenge to redevelop the large urban area as well as preserve the rich industrial heritage. Various abandoned structures offer rich types of spaces which are rarely seen elsewhere. The co-existence of a heavy industry and the urban residential neighbourhoods are almost a contradiction. That is why we have chosen this area as our project site.

CP: That is all very interesting and challenging but I want to ask you where your idea of Solar-Powered Algae Farming (SPAF) comes from? Why do you think this is particularly a good approach to searching for potential solutions to Beijing’s smog problem?

XY+WD: There are at least three types of buildings according to our initial site analysis and we were looking for an idea to adapt the different types of structures. At the same time, due to the fact that air pollution mainly comes from burning fossil fuels, we searched for a range of renewable energy resources to replace the existing ones. Finally, we were inspired by a sustainable program in Germany which demonstrates the potential of an algae-based system. The liquid form of algae means this system can be easily adapted to the different building types and algae can survive and grow in very a tough environment. As we collected more information about the algae and algae-culture, the powerful solar energy conversion, CO2 absorption and pollutant purification capabilities convinced us that the SPAF approach is the right one for our project.

CP: Your SPAF strategy sounds really interesting and appropriate. I know you have looked into some examples of algae-based systems for air-cleaning and heat-generating applications. But you have actually produced your own SPAF unit prototype design. Can you explain what it is and how it works?

XY+WD: Our unit prototype design consists of two parts. The first part is a solar data collection machine. In this machine, there are four light sensors in the four directions (N, W, E, and S). By comparing the four sensors' data streams, we can find out where the strongest sun light is in the sky at any one time. The second part of the unit is an algae facade design which has an algae panel system and a pump system. Each algae facade is programmed to follow the sun path driven by the solar data collection machine. The pump system controls the circulation of algae liquid and polluted air. Furthermore, we learned from another module how to use an Internet of Things platform to store data and to remote control the algae facade system.

Prototype Prototype

CP: In your final presentation, you showed us how your SPAF unit can be installed on some existing structures of different sizes that could work collectively as an algae farm. If I imagine myself visiting these new installations you have created, what would be the most interesting and innovative features I would see and experience on this solar-powered algae farm?

XY+WD: When you stand outside the redeveloped industrial buildings, you can see clearly the air purification process, including polluted air imported, algae liquid changing colour and algae liquid circulation. You can view the air pollution level by observing the colour changes of the algae liquid. Inside the buildings, you will immediately know how much polluted air has been transformed into clean air by viewing the shapes of plastic bags changing (also part of our unit design). Both the exterior and interior spaces will show you the dynamic changes through different components of the system. Our SPAF system not only interacts with the environment, but also with visitors.

CP: The SPAF principle can be applied to a large spatial framework not just to a small-scale unit design. Can you explain a bit more about this larger-scale application? 

XY+WD: The process of air purification is quite complex. To ensure the efficiency of purification, we propose the system should be distributed across the entire site according to different functions and locations. The principle of the small unit design can be applied to other spatial frameworks, not just industrial buildings.

SPAF System SPAF System

CP: Clearly you have produced designs of different spatial and functional scales for the site. At the beginning of Studio MAKE, we introduced 3D Interactive Prototyping (3DIP) as a digital design method for students to experiment with. 3DIP employs a number of tools and digital technologies including Arduino, Rhino-Grasshopper-Firefly and 3D digital fabrication. The whole workflow is organised along Physical Model-Making, Parametric Modelling, Sensing-Processing-Actuation Design, and Feedback Loop Fine-Tuning. How has 3DIP worked for you?

XY+WD: It is a really interesting experience to work with these methods. Before we learned about the programmes, we just had interesting ideas, but we did not know how to make them a reality. Using these components, we now know how to transfer an initial idea into the installation work to show our design completely. Our work is closely related to parametric design and uses of data. And 3DIP is a great way to develop and test ideas by working with real-world data.

ModelCP: There is always room for improvement to make 3DIP an interesting and useful digital design learning path. So here you have told us your highly creative idea about an SPAF that can help purify Beijing’s smog. You’ve shown us how to make and deploy a network of smart units or frameworks in a large urban area and that they can track sun light and grow a huge volume of algae. This living algae farm can absorb pollutants in the air and release algae-processed clean air back to the city’s atmosphere. To me, the SPAF indeed is intended to function like a City Lung and can be a safe environment for public education and recreation. If you have more time and resources, which aspect of your SPAF scheme will you develop further?

Physical modelXY+WD: Well, now we just show the basic components to renovate the existing structures of the post-industrial site. They include an algae purification system, an algae circulation system, and a purified air collection system. Based on the different building functions and forms, the system should be deconstructed and then deployed to these unusual structures. In the future, we want to develop the system to be even more location-specific. We will make specific models composed of different systems for different locations and structures.

CP: It’s my great pleasure to have this conversation with you. Thanks again for sharing your CityLung story with us. Finally, what is your next move after completing your Masters course here at the Sheffield School of Architecture?

XY+WD: We want to do more work on parametric design, data analysis and management or prototype modelling. This Masters programme gives us a wider scope to choose from different types of employment. We do not feel restricted to more conventional architecture design, and it is more about how to make an effective link between the design processes and the real-world challenges.

Xiaoyi Yao studied Landscape Architecture at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China before joining the MSc Digital Design and Interactive Built Environments* course in 2015. She is interested in parametric design of interactive environments.

Wenjiang Dou studied Architectural Design at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing before joining the MSc Digital Design and Interactive Built Environments* course in 2015. He is enthusiastic about the potential of parametric design as an effective process to explore space, geometry and logic.

*MSc Digital Design and Interactive Built Environments will be renamed as MSc Digital Architecture and Design from September 2017