[ 5 ] A Building Like a Pig

Buildings, even the most efficient, are energy pigs. Since 1950, annual energy use in US buildings has risen 400% from 10 quadrillion Btus to 40 quadrillion Btus.

BB Energy Pig

Collectively in the United States, buildings account for 72% of electric consumption, 40% of raw material use, 14% potable water use, 39% of energy use, 30% of waste output, and 38% of CO2 emissions.  The notion of designing a building like a tree is a good metaphor because trees, like buildings, are singular objects poised like hubs at the confluence of myriad systems.  However the transition between the energy streams of the biosphere and the waste streams of the anthroposphere make a more robust and possibly less poetic metaphor necessary in the pursuit of a cohesive strategy.  Instead then, of turning an energy pig into a tree, is it possible to turn an energy pig into an industrial pig? 

Despite the well documented horrors of industrial animal farming, 100% of an industrially farmed pig is used and there is no waste.  Zero waste is not a pleasant metaphor but rather an economic necessity that has bred surprisingly inventive means to use every part of the animal.  The industrial pig can be divided like this:

  • Meat: 52.1% (Bacon: 15%) BB 185 Products
  • Bones: 15%
  • Internal Organs: 13.6%
  • Miscellaneous: 6.3%
  • Blood: 5.3%
  • Fat: 5.3%
  • Skin: 2.9%

The following is a list of 40 out of 185 of the uses- from Bullets to insulin to cork and crayons- things we don’t usually associate with pigs and though in some ways this list is disturbing, the inventiveness and persistence to find uses for what at one time were wastes, is worthy of emulation.

  1. Chemical Weapons Testing: Because of the pig’s similarity to human tissue
  2. Ice Cream: Gelatin regulates sugar crystallization and slows down the melting process
  3. Fertilizer: Made from processed pig hair
  4. Low Fat Butter: Gelatin used for texture
  5. Beer: Gelatin used as a clarifying agent
  6. Fabric Softener: Fatty acids from bone fat give color
  7. Paint Brush: Made from pig hair
  8. Fruit Juice: Gelatin absorbs cloudy elements
  9. Shampoo: Fatty acids from bone fat are used to give pearl-like appearance
  10. Candle: Fatty acids from bone fat are used to stiffen the wax and raise melting point
  11. Bread: Protein from pig hair is used to soften dough
  12. Bullet: Bone gelatin used to help transport the gunpowder or cordite into the casing
  13. Medicine Tablets: Gelatin used to harden shell
  14. Washing Powder: Fatty acids from bone fat harden the substance
  15. Paint: Fatty acids from bone fat increase gloss
  16. Tambourine: Made from pig’s bladder
  17. Wine: Gelatin used as a clarifying agent
  18. Paper: Bone Gelatin used to improve stiffness and reduce moisture
  19. Heparin: Used to stop formation of blood clots (taken from mucus in intestine)
  20. Soap: Fatty acids from bone fat act as hardening agent and give color
  21. Corks: Bone gelatin used as binder
  22. Insulin: Taken from pancreas (closest to human in chemical structure)
  23. Yogurt: Pig bone calcium is used in some yogurts
  24. Cigarettes: Hemoglobin from blood used in cigarette filters to create an artificial lung
  25. Photographic Film: Bone gelatin acts as a bonding agent on the film sheet
  26. Dog Food Treat: Hemoglobin used as red coloring agent
  27. Photodynamic Therapy: Hemoglobin used in drug to treat retina decay
  28. Moisturizers: Fatty acids from bone fat are used
  29. Dog Snack: Deep fried pig snout
  30. Crayons: Fatty acids from bone fat act as hardening agent
  31. Shoes: Bone glue used to improve texture and quality of leather
  32. Train Brakes: Bone ash used in production
  33. Toothpaste: Glycerine from bone fat is used to give toothpaste texture
  34. Hide Glue: Glue derived from collagen
  35. Face Mask: With collagen to help reduce wrinkles and lines
  36. Alternative Energy: Waste products used as fuel to produce electricity
  37. Energy Bar: Treated collagen is a cheap source of protein
  38. Cream Cheese: Gelatin used to make it stable
  39. Whipped Cream: Gelatin gives texture
  40. Sweets: Porcine gelatin used as a binding agent and texturizer

BB 15%

The way buildings currently use resources is akin to only raising a pig for the bacon and throwing the rest away.  What are the exergenic values of building wastes and is harvesting the energy surpluses economically viable?  How can buildings move beyond bacon?







[ 4 ] A Building Like a Tree

Designers rarely now consult nature for aesthetic truths so much as they look to nature for functional ones.  Architects like Mitchell Joaquim invert the idea of the Primitive Hut, amplifying biophilic tendencies that transform the act of construction from “building” to “growing” and envisioning a hut that is not primitive at all but rather the result of technology in ecological balance (fig. 1).


In a less literal sense than Joaquim, architect William McDonough proposes designing “a building like a tree,” by mimicking processes like using sunlight to generate energy, and using natural technologies to sequester carbon, produce oxygen and clean septic waste.  Expanding on the idea of a building like a tree, McDonough envisions “cities like forests” that follow nature’s primary maximum that “waste equals food” as a strategy for societal carbon neutrality.1


The Pearl River Tower, designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), and located in Guangzhou, China approaches the goal of a carbon-neutral building by outlining four broad tactics for achieving that goal that are all applicable at a larger urban scale; Reduction, Absorption, Reclamation, and Generation.  Their stated goal was to design “a structure that does not require an increase in the community’s need to produce energy.”2

1. Reduction:

The design of the Pearl River Tower utilizes triple glazed facades on the east and west and ventilated double wall facades with mechanized blinds on the north and south.  Additionally a chilled radiant ceiling system and low energy lighting system as well as a “dehumidification system which uses heat collected from the double wall facade as an energy source” among other strategies, serve to reduce the overall initial energy demand.

2. Absorption:

SOM defines absorption strategies as “those that take advantage of the natural and passive energy sources that pass around, over and under the building’s envelope.”3  These include a building integrated photovoltaic system, fixed external shades on the east and west facades, and controlled daylight harvesting.  The form of the tower accelerates wind, which is channeled through four vertical axis wind turbines placed within voids in the body of the building. This formal strategy of “holes” in the mass of the building allowed for a reduction in concrete and steel as the holes act as “pressure relief” valves for the building, reducing the overall wind loads.4

3. Reclamation:

The Tower incorporates energy reuse schemes i.e. using “waste as a resource” or “waste equalling food.”  “The basis of this collection of strategies is to harvest the energy already resident within the building. Once energy has been added to the building, it can be reused over and over again, Examples… include the use of re-circulated air for pre heat/cooling of outside fresh air.”5 

4. Generation:

The original design used 50 daisy-chained 65 KW micro turbines than run off of various gas fuel sources.  Had they been installed they would have been capable of generating more than 3 megawatts of power and the excess heat could have been reused within the building as well.  Because of bureaucratic and economic factors, the turbines were not installed.

The specifics of SOM’s strategies may seem redundant in places and somewhat arbitrary at times in regards to within each strategy the various tactics are situated.  However, this apparent murkiness belies the interdependent nature of the overall approach.  All of the Pearl River Tower’s implemented strategies combined equal 58% reduction of energy use compared to a conventional building.  It is a tremendous achievement and shouldn’t be minimized but it should also not be mistaken as “sustainable.”  If SOM had been able to install the micro-turbines, the Pearl River Tower would have produced more energy on-site than it consumed.  The turbines however, must run on kerosene, biogas, diesel, methane, propane or natural gas.  Except for biogas and potentially methane, each of those fuels comes with a significant carbon footprint, which leads to a more complicated picture of net-zero energy use or carbon neutrality.

Pearl River Tower Energy Strategies


1 www.mcdonough.com/writings/buildings_like_trees.htm

2 Frechette, Roger E. and Russell Gilchrist. Towards Zero Energy. Dubai: SOM, 2008. 2


3 Towards Zero Energy. 6.

4 Towards Zero Energy. 10.

5 Towards Zero Energy. 7.

Photo Credit:

Fig. 1: Mitchell Jaoquim, Terreform Living House


Fig. 2: Rendering of Pearl River Tower, SOM

Fig. 3: Energy Reduction Strategies, SOM