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Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth,” said Pablo Picasso. Next month a project will come to life in Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s main square, that will create a unreal reality and help us comprehend a growing truth about our smart buildings and cities – that we have more control of those environments than most would have imagined.

The International design and innovation office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati has unveiled plans for “Living Nature / La Natura dell’Abitare”, a garden pavilion in the square where all four seasons coexist with each other at the same time. Using an innovative energy management system for climate control, Ratti and his team will show what is already possible with environmental control, and spark a discussion about how best to use these technologies.

“An architect and engineer by training, Ratti directs the Senseable City Lab at MIT,” we introduced Ratti before his interview with Memoori in 2016. He is also a founding partner of the international design and innovation office Carlo Ratti Associati, the firm responsible for the project.

The 500 square-meter pavilion will house four natural, climatic microcosms that will enable all seasons of the year to unfold at precisely the same time, one next to the other. Visitors will be immersed in nature indoors and experience its changes through the four different areas – Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn – enriched with familiar and domestic concepts. At first glance, this project is a bold demonstration of what is possible when taking environmental controls to the extreme.

Indoor environmental controls have come a long way in the last decade. Using heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), as well as air quality management, we can manipulate the indoor atmosphere to match our needs. Many of us will be familiar with the office thermostat where changing the temperature by a few degrees up or down can have significant impacts on productivity, for example.

Studies on thermal comfort by Shin-ichi Tanabe, at Waseda University in Tokyo, found that every degree rise in temperature above 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) resulted in a 2% drop in productivity. Other studies covered in our recent Future Workplace Report demonstrate the impact a small change within our normal temperature range can make on human comfort and productivity.

So what use is a building that maintains a different season in each of its four areas?

Environmental Control

It is already possible to place a walk-in freezer next to a sauna, the big difference with this project is the incorporation of nature and human elements into these distinct areas. As such, the project may inspire applications for agriculture, botany, or parks and recreation. Having an accurate, controllable, “natural” environment could also have a huge impact on research and development in a variety of fields.

Biophilia

Biophilia is the concept of incorporating nature into the built environment. Biophilia is increasingly being seen as a science of productivity in workplace design, according to our recent report. Biophilia is now a serious concern in planning for all human friendly buildings and cities.

“Living Nature” bonds nature’s cycles and domestic spaces, through a series of rooms and familiar areas, each of them furnished according to a different theme. The pavilion explores how our modern homes and furniture can meet mankind’s need for “biophilia”.

Energy

Another key issue raised by “Living Nature” is sustainability: how to better manage energy flows to control the urban microclimate. The plants in the pavilion, selected by French botanist Patrick Blanc, are housed under a 5-meter-high selective Crystal membrane that dynamically filters the sun based on input from light-reactive sensors. Above the pavilion, photovoltaic panels generate clean energy and contribute to feed the energy flows, providing the required energy to cool space in the winter area, or to heat the summer space. Batteries provide additional storage to smoothen high and low peaks of energy production.

“In light of climate change and the threat it poses to cities worldwide, we need to devise strategies of climate remediation to improve life conditions in our cities, defining a closer alliance between the natural and artificial worlds”, says Antonio Atripaldi, project leader at CRA. “If climate control is often associated with excessive energy consumption, this project offers a radical change of perspective, demonstrating the feasibility of climate control technology that is also sustainable, with vast potential for future applications.”

The art of this project is beautiful. It will bring joy and wonder to visitors at the pavilion in Milan from 17th to the 29th of April 2018. For those involved in the development of smarter built environments however, it may enables us to realize the truth of where nature and environmental controls can and should take us in the future.

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