Norman Foster – How computers can help architects design buildings that are green, beautiful and “basically pollution-free” [TED Talk]


“As an architect you design for the present,with an awareness of the past,for a future which is essentially unknown” – Norman Foster[1]


The above thought process, in concert with Norman Foster’s knowledge of environmental design, and use of technology – namely computers – to create, test and deliver projects of a high environmental standard has resulted in the production of architecture by Foster + Partners that has stood the test of time, and is why his current designs are still cutting edge, despite Foster himself being nearly 80 years old.

The Green Agenda Foster speaks of in this presentation is the design, creation and operation of environmentally sustainable architecture, building towards a greener future for society. In industrialised societies, buildings consume the largest amount of available energy. Foster states that that in a typical industrialised city, 44% of energy is used by buildings, 34% by transport and 22% by industry. However upon looking at that consumption by buildings with the associated transport of people, which is 26%, it can be seen that a massive 70% of energy consumption is influenced by the way the cities – buildings – and infrastructure work together.[2] This highlights that the problem of sustainability cannot be separated from the nature of cities.

In creating buildings conscious of this Green Agenda, a number of things must be considered, largely adaptability and environmental design. Foster designs for the future by giving flexibility for adaptation to future technologies; this means the same building can be used for much longer than a one designed only considering present needs. The Willis Building by Foster Associates was wired in a way that it could be adapted for new uses into the future. When the building opened in 1973, typewriters were the norm, but now, it’s full of computers. By consciously designing for technological, but also functional change, it has allowed the building to remain more or less unchanged and still meet the needs of the users. This design consideration cost next to nothing to implement at the time and actually saved the owners money in the long run by not having to retrofit other cable solutions or having to relocate to a more suitable building.

Environmental design has been a key element of Foster’s architecture throughout most of his career. Before computers were widely available, physical scale models were created and tested under artificial lights and in wind tunnels to get results that informed their designs. It wasn’t until the firm got their first computer that their designs started to develop and be even greater influenced by environmental factors. [3] The integration of computers with design has led to greater environmental design outcomes for buildings as they are able to be modelled up and tested for far greater factors such as wind pressure, light, structural loads, etc, in an easier, quicker and more accurate way than in the past. This has also lead to explorations is new building techniques such as prefabrication and rapid prototyping.

By combining computing power and fundamental environmental design principals with design considerations for the past, present and future, creating and delivering high quality environmentally sustainable architecture is an achievable outcome that not only benefits the immediate users, but society as a whole.



[1] [Accessed 19/08/2014]

[2] [Accessed 19/08/2014]

[3] [Accessed 19/08/2014]