40% of the energy annually consumed in the United States is consumed by buildings. Architecture cannot continue as we know it. Yet simply applying “sustainable strategies” to existing design practices is far from an adequate response. Project Zero investigates sustainability not as a mere post-factum addition to an aesthetically motivated architecture, but as a return to the primary principles of ecological thinking. By rethinking the normative approach to site conditions and even design itself, the studio aims to produce architecture that not only behaves sustainably but also communicates that fact architecturally — in other words, to produce a new ecological language of architecture. The studio designs a prototypical building for the university of the future. Based on real programmatic, site, and sustainability constraints to make Cornell University’s Ithaca Campus carbon neutral by 2030, students work with experts from renowned practices as well as officials from the offices of Campus Planning, Architectural Planning, and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. In the end, the studio designs an academic building for the Atkinson Center, an organization founded in 2010 as a collection of faculty and students united through the study of sustainability but, until now, has not had its own building.
In 2017, the Atkinson Center commissioned a feasibility study to examine the possibility of constructing a new building to collect its various branches under one roof. The studio uses this study as a basis for alternative designs but additionally aims toward a more radical approach to concrete problems. Through a series of iterative and empirical design exercises that range from the scale of the city to that of the room, students learn about emerging environmental modeling tools and their integration in a digital design process. They are challenged to develop new ecological languages of architecture through a data-informed design process. The ability to embed environmental modeling tools directly into the design process presents a paradigm shift towards integrated and intelligent design processes. In the end, the resultant architecture is to be an organism that directly responds to the stimuli of its surrounding environment both in its form and function. The surrounding environment, in turn, is semi-permanently transformed by the new construction.