June 14, 2019

Class of 2019: Mohamed Imam studies how 'super tall' buildings yield super resources

PhD grad climbs new heights over resource generative skyscrapers
Mohamed Imam's interest in "super tall" buildings led to research into how those buildings can be sustainable in dense urban environments.
Imam's interest in "super tall" buildings led to research into how buildings can be sustainable Mohamed Imam

Mohamed Imam realized he had a thing for skyscrapers during an open studio class at Oxford Brookes during his master's in architecture. He’d start drawing a building and it would end up being a high-rise — every single time.

“I didn't mean to. I didn't want it to be a skyscraper,” he says. Back at Oxford, his professor told him to go ahead and design a skyscraper. Imam came to UCalgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) for a PhD exploring how skyscrapers can harvest renewable energy and rain water.

When a building reaches 300 metres or more, about 100 stories, it’s officially known as a “super tall” building. “It’s accessing altitude that other buildings cannot,” Imam says. “At high altitudes, the environment changes and with variations with environment there are opportunities that you can capitalize on, whether it's access to solar power, wind patterns that are different, water extraction — there are different types of resources that you can extract.”

Sun and wind can help power the building, and rain water can be used to irrigate a vertical farm that’s growing food on the outside of the building as well as flush toilets on the inside. Once a building’s occupants have their energy and greywater needs met from their “resource generative skyscraper,” any excess could be sent to neighbouring structures.

Loads of tall buildings around the world already have solar roofs or façades and a few are using wind turbines. So far there don’t appear to be any skyscrapers harvesting water on a large scale.

“The ideas are out there,” says Imam. “I compiled them into one stream and tried to simulate different scenarios that can happen for that type of building.” His research looks at how a super tall building would behave given environmental and other conditions in his hometown of Cairo, Egypt. “And I touched slightly on how it would behave on a mega city like London. I tried to see how it's going to react.”

He’s had some interest in his research from developers in Egypt and he hopes to eventually implement some of his research into existing or new buildings. Imam is planning to apply for a postdoc to see “how big we can take that idea” of making super tall buildings super sustainable. In the meantime, he’s working as an architectural designer with Perkins and Will in Vancouver and using the tools and skills he developed in his PhD — a series of software programs that do parametric and computation analysis.

“Mohamed's research is addressing the pressing issue of resource generation, such as water, food and energy, in dense urban environments. Thinking in new ways about the super tall buildings is very important for the future of cities around the world,” says Branko Kolarevic, professor with SAPL.


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