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Past, Present & Future of Construction

Cesar Martinell & Associates is one of the oldest planning and architectural firms, established in Barcelona in 1916. During each era, architects at the firm have perfected the current construction methods and also pushed technology to the next level. Today the company is pioneering new methods that can make affordable housing a reality for cities across the globe.

The Past

With such a long history, Cesar Martinell & Associates has been able to cumulatively build its collective knowledge of construction. That starts with one of the oldest construction methods – pure compression.

Pure compression uses stones as the building blocks and involves laying stones on top of other stones. The elements below create a supportive structure to hold the horizontal elements above. This method was used to create many structures that are still standing today, including the pyramids in Egypt and the Parthenon in Greece. When Cesar Martinell Sr. founded the company, this is the type of construction that they practiced because it was almost the only technology available.

Next came architecture based on tension, where steel was introduced to construction. Steel makes buildings more stable than pure compression. Cesar Martinell & Associates learned this new technology and took it to the next level, by finding ways to use the least possible quantity of steel while maintaining the building’s stability.

The Present

Moving to more recent times, Cesar Martinell & Associates has had the honor of working on very prestigious buildings, including The Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao), City of Arts and Sciences (Valencia) and The Olympic Village (Barcelona). The firm focused on what is known as “ego architecture.” People who wanted to build the best buildings, the tallest structures, and the most impressive architecture would seek out Cesar Martinell architects to solve their problems and make the designs a reality.

In the process, our company began to reevaluate its priorities and values. Although impressive, these ego architecture buildings are economic disasters. For example, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub cost $4 billion to build, the equivalent of $53,800 per square meter. This sort of building is unsustainable. At Cesar Martinell & Associates, we believe that construction and architecture have to change to become more green, ecological, and economical.

The company has since shifted focus to a definition of architecture as the intersection of geometry, technology, and economy. By fine-tuning each of these elements, we are able to create buildings faster and more affordably, plus they are safer for workers and have lower environmental impact. Some of the techniques we use include:

  • Instead of working with individual bricks or panels (which are the equivalent of 160 bricks), we work with large integrated panels that are the size of 1600 bricks.

  • Sections such as panels, staircases and balconies are constructed offsite then trucked to the location.

  • We use 50-75 percent recycled materials (especially steel) with a zero waste design that includes zero water and zero concrete, which reduces emissions by 80 percent.

  • Ground screw technology allows us to create a foundation in six hours instead of 28 days.

  • We’ve begun to use composite materials.

  • Roofs are built on the floor and then lifted up in 15 minutes, which improves time and also safety.

Using these methods, we have been able to create a four-story multifamily building in Chili that is Class A in energy and carbon efficiency. It was made from 79 containers and is resistant to disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. The final cost of this building was $650 per square meter, proving that you can have affordable AND high-quality housing if you are willing to rethink your methods and disrupt the industry.

The Future

The current project gives us hope for fine-tuning our methods even more; our goal is to bring the cost down to $380 per square meter in the future.

In the future, we also must move away from ego architecture and start building sustainably with a focus on construction that meets the needs of city residents. The World Trade Center Transportation Hub was not only costly at $53,800 per square meter; it also takes up 250 blocks. A standard block can contain 16 buildings and 256 apartment units. That means that 4,000 buildings and 64,000 apartment units could have been built in its place.

To meet the needs of residents and cut down on emissions, cities should also use density to their benefit. Barcelona, Spain has 1.60 million people, a density of 15,700 people per square kilometer. On the other hand, Boston, Massachusetts has a density of only 2,800 people per square kilometer. Planning and better use of space have dramatic consequences for emissions. Even though Boston’s density is a fraction of Barcelona’s, it has five times the emissions (2.5 tons CO2 per person in Boston, compared to 0.5 in Barcelona).

In the future, construction and architectural firms will have to forget about pure compression, forget about steel, and think of what is to come instead. From our point of view, the future is composite and biomaterials, paired with efficient methods that bring housing costs and emissions down while not sacrificing quality.