A radical plan for rebuilding the world

In an office in east London, Andreas Klok Pedersen is explaining how to save the world.

“A lot of people think there’s no longer enough space for us on this planet,” he says. “You hear that all the time. But it’s not true.”

Pedersen is flicking through a PowerPoint of 177 slides containing scores of diagrams, graphs and computer renders that serve as step-by-step instructions outlining how to redesign the planet to cut greenhouse emissions, protect resources and successfully adapt to climate change.

As partner and design director at BIG, the multi-award-winning architectural and design group founded by the celebrated architect Bjarke Ingels, he explains that his company proposes dealing with the greatest calamity facing humankind the same way it would do with any other project.

It has created a masterplan.

Whenever an architect gets a commission – to build a hotel, public building, block of flats, and so on – they draw up a document.

This document sets out the goals that need to be achieved, the timeframes that need to be adhered to and the problems that need to be addressed – all within a clear structure that each party agrees to work within. The document is called a masterplan.

BIG has applied that same idea to the entire planet.

Nasa lunar habitat

By Bjarke Ingels Group

Their proposition – known as ‘Plan For The Planet’ – divides the environmental problems we face into 10 sections.

Five of these cover issues around greenhouse gas emissions: energy, transport, food, industry and waste management. The others cover the remaining areas we need to deal with in order to continue to live sustainably on Earth: pollution, water, biodiversity, habitation and health.

‘Plan for the Planet’, which is subtitled ‘A Step-By-Step Planning Guide To A Carbon Neutral Human Civilisation On Earth’, accounts for 10 billion people – the population we are predicted to reach soon after 2050.

It proves that it is perfectly possible for us to continue to exist on the rock we currently inhabit, and to do so comfortably. In fact, one of the provisos for ‘Plan For The Planet’ is that we will do so to “the highest possible living standards”.

We just need to make some changes.

Lego museum

By Bjarke Ingels Group

“The first thing we did was to try and understand what it would take to solve the world’s energy needs,” Pedersen says. “Can we solve the whole world’s energy needs just with solar? Yes, we can. We can also do it using offshore wind. It’s not a small task. But it’s definitely do-able.”

BIG has approached the future of human civilisation like a math problem, something that becomes more apparent as Pedersen clicks through the slides. Energy currently accounts for 73% of greenhouse gases.

Right now, the energy use of the world every year – its energy bill – totals 158,000 terawatt-hours per year. The sources for this energy are, on a declining scale, coal, crude oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar and “other” renewable categories.

To improve the welfare of those 10 billion people BIG has deduced that we need to reach 330,000 terawatt-hours per year. But we can’t get there by continuing to burn coal, gas and crude oil. We need to make the whole world carbon neutral.

To do that we need to do three things. Make only carbon neutral energy. Electrify transport, industry and buildings. And create electrofuels (ie synthetic fuels, or e-fuels) for anything that can’t be electric. On a planetary scale, each continent would need to have a different profile.

Each with an excess of energy, food or resources filling out needs elsewhere – “like puzzle pieces clicking together.” Renewable energy would need to be at once local and decentralised, and global and interconnected.

The more ‘Plan For The Planet’ reveals itself, the more it begins to resemble a massive version of The Sims – both on the PowerPoint and in theory. It presents a 3D render of one person – “the Earthling” – then scales it x 10,000,000,000.

Then it divides the available land on Earth into squares, giving each of those 10 billion people equal space. Since only about 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is land, and only about half of that is habitable, it amounts to just 238 x 238 meters per person.

Not very much.

Vollebak Island, Nova Scotia

By Bjarke Ingels Group

But BIG shows that if we could redesign the Earth in a different way – by stopping expanding into nature, by giving land over to wind and solar, by dealing with emissions from nature, by abandoning fossil fuels, by turning crop residues into biomethane rather than burning them and by using best practice, high efficiency agriculture, then we would liberate vast areas of land.

If we did all that then a family of four would get 10,000 x 10,000 metres to live on – a hectare – enough for a homestead. A much more agreeable result. And one that would sustain Earth into the future.

It's quite an ask.

The practical barriers to getting every country across geographical and political borders to agree to a single plan make it unlikely in the extreme. As just one example, America couldn’t even arrange to unite its main grids, a scheme to do so falling apart as recently as 2018.

“But the purpose of this is not to say this is what you’ve got to do,” insists Pedersen. “It’s more like this is an example of what you could do”.

What BIG really needed was a test case. Something that could show proof-of-concept. Something small that could, in theory, be scaled up and repeated across the planet.

Something like an island.

Vollebak Island, Stargazing room

By Bjarke Ingels Group

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when BIG was drawing up its ‘Plan For The Planet’, we bought an island.

It’s roughly 11 acres across. And it’s deserted – except for the trees and birds and plants and all the stuff nature has already put there.

In other words, it’s the perfect place to build a homestead to show off BIG’s ‘Plan For The Planet’.

When we took it to BIG, they agreed. In fact, they were over the moon. “It was a marriage of many strengths and ideas,” Pedersen says. “That come from BIG and from Vollebak. It’s a combination of what Vollebak has been doing and what we’ve been doing, over the last few years.”

Over those last few years Bjarke Ingels and his team at BIG have been infusing their architectural projects with a directive they call ‘hedonistic sustainability’.

In Copenhagen’s Harbour Baths it has created Islands Brygge, turning one of the most industrialised and polluted areas into an attractive and popular public space for diving and sunbathing.

Not far away it has opened CopenHill, a 279 feet tall power plant where garbage is burned to generate low-carbon energy in a process so clean BIG was able to build a ski slope on top of it – putting a recreational mountain onto a famously flat country.

CopenHill Power Plant, Copenhagen

By Bjarke Ingels Group

And in the foothills of a real mountain, Mount Fuji in Japan, BIG is designing an entire town envisaged as a utopia for clean transport technology.

We wanted our island to have the same spirit. Just because it could be taken as a blueprint for the future of civilisation on Earth, that didn’t mean it couldn’t also be a lot of fun.

Ryohei Koike is the lead architect on Vollebak Island. Another afternoon around the same conference table in their offices Koike sits in front of an architectural model of Vollebak Island and explains how the plans are coming along.

“The island has a gentle elevation, with a topography that features a rocky beach, nice, amazing pine trees and a lot of seaweed,” Koike says.

Vollebak Island, Earth house

By Bjarke Ingels Group

“We wanted to use this idea ‘Vollebak Island is the whole house’. What we came up with is very simple. We raised the topography a little bit, using a shell structure, and created a man-made hill. So, the architecture can be hidden. The architecture is part of the Island. And the island is part of the house. It’s like a crust of the Earth, and underneath there is a building.”

But we didn’t just want one building. Because Vollebak Island is mainly comprised of two elements, earth and wood, we decided it would make sense to make two buildings. A main building, known as ‘Earth House’. And a garden suite, known as ‘Wood House’.

“So, we have an annex,” Koike says. “A lot of fishermen, they have their own main house and then also a smaller house, that might be a place for their grandfather, for example. Or it could be a small room for their guest.”

Then we really asked BIG to go to work on the Earth House, the main structure. Here, we were partly inspired by Noma, the three-Michelin-star restaurant run by René Redzepi in Copenhagen, repeatedly voted the best in the world.

Noma is a syllabic abbreviation of the two Danish words ‘nordisk’ (Nordic) and ‘mad’ (food). In 2018 BIG was commissioned to create a new home for Noma and itself took inspiration from the menu – twenty stunning vegetable-based dishes that complement one another yet are fiercely independent – all reflecting the region’s “authentic cuisine”.

Noma, The world's best restaurant

By Bjarke Ingels Group

For Noma 2.0 BIG created a project situated between two lakes, an intimate culinary garden village comprised of 11 spaces from dining rooms to greenhouses, a test kitchen, bakery, and lounge and barbecue areas. The spaces were separate yet connected, the vision being to dissolve the restaurant’s individual functions in order to create an organic community experience.

The buildings are connected by glass-covered paths, with guests encouraged to wander around and experience a variety of Nordic building materials and building techniques, while their senses are being stimulated by nature.

Another inspiration for Vollebak Island comes from Bjarke Ingels’ own home, which happens to be a boat.

The radically transformed 26 foot long decommissioned ferryboat in Copenhagen’s harbour features chimney stacks and navigation bridges that have been transformed into a glass-enclosed pavilion for the main bedroom, a living space with terraces where once there was a driveway for cars and a below-deck playroom enveloped by a continuous curved surface.

Instead of one main house we imagined a cluster of buildings, physically connected as ‘one dwelling’ – but apart. “So, it’s almost like an ancient village, where people are living together in clusters,” Koike recalls.

It would still rise from the ground to form a dome. But you would be able to wander between individual rooms connected by a central courtyard and gardens.

In keeping with the theme of ‘hedonistic sustainability’ and using and complementing the materials nature supplies, we envisaged each building in the collection being built from a different, radical, unique and ground-breaking substance.

“By doing that, the design shows that each building has a single purpose,” Koike says.

Vollebak Island

By Bjarke Ingels Group

So, the plan is that the living room will use thatch as its main material. There’ll be a dry storage area with walls made of seaweed, ideal for storing your kayak. A bathhouse will be made of 3D-printed concrete, in which curved seating and other features can be designed into the walls.

And there’ll be a star-gazing room / meditation space built of concrete with an enormous skylight – the better to take advantage of the quality of the night sky.

One bedroom will be made of boulders. Another will be made of hempcrete – a biocomposite material that’s a mixture of hemp shives, lime and sand, that is fire-retardant, breathable and lightweight, an entirely organic, high-carbon absorbent product.

Vollebak Island, bath house

By Bjarke Ingels Group

Vollebak Island, wood house

By Bjarke Ingels Group

The ‘Wood House’ would be built using cross laminated timbers. “Laminated in different directions, it’s a relatively new technology,” Koike says. “So, it can be as thick as possible and almost as robust as concrete.”

And of course, Vollebak Island will be powered by 100% carbon neutral energy.

It will use an energy system that’s a combination of solar power electricity, ground source heat pumps and firewood heating resources.

We know it will work. As it may not surprise you to learn by this point, BIG has done the math.

As well as being an amazing and totally unique, one-off place to stay, Vollebak Island will stand as an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable masterplan for Earth.

From a single ‘unit’ it will be scalable to a city block… to a neighbourhood… to a city to… the planet.

“It’s not the Cote d’Azur,” Andreas Klok Pedersen smiles. “But we want to create something that is special. Somewhere that is special enough to make it a place to put on your bucket list.”

Vollebak Island, Nova Scotia

By Bjarke Ingels Group