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More Infrastructural Greening
Sarah Rich, 9 Apr 07


It's hard to tire of projects that involve wallpapering, paneling, and roofing urban structures with plant life. Though it's becoming a more common design approach for enhancing air quality, catching runoff, highlighting the "green" aspects of a building, and sometimes even providing food, it always has an unexpected effect, accustomed as we are to surfaces made with impermeable and dull materials. Three projects that passed through our suggestion box in the last few weeks address urban density and CO2 emissions by incorporating vegetation into structures designed for crowded cities.

The first comes from SA Architects in Portugal, whose principal, Carlos Sant'Ana, developed a design for a "Vertical Car Park" which takes park in both possible interpretations: it's a place to park your car, and a green park intended as a place for recreation and relaxation in a public community environment. Designed for a competition in Lisbon in 2003, the Park proposed stacking automobile parking in order to reduce street-side congestion, thus freeing up street space for pedestrians and social interaction. The structure itself would have a landscaped rooftop courtyard and living walls which would make reference to the tradition of flower-covered Portuguese balconies. By blanketing the whole thing in garden, the design would also be a cooling element in the heat of the city. The proposal won 1st place and was slated to be built in the historic city center, but up to this point, remains a rendering on display at a number of international biennials. But it seems like it couldn't be too far from catching the eye of an interested builder.

The second project is one we covered a while ago that had a recent update in New York Magazine. Since we discussed the concept, developed by Dickson Despommier, who teaches environmental science and microbiology at Columbia, a whole lot more people are in board with the climate change issue. So his proposal to put agriculture into skyscrapers and reallocate land to forests in the interested of sequestering carbon and slowing global warming now has the attention of more than just design junkies and eco-imagineers. It's become an attractive possibility to venture capitalists from all over the world. The idea factors in not only the climate aspect, but also impending population explosions, looking at taking food cultivation upwards instead of outwards as it grows to accommodate greater numbers of people.

Depending on the crops being grown, a single vertical farm could allow thousands of farmland acres to be permanently reforested. For the moment, these calculations remain highly speculative, but a real-life example offers a clue: After a strawberry farm in Florida was wiped out by Hurricane Andrew, the owners built a hydroponic farm. By growing strawberries indoors and stacking layers on top of each other, they now produce on one acre of land what used to require 30 acres.

Why build vertical farms in cities? Growing crops in a controlled environment has benefits: no animals to transfer disease through untreated waste; no massive crop failures as a result of weather-related disasters; less likelihood of genetically modified “rogue” strains entering the “natural” plant world. All food could be grown organically, without herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, eliminating agricultural runoff. And 80 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050. Cities already have the density and infrastructure needed to support vertical farms, and super-green skyscrapers could supply not just food but energy, creating a truly self-sustaining environment.

The article dissects the plan for the high-tech skyscraper, displaying all of the components that Despommier suggests can be integrated to make skyscraper farming feasible and sustainable. No doubt the cost will be exorbitant to get one of these built, but if the idea really holds water, it would pay off in spades with the productivity of a dense area. He even suggests livestock farming -- a close relative of the MVRDV concept for Pig City. Things like this are a little hard to fathom as real possibilities, given the logistics of keeping animals, but these times call for ambitious imagination.

Finally, taking the integration of greenery quite directly, we learn about Bitublocks -- a project from professors at the University of Leeds and the University of Nottingham which plans to create brick-like building blocks from agricultural waste and byproducts of the petrochemical industry (bitumen).

The researchers' Bitublock uses bitumen as a binder and a variety of waste materials as aggregate, including crushed glass, pulverised fuel ash, incinerated bottom ash, incinerated sewage sludge ash and steel slag.

The Bitublock apparently matches or exceeds the strength of concrete, but of course reduces the environmental impact inherent in concrete production and finds a second use for waste products that would otherwise be incinerated.

It would be interesting to find out what possibilities exist for marrying the Bitublock as a structural element with the living wall and roof as exterior or interior applications. If it were possible, it would comprise the makings of an exceptionally green building.

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