Thursday, December 18, 2008

Got Maintenance?

As regular visitors know, L+U comprehensively covers the broad range of vegetated architecture. While there are many technical issues at play, often the coverage skims the surface with some choice excerpts and some snappy graphics. This is not to imply that there is not a critical eye towards the functional side, and as a designer of veg.itecture, these all provide grist for the mill in producing work on a daily basis.

From the web-side, it is often near impossible to analyze these projects or vet them for critical flaws or mine them for amazing details. So we push them out, show them off, and file them as a potential visual option - that still leaves plenty of room for interpretation and analysis as they move from vision to reality to growing. While you can accurately model architecture to somewhat limit surprise and deliver an object that is representative in the built form, in landscape projects (most times) - a vision is a mere snapshot of a project at a particular moment.

A recent example of this idea is the competition winner from FARO architecten bv for a sustainable residential tower design. The project offers what is a common "The tower is designed to become a part of the park: it will allow the park to be growing on the public side of the tower in the form of green balconies. Residences with a view have to possibility to also have a private garden in one of the circles on the parking deck."

:: images via Arch Daily

More: "Additionally, the tower provides a high level of social sustainability: the residents will be involved with the park, the park is involved with the tower, and there is a number of elements that will promote a neighborhood feel in this vertical city."

:: images via Arch Daily

The question? Does it work, and how do you pull it off. How will the living walls along the facade be attached? What plantings? How does it evolve through the seasons? All things that as a design problem, must be grappled with. It's not to say the designers didn't think about it, but it's just not part of the presentation. So we speculate... it's what designers do. And, aside from the design-based issues, there is the longer term dilemma of that nasty reality: maintenance. In a recent post on the subject, Treehugger sort of references this with a necessary (yet simplistic) view in 'How Green was my Balcony' looks at a similar project to the above renderings, this proposal for Milano Santa Monica.

:: image via Treehugger

Treehugger asks the question: "It seems to be all the rage these days: Every building proposal has lush green balconies. It is hard to tell how it is done; when you look closely at the renderings of this proposal... one really cannot tell if there are planters in front of the handrails or if it is just sorta stuck there like Christmas decorations. Nor do you know who maintains them, whether each owner is responsible, whether gardeners have rights of entry, or whether they rappel down the exterior of the building."

Definitely good points. Not sure what the motivation of the commentary is, as Treehugger definitely is one of the major purveyors of veg.itectural eye candy. The post continues by looking at the new Gwanggyo City Centre by MVRDV (termite mounds), Tournesols prefab planters, and Edouard Francois' Flower Tower - giving some analysis as well for last years Knafo Klimor competition entry for the Living Steel 2nd International Sustainable Housing Competition - one of the first vertical urban ag projects that floated out in 2007.

:: images via Treehugger

So drip irrigation is maybe the key... :) The bigger issue may be the very shallow hydroponics, and the sq ft. to growing area ratio - that I would guess makes for some major funding issues. But all of these things shown are technically plausible, visually stimulating, and with enough money, knowledge, and maintenance - can actually become a reality that at least refers to, if not becomes, the reality.

Treehugger is still on board - relegating the plausibility factor to locating greenery in common areas as the key then. "What is my point in all of this? Only that lovely renderings of buildings that show a consistent green envelope require a lot of technology and attention and do not often come out looking like the rendering. Designs where the green stuff is in common areas (like Daniel Libeskind's proposal for New York) are more likely to get proper care than those where it is on every balcony of every apartment. But it is a lovely trend."

Time will tell how these come together and grow. Maintenance is one of those hurdles we've yet to stride over, mostly due to lack of a critical mass of practical examples. The more built, the more we know. Period.


  1. it`s an exquisit ideea and that could be done if the cities administrations wish to have a pleasant environment and a place were the people enjoy to work and live; but they have to run commune programmes with the specialists. It is possible!

  2. I agree with the criticism noted by the Treehugger article. These are very expensive systems, and if left to the will of every day users, they will almost definitely useless. People are busy, many don't have the time and knowledge to maintain plants, let alone vegetable gardens, which is why nearly everyone buys produce instead of growing it. I can see these deteriorating into eyesores rather than eyecandy...

  3. What if one of these projects proposed an integrated system with these greened balconies. Drip irrigation sounds like a potential. But then what of weeding, planting, soil maintenance? Perhaps a vertically ascending spider bot (like the camerabot proposed for the D+S+R Eyebeam building
    . I'd like to see some integration of all the really flashy cybernetic/motive/dynamic architecture with veg.tecture!

  4. I am definitely of two-minds on the topic. One is the pragmatism that is evident in being a practicing landscape architect, working with clients that want reasonable solutions and have the same issues we all do - how much money does it cost, and how difficult is it to maintain these facilities after the fact. Thus, I've seem even the most simple maintenance of ecoroofs - watering, weeding, supplemental planting, etc. - be fouled up due to lack of knowledge and lack of continuity. Also, I've seen care and feeding of the veg.itecture result in amazing long-term solutions. One project had a number of inhabitants of the office building excited about regular work-parties to maintain their open space, a proposal which was summarily rebuffed by management - even while they complained about the cost of annual maintenance.

    I doubt that the care of these projects will be left to the individual owners in most situations - both due to practicality and the need for uniformity - but rather it will be a cooperative agreement similar to an HOA that pools resources and hires specialists to provide uniform and appropriate maintenance - while allowing for personal spaces that can be planted, farmed, or left fallow as the owner sees fit.

    One part of the equation we rarely discuss is the Operations & Maintenance (O&M) Manuals that are more-and-more common on these landscapes that require a bit different approach - those with a particular ecological equilibrium or specific needs. Landscape maintenance seems slow to evolve to these approaches - mostly due to a lack of committment from owner's side as to what it actual takes to maintain these systems - and making the time and financial investment. We still think of them as static features - and these veg.itecture solutions adopt this same mentality.

    A post from a ways back on vertical farming that used crop picking arms, electric eyes, automatic watering systems and more to mechanize the systems - which to me was more akin to our detrimental industrial farming practices (much to the detriment of the environment) than any sustainable maintenance regime.

    I do think technology is part of the solution, but a strict reliance on this as a panacea will inevitably make Veg.itecture unattainable for anyone not in the higher-income brackets that can afford such mechanization. In the spirit of more 'eyes (and hands) on the land', I go back to proposing to use more people and less machines to do jobs well and increase valuable employment.

    I posit that the real success will come from good design, good thorough O&M development, the ability to be flexible as systems grown and evolve and a workforce of trained maintenance personnel that will be funded partially by owners, but also partially by a WPA/CCC-style Public works program that acknowledges the public benefit of these solutions for (visually, ecologically, socially)... creating value for residents and the surrounding city, and creating economic potential in green industry and job creation.

    Maybe a bit utopian, but it's one of those potential win-wins that makes the concept transformative from illustrations to reality.

  5. I love the idea of working parties for maintenance issues, and if something like that really stuck it would be tremendous. As far as mechanized maintenance, I would also appreciate a pair of human hands caring and nurturing my food. There is just something a little more romantic and for lack of a better term, "real" about the human-earth symbiotic relationship that rings true, and infinitely appealing. The social benefits almost go without saying, paying jobs and millions less spent on equipment that is useless if it fails or the power goes out. I believe social justice is a under-utilized approach when it comes to public planning, but hopefully with the dawn of a new political era, some of these utopian ideas just might become a reality.


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