In case you missed it, as part of its never-ending stream of remakes, Hollywood last year released a new version of the 1974 horror film “It’s Alive.” The story is about a humanoid monster baby that spreads carnage. We understand if you chose to skip it – as did one of our team members who as a small child begged his mom to see the original and suffered nightmares for months.
When it comes to green building, “it’s alive” means something much more benign and beneficial – in this case, roofs, walls and other building elements that incorporate live vegetation.
Similar to so many other trends in environmentally responsible construction, ideas such as living buildings that went out of favor during the Industrial Revolution are now getting new attention. The thinking in the design and building community is shifting away from the Manifest Destiny mentality of conquering nature with the built environment, to instead integrating the two.
For centuries, people lived in sod houses, log buildings, or other relatively low-impact structures that used indigenous building materials. Such homes often provided a growing surface (though usually not by choice) for lichens, bushes and other small plants. Of course the occupants weren’t trying to be green and were elated to switch to new materials that provided more comfortable, longer-lasting and attractive homes.
Although it wouldn’t be desirable – nor really sustainable – for our large, urban populations to return to out-dated building types, something tremendously valuable was lost in the rush toward new technologies: the basic philosophy of people being part of the ecosystem.
What was once a fringe idea in home and commercial building is slowly taking root. Rather than being limited to West Coast hippy communes, living buildings are going mainstream. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has nearly 34,000 square feet of vegetated roofs – including the one on the air traffic control tower – and is planning to increase that more than ten-fold in the coming years. Architects refurbishing the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Oregon, are planning to add a west-facing, vegetated wall stretching 18 stories high.
Such projects can help cut buildings’ energy use by keeping heat out in the summer, and holding it in during the winter. They also reduce the urban heat island effect created by reflective roofs, filter pollutants from rainwater and the air, slow urban run-off, and provide attractive, nature-inspired design features.
While not necessarily appropriate for every building type, living roofs and walls help us as a society expand our thinking about what is possible. Perhaps in the future, whole building systems, rather than just façades, will incorporate growing materials. It’s possible we will find ways to be even more environmentally responsible without giving up the quality of life that past building advancements have brought us.
Author’s Note: For those of you living as we do in the Pacific Northwest, feel free to tell your neighbor that the six-inch-thick moss on his roof isn’t a sustainable design feature. It shortens the life of composite shingles, cedar shakes and other materials, and can damage the roof sheathing by trapping moisture.