“Give me the luxuries of life and I can do without the necessities.”
I have become a great fan of buildings that incorporate plants into their design and consequently provide extraordinary benefits to the people who work and live in them.
Vertical plant walls: The University of Guelph-Humber building at the Toronto Humber North campus installed a four-storey green wall about 10 years ago. The tropical plants that thrive there are exposed to nearly a full day of sunlight from the large windows and rooftop sky lights.
Students and faculty benefit from the added humidity in winter and the natural cooling effects in summer as thousands of tropical plants beat a pulse 24/7. Not to mention the oxygen produced by the plants in prodigious quantities. I loved the green wall the day that I set eyes upon it and have been back several times since to enjoy it. The students and faculty love it, also.
There is a newer installation of a five-storey green wall at the Corus building down on Queens Quay and alongside the Toronto Harbour. It looks dramatic and fills the space with the cleanest, nicest air in the city — I swear.
Not far down the road from Guelph-Humber, at the headquarters of Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, visitors are greeted by a significant vertical wall of plants. It’s much like the Humber building only this one you can reach out and touch. I can tell you that I am tempted every time I visit because, at first glance, it doesn’t seem real.
To learn more about the world of architecture as it relates to nature’s “clean-air machines,” I did what I normally do when I have questions on a topic that is over my head: I turn to the young people connected to the thing. In this case I asked Martin Gautier, a newly minted Masters of Architecture graduate from the University of Waterloo, just what is new and innovative in the field as it relates to plants. Gautier’s thesis was titled, Evolving the Urban Dwelling. He works for William Dewson Architects, in Toronto.
Sun Ship: Gautier referred me to the Sun Ship in Frieburg, Germany. “This is a very interesting project,” he said, “that not only incorporates garden spaces with the building (essentially there are a number of row homes with gardens atop of a commercial podium) but is also claimed to be net-positive energy through both energy conservation measures as well as active and passive solar energy generation. Very interesting project.”
Note the reference to “net energy.” With Ontario’s own power company planning substantial rate increases over the next few years, it is instructive to note there are buildings out there that actually produce more energy than they use. According to the prospectus on the Sun Ship, they sell the excess energy to the local power authority.
The incentive to create its own solar power plant was born from the idea that, each day, the sun delivers to Earth more than 20,000 times the power than humankind uses. The design and function of the Sun Ship is proof that imagination is a powerful thing when it is married with the possibilities of science as we understand it.
Rolph Disch, the Sun Ship architect says, “We want to demonstrate what is possible and necessary for our future, from the Sun Ship, a PlusEnergy commercial building.
“From the roof gardens of the Sun Ship you see, blue and beautiful, the shimmering solar roofs of the Solar Settlement. Every house a solar power plant, that generates energy . . . and you can see kids playing on the pathways between the bright colored homes and gardens.” Martin is most impressed by “the way the project incorporates really wonderful outdoor spaces and gardens in the building fabric.”
A thesis for future high density: Martin’s thesis focuses on a hypothetical densely populated residential development that is designed to meet the unique needs of this urban area. He explores “the underlying notion that an intimate connection to green spaces and the outdoors is important for both mental and physical health. Really, this notion makes sense on an intuitive level, but it is also supported by health studies.”
His ultimate goal is to “design these spaces with the infrastructure to encourage common domestic outdoor activities such as gardening, growing fruits and vegetables, outdoor gatherings and playing outdoors.” It is my hope that his thesis evolves into a real, living, breathing community tomorrow.
Food plants: As I reflect on Martin’s ideas of incorporating food production into a planned community, I am reminded of Toronto’s Jane/Finch corridor where Toronto and Region Conservation, through their SNAP program, have connected with local constituents. Last summer a series of meetings occurred where many of the residents from the area came to answer the question, “What is lacking in your community that would help to make life better and safer?”
An overwhelming number of respondents reported that they would like to see more trees and greater access to locally grown food in their community.
Based on my observations of the many new condo developments in and around our city I believe that greater attention needs to be paid to the issue of food.
Urban dwellers need access to healthy, affordable food, education about it and, in some cases, access to communal kitchen facilities where the culturally diverse members of our society can meet, share fresh vegetables from their own garden, stories about their experiences with agriculture “back home,” and benefit from this rich, dynamic resource that is, for the most part, overlooked by planners and architects.
In the Jane/Finch area, an exciting three-phase project is underway that will help to fix some of the many issues faced by residents there. You can be sure that trees and home-grown food are two arrows in the quiver that will be used to accomplish these ambitious goals. And I will be among the first to tell you about it.