Friday, 29 March 2013

Wrong green

This is an update/re-write of a post that lost its links.

Wish I had got my brain in gear long ago, and done it myself.  In a short but effective article by at Slate, titled
Can We Please Stop Drawing Trees on Top of Skyscrapers? finally someone has taken the trouble to state the obvious:
Architectural design proposals often depict high-rise buildings with trees flourishing on rooftops in an attempt to look more ‘green'.  Despite this, trees and skyscrapers are a lethal mix – for the trees.  Regrettably, trees rarely survive on the top of skyscrapers, undercutting ideas of including them as a nod to sustainability and environmental friendliness in the renderings.
The article sets out the fundamentals: extremes of temperature, destructive wind velocities, and the immediate threats they pose to the normal biological functions of trees – from structural stability, to delicate osmotic gas and vapour exchanges in the normally protected boundary layer of air.  Anticipating the logistical difficulties of maintenance is not exactly rocket science, either.

The case against trees at great heights is easy to make, and is contrasted with the relatively easy path to conventional roof gardens on lower rise, high density apartment buildings..


Bridget said...

A whole discussion about sustainable architecture and design could stem from this one article and that's why I found it so fascinating.

What I question is the possibility that there is still a place for trees on some most famous sky rise, ignoring the obvious fatality of the trees and cost of upkeep and replacement. To me, however, they can appear as a very important symbol, a step in a movement or evolution for architects to become more sustainable designers. The trees are a symbol in a change in thought and attitude. These trees create an organic feel which may encourage people to be more open minded about sustainable design and which may also encourage the use of rooftop gardens and green spaces on smaller scale buildings. I would never agree to any new skyscraper projects including rooftop trees, I'm simply suggesting that there is the possibility that it has been an important step in design, and movement in sustainable thinking.

It is more than apparent therefore that a building needs to use sustainable principles throughout the entire design. A most evident statement but one that however isn't always being followed at present. A great example of this (an extremity of sustainable design) is a medieval Italian Village where the village is completely ecologically sustainable. The village uses solar panels for energy, and produces its own livestock, vegetables, honey and olive oil. There are even composting toilets for the villagers.

Steve King said...

You are right to draw attention to the role of such renderings as signifying a commitment, and possibly therefore contributing to the wider adoption of actual, implementable instances of a new balance between built form and nature.

Thanks for the link to the lovely Italian village. It helps balance assumptions about the slow death of country communities – much more at the forefront of conventional news, than the good news provided by your example.

Brendan Doo said...

In my personal experience, a building covered with vegetation always catches my eye. Putting some trees on a skyscraper in a rendering increases visual dynamics and makes it more attractive and welcoming. That serves the function of a rendering. Nowadays, environmentally friendly is an vital image for companies around the globe, many of them wish to reflect the "green" in the style of building they occupy and the way it is furnished, therefore some plant s on a building may attract the public attention and raise reputation towards the inhabited corporations . It's an inevitable trend both in cultural and commercial aspect that buildings and nature will be harmonized together. It might not be viable to plant large trees on a skyscraper now, but greenery will not disappear from renderings, and hopefully they will be achieved in reality through future technology. In my opinion , to achieve such techonology people should try investigating on how some trees are able to survive on mountain tops in similar condition to roof tops.
Here are some beautiful sustainable building designs that utilize different approaches to link themselves to nature.

Steve King said...

Thank you for the comment and the link. You might be rignt, there may be a convergence of new technology and a better horticultural understanding of the way vegetation survives extremes.

But I can't help noting the same irritating problem with your examples: in the entire collection of projects, as far as I could tell, only two were either built or under construction. Yet the language used generally failed to distinguish between the real and the imaginary. And that, in large part, was the point of my post.

Devon Rees said...

I think that your comment "The hero shot makes it seem that way" in your latest article 'Trees in the air 2' is a significant part of this discussion. Yes I agree that WOHA is to be commended on their ability to create what seems to be gardens in the sky and utilise more natural elements to create a new transitioning space circulation for the building occupants. However, from what you have said, a lot of the 'green' elements of this building do not seem to be due to the foliage placed on the building.

When looking at other green building projects in development in Singapore such as Fusionopolis by Ken Yeang, utilizes the expansive foliage for passive cooling systems. However, as Kristen Avis mentioned in her article you discussed, as well Tim De Chant stated, trees and foliage cannot survive at the heights of skyscrapers. So what will happen to the building when their passive cooling system starts to die? As we look at another example, The Ecological EDITT Tower we also see that it is NOT just the use of foliage that determines sustainability, but systems such as photovoltaic panels, sewage conversions, recyclable materials, grey water systems and rain water tanks.

This leads me to refer to Tim De Chant as he claims that we are just placing dozens of trees on buildings to give the illusion that it is sustainable. Earlier comments from Bridget say that trees are a symbol of our commitment to sustainable architecture, and Brendan comments on its visual appeal. What I have to say is why does the sustainability of a building rely on the placement of a tree? If the tree is our symbol, what will that say about architecture's sustainable commitment when the symbols start to die under the harsh conditions?And surely dead foliage on a building will detract from its appeal.

I don't think that we should abandon roof gardens, but I do think we should focus on other ways that can make a building sustainable without having to rely on the tree symbol.

Steve King said...

Excellent point. There is some evidence already of what you say. The first of the iconic modern 'green walls' at Islington Paradise Park Children's Centre died a sad death and caused pretty much the sort of negative perceptions you describe. There is some indication that in spite of better horticultural science, the plants on Central Park One in Sydney aren't exactly enjoying themselves. I tend to agree with you that we are seeing a misguided iconic value put on the greenery.

Suek Yi LIM said...

Designing high rise building and putting trees at almost every balcony and roof top, seems to be the most fundamental way in introducing sustainable design in built environment by most architects and futurists, and truly the most popular and common design we see nowadays, even in uni, students always add in roof garden as part of their scheme to suggest ecological design.

I think it is a good change and big move in architecture design; it changes the thinking and interpretation of space and functionality in architectural design. However, I agreed that it would not be a suitable idea in the case of 50 storey high skyscraper, I think that might have gone overboard in producing sustainable design, it may looks pretty in rendering, but I think it is not accurate.

I think it almost feels like, architectural design is taking a moment to look back to many years ago when building was build with sustainable material like wood and rock, the most sustainable and ecological material. And until modernism started modern material like concrete, steel and glass was introduced in architecture, there has been rapid increasing number and height of most building in massive city such as New York City, led to one of the biggest and most discussed issues and that is the diminishing of green spaces in urban context. Most recent concept by many architect firms and futurist, skyscraper with trees is what they would be expecting in 50 years. They always look pretty in rendering, but not accurate for that to work. I think that is why architects fantasize a green skyscraper because of lesser land on ground for green spaces.

It is important to create ecological environment in urban area, to encourage health and well being in architecture. Researches do show the importance between people-environment interrelations, which could be characterized by cycles of mutual influences on people, and as to improve social ecology and much healthy environment. For example, there is a hypothesis known as Biophilia Hypothesis proposed by Edward Wilson (1984) that says that human have an actual need for contact with nature, and they are predisposed to respond positively to natural settings.

Therefore, it is a good idea to put green on building, but not at that height.
I think it might not be sustainable as all, even though it is design to be.

I would just like to mention, another building example that I have in mind and will suit this blog title well, and that is Stefans Boeri’s Vertical Forest in Milan. It is the skyscraper with literally a forest that goes vertically, so green that I could barely see the building structure. I think the concept of putting thousand of trees on a more than 150 meters high building, would change the life of the building. Considering the extreme weather condition at that height, size and type of trees; I think it will not work for the residents, the trees and the building.

Another interesting green building is known as Bionic Arch in Taiwan. This is particularly interesting because it is a futuristic tower block design that actually contains thousands of trees from ground to 23 levels, 380 meters high. It is built with a ‘living wall’ that was believed to be able to solve city pollution problem by ‘sucking up’ toxic fumes and harmful gases from the air and convert them into oxygen (assuming into the building). It is a multi-million pound proposal, building which generates no carbon emissions, uses solar power and wind power as well as bio-reactors for water purification, recycling and eliminating waste; it will host a range of shops, restaurant and a museum, will have two high speed lifts to transport passengers to its 23 floors. That would be interesting, and to see how that would work in the future.

Suek Yi LIM said...

Sorry Steve, I missed out my references.

1. Are architects going overboard with the trees on buildings? : TreeHugger. 2013. Are architects going overboard with the trees on buildings? : TreeHugger. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2013].
2. A Milan Skyscraper With A Forest Inside It | Co.Exist: World changing ideas and innovation. 2013. A Milan Skyscraper With A Forest Inside It | Co.Exist: World changing ideas and innovation. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2013].
3. Can We Please Stop Drawing Trees on Top of Skyscrapers? | ArchDaily. 2013. Can We Please Stop Drawing Trees on Top of Skyscrapers? | ArchDaily. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2013].
4. No, you will never have skyscrapers with trees on them. 2013. No, you will never have skyscrapers with trees on them. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2013].
5. Why Trees on Top of Skyscrapers Are a FantasyDesignBuild Source. 2013.Why Trees on Top of Skyscrapers Are a FantasyDesignBuild Source. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2013].
6. Anyone for a leafy pad in the city? Architect plants idea for skyscraper full of trees which turn smog into clean air | Mail Online. 2013. Anyone for a leafy pad in the city? Architect plants idea for skyscraper full of trees which turn smog into clean air | Mail Online. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2013].

Steve King said...

I had been thinking of a post about Stefans Boeri’s Vertical Forest in Milan, because, unlike a lot of the schemes that seem to be well known, it is under construction, with images available of trees being craned in.

Shixiao said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I don’t think the author in the original referenced article, or Steve in his response to it, are objecting to the idea of green roofs (or green walls) per se. The question at hand pertains to the placement of trees on skyscrapers in architectural renderings, which oftentimes would appear to ignore the very real problems that might arise in a real project. Architectural renderings are sometimes unrealistic – that’s a banal observation. To me, there is a problem with glib gestures like ‘putting trees on buildings’ assumed to connote sustainability or ‘green’ credentials in a project. In the worst examples it would appear to be something of an afterthought, or purely cosmetic. But if one wants to have gardens on buildings of considerable (or any) height this must be regarded as a design problem to be solved.
Aesthetics and that sense of being close to nature are legitimate but by no means the only benefits of creating ‘living architecture.’ There are numerous reasons why one might like to incorporate green roofs into their design, ranging from small scale to big picture concerns. An introduction to these can be found at this link:
Things like watering, wind resistance and maintenance are issues that can be – should be – resolved through design. Steve’s comments on WOHA’s recently opened building (posted on this blog…in the future! in which he refers to the creation of microclimates created by the gardens and use of technological systems in the design seem to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
As for the issue of trees being ill-suited to such schemes, well, some trees if left exposed on a building hundreds of meters tall are going to fare very poorly. Perhaps there are other species that could be used. Or, if the rationale for having trees in the given roof garden is good enough, surely a design solution could be reached to accommodate them long term. I sometimes see Seidler’s Castlereagh (formerly Capita) Centre in Sydney and notice the trees planted high up on a ledge in the side of the building. If it works there surely there is still some potential to further develop this concept. It seems peculiar to me in an era when it is assumed that practically anything can be built, provided we figure out a way to do it, that we should baulk at the idea of substantial elevated gardens. Notwithstanding the challenges inherent in this, I did find the tone a bit too dismissive in the above post referenced article.

Steve King said...

Thanks for pointing this back in the direction I thought i made clear I took. Not only in my comments on WOHA in Singapore, but also in 'Marketing and Misdirection' (, I do make reference to plausible large scale plantings. In Singapore, it is on relatively modest high rise, with far from nominal articulation of the built form, to accommodate outdoor space with likely very different wind regime. In the proposal for Mumbai, the high level gardens are clearly large wintergardens with multiple storeys of glazing protecting the planting inside. Even on Sky City ( if you hunt up the published images, the relatively few high level plantings seem to be surrounded by very high parapets - but notably, Sky City actually puts emphasis on the residents being able to enjoy nature at ground level, because the building takes up less land.