Monday, 29 January 2018

How do green walls actually work?

Greenery within the city has a whole range of potential benefits, from favourable impact on thermal comfort and energy consumption, improvements in air equality, establishing or reconnecting local ecologies, to providing passive and active recreational space. How much of these benefits, and at what financial and resource cost, depends on how the plant material is provided – in conventional parks, planted roofs, or green walls.

This brief note is not intended to be a definitive discussion of these benefits, but I thought it might be helpful to expand my previous post Questioning green walls.

Green walls are definitely the most ‘extensive’ method of providing plant material in urban settings. The terminology is borrowed from how green roofs are categorised, where ‘extensive’ means very shallow and limited growing media, while ‘intensive’ refers to deeper and larger volumes of soil. But the more colloquial meaning of the word ‘extensive’ is also relevant when we are discussing taller buildings: the area of wall generally far exceeds the available areas of roofs, and landscape areas at ground level.

Green walls therefore both resemble other settings, and have some significant differences in how they work. For instance, because of their orientation, green walls would contribute less to mitigating the urban heat island effect, than do horizontal areas of planting.


Heating and cooling energy 

The contribution of green walls to the cooling energy balance of a building is complex.  But to describe it simply, they:
  • provide external shading, thereby reducing the direct and diffuse solar load;
  • present a cool radiant surface facing inwards, increasing the potential for desirable heat loss in summer by outward radiation;
  • trap a cushion of air against the façade. This protected boundary layer is evaporatively cooled by transpiration from the leaves, in turn significantly lowering the conductive heat gain on hot days.
It is important to note that much of the benefit in summer is intimately related to the water consumption driving what is effectively a complex direct and indirect evaporative cooling system.

The protected boundary layer next to buildings can also reduce conductive heat loss in winter, but because it’s working in opposition to the evaporative cooling, this is likely to be a much smaller effect than the summer cooling contribution.


Air quality

Plants can help to reduce air pollution, by a combination of filtration to take particular to matter out of the air, and various chemical reactions to reduce the concentration of gaseous pollutants. It is well accepted that greenery in interior spaces has measurable benefits for well-being, by improving air quality. Not to mention psychological benefits, which have also been extensively studied..

But there has been some credulity with respect to claims that exterior green walls have similarly measurable outcomes for air quality.  

So it comes as something of a pleasant surprise that as far back as 2012, the journal Environmental Science and Technology reported a study which seems to support those claims.  Scientists at the Universities of Birmingham and Lancaster (UK) not only argued that by ‘greening up’ our streets a massive 30% reduction in pollution could be achieved, but also that if we are considering urban canyons specifically, green walls out-perform street trees and other configurations of greenery. But this optimism comes with an important caution:

All of this requires, of course, that the plants don’t expire in the extreme environment of today’s cities. Dr Tom Pugh, from Lancaster University, UK, said: More care needs to be taken as to how and where we plant vegetation in our towns and cities, so that it does not suffer from drought, become heat stressed,  vandalised, or interact negatively with other aspects of our urban areas, and can carry out the very important job of filtering our air.’

Friday, 26 January 2018

Questioning green walls

It had to happen sooner or later: green walls are being questioned.  Are they really a good thing from a sustainability point of view?

For anyone who has harboured any thoughts that external green walls on high-rise buildings might be one more expedient combination of sustainability rating 'bling' and marketing hype, a recent post in the Fifth Estate is compulsory reading.

The article quite fairly sets out the issues to be considered.  On the positive side, there is aesthetic value, heating and cooling load reduction, and contribution to mitigating the urban heat island effect.  On the negative side, focus is primarily on the overall cost, both financial and in resources, especially in maintenance. 

Put as simplistically as that makes it sound like negative criticism is short sighted, and another example of the ‘race to the bottom’.  But as usual, the devil is in the details.

First and foremost, the discussion is about a very particular type of green wall – exemplified by the world’s tallest example at One Central Park in downtown Sydney, the iconic high-rise residential tower by Jean Nouvell and Patrick Blanc.  This kind of green wall is effectively a relatively thin ‘veneer’ within the façade – essentially a curtain wall otherwise dominated by glazing.  Notwithstanding the skillful choice of species of plants borrowed from natural cliff-like ecologies, this typology of green wall is inherently fragile and demands high maintenance. The Fifth Estate article hints at the idea that this increased commitment to maintenance might be viewed positively as a contribution to social sustainability – I assume by creating jobs.

But there are other ways of greening buildings. Most obviously, roofs are friendlier surfaces, though the higher the building the smaller the proportion of roof to overall building surface. 

More usefully, facade planting can happen in robust configurations such as bigger planting boxes. We have plenty of precedent for these more traditional artificial landscapes – probably the best known is WOHA's Park Royal complex in Singapore.  Arguably the only barriers to employing them more often, are short-sighted restrictions such as indiscriminately applied floor space ratios.

Ultimately, I agree with Dr Paul Osmond, director of the Sustainable Built Environment Program at UNSW, when he says that the value of green walls over their lifecycle is still an open question:
“From a service life perspective – from design, installation, maintenance, replacement of plants, water systems and even decommissioning – no one has really explored that.”
As usual, I do not try to reproduce the original article. 
You should read it here.