What is Living Architecture?

Someone on Twitter recently asked me about living architecture.

So, what is Living Architecture?

Well, what is architecture?  Google tells me that it is the ‘art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.’  By extension, then, living architecture could be defined as the practice of integrating vegetation into the design and construction of the built environment.  Living architecture generally refers to green roofs and green walls.  That is the primary focus of the Living Architecture Monitor magazine.  I suppose the term ‘green infrastructure‘ could also apply to these technologies, which seek to mimic natural systems in an effort to maximize environmental benefits (stormwater control, UHIE reduction, air quality, biodiversity, etc.).


I have touched on Living Architecture numerous times in the blog.

Saving Rain for a Dry Day

The Nature of an Urban Jungle

Your Wall Should be Alive

A Green Retaining Wall

Boschert Greenway Living (Retaining) Wall

Living Wall Prezi (Presentation)

Living Architecture is beautiful, useful, and beneficial to human and environmental health.


Living Wall Prezi

I recently experimented with the innovative presentation tool called Prezi.  This is an amazing way to visualize presentations, get the bigger picture, and allow for a less linear look.  This is a presentation I made last week outlining the basics about living walls

“Introduction to Living Walls”

Let me know what you think.  If the embed code didn’t work…view it on Prezi.

Getting ‘Sustainably’ Involved in Saint Louis

I like St. Louis, although it’s not my hometown.  I did not grow up here.  I can’t answer ‘the high school question‘ with a name St. Louis natives can readily recognize.  In the name of graduate school at SIUE (studying Environmental Sciences, living walls, green roofs, etc.),  I left my home in southwest Missouri and became a transplant.   Ever since I arrived to the region, I’ve been looking for stuff to do.  I’m not a typical bar fly or a sports nut or a shopping addict.  I prefer more intellectually engaging conversations about interesting topics, like sustainability, green building, environmental issues, ecology, green stuff, conservation, etc.  I also want to be active in some way to promote those ideals.

Cool and Touristy

Unfortunately, I found it extremely difficult to find out about green events, at first.  Google searches brought up events from months and years ago.   Eventually, though, I started to find groups with an internet presence, as well as online sources for all things green.  Now, it seems, I’m finally making it to events as they happen.  Hopefully I can get more involved with the planning and promoting of future events!

So, this is for anyone out there with an interest in green things around STL but clueless about where to begin.  The following is a (by no means complete) list of helpful websites.  Some websites are for organizations, and others mainly promote certain events.

One of the primary sources for all things green is St. Louis Green.  This site lists various sustainable businesses, events, job and career opportunities, educational institutions, recycling opportunities, and teaching tools for various grade levels.

Another excellent website represents the Eastern Missouri Group of the Sierra Club.  This is an active chapter with several educational events, nature outings, volunteer opportunities, and networking activities.  On the Illinois side of the river, the Piasa Palisades Group is also recommended.

OK, so when I said I wasn’t a bar fly, I didn’t mean that local brews were out of the question.  I discovered the St. Louis Chapter of an organization called Green Drinks.  This website is helpful in reminding you about their monthly gathering to learn something, network, make friends, and maybe have an adult beverage or two.

Are you looking to learn more about environmental damage and progress in Missouri?  Consider the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.  There is a lot of information on events, Missouri-related goingson, and political issues.

There is an excellent sustainability-minded group called the EarthWays Center, affiliated with the Missouri Botanical Garden.  Their website offers lots of educational tools and various information on events and other sustainability-centered organizations.  These folks host the annual Green Homes and Great Health Festival on the last Saturday in September.  The event features a Green Marketplace, various workshops, solar car races, electric vehicles on display, live music, and exhibitors from several groups and businesses.  I had the pleasure of volunteering with on of the recycling booths last year, helping folks sort recyclables.

Electric VehicleDid your ears perk up when I said electric vehicles?  If they did, check out the Gateway Electric Vehicle Club.  They showcase their projects, help one another, and educate others about the pros and cons of unconventional automobiles. (If you still prefer your internal combustion engine, you can learn about other things you can do to save on gas in an older post.)

Are you interested in sustainable building design and engineering or LEED certification and credentialing?  Consider checking out the USGBC-Missouri Gateway Chapter.  This is a very active chapter of the US Green Building Council.  They have regular events like the Lunch n LEED program.  Update 01/13:  I took an excellent exam prep course through this chapter.  I’m now a LEED Green Associate!

Are you interested in urban watershed conservation and restoration?  Consider checking out the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance.  Learn about stormwater issues and management, water quality concerns and solutions, rain gardens, RainScaping Rebates, and nature in the St. Louis area.

If you’re big into hiking, the Ozarks offers plenty of terrain for you.  Visit the Ozark Trail, learn about activities and events, and consider volunteering to maintain or build trails.  I know it’s a bit out of St. Louis proper, but volunteer groups from St. Louis (like the Sierra Club) regularly help out on these trails.

Do you want to learn about native landscaping, gardening, urban farming, etc.?  Check out the Sustainable Backyard Tour.  This is an annual event put on by residents who are happy to showcase their yards and to try to inspire us to rethink the standard, boring, American lawn.

One large example of native and natural landscaping lies just outside of St. Louis in Gray Summit.  Shaw Nature Reserve, encompassing over 2,400 acres,  has examples of home gardening, rain gardens, wetlands, prairies, and woodlands.  There are also miles of relaxing trail to hike.  Update:  I volunteer out here once a week, learning more about native plants and natural landscaping!!

Anywho, there is a lot more, but I’m out of steam for now.  Happy hunting!

Please comment if you are aware of other regional green things.

Shaw Summer

It’s the first day of summer and I volunteered again at Shaw Nature Reserve.  It got hot quickly, so I spent the morning doing a couple assigned tasks and then stopped for the day.  Anyway, I was near the demonstration rain garden in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden.

Whitmire Wildflower Garden

Forget a cubicle; this should be my office!

Your wall should be alive!

Some street trees, but many dead-walls.

You’re likely reading this from within the walls of your home or business.  If you are reading this outside, you’re likely not far from a building or any other man-made structure.  People spend 90% of their time inside.  And 82% of the people in the U.S. reside in urban or suburban areas.  Urban areas have become the hub of human activity.  Progress in economy, society, and technology may be partially attributed to the concentration of many minds and working hands in metropolitan areas.

Unfortunately, the way that urban areas have developed has left previously verdant land barren, supplanting comfortable greenscapes with harsh hardscapes.  Urban areas are consequently associated with temperatures measurably different from surrounding areas (the Urban Heat Island Effect); with reduced moisture availability ; with elevated flash flood risk; with poor air, water, and soil quality; and with artificial and ecologically irrelevant landscaping.

All pavement, all the time.

Inside or outside, you are surrounded by pavement, brick, steel, and glass.  You are almost always surrounded by vertical structures.  Inside, walls partition rooms, apartments, offices, firms, etc.  Outside, there are building walls, retaining walls, standalone walls, and fences.  These walls surely have purpose (“A world without walls” sounds like a Dr. Suess book), but they often perform their space-dividing function boringly.  The walls of most rooms you enter are plain and off-white in color.  Blank walls beg for picture frames, calendars and mirrors to cover their mediocrity.  Outside, you are greeted by white picket fences, mildly decorative rock and brick building facades, plastic home siding, and often bland retaining walls that repeatedly remind you and any passerby that you have not escaped the urban jungle.  Your walls are dead.

But what if they weren’t?  What if your walls lived?  (Just don’t expect to fine a heartbeat.)  What if vegetation could make a comeback in the city and revitalize all of the  monotonous vertical spaces?

The truth is, it is now possible to vegetate all kinds of urban spaces.  Just as green roofs have begun to grow on homes and businesses in Germany, Japan, the United States, and all over the world, the green wall is emerging as another innovative answer to urban woes.

The beginning of a green facade!

As technology has progressed, green walls have diversified into two major categories–green facades and living walls.  Facades use vines or ivy that climb a wall directly (though some argue that rootlets can damage walls) or indirectly (using a trellis or cable system).  Living walls generally use vegetation and media in a modular setup.  Living walls can adorn interior walls as living art, as air purifiers, and as productivity and mood enhancers.  Living walls can adorn exterior walls as massive building coverings, as plantable retaining walls (mentioned in a previous post), and even as standalone filtration structures (like the Folkewall).  Green fences can act as ivy-covered privacy screens.  Green walls can even sustain food-producing plants to supplement community gardens!

So, you have options when it comes to softening your urban jungle.  Living walls can moderate temperature, stormwater, wind, noise, and mood.  Living walls can provide ecological benefits.  Living walls can provide food.  Your walls can be alive!

It's alive!

Learn more about Living Walls HERE or join the LinkedIn group to join the conversation!.

A Green Retaining Wall

During my studies at SIUE, I was introduced to innovative technologies that are designed to address urban environmental problems.  Green roofs, blue roofs, green walls, rain gardens, bioswales, etc. can help mitigate stormwater runoff and/or the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE).  I conducted  my thesis project on a specific kind of green wall, a green retaining wall.  A green retaining wall (or some variant of living landscape wall or green landscaping wall) is designed to stabilize a slope and create space for development just like a conventional retaining wall.  The difference is that these retaining walls are plantable.

Remember the eyesore of a towering retaining wall at the edge of a parking lot?  How about the monotonous wall in a hilly yard?  Well, plantable retaining walls give us the opportunity to beautify urban space without compromising function.  In addition, they can provide environmental benefits like stormwater management, temperature moderation, noise reduction, and biodiversity improvements.  These retaining walls have been employed all over the country, including the St. Louis area.  Although, not all of the walls have been planted.

While the blocks themselves offer great texture compared to a traditional retaining wall,  not seeing them for the greenery is ideal.

Hmm….if anyone happens to see these walls left unplanted, consider some guerrilla gardening. Just kidding…maybe.  And maybe learn about living retaining walls through a new St. Louis-based company, The Living Wall Company.

Have you seen something like this before?

The Nature of an Urban Jungle

Urban Centers Now

There is nothing natural about an urban setting. Seas of pavement. Forests of street lamps, street signs, and leafless telephone poles. Savannas of symmetrical parks, manicured lawns and perfect -unnaturally perfect- ornamental trees. Rivers of highway back-logged with cars and freighters. Mountains of

brick, concrete, wood, and glass built to shield us from the o’-so-harsh elements.

Where there is economic development, there is usually environmental degradation.  One is sacrificed for the other in the name of “Progress.”  Progress includes stripping mountains of their mountaintops, relieving forests of their leafy blankets, replacing verdant prairie with crop monocultures, replacing cropland with shiny-10-mpg-SUV-ridden suburbia, encapsulating municipal ‘trash’ in tombs that rival the ancient Pyramids of Giza, choking once pristine waterways with effluent, trash, and sediment eroded from denuded stream banks, browning and blackening the air, poisoning and exploiting our worldly neighbors. Progress seems to include urbanizing, shutting out, ignoring, destroying, breaking, burning. (I recall the Ent’s rant from Lord of the Rings.)

Urban Centers Re-Visualized

Instead, try to visualize a metropolitan area that aggressively strives to be verdant, sustainable and self-sufficient.

A walk down main street is a pleasure, not a chore.  Old buildings have been restored according to LEED standards, and are teeming with activity.  Building facades are checkered with superinsulated solar windows and trellis-twining vine green walls.  Looking up, roofs are home to plants (green roofs), solar panels, and helical wind turbines. The sidewalk underfoot appears unusual; it’s porous pavement, which reduces stormwater runoff and flooding, and also brings moisture to abundant street trees.

You come to the edge of an intersection and find not a wedge of concrete or a patch of sterile grass but an urban garden.  Some backpacks lay at the edge of the garden.  Some children are tending to their crops.  They seem excited about the plants they’ve learned to care for, the seeds they’ve planted, the plants they’ve watched grow, and the food they get to bring home.  As they scamper home with a few ripe vegetables, you turn back to the intersection.  Instead of a complicated and fuel-wasting 4-way stop, a traffic circle greets oncoming motorists.  As traffic rolls smoothly about this round about, you look closely to the center circle.  Instead of a cement-curbed impervious surface, a rain garden adorns this traffic circle.  The native grasses, forbs, and shrubs, wait patiently for the next rain.  They  gladly accept stormwater runoff that would otherwise drain into the sewer and end up -untreated- in local waterways.

You follow the street to the bus stop, which is adorned by solar panels to generate electricity and provide shelter as you sit at the bench.  A few minutes pass and the bus quietly pulls up.  Fueled by an alternative energy, it doesn’t spew exhaust in your face when it stops.  The doors open.  Going up the steps you see roof reinforcements in the bus.  An infographic shows you pictures of this bus’s extensive green roof.  Drought-tolerant stonecrops (Sedum) wait patiently on the bus roof for the next rain while providing mobile greenery for residents looking out from their restored multi-story buildings.  The roof reinforcements ensure structural integrity, even under the full load of saturated growing media and plants during rains.

You look out the window as the green roof bus enters the highway.  You are not in a claustrophobic corridor of asphalt lanes and concrete barrier walls.  Where possible, the pavement has been painted with electricity-generating nano-solar cells.  The sound barriers that attempt to block displeasing sounds and sights for nearby residences are made more effective with coverings of ivy facades and living walls of other plants.  As the bus rounds the side of a hill, even the retaining walls facilitate vegetation, rendering the living retaining wall itself almost invisible.

Finally you arrive home after walking a couple blocks from your bus stop.  It is dusk and as you approach your yard, the solar-powered LED street lights blink on.  You stop and admire your short-grass prairie lawn.  The buffalo grass might need to be mowed once or twice this year, so no rush.  Your flower garden along your home is vibrant with drought-tolerant, climate-adjusted native plants – bees, butterflies, and birds love them!  You might water the  garden tomorrow, but only with water from your rain barrel at the foot of your gutter.  Your roof also supports an extensive green roof system.  Succulents and grasses thrive up there.  The system retains stormwater, or at least slows it down during larger storms.  The stormwater the roof cannot hold goes down the gutters into the rain barrel or towards your backyard rain garden.  Any excess stormwater from the rain garden passes through a grass swale before finally trickling into the storm sewer.  You are eager to disconnect your stormwater flows from the sewer whenever possible.  The risk of the stormwater inundating combined stormwater/sanitary sewers would mean messy combined sewer overflows and basement backups.  Otherwise, you might not want to eat that fish you caught at your favorite spot.

The greenery throughout your city provides stormwater benefits, thermal benefits for the buildings and the microclimate, efficiency boosts for photovoltaics (See Green Roofs and Solar Panel Efficiency), aesthetically pleasing views, noise reduction, to name a few.  Besides, you can save rain for a dry day.

Green roofs, green walls, rain gardens, public gardens, etc. provide sanctuary to otherwise nature-deficient city dwellers.  Reusing and revitalizing abandoned areas is important. Incorporating safe, useful public transit is important. Educating children that the outdoors are to be explored is important; to learn to dismiss the overbearing fears of a wild nature, the risk of playing outdoors, the intangible but strong grasp of liability (sue-happy society)…is IMPORTANT. (See Nature Deficit Disorder.)  We must mitigate suburban and exurban sprawl and revitalize what we already have. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Three words more powerful than faint arrows on a pop bottle.

There is nothing natural about an urban setting. That said, 7 billion people need to live SOMEWHERE. Perhaps we will realize the necessity of following the principles of sustainability and that we should be stewards of God’s Creation, not robbers of its bounty.