When I first genuinely learned about sustainable architecture, I was assigned at school to research zero-energy buildings for a presentation on a technological breakthrough. The goal of these buildings was to reach “zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions over a period of time” by integrating design features able to generate power using renewable energy sources and increasing efficiency of energy, promoting as a result sustainable development. Although I was initially captivated by the promising concept, I soon found out the clear complications, such as the expansion of neighborhood density and transportation. Ever since that project, I have not only gotten a fuller picture of sustainable architecture but gained a more critical approach when analyzing it.
It was no different when I came across the Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, a residential building built in Milan by Boeri Studio and completed in 2014 over the span of 7 years. It could be generally described as two residential towers of 112m and 80m high, covered in vegetation on the balconies, largely inspired by traditional buildings covered with ivy in Italy. Inside, the apartments range from two-room apartments to penthouses and duplexes while on the outside, the balconies extend irregularly with waterproof planting containers housing trees, shrubs, and plants. Located in Milan’s financial district, these distinctive towers target a wealthier class. As mentioned in the project description on their website, one of the many intents of the building is to explore the relationship between humans and biodiversity, with the concept of housing not only concerning humans but also other living species. This project has the goal of increasing green space in cities, helping with the mitigation of greenhouse gases, and encouraging biodiversity in local urban areas.
Aesthetically speaking, I can definitely see the appeal of vertical forests. Biophilic designs stem from the idea that nature can evoke calmness, comfort, and connection, ultimately affecting our well-being and it can truly rejuvenate designs into pieces of art. Not to mention, the ever-changing landscape due to the living nature of the building creates striking colourful views in fall. But could this be too good to be true?
Digging deeper into the concept of sustainability, it was defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Applying this term to the Bosco Verticale, we can observe many efforts in both sustaining and benefiting the environment. First of all, the 20,000 plants on the structure can help reduce pollution as it converts approximately 44,000 pounds of carbon per year while absorbing harmful particles, hence improving the overall air quality. The towers, on the other hand, are energy efficient due to the increased insulation and shading the vegetation brings, which a study had shown a 7.5% reduction in energy consumption uniquely from this feature. In fact, the design recycles excess water through filtering from the occupants and buildings for irrigation. Furthermore, the biodiversity of the local urban area is substantially encouraged as it has proven to be home to around 1,600 specimens of birds and butterflies. In the end, the Bosco Verticale has been a successful project in increasing green spaces, which now in a wider context serves as a new symbol for the city of Milan.
However, sustainability is never easily achieved (or defined) and it is worth discussing the complications of the design which could compromise safety and the intended sustainability. One of the eminent challenges was the additional weight from the plants and soil. This caused a greater use of concrete, an industry known to contribute up to 8% of overall global emissions through its production, putting the structure in an immediate carbon debt. Besides, the plants must be continuously maintained, especially in autumn when the fallen leaves could block drainage systems. Consequently, there are many additional needs for professional maintenance to keep the towers functioning and pedestrians safe if anything falls. Even with the beautiful aspect of nature and wildlife, a fair amount of pests should be expected. These all contribute to the tens of thousands of condo fees per month, not helping with the affordable housing crisis in Milan.
And so the question is raised, are these designs truly sustainable or an example of gentrification in which nature is privatized? With today’s technological advances, adding greenery to increase appeal in architectural renderings has become increasingly easier and so has ‘greenwashing’, where marketing of environmental benefits is overplayed in order to entice consumers. I believe the Bosco Verticale has been a generally successful project, but it definitely isn’t a realistic option for the general public nor is it a sustainable approach for future green architecture. Nonetheless, I have always believed that there is an incredible potential for green cities and innovative concept such as the Bosco Verticale and Zero Energy Buildings undoubtedly indicates our efforts to a more sustainable direction.
If you want to learn more about green gentrification, check out Kelly’s article: Green City or Green Gentrification?