Making Green Choices, Making Smart Choices
Sustainable design features can boost aesthetic appeal and your bottom line, too
- LEED-certified buildings earn a 9% premium over non-certified comps
- Water reusage and rainwater capture help buildings earn points
- The SF MOMA has the largest living wall in the US
- Oakland, CA based design firm Hyphae is a leader in the field of environmentally sustainable design
In the unending race for a leg up over competition, architects and builders are constantly seeking ways to make their buildings more attractive to tenants and residents. Reducing the environmental impact of a building can have far-ranging benefits, from lower operational costs to attracting higher rents from tenants, commercial and residential alike. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification is one of the most prevalent systems of “green” certification, and a 2015 study by the U.S. Green Building Council showed that new construction green buildings saw an ROI advantage of nearly 10% over comparable properties, while retrofitted green buildings saw an average increased ROI of about 20%.
For designers looking to add a “wow” factor to a building, and also striving for that premium advantage, thinking green is a good way to up the ante. Architects and builders might look to Hyphae Design Laboratory in Oakland, California for ideas: The firm specializes in environmentally friendly design, and we caught up with them for a tour of one of their most high-profile projects, the living wall at the newly renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
A Living Wall in a Thirsty State
Marisha Farnsworth and Eric Olsen spend a lot of time thinking about water. Farnsworth is design director and Olsen is a civil engineer at Hyphae Design Laboratory in Oakland, CA, and we’re touring the SF MOMA, where Hyphae teamed up with David Brenner of Habitat Horticulture to design the largest living wall in the United States—a vertical garden, in which the plants are not merely covering the surface of the wall, but integrated into its very structure. The team has worked together before, with Brenner managing the horticulture execution and Hyphae creating the irrigation systems for several more living walls, a few even within walking distance of this one. Measuring 130 feet wide by 29 feet tall, this massive installation spans most of the museum’s third-floor terrace, providing a leafy backdrop to the thousands of feet of white walls and careful geometries which otherwise define the museum. It features nearly 40 species of plants, for a total of 4,400 square feet of greenery. To keep them alive requires quite a bit of water.
So what to do in a water-strapped state, where a piece of art is also an artistic and environmental statement? For one, as Farnsworth explains, mimic Mother Nature. Many of the plants on the wall come from native redwood forests. In the dry summers in the northern California forests, understory plants are watered by condensate—fog, essentially. Like the redwood forests, museums too produce a lot of condensate: The thousands of visitors who tramp through the building every day breathe and sweat, and that human condensate gets captured by the museum’s HVAC system. Along with storm water captured on the roof, that water is then used to flush the toilets and irrigate the massive vertical garden’s 25,000+ individual plants.
Rainwater Collection Helps Keep Water Out of City Sewers
Because the city of San Francisco, like many other large metropolises in California, has a combined sewer system, meaning that the underground pipes convey both storm and waste water, when big rains come the system can’t keep up with the volume and “they have to dump untreated sewage into the bay,” Olsen explains. This is an ecological mini-disaster, and so the museum is required to collect the rainwater from the roof and store it for a period of time, to make sure the sewers aren’t being overtaxed. Underneath all the floors of art, there’s a 30,000 gallon holding tank, and instead of simply holding and dumping, the museum recycles it. “We’re harvesting water that would normally be wasted and reusing it several times,” Olsen says.
Improved Aesthetics, Improved ROI
Hyphae has installed living walls across the country, and not all of them are as intricate or require such intensive maintenance as this one. However, they must be properly planned: “A lot of living walls and living roofs, if they’re not planned right, actually waste a lot of water and even let nutrients into our water system, because there’s nutrients that are combined with the water that’s irrigating the wall.” When done right, a living wall can help a building achieve points toward LEED certification by reducing water use and utilizing rainwater recapture.
In that ever-frenzied quest to build the most desirable spaces, a living wall is one way to go green, add an unexpected and calming design effect, and possibly even improve the bottom line.