Category Archives: plants

Be Like a Tree

Quick snapshot of an interesting immersive technology project Tree from MIT Media Lab,  which blends technology and nature to provide a unique experience:

“Tree is a virtual experience that transforms you into a rainforest tree. With your arms as branches and body as the trunk, you experience the tree’s growth from a seedling into its fullest form and witness its fate firsthand. … With precisely controlled physical elements including vibration, heat, fan, and body haptics, the team created a fully immersive virtual reality storytelling tool, where the audience no longer watches but is transformed into a new identity, a giant tree in the Peruvian rainforest. “

The technology blurs the line between visualization and VR, with an interesting concept of haptic response driven through a variety of technologies.  As mentioned on the site, “The body experience is crucial for establishing a body ownership illusion instead of restricting the experience to the visual world. We aim to have the audience not just see, but feel and believe “being” a tree.”

It’s fascinating to see the various components that create this experience.  A breakdown below (I added links so you can link to some of the technology):  “Our hyper-realistic whole body haptic experience used Subpac, a pair of customized vibration oversleeves with six local points and a vibrating floor powered by four based transducers. Technicolor’s Scott Gershin designed multi-track bass audio for each part of the body, so that the audience could feel the disturbance of a forest fire as well as a bird landing on a branch. There are also additional physical elements, including an air mover for a breath of wind and heaters as the final fire threat. The whole tactile experience is controlled by Max/MSP and Arduino, while communicating with the Unreal Engine through OSC. The physical experience was precisely synced with the visual experience inside the Oculus. We went through various iterations to match the virtual visual details with the intensity, texture, and timing of physical experience.”

The specialized technology means that it isn’t broadly available, but requires a specialized environment, so you need to be in place to get the full expeirence.   The initial launch was done “In collaboration with The Rainforest Alliance, during the Sundance Film Festival, we gave each audience member a seed inside an envelop with a number on it. They can use their emails and that number to log in to the “participants” section of the Tree website to stay updated on the project. The team utilizes virtual, mixed, and actual reality to tap into positive social change and explore the human experience.”

For a less immersive taste, check out this video for some visuals of the project and process – Tree from Fluid Interfaces on Vimeo.

The installation Tree is currently available as part of the Virtual Arcade at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Images via MIT Media Lab, where you can also see the contributors to the project.

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Micro Landscape

An interesting take on landscape, spotted via Architect’s Newspaper.  Artist Spencer Finch has created a micro landscape installation called ‘Lost Man Creek’ for the Public Art Fund as part of a solo exhibition.

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Lost Man Creek is a miniature forest. But rather than growing naturally and of its own accord, this undulating landscape populated by some 4,000 Dawn Redwoods is a recreation. Artist Spencer Finch partnered with the Save the Redwoods League to identify a 790-acre section of the protected Redwood National Park in California. Significantly scaling down the topography and tree canopy heights, he reimagined this corner of the California forest for MetroTech at a 1:100 scale. While the original trees range from 98 to 380 feet – taller than the buildings that surround the plaza – the trees in the installation are just one to four feet in height.”

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images from Public Art Fund, photos by Timothy Schenck

Hemp to the Rescue

We’ve heard of many plants that have phytoremediative qualities, that is, the properties that can absorb and neutralize toxic substances in soils.   For all the versatility of hemp, I hadn’t thought of it as possessing that ability until I read recent post on Roads and Kingdoms entitled Hemp and Change.  The crux of the story is one of pollution and the potential for Hemp as one of those plants that can aid in cleaning up our dirty messes.

The Italian town Taranto in Puglia, which like many areas had a rich agricultural and gastronomic history, specifically cheeses and other dairy products.  A large steel plant was constructed nearby in the 1960s, which was led to degradation of air and soil that led to conditions where animals were no longer fit for consumption.  There are also indications that the residents have and continue to suffer from ill effects of the plant.

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:: image via Roads & Kingdoms

The issue is that the plant serves as the major source of jobs, so it’s a double-edged sword where residents are both in need of the economic benefit but suffer from the ill effects.  The plant owners were later charged with a number of crimes for the health and environmental issues, but beyond the legal culpability, there still remains the need for a viable clean-up of the sites, which is often too expensive and long term.

Thus phytoremediation provides a viable strategy for clean up of the toxic sites, with the potential to restore Taranto back to it’s agricultural glory.  A group called CanaPuglia and their founder Claudio Natile, who describes hemp and its use as a continuation of an Italian tradition.

“Hemp was a major Italian agricultural crop for hundreds of years. In the 1950s, the country was the second-largest hemp producer in the world after the Soviet Union. Italian hemp seeds provided some of the most resistant fibers, which were turned into clothing. However, with industrialization and the advent of synthetic fibers such as nylon, hemp started to disappear.”

They’ve planted 300 hectares of low THC hemp, which is also harvested to make a range of products, further providing economic vitality and helping to pay for the cleanup.  In this case, the toxicity doesn’t persist in the fibers, so it can be used, however there could be toxicity in the seeds so the hemp is not sold for food consumption.  The article doesn’t get too far into how hemp is working for pollution reduction, but offered a few links to explore.

According to the Huffington Post, in addition to hemp being a low-input and easy to grow plant, it “…was used at Chernobyl to harmlessly extract toxins and pollutants from the soil and groundwater. Hemp actually absorbs CO2 while it grows through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative from the get-go.”

Commercial hemp, Darlingford, Manitoba, Canada.
Commercial hemp, Darlingford, Manitoba, Canada.

:: image via Huffington Post

The use a variety of plants for phytoremediation of toxic sites, including Brassicas, corn, tobacco, sunflowers and trees, to name a few, all are viable methods to uptake and capture pollutants.   The site explains that Phytoremediation is a process that takes advantage of the fact that green plants can extract and concentrate certain elements within their ecosystem. For example, some plants can grow in metal-laden soils, extract certain metals through their root systems, and accumulate them in their tissues without being damaged. In this way, pollutants are either removed from the soil and groundwater or rendered harmless.

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:: image via McGraw Hill – Botany Global Issues Map

The use of hemp is explained in a bit more detail “In 1998, Phytotech, along with Consolidated Growers and Processors (CGP) and the Ukraine’s Institute of Bast Crops, planted industrial hemp, Cannabis sp., for the purpose of removing contaminants near the Chernobyl site.”  The uptake of pollutants at Chernobyl included cesium and strontium, which was bio-accumlated in root structures at high concentrations.  While some toxins are broken down in soil and plants, high-grade elements like radioactive waste are pulled from soils into plants, so there is obviously the issue of proper and safe removal of this biomass after this process has taken place.

One interesting link on the larger concept is from the United Nations Enviornment Programme, a site called “Phytoremediation: An Environmentally Sound Technology for Pollution Prevention, Control and Remediation. ” which does offer a primer on the topic.  Contrasting it with traditional remediation, the site explains: “Remediation of contaminated sites using conventional practices, such as ‘pump-and-treat’ and ‘dig-and-dump’ techniques, is often expensive, has limited potential, and is usually only applicable to small areas. Additionally, these conventional approaches to remediation often make the soil infertile and unsuitable for agriculture and other uses by destroying the microenvironment. Hence there is the need to develop and apply alternative, environmentally sound technologies (ESTs), taking into account the probable end use of the site once it has been remediated.”

The process happens in multiple ways, but essentially has two methods – the first is breaking down and degrading organic pollutants; the second is to trap  metals or non-organics so they cannot move to other animals or areas.  The roots are the main source of phytoremediation, being in contact with pollutants directly through the extensive below-grade surface area.  When areas of contamination are deeper, trees are often used where their more extensive rooting systems can go further down than herbacous plants and shrubs.   There are also cases where water can be pumped from below grade and then treated on the surface using plants.

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:: image via Intech

As the above graphic shows, there are many methods at work with the phytoremediation process, many of which are working on the ‘soil-root’ interface.  There are a number of compounds released by the plants, “root exudates” that activate microorganisms that can extract, stablilize, degrade and stimulate toxics.  This changes the bioavaiability of the toxins through, as the UNEP site states “changes in soil characteristcs, release of organic substances, changes in chemical composition, and /or increase in plant-assisted microbial activity.”

There are over 30,000 sites in the US that require hazardous waste treatment, and many more worldwide.  While many plants that are viable for phytoremediation are available, many of these cannot be used for consumption because of issues with possible contamination. Hemp is perhaps one to consider as the fiber used can still be processed into useful, saleable products,  that could potentially fund the cleanup as well.  As marijuana legality relaxes somewhat, it may be more possible to use this plant to make our world a cleaner place.

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Hortum machina B

Really like this experimental project (spotted on a post on Architects Newspaper) by Interactive Architecture Lab.  Called Hortum machina, B it’s a “rolling ecological exoskeleton” in the shape of a geodesic dome, the “half garden, half machine” hybrid is able to move through the environment using plant electro-physiology to drive the machine.  The idea of plant intelligence is worthy of a much more expansive post, but the execution here is quite brilliant.

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A quick breakdown of the idea, from the Interactive Architecture Lab website:

“Electro-physiological sensing of the state of individual plants collectively and democratically controls decision-making of the orientation of the structure and its mobility. In the near future context of driverless cars, autonomous flying vehicles, and seemingly endless other forms of intelligent robotics co-habiting our built environment. Hortum machina B is a speculative urban cyber-gardener.”

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You get a feel for the scale of it here, which is part of the beauty.  The idea that these are larger than life, which gives them added presence.

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There’s some more detailed ‘making of’ description, which delves into the prototyping, and further exploring the engineering and programming.

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The controls are programmed using  Arduino, a scalable and programmable platform for hardware and software to make interactive objects.  Click on the screen capture below, and you can see the communication of ‘getting messages’ from the plant things like temperature, vibrations, humidity, lighting – and then being able to use that ‘intelligence’ for driving actions.

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All Images above are credited to Interactive Architecture Lab – and accessed direct from their website or from the Architects Newspaper post.  Also, check out this video with it in action – more videos on their Vimeo page and website as well.

Hortum machina, B from Interactive Architecture Lab on Vimeo.

Treescrapers

A recent post from CityLab delves into an on-going.  Entitled ‘Are ‘Treescrapers the Future of Dense Urban Living?’, explores the concept beyond the fantastical and thinks about this type of work in terms of reality and the more pragamatic elements.  Weird Dune references about Passive House designers (?) aside, having some critical evaluation the points that were brought up by the architect in the story are valid.

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Tour des Cèdres, Lausanne, Switzerland. (Boeri Studio) – via CItyLab

I do think that the focus of the comments maybe relied a bit too much on the particular type of work (i.e. hyper efficient building envelope).  If you see everything through the lens of Passive House, and energy envelopes and embodied energy for structural upgrades, you may miss the trees and the forest.

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Bosco Verticale – via CityLab

Admittedly, I am both a supporter and critic of the idea, which I’ve been referring to as Vegitecture (not Treescraping, for hopefully obvious reasons) for some time now.  Beyond being an aesthetic choice which has strong biophilic connections, there’s ecological and even, yes, energy considerations with integrating vegetation into buildings.  It’s definitely a key strategy for a less building centric idea of passive heating and cooling, which has to me has always included vegetation surrounding structures as part of the equation – using evergreen vegetation to block colder winter winds and shade for cooling and deciduous to provide summer shading and opening up during winter for additional heating/sun after leaf drop.  That diagram I think i first say in first year intro to landscape architecture.

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Of course everything comes at a cost, so an accounting of cost to benefit is necessary, but that cost also much include other items in the ledger, like health benefits of access to nature, additional passive cooling and heating benefits that could be integrated with exterior and interior system integration.  The opportunity is to make these projects work and think of new ways to better integrate them into the buildings in artful and functional ways.

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One Central Park, by Jean Nouvel with Patrick Blanc (Sydney, Australia)

I’ve discussed typologies before, and it’s interesting to see the evolution of the types, from building integrated living walls above, to terrace planters, roofs decks, more traditional green roofs, and much more.  The possibilities in photoshop, alas, are endless.  But in reality, there are some additional considerations, all of which should be taken into account.  Some more images of green on buildings – nothing new here on this blog.  More at the original post on CityLab as well

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Vijayawada Garden Tower, by Penda Architecture and Design (Vijayawada, India)
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The Diamond Lotus, by Vo Trong Nghia Architects (Ho Chi Minh City)

And these definitely trend towards the fantastic, which is part of the reconciliation between what can actually work and what looks cool in a rendering.  So, yes, that involves messy practicalities the additional structural loading, and how to incorporate thermal breaks, and many others like how to maintain vegetation, how to irrigation, issues of wind uplift, leaf litter, structural capacity, and many more.  Great discussions, and necessary ones, as we grow and evolve the concept.

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Asian Cairns, by Vincent Callebaut (Shenzhen)

 

EcoTracks

Short blurb from Sustainable Business Oregon on a new ‘EcoTrack‘ for the light rail expansion in Portland.

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“The vegetated trackway, which aims to reduce stormwater runoff, is among the first such efforts in the U.S. It will adorn a station at Southwest Lincoln Street and Third Avenue near the Portland State University campus.

The installation “will provide a colorful carpet of low-growing plants along 200 feet of light rail line,” according to the transit agency. The technique is common in Europe and consists of one-inch thick mats that contain various species of sedum, which are a hardy low-maintenance vegetation.”

 

Field Trip: Getty Center

Last year around Christmas, we took a great road trip down the west coast and over through the desert.  Already mentioned is some tasty sites from San Francisco (deYoung + Cal. Academy).  Plenty more to come as i sift through pics, but the visit to the Getty Center, perched on the hillside in Los Angeles was a definite highlight.

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This Richard Meier designed complex clad in copious amounts of marble features an array of interesting site elements, with Laurie Olin as a major contributor to the site layout and circulation, along with the central garden by artist Robert Irwin.  The following images show the breadth site spaces.  Definitely worthy of a trip (and it’s amazing even in December) – and other than paying for parking – entry is free.

The terraced spaces and marble are sculptural forms are sculptural in their own right, while making spaces for outdoor sculpture, seating, and views of the city.

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Around the site, small moments were captures through terraces, stairways, water features, and smaller plazas all of which were tied together with materials (both plant and hardscape) along with a simplicity of form and function.

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Simple in form and function, I really appreciated the shade-canopy elements of bougainvillaea on rebar trellises, which made for a nice seating zone, while also provide a dynamic visual element from other areas of the site.

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The focal point of Irwin’s Central Garden – probably my least favorite element of floating topiary zone – which seemed a bit overdone – particularly in the context of the sparse minimalism of the rest of the site.

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Some of the garden’s circulation, however, was interesting, with a zig-zag path, seating, corten steel, and crossings of a central water feature.

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We walked the grounds, never actual visiting the galleries inside, but the experience, views, and integrated architecture and landscape was pretty amazing – and definitely a must-see for the traveler to Los Angeles.

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More field trip and photos to come.

(Photos ©  Jason King)

Principles of Ecological Landscape Design

I’ve been busy reading through the new book ‘Principles of Ecological Landscape Design‘, an interesting addition to the growing literature blending science and design in a practical sense.  Author Travis Beck is a landscape architect and currently the Landscape and Gardens Project Manager at the New York Botanical Garden, and he has used his horticultural and design background to illuminate some of the connections, challenges, and opportunities from designing ‘ecologically’.principles_ecological_landscape_design

 

As seen on the web blurb:

“This groundbreaking work explains key ecological concepts and their application to the design and management of sustainable landscapes. It covers biogeography and plant selection, assembling plant communities, competition and coexistence, designing ecosystems, materials cycling and soil ecology, plant-animal interactions, biodiversity and stability, disturbance and succession, landscape ecology, and global change. Beck draws on real world cases where professionals have put ecological principles to use in the built landscape.”

It’s too much to cram into one post, so I’m going to be regularly updating on the information in bits and pieces, starting with this intro.  As mentioned by Carol Franklin in the Preface, the book builds on a small but important foundations of landscape ecology from Richard T.T. Forman in such books as Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions, and Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land Use Planning – both of which are more accessible in terms of ‘designer-friendly’ science.  Rather than take on the entire ecological spectrum, the focus of Beck on the horticultural, particularly the translation of plant ecology into planting design, is important, because the focus makes it a very useful resource for landscape architects and designers.

The Introduction offers some context for the book, with Beck outlining our complicated history with the concept of landscape and the roots in the pastoral and picturesque.  He mentions Olmsted and Vaux and their “Greensward” Plan for Central park, inspired by Capability Brown’s English countryside.  The hidden illusion of ‘nature’ and the massive human effort involved is a common theme in historical references to style that we’ve battled with for over 100 years.

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Now, we’ve evolved to a more nuanced idea of ‘urban’ nature, but still struggle with the idea of what the poster child of this new style being Field Operations’ High Line, the highly designed and maintained landscape atop the abandoned elevated rail corridor.  As Beck mentions, we evocation of ‘spontaneous’ vegetation required significant engineering and requires on-going maintenance to keep viable – not unlike the Central Park from a century and a half earlier.

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As urban landscapes, it is expected that we can’t perform pure ‘ecological’ restoration, but is there a more informed and ecologically appropriate approach?  This is the premise of ‘Principles’, as Beck asks “What if, instead of depicting nature, we allowed nature.” (3)  This is done through ecological landscapes, not the restorative but the actively design, “that are imagined and assembled by people.” (4)

The relevance to our better understanding of design and science can be framed in numerous ways.  One is the ecological view, that less input will be more ‘sustainable’ and a landscape that is more ‘fitted’ to it’s context would be more resilient and regenerative, or as Beck posits to be “flexible and adaptive and continually adjusts its patterns as conditions change and events unfold.” (5).  Second is a economic view, as it would be less expensive to build and maintain these sites, which allows for more green in cities, and better spaces.  Third is a professional view – one that imagines a true and relevant blending of design and science would free us from the art v. science battles and the criticism of create hollow, misinformed or ’boutique’ ecologies. It would also enable us to create landscapes to aid in larger scale assemblies (cities) or to combat global catastrophes (climate instability).

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apocalyptic landscape – image by Giacomo Costa

With the proper tools, designers are freed to have explore formal possibilities with real and testable constraints.  This greater understanding of where we plant, what we plant, and how they interact, gives us a solid foundation to justify new design modalities and forms of expression.  This, coupled with an understanding from clients and maintenance staff of the the long view of how sites will evolve and grow over time, expands the possibility of a new paradigm shift in our use of plants.

As Beck mentions:

“An ecological landscape knits itself into the biosphere so that it both is sustained by natural processes and sustains life within its boundaries and beyond.  It is not a duplicate of wild nature (that we must protect and restore where we can) but a complex system modeled after nature.” (5)

The underlying theme of ‘self-organization’ as an important aspect of this process, allowing for continuation without continual input and human agency.  This regenerative quality of establishing a self-sufficient landscape that meets all of it’s needs is important in ecological restoration to determine success.  It is more difficult to thing of this in terms of managed and urban landscapes which are extreme conditions that lack analogs in nature.

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apocalyptic landscape – image by Giacomo Costa

The range of landscape contexts and types, along with aesthetics, safety, financial, and other considerations will create a continuum of landscapes that will lend themselves to varying degrees of self-sufficiency.  Some will be able to thrive with little to no additional inputs, while others will need higher levels of care.  Our expanding set of tools driven by scientific knowledge, allows us to more directly engage in the ‘fitness’ of our materials to fill the roles we assign them, which is inherently different from our current approaches.  Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, it seems, may allow us to expand the toolbox in even more robust and novel ways.

More on initial chapters upcoming.

(RE)Building Coastal Dunes

The goal to stabilize coastal dunes impacted by development is not a new endeavor, but has been made visible recently with the recent impact of Superstorm Sandy on the Eastern Seaboard.  The dunes are vital to the overall integrity of coastal zones, elimination of vegetation is often the result of development and other disturbances, and is exacerbated by strong storms and surges that are the result of climate instability.  We’ve impacted these naturally resilient ecosystems to the degree where they can no longer self-heal, and thus require our conscious action to return this to functional integrity.

A slideshow in the Cape Cod Online shows a project by a group of professionals and students to use ‘biomimcry’ principles to help restore coast dunes.  As noted in the BEN Blog“Harwich High School Environmental Studies students learning about how natural vegetation stabilizes dunes, and how they can mimic natural vegetation’s structure and patterns by placing cedar shims in the sand.”

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The students are working with a group called Safe Harbor, which takes an interesting approach to dune restoration a “simple system mimics the matrix profile of native vegetation to collect and stabilize sand. Like native vegetation, this system demonstrates performance inversely proportional to it’s profile.” 

There’s a fair amount of research on the Safe Harbor site, including a PDF of of their Biomimcry work (30.9 MB PDF File) and in an interesting twist, they are offering the results in the public domain in the hope it will be used broadly for dune restoration.  A video of the approach is found below:

The original article was published on the BEN Blog (from Biomimicry 3.8) and it begs the question of dune stablilization and whether the establishment of plants is considered biomimicry?  Replanting the original species isn’t really mimicking anything, but is rather restoring the ecosystem to it’s reference state that is considered to be analogous to a natural, self-replicating system that would have been present pre-disturbance.  From late 1800s restoration of the Back Bay Fens by  Olmsted to 1960s dune restoration documented by McHarg in Design with Nature, to much restoration work today, the idea isn’t new.

Biomimicry, it seems, comes in with the intermediate ‘cedar shim’ installation that holds sands in place to allow berms to be shaped and re-established, prior to the planting of vegetation.  The BEN Blog takes up the question at the end.

Is habitat restoration considered to be biomimicry? This can be a tricky question. If we are learning from the local organisms and ecosystem and mimicking natural processes, structures, and patterns, then the answer is yes. We want to learn what functions different organisms play and how they provide those functions. Usually this is done by planting vegetation, preferably native vegetation if it’s available. Sometimes an intermediate step is needed. Use of cedar shims on this beach is a short-term effort to mimic the sand-holding function of the dune vegetation. According to Safe Harbors’ website, “Biomimicry uses the same storm wind energy which eroded the resource area to rebuild it.” If this works and they can stabilize the beach, then the vegetation should get a chance to grow back and resume its role in stabilizing the dunes and creating conditions for other dune inhabitants to thrive.”

For this to be biomimicry, we need to make the leap to insert this intermediate stage into the ecosystem to create berms through use of the shims and active management (configuration, adjustment of depths, demarcation of paths).  The question is, then, why not just skip the stage of cedar shims and use vegetation, which is the planned eventual end condition and the material that is being ‘mimicked’ rather that use an alternative material (such as this dune restoration in Louisiana, below)?

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One answer may be cost, as plantings would cost more and be prone to die-back in interim stages of dune development as sand aggregates.  The other may be time – as the plantings establishment and subsequent colonization may be accelerated through use of analog (cedar shims) along with strategic plantings, with greater survival and more vigorous dune establishment as a result.  As i mentioned, the thrusting of the idea into the public domain, and the monitoring of existing installations for viability will be interesting to see how they do, and compared to more traditional berms established by just planting, or perhaps landform manipulation (imported or graded sand) and plantings.

A continuing conversation on this to happen for sure, and more upcoming on Biomimicry later this week.  3.8 billion years of background is a lot to cover!