This vertical forest tower makes elite green design affordable. But is it actually green?

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It is one of the world’s most iconic examples of green design. To begin with, it is literally green – encased in hundreds of trees and thousands of shrubs that rise on ladder-like balconies 26 floors up in the sky.

Milan’s Bosco Verticale – “vertical forest” in Italian – opened in 2014 to great acclaim from the design world. Its attractive vision of skyscrapers with leafy green canopies has spawned dozens of imitations from France to Shanghai, including one on the way in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood.

But critics say these buildings typically share some not-so-green features: their construction relies on large amounts of carbon-intensive concrete, and they are very expensive to own.

“I think it’s completely missing the point of green design,” said Lloyd Alter, who teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University in Toronto and is the author of To live a 1.5 degree lifestyle.

Bosco Verticale in Milan, the first of Boeri’s vertical forests, houses the equivalent of three hectares of forest on its balconies. (Dimitar Harizanov / Stefano Boeri Architects)

For Alter and other critics, Bosco Verticale represents an exclusive and expensive vision of a green future, where the benefits of living closer to nature accrue to a few enriched people at a huge carbon price.

All this helps to explain why Stefano Boeri, Bosco Verticale’s famous architect, turned his attention to another project: to copy his iconic design as a public residence in the Dutch town of Eindhoven.

“This is really the goal we had from the beginning of the vertical forest,” Boeri told CBC News, “to show … that it is possible … to realize [a vertical forest] affordable for all, smart and sustainable. “

The Trudo tower is located in a former industrial area in Eindhoven. The goal of the project was to sell affordable housing to young self-starters who want to build a creative community there. (Igor Vermeer photography)

This project, called Trudo Vertical Forest, officially opened last month. The truncated recreation of Bosco Verticale has about 125 trees and 5,000 shrubs over 19 floors, filled with 540 square feet of starter apartments for young couples and new professionals.

It is Boeri’s hope that this tower answers critics that vertical forests are greenwashing for a few elites. But while he has managed to make his innovative design more affordable, there are reasons why critics of the model like Alter remain unconvinced of its benefits.

A forest in the sky, with sky-high costs

Boeri’s vision for Bosco Verticale, developed in the early 2010s, was a version of architecture that was not centered around protecting people from the environment. In his words, “living nature is not a decorative presence”, but a “basic component” of the building.

The pair of Milan towers – which stand on 18 and 26 floors respectively – house a staggering total of 800 trees and 20,000 smaller plants, equivalent to three hectares of forest.

The trees eliminate the heat-enhancing effect of glass-fronted skyscrapers, absorb carbon dioxide from the air and act as a city oasis for dozens of bird and insect species – and they are also quite beautiful to look at.

A patio in Bosco Verticale, where apartments are sold for up to $ 5 million. Critics say vertical forests like Bosco Verticale are privatizing green spaces for the use of the elite. (Giovanni Nardi / Stefano Boeri Architects)

But all that splendor has a price. Carrying the weight of growing trees required huge amounts of concrete, one of the most carbon-intensive building materials available.

“How many decades or centuries will it take for the wood to absorb the carbon dioxide that was emitted and formed the balcony and plant box that hold [it]said Alter. “I never thought it would make sense.”

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Then there is the question of who benefits from this forest. A two-bedroom apartment typically costs more than $ 5.7 million. Condominium fees used to pay for teams of specialized gardeners rappelling from the roof run into the tens of thousands of dollars a month.

All to say, there is a reason why the Bosco Verticale became known to Milanese as “the home of the elite.”

Nowhere to go

In recent years, critics have been louder about this issue with the vertical forest philosophy – that it privatizes nature with high environmental and economic costs.

IN an article for Artribune, an Italian art criticism magazine, architectural critic Fabrizio Bellomo drew a contrast between Bosco Verticale and a Milanese park notorious for drug trafficking, known as the Rogoredo Grove.

“This grove,” he wrote, “even with the facets of decay and marginalization associated with it – it still remains an environment to live in, a public space in all respects.”

As for Bosco Verticale, he said, not so much.

A view of the Bosco Verticale in Milan from the ground. (Miguel Medina / AFP / Getty Images)

Kurt Kohlstedt, who writes for the US-based architecture and design blog 99 Percent Invisible, said of vertical forests: “This particular trend may be running out of hand … It lifts trees completely out of common public spaces and puts them down up where they can be seen by many but enjoyed by few. “

It is especially difficult to swallow in a city like Milan, which is struggling with an affordable housing crisis driven by sky-high rents.

Maria Chiara Cela, a spokeswoman for the Milanese social housing cooperative DAR = CASA, said waiting lists for income-oriented housing in the city have topped 20,000 names, even though hundreds of flats are empty and waiting for public funds to renovate.

“Public housing has not been supported by public funds for a long time,” she said.

Into Eindhoven

Boeri, who is aware of this criticism, says he always saw Bosco Verticale as a prototype for a theory of design rather than a completed project.

“Criticism is always helpful,” he said. “You learn from your mistakes, and you … test new solutions.”

So he was fascinated – even grateful – when a Dutch social housing association, Sint Trudo, approached him in 2016 with the idea of ​​copying his design in Strijp-S, a former industrial district in Eindhoven.

Trudo Vertical Forest was intended to prove that the vertical forest design could be built at a price that made it affordable as public housing. (Saint Trudo)

Social housing in the Netherlands is a unique beast. Less than 15 percent of the country’s homes are private rentals. Instead, the vast majority of leases are managed by public housing companies such as Sint Trudo, which offer units for below market rent, adjusted income.

But like Italy, private rents have surpassed incomes so quickly that the waiting lists for these public apartments are very long.

“On average in the country, [wait times are] somewhere between five and eight years, “said Frans Schilder, housing expert at PBL Netherlands, an environmental advisory group for the Dutch government.” In a city like Amsterdam, it can be up to 15 years. “

People walk past restaurants and bars in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on this file from October 14, 2020. The waiting lists for affordable housing in the city can be many years long. (Piroschka van de Wouw / Reuters)

The housing crisis is hitting young people particularly hard, as they tend to be stuck in the middle – with incomes too high to qualify for social housing, but too low for private rental.

“Our ambition was to create a center … that was attractive to the young talents,” said Jack Hock, project manager at Trudo Tower. He described it as a place for the “missing center” to call home.

So Trudo raised its income limit for applicants to $ 58,000 a year and allocated its 125 apartments in a lottery last summer based on “motivation letters” describing how potential tenants would contribute to a “self-starting” community.

‘This can not be real’

The result is a vertical forest where tenants, most in their mid to late 20s, pay less than $ 1,000 a month to live in an iconic piece of modern architecture.

“When I first saw my apartment, I thought, ‘No, this can not be right,'” said Roos Tullemans, a 29-year-old educator who is one of the building’s “pioneers,” tenants who run social committees. and other groups.

“In Eindhoven, it’s really, really hard to find housing, especially when you’re my age,” she said. “Either you have to be on the list for a really long time, like 10 years, or you need a lot of money.”

Rutger Rauws, a 26-year-old software engineer, was one of those who, partly on the basis of a ‘motivation letter’, got an apartment in the Trudo tower. (Submitted by Rutger Rauws)

Rutger Rauws, a 26-year-old software engineer, said he got “instant goosebumps” the first time he visited his apartment in the Trudo tower.

“For some reason, I really enjoy the shadows that are cast on my windows,” he said. “If I wake up at night, I look out the windows and I still have the feeling that I’m dreaming.”

Like the Bosco Verticale, the Trudo tower is a prototype. While Hock said the cost was not much higher than for other social housing projects he has overseen, he acknowledges that even with its truncated design, “it is not the most climate-friendly tower.”

“It’s a lot of concrete,” he said. “If I had to do it again, I would take much more attention to the environment and the climate crisis.”

But in this case, Hock says, the environmental benefits were not meant to be. Instead, the goal was to introduce green in a former industrial area in brown field and create an exciting landmark for a new community of creative young professionals.

“It’s a choice, and it’s also a criticized choice we’ve made,” he said. “But it was the right choice to make.”

The view inside Rauws’ apartment on the sixth floor. Each tenant has a tree and a selection of native plants and shrubs on their balcony. (Submitted by Rutger Rauws)

Can Canada have a vertical forest?

Although Boeri and Hock both say that the real work of green design lies in less attractive solutions, such as cladding heat-leaking buildings and greener roofs, that lesson has not yet reached the dozens of imitators who would try to recreate Bosco’s designs.

In Toronto’s Annex, Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects produces its own high-end version, a 22-story tower that houses 100 condominiums adorned with 400 trees.

Brian Brisbin, a partner with the firm, said the building was originally inspired by a desire to break the “heat island” created by downtown Toronto’s alleys of glass-fronted skyscrapers and a promise from Toronto Mayor John Tory to increase the city’s tree crown.

But Brisbin is also honest about the design’s environmental credentials, which he says are only “green in the literal sense.”

A rendering of the vertical forest project underway on Toronto’s Davenport Road. (BBB Architects)

“We basically use the money from the people who can afford to be here to work on a prototype,” said Brisbin, who he hopes will eventually be available to other developers and institutions to develop their own, cheaper designs.

Boeri was not involved in the Toronto project. He says his own approach has evolved. In some of the dozens of vertical forest projects now underway around the world, he says he uses carbon-friendly trusses and shorter balconies that minimize the use of concrete.

But he says those critics who see his vertical forests as an obstacle to true green design are missing the point.

“What we have done is definitely more radical,” he said. “It has become a manifesto for a new modern conception of what architecture could do.”

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