A living, breathing building future

Staying in the late architect Ian Athfield’s house up on the hills overlooking Wellington harbour, Professor Klaus Klaas Loenhart was struck by how suited New Zealand’s capital is to his eco-vision of a new kind of city that redraws the line between the built and natural environment.

The advantages of such new thinking are many, Loenhart explained in ‘Imagine! The city as a living biome’, his public lecture to conclude three weeks as Visiting Architect at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Architecture.

Founder and CEO of award-winning terrain: integral designs and, and Head of the Institute for Architecture and Landscape and Director of Landlab at Graz University of Technology in Austria, Loenhart is putting his ideas into practice on a scale that Wellington – or anywhere else in New Zealand – couldn’t begin to envisage: the 1000 square kilometre city of Palmas on the cerrado, or savannah, of the northern-central Brazilian state of Tocantins.

For Loenhart and his terrain colleagues, Palmas is an opportunity to expand on principles they first tested at the 2015 EXPO World Fair in Milan with an Austrian Pavilion that was a natural/techno-logical hybrid whose ecological and atmospheric performance attracted more than 2.5 million visitors and won numerous awards, including the UNESCO City of Design Gold Award.

The pavilion demonstrated how a building incorporating extensive vegetation (in this case elements of a mature Austrian forest) could not only expose the people in it to the benefits of a natural environment but would not need an air-conditioning system and all the ecological and other costs that entails.

“What a living forest is doing is cooling itself by its performance of plant-based evapotranspiration,” said Loenhart. “Instead of producing waste heat as air-conditioning systems always do, this one is producing oxygen.”

While outside the pavilion it was up to 38 degrees centigrade, the bottom area inside where people walked was only around 25 degrees. This was achieved through minimal mechanisation that involved sending water droplets to settle on leaves, from where they would evaporate into the atmosphere.

“This forest has a [ground] surface of barely 600 square metres and if you were to have a water surface of 600 square metres it would have evaporation on only 600 square metres, but the leaves have a total surface of 48,000 square metres in that space of 600 square metres.”

A key factor was the selection of vegetation, said Loenhart.

“We planted a forest community. Which means these plants know each other. They naturally grow together as a family, so to speak. They are very different plants but importantly there are many levels in their biome where they support each other, even sending nutrients between one tree and another.”

The petroleum free, socially fair and ecologically sound new 'breathing' headquarters of GRUENE ERDE GmbH. Photo: Terrain

For Palmas, in a project supported by the United Nations, Loenhart and his colleagues asked: “What if we turn it around? It’s no longer about the forest surrounding the city. How about if we do the opposite, if we turn the city into a forest? What would that mean? Does that work at all?”

It is not just trees between buildings, said Loenhart. It is creating a network of gardens and forests, including permaculture food forests that can be harvested.

Different vegetation at different heights creates different light and micro-climates within the city.

The project aims to reduce the air temperature in shaded areas to around 34 degrees centigrade even though the nearby ground temperature is 65 degrees.

“What a difference. Not only because of the shade. If this were an artificial shade, we would not have 34 degrees, we would have something over 40 degrees. So it’s the performance of the vegetation combined with the shading element, the evapotranspiration, that makes this condition quite bearable and a really nice place to hang out.”

The project will enable “new building typologies that make use of the slight air breeze that is twice a day pretty consistently flowing through Palmas. So again not any artificial air-conditioning. The micro-climate of the to-be-established urban forest allows these new buildings without any standard climatisation”.

Another project, a ‘breathing’ headquarters for Austrian green retailer Grüne Erde, incorporates what has been learned at Palmas and with the EXPO World Fair pavilion.

Inside the building, which has just won Austria’s highest architectural award, 13 courtyards containing forest vegetation ‘talk’ to each other and are regulated in such a way that they create different shade, temperatures and air flows.

Among the benefits, pointed out Loenhart, “People are sensually touched in a certain calming way in that living environment.”

He said, “We have to remind ourselves that we as humans are not separate from those living and lively environments that ‘surround’ us but in fact we are highly entangled with their microbiomes, including ones that are aerial and we literally breathe in.

“If our human microbiomes are not healthy there are immediate consequences in terms of our psychological wellbeing and bodily wellbeing. Doesn’t that make so much sense when we think of that living connection to the plant microbiomes? We breathe this connecting air constantly.”

Underpinning Loenhart’s thinking is French philosopher Bruno Latour’s dissolving of the dichotomy between human and non-human culture in favour of something more intricate.

Loenhart spoke of an Ecuadorian tribe woman he heard speak.

“In her language there is no word for nature. This dichotomy does not exist in her culture,” he said.

For her, it is all one. “There’s a different understanding of what they call territory. The territory is something that is not separate from her and her tribe.”

In Palmas, when Loenhart and his colleagues want to include neighbourhood stakeholders, “this is no longer just about us as humans ... this is about all the protagonists in that neighbourhood – human and non-human and that includes plants, animals and even vegetal microbiomes.

“It is a different understanding of how you understand neighbourhood. In neighbourhood meetings you would invite of course the people but how would you invite the trees? We have to think about how we will represent the need of the trees.”

It is, said Loenhart, a “network of negotiation that introduces a new social urban practice that includes all other beings”.

Looking at Wellington from Athfield’s house, he said, “I felt isn’t this actually like a city in a forest? So if you would just follow that thread and conceptualise it – what do we have to do to activate these urban vegetal biomes?”

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