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Living architecture is coming to green up and clean up the built environment

Abstract image of pyramids and gears and lines from a stylus in a desert.
Image Credit: FootPrint Coalition/Nate Merritt

The reason Zachary Smith, the founder and chief executive officer of Zauben, likes living architecture is because there are no limits to the demand for healthier, greener spaces.

Green roofs and living walls are examples of an architectural aesthetic that integrates of nature into a building’s infrastructure -- creating a living architecture. Also referred to as “green architecture” and “biophilic design,” companies that integrate living architecture features into the built environment are popping up more frequently in the news, and for lots of reasons.

Internationally incorporating nature into architecture isn’t new, from Singapore’s citywide biophilic initiative to a new development in Milan creating a “green lung” or rather, a stadium with its walls covered in trees.

Green architecture is also being introduced into policy. Earlier this year the French Parliament approved a new law requiring that all new commercial buildings and renovations have at least 30% of their roofs covered with plants or solar panels.

In an effort to combat climate change, this law aims to increase reclaimed water usage, provide better thermal efficiency and insulation, promote the preservation and reclamation of biodiversity, and augment plants’ ability to capture carbon.

Other living architecture ordinances and subsidies are on the rise across cities in the U.S., including in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, New York, and now Denver which earlier this year passed a law that requires green compliances for large buildings.

Mandates like this are spurring more activity in the living environment space. Green roof companies partnering with cities as they introduce ordinances include startups like Columbia Green Technologies and Metropolder which is creating the water systems needed for these projects.

By 2030, the green wall industry as a whole is expected to reach $3.2 billion, which Research and Markets attributes to growing interest in sustainability and increasing urban green infrastructure incorporation thanks to policy and subsidies.

In an interview with FootPrint Coalition, Smith points to these fairly new mandates, as living architecture becoming increasingly a part of the built, or manmade, environment.

Backed by research, Zauben is bringing a new approach to living architecture.

Targeting post-Covid workplaces, the startup wants to reimagine a space where people work that prioritizes employee health and well-being while aligning with sustainability goals. According to the company, plants can boost staff well-being by 47% and creativity by 15%, as found by researchers at the University of Exeter and Texas A&M respectively.

The team at Zauben also points to research at Harvard finding that plant life increased employee productivity by 15% and NASA’s Clean Air Study which found plants improve air quality by 85%.

The company also points to data supporting that living walls absorb sound, allowing for more productive and less stressful workplaces.

This data inspired their Model Z living wall. Designed with ​​hydroponic technology, the company says the Model Z uses 75% less water than plants grown in soil, self-irrigates, and monitors plant health 24/7.

With sustainability at the forefront, the living wall technology is made from a recyclable hydroponic growth medium, and with energy-efficient monitoring, reduces energy consumption.

Other startups bringing innovation into biophilic design include Finnish-based Navva, which raised €7 million in equity funding earlier this year to fuel international growth, and Neoplants, a French startup bioengineering houseplants to use them as air purifiers.

As recently reported in TechCrunch, Neoplants raised $20 million in its latest funding round. In the first quarter of 2023, the company will be able to take preorders for its $179 plant.

Indicative of a Devil’s Ivy houseplant, the Neo P1 includes the genetically-modified foliage with a basket the company refers to as “the shell.” Designed for maximum air intake to the microbiome-rich soil, the shell is produced from renewable resources and is biodegradable.

According to the company, the air in one's home is five times more polluted than the air outside thanks to Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. VOCs refer to high-pressure gasses emitted from solids or liquids. These include some of the most carcinogenic molecules on the planet, emitted from standard household items like solvents, furniture varnish, and cleaning and personal hygiene products.

Research from Zauben and NASA show that plants themselves can purify air. But, according to the Paris-based startup while plants sometimes capture VOCs specifically, they have no way of recycling them into useful elements, thus end up accumulating these harmful pollutants. With the NeoP1, the bioengineered plant can turn the four VOCs it targets into water, sugars, amino acids, and oxygen that support the plant’s health.

As vegetation increasingly becomes a larger part of the built environment, both inside and outside, innovation in the sphere tackles living architecture from entire building roofs down to the small plants that decorate our spaces.


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