Plans For the City’s First Vertical Forest Take Root
Toronto architect Brian Brisbin wanted to look behind the curtain on one of the world’s buzziest buildings, Milan’s Bosco Verticale, two towers that are widely acknowledged as the world’s first vertical forest — green buildings designed specifically to counteract the smog and heat of a city.
The problem — the apartments, built about four years ago, are privately owned. Brisbin couldn’t get access to poke around the residents’ terraces.
His solution: Airbnb.
He rented a place and set about probing every control panel he could open, delving into the planters and examining the systems that made Bosco Verticale truly — literally — a green building. When he got home, Brisbin discovered that many of the systems and the equipment were actually North American.
“I’d gone to Italy to track down technology that’s about four miles from here,” he said.
Now he is leading a team of arborists, irrigation specialists, academics and horticulturalists who are designing Toronto’s first vertical forest — a proposed 27-storey building with trees growing off its sides — with similar goals of combatting the heat island effect of the city and creating a way-finding post for birds, insects and pollinators struggling to locate the urban green spaces that are increasingly hemmed in by human-made structures.
The Toronto version aims to advance the vertical forest concept pioneered in Milan and propagated in cities around the world. In China, whole neighbourhoods are employing this more literal approach to green construction.
The project, which will use plants and trees able to withstand Toronto’s harsh climate as well as site-specific considerations such as wind and light, has the potential to transform the notion of green buildings in the city.
It could also introduce some flexibility in a planning system that favours sameness in construction and contributes to the environmental well-being of the city’s species, including people, said Brisbin.
Without this type of innovation, he said, Toronto likely won’t achieve its plan to increase the tree canopy by 40 per cent — the stated goal of Mayor John Tory.
Brisbin says he’s had enough of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which is important for green buildings, but really a matter of engineering.
“Any glass box can get a LEED designation. But what is that glass box doing for the city? Probably just as much harm as it is good,” he said. “I’m talking about the actual science of creating a micro-sustainable climate and not a decorated building of pots and plants.”
If it goes according to plan, the forest will envelop a terraced, luxury condo by Cityzen Developments — the builder that has already broken the glass block mould with the Marilyn Monroe towers in Mississauga and the L Tower at Yonge St. and the Esplanade. It could be selling units by late spring 2019, with construction at Designers Walk on Davenport Rd. where it straddles the posh Annex and Yorkville neighbourhoods.
Brisbin calls the building permeable, with open spaces throughout, including street level where the public will be able to walk directly through an opening from Designers Walk Lane to Davenport Rd. There will be a communal residents’ terrace on the podium visible from the apartment balconies.
The planting systems will be integrated right into the building. Between 400 and 500 trees — half deciduous, half conifers — will be rooted two years ahead of time in woven stainless steel planters. Laid end to end, the planters would stretch 2 kilometres. Even the garage door will be hidden behind a waterfall.
“Our structure has depressed slab areas that hold the trees in with irrigation components built all into one specialized system, which has never been done before,” said Brisbin.
Water will be filtered, recycled and pumped back horizontally and vertically into each planter. Every tree will be computer monitored for health and hydration in a program by the University of Toronto with Vineland Research and Innovation, providing a case study over the next five to 10 years that will set the base parameters for future buildings, he said.
“What we’re doing is prototyping how to do this and by monitoring it, we’re going to know where the strengths and weaknesses of the system are and, maintaining it, we’re going to do a better job of making sure these things survive,” said Robert Wright, dean of forestry at U of T.
Vertical forests are not the whole answer to increasing Toronto’s tree canopy, but they could contribute in the same way as green roofs. A building is never going to be a continuous surface, but it might be able to duplicate the amount of biomass in terms of the number of trees, shrubs, ground covers and flowering plants, he said.
Wright acknowledged that there is skepticism about vertical forests being a marketing tool designed to sell more height in developments.
“The minute you call it a forest, it conjures an image,” he said. But it requires a different way of thinking about how a forest is structured. A building has different faces. That means the design and the plants have to be tailored to the heat, wind and light on the different surfaces.
“There’s a huge proliferation of these buildings coming up. Architects love to put green stuff all over their buildings. But they’re all context based, so our climate and our situation means that we’ll need a built-in-Toronto solution,” he said.
There is nothing in Toronto like the terraced, open design that Brisbin is proposing, said Cityzen’s Sam Crignano.
“I thought it was time given that what we’re building most of these days are tall, glass and steel towers — with varying degrees of colour and materials, but more or less the same tall tower,” he said. “This is quite a departure from that.”
Although Crignano is interested in the environment and says the project has taught him a lot, he believes that the luxury building will sell from a lifestyle perspective. Empty-nesters, in particular, are pining for functional outdoor space, he said. The challenge is finding the right plants that can survive the harsh climate and winds on some upper units and keep the building looking green even in the winter.
The condos will be larger units of 900 to 2,400 sq. ft. The cost, admittedly, will be high.
“It’s not just the capital costs. On an ongoing basis there are maintenance issues, so you’re passing these costs on to the buyers and obviously this is going to reflect in the budget,” he said, adding that, “It’s the type of project that can withstand the additional cost and they’re substantial. I wouldn’t do this for run-of-the-mill, but it’s worth the cost for this development.”
Crignano knows there will be challenges in the approvals process. The city tends to be rigid.
“Anything that’s a little out of the norm is never well received,” he said.
But this isn’t Crignano’s first rodeo. “I have these magnetic qualities,” he deadpanned. “I attract anything that’s difficult and out of the box.”
Green vertical living won’t be the domain of the rich for long, however, said Brisbin.
The team developing Toronto’s vertical forest — Vineland Research, PAO Horticultural, Vanden Bussche Irrigation, arborist Michael Ormston-Holloway and the university — “are now becoming basically a new business and all of those things will be available to all new buildings at a reduced cost because the level of research, development and program for this whole thing will have been done on this building,” said Brisbin.
Twenty-five years ago Brisbin set out to build one of Toronto’s first green roofs. An elevator to the fourth-floor Duncan St. office of Brisbin, Brook, Beynon Architects deposits employees and visitors in a lush garden in the hard heart of the city’s entertainment district, a former warehouse area.
There’s a pine he reckons to be about 80 years old. The bullrushes towering over the pond were pulled from the mud near Brisbin’s Parry Sound-area cottage.
They grow to be about six feet high and need cutting back every year. One year two ducks landed and disappeared among the rushes. Two months later, nine ducklings waddled out of the pond. The Ministry of Natural Resources had to be called to relocate the family.
“The landscaper said none of this will survive,” said Brisbin. “It’s not only survived, but it’s formed its own biomass.”