How can living infrastructure help you achieve environmental ratings like the WELL Building Standard, Living Building Challenge and Green Star?

The key advantage of living infrastructure (also known as green infrastructure) is its multi-functionality – that is, its ability to deliver several different environmental benefits at the same time. Unlike the majority of ‘grey’ infrastructure typically designed to carry out just one function like storm water management, indoor air filtration, and noise reduction, living infrastructure can deliver these benefits (and more) often simultaneously.

This means living infrastructure is not only a cost-effective sustainability solution, but also a clever way to meet criteria in a number of environmental rating systems including the WELL Building Standard, the Living Building Challenge and Green Star.

Urban agriculture

One exciting thing about the Living Building Challenge (LBC) is the mandatory agricultural requirement (Place imperative 2 – urban agriculture) for all projects (including single-family homes) seeking certification. It states that a project ‘must integrate opportunities for agriculture appropriate to its scale and density.’

In the same vein, the Green Star Communities rating tool also has a credit related to local food production (30E Global Sustainability – Local Food Production) and for those of you seeking both LBC and Green Star ratings, this one can be achieved with no extra work after you fulfill the LBC requirement. Now that’s efficiency!

Again, one of the features of the WELL Building Standard (WELL) Nourishment category is food production. It prescribes gardening or the cultivation of produce and herbs on site in order to improve occupants’ access to fresh and healthy food and allow individuals to be more engaged with food production processes.

720 Bourke Street in Docklands, Victoria is a 16-storey office development with WELL Gold and 6 Star Green Star ratings. As well as having a living façade, the project also incorporates an edible garden for occupants to use and enjoy.

A directive for urban farming is all well and good, but there’s a lot more to it than a potential windfall. It’s the idea that every development needs to consider how its occupants will source their food. It’s the shift from “vegetables come from the supermarket three kilometres away” to “these vegetables grew in that planter box/vertical garden/green roof over there.” It brings the agricultural process back into view for urban dwellers, and while we won’t stop visiting that supermarket altogether, it does take some of the food miles out of the overall equation.

Ultimately, urban agriculture has the potential to address food security concerns in the future. But right now, it can be used as one of several tools to help deliver a more sustainable, efficient, equitable and healthy society.

When it comes to urban farming, each LBC and WELL project is another opportunity to improve our design, harvest and efficiency. How can we do better with less? Which crops suit this location? What can we learn from this and how can we pass it on to others? Coincidentally, this education opportunity could earn you another LBC point; see Imperative 20 – inspiration + education in the LBC Standard for details. Urban agriculture here is way more than an herb garden on a windowsill, it is beta-testing for the future.

Storm water management

Living infrastructure can also be implemented as part of a storm water management strategy in the Living Building Challenge and Green Star rating systems.

LBC Water imperatives 5 and 6 – net positive water and ecological water flow – encourage us to capture and harvest sufficient water onsite to meet the needs of both the human population and the area’s natural ecology. Green Star credit 26 also seeks to reduce peak storm water flow into the drainage system and the pollution emissions associated with run-off.

These environmental criteria can be addressed, at least in part, through the implementation of living infrastructure like green roofs, green facades and bioswales to capture, slow and store rainfall for re-use on the project site.

Research has proven that green roofs are an effective means of storm water management as they absorb and retain rainfall, and filter particulates and pollutants through plant foliage and the growing substrate. Storm water run-off is then slowed and/or reduced significantly depending on the height and spread of vegetation, the species of plants used, the incorporation of a retention layer and the climatic conditions of the project location.

At the University of California San Diego (UCSD), the (Green Star equivalent) LEED Platinum rated Charles David Keeling student housing complex combines extensive green roofs, downspouts and channels with bioswales to eliminate storm water run-off into the nearby fragile ecosystem of Skeleton Canyon.

In New Zealand, at the LBC Living Certified Te Kura Whare project, storm water run-off drains into a huge 3,000 cubic metre onsite storage pond where it disperses into the water table via built soak pits, revealing a lush, rolling landscape. The storm water is managed and the project site is rejuvenated in the same process.

Biophilic design

The term ‘biophilia’ describes the innate connection humans feel toward nature and other forms of life. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that simply being near or able to see nature is enough to create a feeling of happiness in humans.

A study in the Netherlands noted ‘significant and sizable relationships between green elements in living environments and higher levels of self-reported physical and mental health.’ Other studies have noted the ability of nature to reduce stress, improve mood, cognitive skills and academic performance, and even ‘help moderate the effects of ADHD, autism and other childhood illnesses..

Research has also shown that ‘shoppers are prepared to travel further, pay more for the goods as well as parking, and stay longer’ in retail areas with greenery as opposed to those without. So biophilia should really be considered in every project, whether you’re going for an environmental rating or not.

In LBC, biophilia is addressed in the Health + Happiness Petal (Imperative 9 – Biophilic environments). Under WELL, biophilic requirements are outlined under the Mind feature (Point 88. Biophilia I – Qualitative, and Point 100. Biophilia II – Quantitative).

Both the LBC and WELL rating systems ask project teams to conduct meaningful biophilic research (like ‘historical, cultural, ecological and climatic studies’) before selecting their living infrastructure solution. That’s a pretty sensible thing to do for any project because it allows for true integration with the surrounding place – geographic, cultural, ecological or otherwise.

In the Green Star Interiors rating tool, the Visual Comfort credit includes a point awarded to interior spaces that have a clear line of sight to a high quality internal or external view (11.2 – Views). While not specifically labelled as biophilia, this credit rewards projects that incorporate views of natural elements such as vegetation, a body of water, or a landscaped area because seeing green makes you feel good and perform better.

Indoor air quality

Did you know that the average person breathes in about 14,000 litres of air every day? Our lungs are constantly exposed to our external environment. So good air quality is essential to our health and well-being.

Particulate matter and chemicals commonly found in the air like ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) can result in headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, sick building syndrome, asthma, upper respiratory illnesses, reduced lung function, cancer, cardiovascular disease and more.

The Green Star Indoor Pollutant credit in the Interiors tool (v1.2) targets CO2 and VOCs. It includes two points for indoor plants that are distributed across the nominated area and regularly maintained (12.3). Now these plants aren’t there to look good; they have been categorized under the Indoor Pollutant credit because plants and trees are known to improve air quality and our overall health by acting as living biofilters.

In fact, recent research from the University of Technology Sydney has proven plants (and the microorganisms in plant substrates) actively remove VOCs as well as particulate matter from the air, and unlike even top-of-the-line HVAC systems, these plants don’t just sequester the pollutants, they use it so there is no filter to dispose of or replace.

In this vein, living infrastructure can be utilised to control indoor pollutant levels (CO2) for projects seeking a Green Star Performance rating. The performance rating tool includes an Indoor Air Quality credit with two points available for successful Indoor pollutant control: carbon dioxide concentration (8.3).

Advanced living infrastructure have been shown to actively remove CO2 as well as VOCs and particulate matter from indoor air. To achieve this credit, you need to measure CO2 levels in the regularly occupied primary spaces and ensure 80 per cent meet the 800ppm compliance requirements. A breathing wall will improve indoor air quality beyond what is currently being recognised in Green Star (creating potential for applying for innovation credits).

Living infrastructure is an economically viable way to green your next project. Its range of benefits extends beyond those detailed above to deliver more bang for your buck than conventional ‘grey’ infrastructure, making it a win-win option whether or not you are pursuing a Green Star, WELL and/or LBC certification. So get creative and remember the multi-functionality of living infrastructure. A green facade can provide that human-nature interaction for building occupants as well as act as part of your storm water run-off solution. Your green roof offers a place staff can connect with nature and pick a few salad leaves for their lunch.