In recent years, housebuilders and public bodies have been quick to trumpet the sustainability credentials of their buildings and highlight the wider benefits that ‘greened up’ developments have

16 January 2013

But how does the industry go about verifying such claims? Sean Farrell, director of living wall provider Mobilane, describes a project that is under way to put such perceived benefits on a sound, scientific footing.

‘Sustainability’ has been a buzz-word in the housebuilding industry for some time. And it’s created this buzz because the benefits of a sustainable development are believed to extend beyond the minimisation of the carbon footprint. It is claimed that eco-developments, which often by definition include plenty of greenery, are good for a host of other reasons, such as stress-reduction and air quality improvement.

A narrow definition of a ‘green’ development is a development that has a minimal impact on carbon dioxide levels. But a more comprehensive and inclusive definition incorporates the way in which greenery is used – internally as well as externally – to improve the development’s broader environmental impact.

There is a growing consensus that deploying greenery in residential and public settings is a smart move. In London, Reading, Birmingham and a host of other major towns and cities, there have been – or are – moves afoot to introduce well-managed green spaces in order to improve both the aesthetic and environmental qualities of various locations. Faced with a number of design, environmental, social and aesthetic issues, there is a move among builders towards incorporating greenery into their developments.

But how does the building industry quantify the benefits of greened up developments? Some research has been conducted by UK academics into the reduction in air pollution brought about by settlements with plenty of greenery, and there has also been some evidence which suggests that greened-up areas can make instances of domestic violence less likely. But, with regard to some of the other benefits, there is the need for more investigation.
That work is now being undertaken – and it is set to be industry-led. If private companies or public bodies want to better quantify the improvements that a well-managed green space can create, then they are being invited to get involved with scientists at Staffordshire University.

Academics from the university have embarked on a groundbreaking partnership with Mobilane, and it is hoped the work will help the industry better understand how well-managed green planted spaces can enhance wellbeing and solve social and environmental problems.

From improving mental health and reducing crime to improving air quality, the issues that the installation of a well-designed green space can resolve are diverse. But now it is down to developers and others to come up with suggestions of what areas they would like investigating. Scientists from the university will then research the precise benefits that an intelligently designed green space can yield in a particular area, for example building insulation and general human well-being.

Scrutinising intelligently designed green spaces in this way will give a clearer, deeper understanding of precisely what their benefits are. Developers will then have scientific data that will enable them to fully grasp the problems that green spaces can help them solve.

Research by Staffordshire University is already under way. Scientists are conducting a study which is investigating how successfully carefully designed green spaces influence biodiversity, improve building insulation and capture microscopic pollutants, thereby improving air quality and human health.

This current research will provide more information on how pollutants known as PM10s – particulate matter that is less than 10 microns in diameter – are absorbed by plants. The reduction of PM10 levels is a focus of policy for the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The three-year research study, which is in its final year, is being carried out by PhD student Caroline Chiquet under the supervision of Professor John W. Dover and Dr Paul Mitchell. Caroline Chiquet believes the research will shed light on a host of problems that the use of greenery can solve.

“Green walls have the potential to deliver cost-effective solutions to many urban environmental problems, including climate change adaptation/mitigation,” she says. “The environmental benefits of green walls potentially include: visual amenity, human health, food production, biodiversity, reduction of light and noise pollution, climate amelioration, reducing storm-water flows and acting as building insulation and shade.

“As green wall technology is still developing there is a pressing need for detailed research into the ecosystem services that such systems deliver. Although the current project will be coming to a close next year, funding to continue the work has already been secured.”

The research will put on a firm footing the benefits of using greenery in projects such as the new Houghton Street development in Widnes, Cheshire, which was commissioned by Halton Housing Trust and designed by Denovo Design. In order to foster a sense of community and to ensure that people could keep an eye on other’s properties, the various homes were designed so they were inward-looking. This resulted in the rear gardens of two bungalows facing on to a main road.

Rather than erect a timber fence or brick wall, which could fall foul of vandalism or graffiti, a green screen of ivy was installed instead. Measuring 180cm in height and 51m in length, the screen provides a striking first impression to people visiting the new build development. It also sets the tone for a host of environmentally friendly features that have been incorporated into the affordable housing development.

As well as its anti-graffiti properties, the green screen was chosen because it provides a natural habitat for wild birds and insects.

The research at Staffordshire University will seek to capture the precise benefits behind such schemes. It is research that could help inform the debate over green developments for years to come and as it’s something that can’t be done without the industry’s help, perhaps your company could help set the agenda.
[as featured in Professional Housebuilder and Developer Magazine]. See all our green sollutions here.