Healthier High-Rises

Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale creates a high-rise forest in Milan. Photo by Paolo Rosselli
Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale creates a high-rise forest in Milan. Photo by Paolo Rosselli

TEXT Brett Throop

On a hot day last May, I was searching for the sprawling Sempione Park in Milan, when I got sidetracked in that ancient city’s modern business district. Among the glittering new towers stood a pair of high-rise apartment buildings that would have blended in well enough in the park: some 800 trees and 14,000 plants were present on every ledge and balcony. Called Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), the project designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti offers a novel way to imagine green space in the world’s increasingly vertical cities.

Nearby Sempione Park, laid out in the English garden style in 1888, came to be as a part of that era’s response to urban malaise. In the late 19th century, the pressures of industrialization and urbanization drove cities worldwide—from Milan to Vancouver—to set aside patches of prime real estate as green spaces for the benefit of public health. Bosco Verticale blurs that old boundary between city and park and brings a bit of green up to the great heights at which many of us now live and work.

On top of being beautiful and good for the environment, making cities more park-like also offers psychological benefits. In the 1980s, biologist Edward O. Wilson popularized the idea that humans are innately attracted to nature. Building on his work, a growing pile of evidence links doses of nature—through such elements as green walls, views of natural settings, exposure to daylight and even artwork that mimics natural patterns—with everything from stress reduction and enhanced cognitive function to lifted moods. As green building moves into the mainstream, a new design challenge is emerging: how to bring natural features and amenities up to the world of the high-rise.

The green roof atop the  TD Centre’s banking pavilion in Toronto. Photo courtesy Cadillac Fairview
The green roof atop the TD Centre’s banking pavilion in Toronto. Photo courtesy Cadillac Fairview

I recently stopped by the Mies van der Rohe-designed Toronto Dominion Bank Tower (1967) in Canada’s largest city to see how it is transforming into a healthier place to work, in a retrofit led by HOK. “Sustainability’s all of a sudden evolving to human health and productivity,” says TD Centre general manager David Hoffman, sunlight streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows of a south-facing boardroom on the 23rd floor.

That sunshine, perhaps the most basic natural amenity a building can offer, is a precious commodity in the world of wellness-centric design. It’s helping TD Bank in its bid for certification under the WELL Building Standard, the equivalent to LEED for well-being. Optimal lighting is one of the criteria for achieving WELL, which is administered by Green Building Certification Inc., the same body in charge of LEED. WELL cites research showing a range of benefits from sunlight exposure (and optimal artificial lighting), including improved sleep and higher productivity.

Essential as it is, high-rise cities have a tough time evenly distributing sunshine to their inhabitants. US office workers tend to sit 14-16 metres from a window, writes Juriaan van Meel in The European Office: Office Design and National Context. Deep floor plans often result in office workers placed at desks under fluorescent lighting, while forests of towers cast each other in shadow, limiting the light that makes it inside buildings and down to sidewalks.

In China’s hyper-dense cities, lack of sunlight is enough of an issue that rules dictate the minimum amount of daylight buildings must receive. Meanwhile, extensive labour regulations in northern Europe have led to office buildings that are naturally ventilated and slim, in order to give every office a window and access to fresh air. German workers have the luxury of usually sitting within a car’s length of a window.

Back in Toronto, Hoffman says that TD Bank’s current fit-out does away with closed offices on the perimeter so light can reach those at workstations deeper inside the building, in keeping with WELL’s criteria. Across North America, TD’s high corporate standard for renovations already includes many health-centred initiatives, and WELL certification is a natural extension of these efforts. On top of lighting, WELL stipulates several other requirements for certification: air and water quality that exceeds most municipal standards, policies to promote healthy eating, and a layout that ensures workers’ comfort and mental well-being.

To achieve these latter two goals, TD’s retrofit will give employees access to a variety of furniture groupings placed to offer outdoor views, including vistas of the creek sedge grass carpeting the banking pavilion’s roof. There will be choices between private and social workspaces. Even the artwork will be selected to soothe the mind with natural images.

TD Bank has budgeted a premium over what a standard renovation would cost in order to reach WELL Silver certification. The hope is that the investment will pay off in productivity gains. The project is on track to be one of Canada’s first WELL projects, and is the first registered in the program’s Tenant Improvement category. The big question is whether the standard will bring wellness-centric architecture into the mainstream, as LEED has done for green building.

Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands in Singapore includes a sky-high rooftop garden and pool. Photo by Frank Pinckers
Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands in Singapore includes a sky-high rooftop garden and pool. Photo by Frank Pinckers

Access to nature has been a constant theme in the work of Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, FRAIC. In designing Habitat 67 at the beginning of his career, he wanted to bring the amenities of suburbia—access to the outdoors and light-filled spaces—to the city. Safdie’s motto for the project was “for everyone a garden.”

Several of Safdie’s subsequent buildings, particularly his recent high-rises, feature fractalized exteriors designed to maximize sunlight exposure and openings in the façade. These allow light through to neighbouring spaces. Oversized terraces and balconies are another key feature of his residential projects.

In a recent presentation in Toronto, Safdie critiqued his peers for too often designing high-rises to service their egos, rather than people’s need for natural features such as daylight. “I think the trouble with our profession today is that the high-rise building is being seen as the greatest opportunity for ego-trip sculpture,” he said. Safdie argued for increased regulation of the built environment to ensure quality-of-life concerns make it onto the architectural agenda. “It’s time to recognize that the marketplace is a terrible city planner,” he added. “There ought to be a much more rigorous regulatory mechanism [for building high-rises].”

Before our cities went vertical, the urban parks movement of the 19th century revolutionized city life by opening up large tracts of often private land for public use—Sempione Park in Milan was formerly the hunting ground of the Visconti Royals. Horizontal patches of green aren’t enough today. The 21st-century challenge is to get nature onto the vertical plane.

Brett Throop is a Master of Journalism student at Carleton University. He is currently completing a research project on winter-city design considerations.