It all started with a phone call.
Aria Property Group had recently completed a landmark residential green building called TreeHouse, in the leafy Brisbane suburb of West End. Designed by RotheLowman, the luxurious 12 storey, 90 apartment building incorporates around 70 trees into its facade.
The property development firm, which won awards for a 2013 project that revitalised Brisbane’s Fish Lane precinct, currently has a number of ambitious green apartment complexes in its pipeline. They include a 19-storey tower in South Bank called Urban Forest that will feature around 550 trees and 25,000 plants.
Of course, planting so many trees and plants so far off the ground poses some unique challenges for developers, designers, landscape architects and builders.
For example, when trees are planted in the ground, the soils naturally break down over three to five years. But what about when they’re in a planter box that’s 50 or 100 metres off the ground?
Replacing 25,000 or 500 trees every five or 10 years would be an absolute logistical nightmare. So making sure the right species are chosen, and the planters are deep enough for their root balls, is essential. As are things like species selection and using the right fertilisers.
And that’s before you even consider some of the things Aria is planning to do at Urban Forest, such as rainwater harvesting through the storm water tanks, or controlling the irrigation of planter boxes with a Wi Fi network that monitors soil moisture levels in real time.
Aria’s construction manager, Blake Troy, decided to call Griffith University’s Green Infrastructure Research Labs to ask whether any of its PhD students had done any research into soil types and compositions for high-rise plantings.
The conversation led to the creation of the Green Infrastructure Research Testing Facility, through a partnership between Griffith Uni and Aria.
The new testing facility, which The Fifth Estate previously reported will open by the end of this year, is led by Dr Tony Matthews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Griffith Uni. It is dedicated to researching the performance of trees and plants that are embedded in green buildings.
Aria’s design manager Simon White told The Fifth Estate the idea is to use the university environment to test a whole range of options for things such as planter depths and soil mixes. Aria can then take the best outcome and apply that across all its future buildings.
“Over the next five, 10, 20 years, I think that plants and trees on the facades of buildings is going to become more prevalent. Sometimes, builders just keep doing things the way they’ve always done them,” Mr White said.
“So this is a bit of a test case that didn’t have the time pressures that a normal construction site has. We can take six to 12 months to test a whole range of different planter configurations and then show the builders the outcomes.
“They’ll be more willing to look at an alternative option, because they can say that has been built and it worked. It should make their jobs easier, because the plants should thrive, and that means that they won’t have to keep coming back to retrofit the plants on buildings.”
According to Mr White, Aria has provided initial funding for Griffith University to get the project off the ground and secure roof space.
Once the facility opens, the developer will take more of a hands off approach, with Griffith’s researchers conducting studies, which may include looking at options that have not been previously considered.
The research results will be shared publicly, which means the whole green building sector will potentially benefit from the facility.
“Say a tree in a traditional tree planter might last five or 10 years. If we can get it to the point where it lasts 25 years, that’s a huge advantage. We also save the embodied energy from that tree if we don’t have to remove it,” he said.
“Concrete buildings don’t love having a lot of water around them. So being able to look at the planter construction and understand the best way to waterproof that planter, to make sure that the water stays where it’s supposed to, is a huge advantage to us.”
ARIA is a privately owned property development company established in 2003 by managing director Tim Forster. It was originally a mixed use developer that worked across residential, retail, commercial and industrial developments. Around eight years ago, the company shifted its focus to high-quality residential developments.
That led to a company-wide trip to Singapore in 2016, where the firm’s staff met with Richard Hassell, from world-leading green architecture firm WOHA.
“They have a climate that’s very similar to south east Queensland. We really wanted to kind of bring that iconic design of that nature of those types of buildings to Brisbane,” Mr White said.
The Urban Forest project was inspired by the iconic green building Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy, designed by the local university. The Fifth Estate understands other green building developments are also on the firm’s drawing boards.
“As a developer, we’re always trying to push the boundaries of innovation and sustainability. And having the researchers on board allows us to kind of work with an institute that is trying to do something similar,” Mr White said. “Hopefully, we’re the first ones. When it happens, others will follow, and we’ll have a city that looks akin to Singapore and other places across the world.”