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Tower as Trellis: A Plant-Covered High-Rise Reimagines Tropical Buildings

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Singapore's 30-Story Oasia Downtown presents a model for greener, more sustainable construction

Skilled skyscraper design aims for site-specific solutions and a blueprint that respects the landscape and environment. But the traditional, Western model of glass-and-steel skyscrapers often results in structures that are sponges for heat in the tropics, turning high-rises into hothouses. A newly completed project by Singapore-based WOHA, Oasia Downtown, offers a new model for sustainable, tropical construction. A tower as a trellis, the building’s plant-covered exoskeleton and series of sky gardens provides natural cooling as well as a peek at what tomorrow's greener cities might look like.

Located in the center of a dense business district, the 30-story structure, which finished late last month after five years of construction, offers a new prototype for hospitality design. A facade of aluminum mesh covered in 20 species of flowering vines and creeper plants absorbs the heat that would be striking the building, while large, open-air verandas and a series of high-energy fans take advantage of the breeze and circulate cool air around the tower further cooling the building, while offering a unique experience for guests staying at the building’s 300-room hotel. According to Richard Hassell, cofounder of WOHA, the Singapore-based firm behind Oasia, the conditions that often cause discomfort in more temperate climates, such as severe drafts on higher floors, can actually help alleviate climate issues in the tropics.

The elaborate green exoskeleton will fill out over the next 12 months, and has been planned and planted in a way to reduce the need for complicated maintenance, according to Hassell. It's a departure from other experimental green high-rises, the Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy, a celebrated green residential projects that employs a team of flying gardeners to maintain the trees and shrubs spread across the building’s balconies.

"We’re always a little concerned that it’s tough to get a pool of laborers who are both Spiderman and gardeners," says Hassell. "So for our projects, we always make sure they can take care of themselves without special maintenance or care."

The client wasn’t as concerned about energy savings and sustainably as much as having a unique, eye-catching exterior for their building, so the project team hasn't invested in the research to discover the exact energy savings that may be achieved by the Oasia model. But Hassell expects them to be significant, despite the slight premium that went into the specialized building’s unique construction ("we’d rather put the money into soil and green cladding, as opposed to expensive exteriors"). WOHA, which has a history of pushing green skyscraper technology, sees this project as a model that's replicable across the world, and part of a larger trend toward green towers.

Hassell is particularly proud of how green, vegetated facades can transform not just a building, but an entire neighborhood, transforming the abstract, compacted spaces between a cluster of tower while achieving psychological, as well as environmental, benefits.

But gardens aren’t enough, he says. Architects and planners now need to think about greening neighborhoods and expanding habitat with vertical gardens. Projects such as Oasia offer a vision for a different skyline—one the firm plans to expand upon with a handful of upcoming urban planning projects in Singapore—and streets and structures that are more a part of the environment.

"What’s interesting is the emotional appeal it has for people all over the world," he says. "What’s exciting for us is that for them, it feels like the city they’d prefer to live in. Examining the central business districts of so many cities is like looking at the moon from the Earth; one is filled with life, the other is just this collection of dead stone. With Oasia, we’ve seen so many birds and insects flying around the building. People respond so well to seeing a hummingbird flying right outside their office window."

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