Living Walls, Green Roofs and Biophilic Design with UrbanStrong’s Lily Turner

Jessica McNaughton: Hi this is Jessica with Build Green Live Green CaraGreen’s podcast on issues and products in the green building industry and today we have Lily Turner with us from UrbanStrong. She’s the director of sales and operations. Welcome Lily.

Lily Turner: Yeah, thank you for having me. It’s always nice to chat with like minded folks.

Jessica: So can you tell me a little bit about your role at UrbanStrong What UrbanStrong does and what you specifically focus on in your role.

Lily Turner: Sure thing. You read my title completely perfectly. That’s what it says in my business card. But as I kind of explained before we’re really a boutique design shop and depending on where we are in the project, my role completely changes. So just on a high level I run and deal with anything vertical. Ah, any kind of vertical greener solution. So it could be a living wall, a preserved moss wall or some kind of sophisticated irrigated trellis system. UrbanStrong as a whole is a green building firm based in Brooklyn New York and we also offer green roof and solar top solutions as well.

Jessica McNaughton: So one of the things that we focus on at CaraGreen with our products is Biophilic design, so behind me this is a wall covering from Organoid Natural Surfaces made out of sunflower petals. We’re always trying to find innovative ways to bring nature into a space whether it’s Natural wood grain or you something organic like this but the most literal kind of instantiation of Biophilic design is what urban straw focuses on which is those moss walls those living walls those real bringing nature inside systems and it’s not something you know that we currently. Play in. So can you talk a little bit about you. Tell us about the company  – how it was founded and how important biophilic design is in terms of your customer base and the applications you go after.

Lily Turner: I think it is just from our CEO Allen’s experience of traveling the world mainly in large cities. He’s lived anywhere from London and Shanghai and just recently settled in New York City about eight years ago and I think something that he noticed especially in the United States is that it seems to be pretty segregated meaning that people often see nature in a built environment as mutually exclusive, but it doesn’t have to be. You can absolutely especially with the advancements that we’ve made in our vertical greenery technology like a living wall. You can have both. Um, and I think up until really ten years ago the conversation was okay, should we put an apartment complex or a parking garage or should we have this as a nice pocket park. But what’s great about especially living walls is again, you can have both and utilize bare blank walls that you wouldn’t think of normally. And what really drives the conversation is what you mentioned biophilic design and for any listeners that aren’t familiar and I’m sorry if this is repetitive but you know really simply by the design is humans innate connection to anything natural so simply put life is attracted to other forms of life and by understanding that. So much of the architecture of humans minds and bodies and spirits are so deeply woven within the natural world. You know our building designs can really be influenced and further better to really maximize comfort and of course there’s a whole litany of environmental services. It brings us to living walls which is just 1 example of nature in this space but they quite literally can improve indoor air quality (which is 2 to 5 times more polluted on average than outdoor air quality) which is terrible and can enhance cognitive performance and improve health and well-being.  

So, for an employee this could mean an improvement in productivity and creativity for a student this could mean higher test scores. For a recovering patient for post-op surgery. This could mean a shorter stay in a hospital or just a reduction in post-operation complications that’s really common. It just really can reduce stress levels and enhance those feelings of health and well-being.

Jessica McNaughton: Well and I like how you tied that back to kind of the human individual experience because I think you certainly know when CaraGreen started and probably UrbanStrong, we ran into some of this too. But you know. Ah, green building was seen as these certifications and these standards in these point based credit systems and what was happening you were getting these lead buildings cropping up and you could walk into that building and it looked modern but there was nothing about it that screamed you know sustainability or anything like that and what you just pointed out were reasons that I think Biophilic design is so important is the data’s there to back it up to show that it works and biophilic design unlike lead or well or some of the other standards is not an all or nothing right. There’s not a you have to do this to meet the base criteria Biophilic design is different in that. You can put a living wall in and everyone has that great experience and it has all those emotional and physiological benefits. But you don’t have to do everything else with it right? It can be the 1 thing that you do for your employees to bring Biophilic design into a space. It’s a very literal way of doing that and the effects are immediate.

So you know I like all those data points and all those benefits that you brought up because it makes it so much more tangible, achievable and real to people like our listeners so talk a little bit about you know, being in New York City what type of spaces are looking for

But one of the things we’re hearing a lot about is you kind of this hybrid back to work thing is creating a lot of foot traffic as people want to get out of the apartment during lunch and walk around or walk to the office but with this transient retail clientele the retailers are having an interesting time trying to figure out what people want when they come back into their retail spaces. So what has your experience been in New York City around retail and  workplace back to work and what’s happening there and how are living walls a part of that.

Lily Turner: Um, right, that’s a great point to bring up and a great question. I’ll start with offices just because a handful of our most recent projects have been in office spaces or atriums. Um I think as we return and continue to return to the post pandemic office space. You know the covid’s really and put emphasis on the importance of bringing greenery into your space that you spend arguably 90% of your time in because of the benefits that we just mentioned so it’s really nice to see that companies are investing in their employees and investing in their health by bringing these green wall solutions in which is great. As for retail I think it’s really tough just with ecommerce just coming up and just consuming them. No pun intended but like I’m not a fashionista by any means. But as an average consumer I definitely prefer to um. Order something online and then return it and not have to interact with any human because I can do that on my lunch break I can do that while I’m walking down the street or late at night you know I don’t have the time to go into Bloomingdales or Nordstrom and recognizing this I think those brands as retail brands are doing a really great job of thinking outside of the box and kind of wondering how they can activate the lobby space. So it’s not just a place for them to buy. You know their customers buy a product and our living walls can do that so in the past I’ve designed pop-up walls and permanent walls and they’ve served as living advertisements or living billboards for any kind of collaborators. Let’s just use Hennessy.

You know a liquor brand as an as an example, but you can superimpose an overlay on a logo there treating it again as a living advertisement or you can incorporate some kind of barcode or Qr code to scan for a giveaway or you know if you just want it for aesthetics. You can just create a really nice Instagram old backdrop. Someone takes a picture of it, uploads it and then you’re getting that exposure and you know it’s it’s letting people know that this brand is still relevant and also just associating with your brand with something progressive and innovative as a living wall. You’re kind of communicating that fresh sustainable message that your company cares about green initiatives and is focused on moving forward.

Jessica McNaughton: I have a lot of envy about you know your comment about the living Moss wall because it’s such a. It’s such a. Immediate story and the recognition is there so to be affiliated with a Moss wall is clear that you carry about the environment whereas a lot of our products. You know you look at Duras Solid surface and you don’t know that it’s you know 28% Recycle plastics you know, but we’ve got to tell that story and that’s kind of our role is telling that story.I think it’s so nice that you have this product where the story is the aesthetic of the material in in New York New York City is going to be a different situation right? A lot of the space has  constraints but 1 of the areas where there is space. That’s kind of being redesigned. You mentioned some of these rooftops.

Lily Turner: Sure yeah.

Jessica McNaughton: You talk a little bit about the rooftops and  what’s happening there.. Are they office spaces, are they cocktail lounges, are they all of the above, kind of what’s happening in New York on the roof?

Lily Turner: Yeah, so on a high level. Um, New York City just passed 3 local laws and 2 of them are pretty much the same overlapping language with basically any building over a certain square footage that’s doing any kind of small renovation to their roof or just being built from the ground up has to incorporate a green roof. Um, some kind of wind solution or solar or sometimes solar integrated green roof which is a newer technology. We also specialize in the design for um and so that kind of brings green roofs immediately to the New York city rooftops but like what I love about green roofs and living walls is we refer to them as the swiss army nice of solutions meaning. Even if you’re just complying with localities d so you avoid fines and and greening your space your occupants and and your building administration and whoever has access to rooftop rooftop still gets all of those other amenities which is really nice. So frankly. You know I don’t really care the reasoning behind why they’re incorporating these green roofs or the living walls as long as it happens because it’s still sequestering. Um, ah carbon. It’s absorbing stormwater. It’s creating these really nice and many spaces. It’s creating these restorative areas for people after work or you know, whatever long day that they need to refresh and and. Um, kind of restart themselves. So that’s really exciting to see um people just utilizing those rooftops which otherwise they wouldn’t have a need for.

Jessica McNaughton: So I can kind of visualize the living walls in the spaces and I can um, kind of visualize these rooftops when I think about the rooftops I think less you know I don’t think I think more horizontally than vertically.  What do your products and services work – like  where is the moss coming from?. Where’s the preserved Moss coming from are these partnerships you’ve developed on the green Roofs are these plants that you procure or you doing the design. Can you talk a little bit about that whole process?

Lily Turner: Yeah, absolutely. UrbanStrong is a design-build maintenance building especially when it comes to living walls and green roofs so we kind of are with you through the whole process which is really nice. Um, a lot of our partners have taken taken years to um kind of form but we’ve also carefully vetted. So what makes us different from other green green river living wall companies is that we refer to ourselves as technology agnostic meaning we don’t see that there’s a universal solution. Um, or that not one size fits all which is really nice. So someone comes to us and doesn’t have access to plumbing. Or it’s not in the budget to bring in supplemental lighting then I’m not going to suggest a really our most sophisticated highly engineered living wall system that needs all of that to operate you know properly I’m probably going to suggest a preserve moss wall because again the main goal the client you know is after is bring greenery into the space to maximize the document’s comfort and experience. Um. It comes to green roofs. We have some really fantastic partners and they’re constantly just just challenging themselves and advancing their own technology just out of their own will to see what they can do so some of our installation partners in Dc up top the JFK, JF Kennedy building um they started off with a green roof and the client was like can we incorporate an exterior living. Well. And then it turned out we can integrate this entire system. So. It’s a green roof that corkscrews varies subtly into a living wall which is really cool to see so the 2 technologies are working together. Um, but typically people that come to us are either in heavy renovation or new construction because again just to support a green roof and a living wall. You need to first understand the structural integrity. You need to question. Okay, how is water coming into these systems and more importantly, how’ is it draining out and how is it flowing out so it’s a really long process last insulation that I just completed took over fourteen months just to coordinate with all the engineers and the mechanical teams and electric and everything so it’s it might seem like very simple just plants on a wall but they’re actually highly engineered systems that are absolutely a part of the building’s DNA just it’s it’s incredible.

Jessica McNaughton: And so in New York City in the winter are the green roofs designed so they go dormant in the winter and then you come back in in the spring and kind of right revitalize them.

Lily Turner: Yeah, absolutely so for both green roofs and living walls whenever you’re designing a plant palette. Um, the climate that ultimately your living wall or greener will live in is extremely important to consider meaning I’m in main my I’m in Maine currently right now. So. I was designing a living wall in Northeast I would not stick an avocado tree no matter how good it looked no matter how great of a story I told because I need to plant the climate and so what’s chosen typically in New York City are blooming perennials or evergreens that can withstand you know subfreezing temperatures just in case because at green roofs.

Lily Turner: After you go up a certain story, you’re dropping zones so you actually need design for a in colder climate. It also depends how much light access you have in New York city, so every building is just sandwiched by even taller skyscrapers, so you need to design more for shade tolerant species. Seeddom’s really great for that. Dormancy is to be expected. But there’s plenty of species that still will hold their foliage and evolve with the season. So it’s not going to completely drop and look like dead sticks on your roof or you know on your exterior living wall. It can still look like a nice winter wonderland with, you know, a really nice tune for evergreen shrubs planted. 

Jessica McNaughton: I grew up in Vermont. So I completely understand that but what it looks like um, okay so for our listeners as we kind of near the end of the podcast, can you tell them your website, and what to follow and how they would engage with you? 

Lily Turner: Yeah, sure. Um I mean we love working with the end client directly but again like given our requirements from a structural standpoint and irrigation and electric. Typically we are first engaged with the architect or a building owner or an engineer really early on before the building’s even built or even they get the permitting for so sometimes our sales cycles especially for roofs because it’s the last to go in can be 2 three years but um, really anyone we’re starting to offer more consumer grade products that we really kicked off during the pandemic.  Ah, for a living wall again. It’s not always feasible, not just from a coordination standpoint but just simply fixed costs that are associated with supporting a living wall or a green roof. So knowing that we offer smaller Moss walls on our online shop and also smaller plant frames too that you can just mount to the wall. No different than a heavy picture frame or a shelf. Our website is urbanstrong.com and they are call to action chat buttons constantly popping up. We love to talk, even if it’s just like minded folks and it doesn’t go anywhere. Instagram is urbanstrong and we are constantly posting and engaging with people and collaborating with partners. Email is [email protected]

Jessica McNaughton: Oh well, that’s great. Well so to our listeners. You know if anyone’s interested in hearing more about moss walls. You know Lily’s here to answer your questions and Lily thanks for bringing biophilic design into the mainstream and making it such an easy and tangible way to talk about the project and help do all those things — you know, increasing productivity helps people feel better and calmer. All those things are very real and tangible tangible metrics. So thanks for being on our podcast. 

Lily Turner: Um, yeah, thank you for having me take care.

Jessica McNaughton: This is Jessica with Build Green Live Green.