Greening Public Housing Buildings

November 28th, 2017

by Gabe Bailer – NJ URbanthinker

When I lived in Jersey City, after a long day in the office my route home took me to Newark Avenue, where I would make a right on Palisade Avenue and head home. On the intersection of Newark and Palisade Avenue are the Hudson Gardens public housing buildings. The complex is comprised of six buildings ranging from three to five stories high. As you can see, they have a brick facade with a painted concrete base and pitched roofs.

When I read the name Hudson Gardens, a thought came to me: Wouldn’t it be cool to make this a garden building? After all, what is a livable building? A building like this should be breathing, green, creating an interest in the building’s bones and connecting the residents to where they live in a truly rooted sense…how does one do that? I think the answer is feeding and planting some ivy and watching the building grow (literally).

I’ve been fascinated with this concept for a while and am reminded of it every time I walk by a building covered with ivy. Just recently, I was about to take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard from the town of Falmouth. As I was walking around the town in the early morning with an hour I had to kill, I came across the town’s public library. It wasn’t the books that drew me to the building, but the ivy that encapsulated it. It was early in the morning but the building seemed alive even though I hadn’t had my cup of coffee yet. There is something about a building blending in with nature that is striking, but also quite fitting: the built and natural environment acting cohesively as that mother nature lady would have wanted.

So let’s delve into this idea a little further. Why is ivy frowned upon by some building owners? There is thinking that ivy can cause structural damage to buildings. I have not found concrete evidence to support this. The most common types of ivy are Boston and English. According to SF Homeguides, “Although well-built masonry can tolerate the growth of ivy, weakened brick walls with crumbling mortar or loose bricks give ivy roots an opportunity to invade crevices.” So before ivy is given an opportunity to grow, a structural/exterior analysis of the building should be performed. But on the opposite spectrum, ivy may actually help buildings. Homeguides reports that a three-year study by scientists at Britain’s Oxford University found that  ivy grown on sound masonry walls may not only not harm the building, but regulate its temperature.

Why not create a model on creating a green, living building that enables further insulation at no cost? Understand that this idea cannot be implemented on a 20-story public housing building, but could be possible on a mid-rise three-to-five story public housing complex.  Let a public housing organization step up to the plate.

There are several other rationales why this can be a novel idea. Some of them are ownership: connection with a unit owner to the building and creating a better healthy living environment. A report by Environmental Health Perspective titled “Dwelling Disparities: How Poor Housing Leads to Poor Health”  focuses on how the built environment in public housing has a negative impact on the residents’ health. I am not saying ivy on buildings will change drastically changes this as there are so many other parameters, but it can improve residents’ perception of their housing.

Another way ivy can be beneficial is to create a connection to where one lives. So, how about this novel idea: twice a year, create a community event where everyone in the housing community will come together and trim the ivy off the building. Imagine a community taking pride in their building and providing maintenance on their building. This creates a connection to one’s home and creates a sense of home ownership and connection. I know you’ll hear the public housing authority worrying about the budget. This can be true, especially with who the current commander-in-chief is in DC. But this goes beyond budget, it is about creating a connection where one lives, creating a better, healthier living environment, adding architectural interest and making the buildings stand out.  So, would adding ivy to a low-rise public housing accomplish everything I mentioned? It could, but in my opinion, it is worth a try.