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WWD Scoop issue 03/24/2008

Powering up to clean Mother Earth.

Suddenly it’s more about green than ever—from fashion to cars, food to skin care. The environment is “In” in a way it hasn’t been since the days of the Whole Earth Catalog, and companies are jumping onto the bandwagon to satisfy the growing demand.

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Even those who are in the thick of the environmental movement, like landscape architect Peter Walker, are a bit surprised by all the happenings and media coverage, but see good reason for it. “Things are going to have to change,” Walker says. “We just don’t have the resources to keep wasting everything.”

“What’s going on is not just about the materials that go into design,” says Matt Grigsby, co-founder of, a Providence-based consultant firm and Web site that offers a free database of sustainable materials. “The pressure to be more sustainable has caught on. Many architects are taking a lot of liberties they never have as an excuse—and I mean that in a really good way—to try something totally different to gather energy.

Here, a look at some architects, designers and projects pushing the edge in eco-design.

Mass Tram America is an ambitious proposal by engineer and inventor Ben Missler, who once worked on the Minuteman Missile Project. His plan involves stripping decommissioned Boeing 727s, 737s and 757’s of their wings, engines and tails for an elevated tram system to carry passengers, cars and freight. The fuselages would be equipped with solar cells and battery storage and attached to a rail system by permanent magnet regenerative motorized wheels. Power would be provided through solar electricity, wind, regenerative breaking and fuel cells. A system of single rails would be hung from suspension cables and made level with support cables.

In April, the Swiss company Rinspeed will unveil its zero-emissions, electricity-driven sQuba car at the Geneva Auto Show. The car is said to do 77 miles per hour on land, 3 mph on the water’s surface and nearly 2 mph at a depth of 30 feet. Inspired by the wheels Roger Moore drove in the 1977 Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me, the “Q” in the car’s name refers to Bond’s gadget guru.

More pedestrian is the Biomechanical Energy Harvester, a knee-brace device that harvests enough clean energy from the body to recharge 10 cell phones. Once fully developed, the apparatus could be used to power BlackBerrys, GPS locators, motorized prosthetic joints and other electronic devices. Just as hybrid cars make electricity when one brakes, the knee can do the same when it decelerates after taking a step and engages a minuscule computer and generator.

By far one of the most alluring power-generating proposals is Laurie Chetwood’s Project Wind Dam for Russia’s Lake Ladoga. Working with Finnish engineers WSP, the $5.3 million project involves harnessing minimal winds to generate power through a turbine. The wind dam is essentially a sail tethered between two land masses, preferably a gorge or narrow valley to make capturing the wind easier. Three 15 to 20 kilowatt turbines are placed behind each other to capture as much wind as possible. Wind tunnel assessments, vibration analysis and other tests are being carried out in a number of locations in Russia.

The name might not be that palatable, but the Anti-Smog Center for Innovations in Sustainable Development that is going up in Paris is another power player. Designed to produce more energy than it consumes, the 2,295-square-foot building will use renewable energies to offset the city’s smog. Set to debut in 2010, construction kicked off last year on the canals and abandoned railroad tracks in the 19th arrondissement. The building will serve numerous functions, including an exposition center and garden.

The Vincent Callebaut-designed center has two main areas—the Solar Drop, a two-story elliptical structure, and the Wind Tower, a 150-foot-tall helical construction—linked by a walkway.  A photovoltaic blue roof catches the sun’s rays and transforms them into electrical energy. The entire structure will be covered with a layer of titanium dioxide, which helps to reduce air pollution and absorbs ultraviolet rays.

Berlin-based architect Werner Aisslinger is making his iconic Loftcube, which he describes as “a mobile loft for urban nomads,” earth-friendly. Requiring only three days to assemble, the 377-square-foot Loftcube can be helicoptered onto beaches, fields or roofs. Cubes can also be easily converted into a floating homes or linked together by catwalks to create multiunit aerial homes. The funky interior has Corian built-in sinks and other space savers. Now Aisslinger has replaced the Loftcube’s artificial plastic materials with organically forested wood, and solar panels to supply electricity and heating. Production is slated for this summer.

Thanks to architectural firm Ecosistema Urbano, Madrid’s Vallecas neighborhood has three Air Trees, oxygen-producing resources for clean renewable energy and an unusual social gathering place. The raison d’être of this Eco-Boulevard is twofold. Belinda Tato, founder of Ecosistema Urbano, explains, “One is of a social nature, aimed to generate activity, and there is one of an environmental nature—the bioclimatic adaptation of an outdoor space.”

Each Air Tree is a 72–foot–high circular structure made largely of living trees, recycled and recyclable materials, and has a simple climatic adaptation system to cool its interior space to below the outdoor air temperature. The idea is to make Air Trees comfortable multipurpose meeting places in an otherwise inhospitable social environment. The Air Tree is self-sufficient energy-wise, due to its ability to capture solar photovoltaic energy.  

With his distinctive green-colored hair, Patrick Blanc is a walking billboard for his passion—plants. The French botanist’s patented vertical gardens have draped Milan’s Rolex showroom, a Kuala Lumpur skyscraper and even Stella McCartney’s runway.

London’s hip Pacha Club is one of the 15 upcoming installations he has planned for this year and he ensures that each living wall goes to a loving home. “I agreed to do it as long as it will be kept alive after the show,” Blanc says, referring to the cascading garden he created for McCartney. “It was donated to a housing project outside of Paris.”

With at least three plants needed to fill each square foot of vertical garden, Blanc trolls the globe for varieties that can thrive without soil and in the shadows cast by skyscrapers. For Paris’ Quai Branly Museum’s 2,500-square-foot façade, for instance, he used 15,000 plants from Japan, China and the U.S.

The species, planted either as seeds or cuttings, feed on a layer of felt affixed to a PVC sheet on a metal frame, all of which are camouflaged as the plants flourish. Water will be stored in underground tanks.

Tokyo-based Mindscape aims “to establish a denser and more aggressive relationship between men and plants, exceeding conventional ways of planting  and gardening,” according to company designer Hiroshi Yanagihara. Its Peddy collection is considered “live furniture,” since pieces sprout actual grass. Of course, the benches, stools and other pieces are designed for outdoor sunny spaces. Instead of soil, the furniture uses layered felt fabrics that give more of a spring and make returfing easier, should the grass die, according to the company. Mindscape specializes in broader green space design, as well, from huge parks to private gardens.

Robin Reigi, founder and head of New York-based Robin Reigi Inc., which has for the past decade sold sustainable interior materials, said of the category’s popularity, “From zero to 10, it feels like a 10 right now. The trend has almost reached the mainstream.”

Among Reigi’s novelties is Durapalm—flooring, basketweave panels and plywood—made from multiple layers of coconut palm. The products contain no added urea formaldehyde. There is also Plyboo Squared Flooring, made from the end of bamboo strips, which gives a checkerboard effect.

Verelli’s founder and president Larry Wright, meantime, has noticed a steady uptick in his Belton, S.C.–based company’s business for recyclable woven wall-covering fabrics. These are made of polypropylene, which the company has been selling for three years to the hospitality industry. “This is a modern-day tapestry, like those hung in castles from the 15th to 17th centuries,” he says, adding the sky is the limit in terms of wall fabric designs. The company works with designers on a case-by-case basis.

While the general public has been slow to embrace the insects-as-food concept, it is on board with green cuisine. Even celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has a new gig—Emeril Green goes live on Planet Green in July and will be shot exclusively at Whole Foods Market.

Sheila C. Johnson, a founding partner of BET (Black Entertainment Television) and the first woman to have a stake in three professional sports teams, is sprucing up the menus and buildings that house her Market Salamander restaurants in Middleburg, Va., and Palm Beach, says Design Futurist’s Natalia Allen, who is helping with the project. “You can no longer just have organic food, you also have to have organic cartons and everything else to complement it,” she says.

Across the pond, the latest addition to East London’s Hoxton neighborhood is all about clean living. The Water House, an eco-friendly restaurant, is the second venture of its kind from restaurateurs Arthur Potts Dawson and Jamie Grainger-Smith with support from the Shoreditch Trust and local architects Waugh Thistleton.

The Water House uses renewable hydroelectric power, ambient water temperature from the neighboring canal for its heating and cooling systems, and solar power from roof panels. Even the lavatories have Japanese-style “paperless” toilets, which use water jets to clean and air jets to dry.

Cooking oil is transformed into a compostable substance through an experimental Japanese bokashi fermentation system, and the restaurant has its own brand of filtered water, made onsite using a Greencare filtration system.

Then there’s the food, which is created by Potts Dawson, a Roux Brothers-trained chef who previously worked at the River Cafe and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. He uses only seasonal organic produce with minimal delivery distances. Can’t finish your main course? No problem. Instead of doggie bags, the restaurant has its own food-digesting wormery.

Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa bills itself as California wine country’s first environmentally sustainable resort. Located 44 miles from San Francisco, on the southern tip of Napa Valley, the two-year-old hotel features carpets made of recycled materials, solar panels and Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth—along with the Bible and a tome about Buddhism—in its 132 rooms. Even the Koi fish swim in a pond filled with recycled water, which is filtered from the hotel.
Actor Colin Firth and his wife Livia Giuggioli are proving consumers don’t have to don a hair shirt to live the green lifestyle. Their new green-minded home store, Eco, located in West London, sells products such as retro wicker hanging chairs, chic glassware and vases, Graham & Brown’s eco wallpapers (made from managed timber sources), and plasma TVs and computer monitors, which are framed in Sapelewood rather than plastic. Alongside the home goods, there are wooden toys and stationery.

And all the energy the store uses is provided by its own solar panels and wind turbine, while a thatch of green ferns grows across the roof to help insulate the building. But Giuggioli stressed that she and her partners aren’t experts. “We’re learning at the same time as everyone else,” she says. “That’s what’s challenging and nice about the whole process.”

The New York-based knitwear label Lutz & Patmos has teamed up with Barneys New York to launch Leroy & Perry, a more affordable, eco-friendly collection. This fall, Childish Clothing’s owner Skye Hoppus, whose husband Mark is a Blink 182 rocker, will debut her new eco-friendly line Childish maternity and children’s collections. Even Banana Republic has a line hitting stores in April, followed by an Earth Week partnership with the nonprofit Trust for Public Lands.

A host of outdoor and activewear companies, including The North Face, Nau, Howies, Prana and REI, is seeking to reinforce their commitment to the great outdoors through the stores they create. For Howies’ first freestanding store, which is located on London’s Carnaby Street, the Timberland-owned brand installed a switch on its storefront that allows nighttime passersby to illuminate it for 30 seconds. The device not only cuts down on overnight electricity use, but also provides a quirky draw. Five other locations are planned for 2009.

In Boulder, Col., the roof of REI’s store is fitted with 120 Solatubes—reflective tubes that capture daylight and channel it throughout the store, including fitting rooms. Solatubes reduce electricity consumption by 20 percent, the equivalent of powering three houses per year, according to a REI spokeswoman. A second eco-conscious REI store was opened in Round Rock, Tex., and a third is planned for a yet-to-be-named location next year.