A render of the Helix at Amazon’s new headquarters in Arlington.
Photo: Courtesy of NBBJ
In most offices, the design commitment to nature begins and ends with a potted plant. But Amazon has bigger architectural ambitions (and bigger profits to realize them) for its latest Eden business in Arlington, Virginia.
In rendered Released earlier this month, Amazon teased the Helix, the leafy centerpiece of its next headquarters in Arlington. Its driving feature is a wooded path that winds over a 350-foot-high conical tower (the effect is that of a soft serve cone or, as an architecture critic said on social media, the poop emoji). The green trail will be landscaped with trees and plants native to the state, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 550-mile chain that runs through the western part of Virginia. When it opens in 2025, workers will be able to exit each floor and use the path to access the other levels.
With Helix, Amazon is experimenting with what Daniel Barber and Erin Putalik call the “eco-fantasy project»: Ambitious buildings intended to mitigate their environmental impact by connecting to natural systems. Papers from these projects extol the latent performance potential of foliage embedded in structures, although the extent to which it provides a net ecological benefit is debated. Both in form and rhetoric, the Helix draws on eco-fantasy architecture inspired by Emilio Ambasz Fukuoka Prefecture International Hall and MVRDV Expo 2000 Pavilion and refined in recent years by designers like Stefano Boers, Jean Nouvel, and Thomas heatherwick.
Amazon isn’t the only tech company to have adopted an eco-branded headquarters. The Halo office at Apple giant Cupertino campus is powered by renewable energy and its grounds are planted with 9,000 native trees (keep in mind that Apple Park has more parking space than office space). The headquarters of Google’s planned “landscaper” in London is topped by an inflated garden roof with a running track, a heavy version of the traditional green roof. And in Menlo Park, Facebook scalloped the roofs and courtyards of its LEED Platinum offices with ferns and pines.
The Spheres, Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington.
Photo: David Ryder / The Washington Post via Getty Images
For Amazon, the Virginia resort is actually its second attempt at creating an eco-campus. The company’s first headquarters, in Seattle, is essentially a giant greenhouse. The spheres, as it is called, enclose vest-clad technicians with 40,000 plants under three gigantic connected domes. (The Helix and the Spheres were designed by the same company, NBBJ.) The similarities between the green aesthetics of the buildings extend to their respective campuses: both sites aim to be carbon neutral within the next two decades. Meanwhile, the Virginia headquarters buildings will be heated and cooled with 100% renewable energy.
But the dream of a low carbon head office often masks the real ecological footprint of new construction. In a recent interview with Domus, pioneer of green architecture Emilio Ambasz posed a question that highlights the paradox of the eco-fantasy project: “What is the relationship between an emerging culture sensitive to the environment, buildings covered with plants, and all new technologies – some very valid, but many quite superficial -” claiming to produce ‘green architecture? “
The Helix can perfectly embody this paradox, if you consider the carbon emissions of its steel frame and operable glass windows, as well as the decks, retention systems, stairs and irrigation platforms designed. made to measure that will support and maintain the looping landscape. When contacted to comment on the specifics of the Helix embedded carbon calculations, Amazon said Braked that it monitors emissions and that its new buildings are designed to be LEED Platinum.
SCAPE’s founding director, Kate Orff, whose company works with the NBBJ at the head office, explained that she was working with a team “to keep sustainability in construction a top priority.” For the campus, she added, SCAPE intends to maximize tree cover and soil depth and use carbon neutral concrete when possible.
Bosco Verticale by Stefano Boeri Architects
Photo: Inigo Bujedo Aguirre / See photos / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Since the design is in its early stages, it is difficult to assess the durability of the finished building. But precedents like that of Stefano Boeri with green hem Vertical forest apartment buildings in milan provide a framework for estimating helix’s future ecological footprint.
The 21,000 plants that cover the two towers of Bosco Verticale are located on terraces equipped with deep concrete pots and custom irrigation systems. While a green facade controls temperatures inside buildings and brings residents closer to nature, the engineering of the terraces to support the plantings has added additional material – and additional embedded emissions – to the structure. In the end, the 280 terraces of Bosco Verticale increase emissions rather than reduce them, a case study by the World Green Building Council found. So it’s up to future eco-fantasy designers to figure out how to tone down the extra materials needed to support a green landscape.
Carbon debate aside, Bosco Verticale is gaining a lot of attention as it is one of the first vertical forests to meet expectations, at least in terms of maintaining greenery. Boeri thanks the engineers at Arup, who understood how to prevent large trees from falling in the wind with deep waterproof fasteners and pots. The team designed cantilevered terraces 11 feet long Support Tree containers 3.5 feet wide by 3.5 feet deep filled with topsoil, compost and lapilli. A sensible planting program has placed deciduous trees on the north facade so that the apartments get more light there during the winter. Instead of being watered by human gardeners, the terraces are irrigated by a drip irrigation system fed by groundwater with humidity monitoring. Ongoing maintenance is another crucial factor in building success: annual visits by aerial arborists and plant checks inside apartments indicate to maintenance where and when plants need attention. As a result, Boeri Told Mashable, the 10% plant mortality rate that the architect estimated was actually close to zero three years after completion.
Other experiments in urban greening were also unsuccessful. In the development of the Qiyi City Forest Garden in Chengdu, China, mosquitoes built their own city in the lush plantations that covered the eight towers of the complex. The problem was so serious that, although the units were almost sold out, only a handful of families moved in. Braked speak with a landscape architect and patio design expert who guessed that the plant pots were poorly designed for Chengdu’s humidity and poorly maintained by the building management. They may have been filled with standing water, the perfect hatchery for biting bugs.
But unlike the flat terraces of Qiyi City Forest Garden and Bosco Verticale, the plantations on the Helix will live on a slope. So what will keep them in place? Orff explained that designers are developing a kit of parts that will hold the ground with a series of stepped and sloped retention systems tailored to the slope and exposure of each given section. Biodegradable coconut mat will protect the soil and plants during their root, and the trees will be introduced by live staking. Here, too, the plants will likely be watered by a drip irrigation system.
Like on a real mountain, the Helix trees will be planted high and full on the bottom and will become stockier at higher elevations. Orff said it was inspired by the rocky trails of Maryland Catoctin mountain park, a national park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Unlike mountain forests, however, the flora of the Helix will not have millions of years to evolve in this environment. Instead, the plantings will have to adapt quickly, as a bright sun will test their will to live from day one. Potential trees like birches or pin cherries might be at their natural elevation, but as journalist and researcher Tim De Chant highlighted on his blog Per Square Mile, the extremes of heat and cold are magnified when a tree lives on the unshaded part of a large building. He also pointed out that the surface of a leaf in bright light can be several degrees warmer than the surrounding air. Extreme fluctuations in temperature can dehydrate, stress, and eventually kill plants.
As SCAPE and NBBJ analyze the design details, we need to contextualize any sustainability claim about Helix with something we know for sure: the environmental impact of Amazon’s business model as a whole. The company is famous mom about her energy consumption, although it welcomes its net zero carbon plan, as well as its plan to become fully renewable. But thanks to the pressure from its employees, we know Amazon’s true carbon footprint. In 2019, the company issued 44.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, depending on Forbes. This figure rose to 51.1 million tonnes in 2020. These emissions put it in the same category as the oil company Chevron, which produced 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019.
No amount of blue verbena or bushy bluestem on a corporate campus will make a dent in Amazon’s cumulative carbon footprint – from its growing empire of data and fulfillment centers to the miles traveled by delivery vehicles – as durable as its seat is. USDA estimates that a mature tree absorbs 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually. This represents 0.000000047% of Amazon’s emissions in 2020. We can take a moment to appreciate the potential of Helix to advance the concept of forest construction, but its green intentions only distract us from the full ecological impact of ‘Amazon.