Los Angeles, CA, 2011

ExoVert is a concept proposal submitted for the 2011 Metropolis Magazine Next Generation Design Competition. Design team members are Steven Chavez, PLA, Aaron Clark, Ph.D, Brian Gerich, and Ian Horton, PLA.

What is the title of your proposal?

ExoVert: A vertical, modular, prefabricated, green, public exoskeleton for aging high-impact buildings.

How would you describe it?

An eight foot wide ramping scaffold attached to the building’s exterior on South and West faces creating public green space intended for community gardening. The complete design includes large-scale rainwater catchment, storage, and distribution; an entirely solar electrical supply; and a waste collection, treatment and reclamation system.

What does it fix and why?

It fixes the energy, water, and community footprint by reducing energy and water consumption of the site to net zero. It also creates a community greenspace while simultaneously improving interior and exterior environment quality, providing food, and restoring ecological water flows across and into the landscape.

What makes it important?

There are many existing concepts for re-greening our human altered landscapes and decreasing the human impact on the planet. ExoVert is important because it utilizes many of the existing concepts by applying them to existing structures — structures that would be financially and environmentally costly to demolish — in a simple and cost-effective manner. High-minded designs of elegant new structures covered in earth-cleansing and populous feeding plants abound; but where do the new materials come from, and how is the urban landscape cleared to make room for them? ExoVert achieves the same ends without the high impact of demolition and new construction, and allows the environmental and social benefits of urban and vertical farming to be realized on existing structures in a cost effective and timely manner.

Base components: Mast climbing scaffold structure that creates a gently sloping platform that climbs exterior of the building, allowing human access for several possible uses.

Modular components: Hydroponic farming system; solar shutters; water catchment, storage, and distribution system; water treatment and re-use; waste treatment and re-use.

Hydroponic Farming Community System (HFCS): A series of water and nutrient supply lines and waste collection troughs that accommodate planting sub-modules that click into the framework to grow crops. Each section of the ExoVert would be leasable space available as in a community garden model. The accessibility, low maintenance requirements, and cleanliness of the system avails this model to would-be farmers not frequently targeted in current community garden models (e.g. disabled persons and working professionals) making it ideal for an urban setting.

Solar Louvers (SLs): power production where and when energy needs for cooling are greatest (applicable where air conditioning is deemed necessary). The SL module offers simultaneous passive and active cooling of the interior spaces most affected by solar gain. Additionally, this system capitalizes on vertical surfaces for solar energy collection. Energy would be usable for any of the existing building or ExoVert requirements, or sold back to the grid.

The Rainwater Collection, Storage and Distribution System (RCSDS) is important at this site due to Los Angeles’ highly seasonal rainfall. This system has additional significant positive impacts beyond irrigation, including: 1. A large supply of potable water in a public space that provides for disaster relief in a disaster-prone region, without relying on or waiting for outside help to arrive; 2. Ability to release surface water back into the ecosystem in a controlled, ecologically informed manner (i.e. reducing the flashiness of site runoff, potentially to the point of mitigating flashy runoff patterns of neighboring properties).

The Nutrient Reclamation Program (NRP) included in this design allows for garden nutrients to be generated on site and even sold to neighboring landscape managers. By collecting, and creating an on-site source for fertilizer, the gardening space is made more sustainable and has added value for the time-constrained urban farmer.

How do the photos or renderings illustrate the concept?

Image 1: The site map: Displays existing conditions of the building and site.

Image 2: Immediate context collage: Top to bottom, left to right rows: Union Station, Disney Concert Hall, Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, ExoVert Building and Site, Pueblo De Los Angeles, Bradbury Building, Los Angeles River, Downtown Light-Rail.

Images 3 and 4: The concept: take the hard, fortress-like structure that fights against the ecosystem, consuming massive amounts of resources, and soften it with a living skin to work symbiotically with nature. Additionally, over time the living portions of the building will allow a more sustainable digestion process for the building itself relative to current demolition practices. Following markets forces, if food production and public greenspace become more valuable than office space, interior spaces can tap into the ExoVert systems and be converted to other uses.

Image 5: Systems Plan: physical layout of all major systems associated with ExoVert. Calculations show a two million gallon storage capacity for clean water would allow for year-round outflows of on-site collected rainwater equal to approximately 5000 gallons per day. Using existing technologies and modifying them for food production, building waste could generate more than enough bio-available nutrients for the planted areas. With modest energy upgrades to the existing building, there is sufficient surface area on the roof and/or SL modules on the south-facing sides of the building to supply the building energy requirements as well as pumping requirements for ExoVert irrigation systems.

Image 6: Detail of building materials for ExoVert. Many components are commercially available and undervalued in the current economy due to fewer construction projects.

Image 7: Section detail of ExoVert showing a hydroponic garden module, and flow of environmental goods and services through it. (light blue arrow: harvested potable rainwater, brown arrow: waste-based nutrient stream, dark blue arrow: irrigation loop from mixing reservoir to plants and back). It is worth noting that using vertical space in this manner allows all plants to grow in ample natural sunlight.

Image 8: Details of hydroponic module and planting sub-module. Showing planter sub-modules and end-user interface.

Image 9: Isometric projection shows the system components and system flows as they are applied to the building.

Image 10: The ExoVert: functioning to create beautiful outdoor public space, passively cool the building, produce food, clean the air, consume waste products, and visibly reconnect the site to an ecological flow of water.

What is your business plan for realizing your proposal?

This design, easily customizable to the individual customer, region, and site, will be sold to landowners as an income generating, and cost-saving retro-fit for aging buildings where current capitalization rates are low due to relatively low environmental quality, inside and out. For the customer, the GSA in this case, we seek to demonstrate that use values of the interior space will be increased for indoor tenants, while additional new tenancy, and therefore new income, can be created in the added outdoor space. Furthermore this can all be done quickly and cost-effectively using the ExoVert system.

Interior environmental quality will increase with improved temperature and air quality inside the building, achieved through passive means: reduced solar gain, evaporative cooling, air cleaning plant action and added cross-ventilation. Further benefits for interior tenants include convenient access to pleasant outdoor spaces on every floor of the building, and a public marketplace on the ground level in which to eat and socialize.

The passive means of improving the environmental quality along with increased power generation will also mean lower operational costs, reducing utility bills to net zero.

The increased amount of vegetation as well as social activity on the outside of the building will improve the liveliness of the building, and make the exterior spaces on and around the building more inviting. Furthermore, an engaged community working on and around the site will improve security for the entire site by increasing the number of watchful eyes, reducing the need for security personnel.

On the scaffold itself the landowner will have additional rental space that can be leased to community gardeners from all walks of life as well as small vendors. This new use value of the design allows for additional income to be generated, making this design a viable choice in an open market, not relying on incentive programs, tax breaks, or altruism.

Lastly, the ExoVert will provide the landowner with ample opportunity to capitalize on the current demand for green infrastructure without investing the time or money involved in new construction. With modularity and prefabricated parts, the landowner can design exactly the right system and have it installed and operating within weeks. Future modifications and expansions of the exoskeleton are also relatively simple, and it could even be erected and removed on a seasonal basis.

Prize money from this contest would be used to build test modules for the ExoVert system’s prefabricated components. The HFCS, associated planting modules, and SL components would be developed first since they would be universally applicable. Attachment methods for connecting the prefab components to commercially available scaffolding systems would also receive immediate attention, with the goal of having a demonstration unit that could be transported, assembled, and displayed for marketing purposes within two years. Additional resources to develop and market the ExoVert will be sought in the venture capital marketplace.


01_Site 02_Immediate_Context 03_Existin_Energy_Diagram 04_Proposed_Energy_Diagram 05_Systems_Plan 06_Building_Materials 07_Section 08_Hydroponic_Detail 09_Isometric 10_Perspective