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Eco-architecture: Facade for butterflies

Buildings are still thought of almost exclusively from a human perspective. There are only a few small oases for other species - an insect hotel in the back of the garden or a beehive on the city roof. What is possible when whole ecosystems are integrated right from the start is shown by a planned residential building for the New York district of Nolita: it is to provide a home not only for people but also for monarch butterflies. BASF helped develop the special facade.

BY LAURA BUCHWALD & ANNA SPIEWAK

Residents at a new eight-story building planned for Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood will one day be able to look out into a terrarium attached to a wall and see a breeding ground for monarch butterflies. This is all thanks to The Monarch Sanctuary—a building system and façade, which doubles as a “vertical butterfly meadow,” that can be retrofitted to existing buildings in urban environments.

Once completed, the street façade will cover the entire eight stories of the new building, which is still going through the approvals process. Presently, a 15-foot prototype of the architectural firm’s sanctuary is on display at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

Terreform ONE, a Brooklyn-based non-profit design and architectural firm, unveiled the prototype of the Monarch Sanctuary as a part of 62 unique designs chosen for the museum’s Triennial exhibition. 

“It’s very similar to a green wall,” said Mitch Joachim, Ph.D., architect, Fulbright Scholar and Terreform One co-founder. “But green walls are really just for air quality and aesthetics. This green wall has another layer, another purpose, which is to really support other life forms.” 

Terreform ONE—the urban think tank that advances ecological design in derelict municipal areas—set out to combat the decline of the monarch butterflies through pioneering designs intended to enhance urban space with habitats that convey possibilities for a new biodiverse environment.

The architectural team researched designs that would be conducive to bolstering the monarch population. The design also had to involve milkweed, which the monarch relies on as both a habitat in which to lay its eggs and the sole food source for its larvae, as well as a nectar source on which the mature butterflies can feed. 

To build a prototype that is as functional as it is visually compelling, Terreform ONE turned to BASF, which sponsored the project. 

“First, we agreed upon the design intent and specifications for the material: the formulation needed to be lightweight, white-colored, extremely flowable and raise the bar on its sustainability characteristics,” said Vivian Kuan, Terreform ONE’s Executive Director. “BASF rose to the challenge, taking our designs and then figuring out how to achieve our mutual goals.” 

After the architectural firm created 3D-printed silicon molds of the structure’s foundation, BASF’s Master Builders Solutions team in Beachwood, Ohio, led by Lesley Suz-Chung Ko, Ph.D., took over producing a specialty mortar mixture to fill the unique design—a diagrid—a series of paned diamond shapes constructed from interlocking beams and reminiscent of a honeycomb. 

BASF made a sensible partner on this project due to its investment in the plight of monarch butterflies since 2015, launching the Living Acres #MonarchChallenge, to increase habitat along the monarch’s migration route— from Mexico through North America before making their way back to Mexico.

To design the details of the sanctuary, Joachim and the Terreform ONE team observed live butterflies to see to what sorts of external stimuli they reacted. Monarchs, as a cold-blooded animal, have an affinity for sunlight and diversity in landscape, and so Terreform ONE came up with the aesthetically pleasing façade with seasonal vents that can be opened as needed. Several artificial flora—which visually stimulate the butterflies—are used in the interior. The only natural substance present in the exhibit—is milkweed. While butterflies in the wild feed on nectar from flowers, here they eat sugar water that is injected into refillable sponges. 

“Butterflies are attracted to moisture sources, so we designed these features for them such as a butterfly mud bath”, Joachim added. “They love feeding on these sponges, so we created a concrete system that allowed these sponges to be easily maintained and [to] constantly receive nutrients.” The sponges can be refilled with sugar water to simulate the nectar that is the main food source for the monarch.

When this structure is imminently built to scale and affixed to a building in New York City—implausible though it may seem in an urban environment—there is a chance that monarchs might find its way there. After all, New York is part of the monarchs’ migratory path, and therefore an obvious choice.

“Monarchs have a phenomenal innate ability to find milkweed,” explained Chip Shilling, Sustainability Strategy Manager, BASF.

With milkweed crucial to the monarch butterfly population, there is plenty that the individual, too, can do to aid in the cause. While city dwellers might not have much influence over outdoor space, those in the suburbs and more rural areas, even with a very small plot of land—can help. 

 “By providing a habitat, by incorporating milkweed into your gardens, you’re providing a forage area for monarch butterfly larvae,” added Shilling.

“Devote an area of your land to just allow milkweed to grow,” Joachim concluded. “Be a little more diverse if not in your front yard than your backyard. Allow things to go fallow—any American can do that. You don’t need an elite group of architects.”

Meanwhile, thanks to art, design and chemistry intersecting in one project—a community will soon be able to look out their windows and see a garden of butterflies—which will not only serve as a haven for the monarchs, but also benefit humans who live and work in and around the building.

The Monarch Sanctuary is on display at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, located at 2 East 91st St. at Fifth Avenue in New York City, until January 2020.

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