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Oasis in the Middle of the City: This is the Work of Sustentar in the Green Infrastructure

We spoke with Felipe Villa, founder of Sustentar, a company focused on green infrastructure

gardens in the city

Photo: IG-sustain

LatinAmerican Post | July Vanesa López Romero

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Leer en español: Oasis en medio de la ciudad: así es el trabajo de Sustentar en la infraestructura verde

For centuries, we have lived consuming the resources of the planet earth, so much so that we are close to reaching a point of no return. In this scenario, companies like Sustentar have high value, since they seek to change the paradigm. Sustentar is a Colombian company founded by Felipe Villa ten years ago, which focuses on green infrastructure, a nature-based solution to expand green spaces in cities.

LatinAmerican Post: Tell us a little more about Sustentar, how was it born?

Felipe Villa: I am an environmental microbiologist by profession and did research on environmental impacts on coral reefs. There are thousands of publications in the world that report the effects and consequences of coral bleaching, but very little is done in the industries to mitigate these changes, which in the medium term will be devastating for humanity. This concern led me to do something different and put my scientific knowledge into the construction sector.

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Sustentar started 10 years ago, and we are dedicated to the design, execution and maintenance of green infrastructure for the construction sector in Colombia. Within our services we offer landscape design, garden and green areas, but we have made inroads with great force in what is perhaps the main engine of our economic activity: green roofs and walls and also in urban agriculture. They are more specialized fields of landscaping, since they require technological irrigation, waterproofing, and drainage systems that allow us to grow plants where we could not imagine before: on the facades and walls of buildings in the middle of the city.

LP: What is it that leads you to focus on construction? Why, among the areas that can be covered when dealing with climate change, do they choose this one?

FV: All my life, I have been passionate about art and architecture. I was born and raised in Bogotá, but I have had the opportunity to see other places in the world where this type of technology has existed for several decades, and I found it fascinating. It is incredible to see green walls where there are birds coming and going; there are migratory birds that often find spaces, oases available on these green facades to rest, feed, even nest. I decided to mix this fascination for architecture and art with my knowledge in science, and that is how I turned to green infrastructure and sustainable construction.

LP: As you mention, these types of green technologies and solutions have been present in other places for years, including in Latin America, in cities like São Paulo. What are the challenges of carrying out a project like this in Colombia?

FV: 10 years ago, when you talked about a green roof or wall, there was a lot of fear in the market. Fears against humidity, leaks, the possibility of keeping plants alive on a wall. There was no such awareness that someone somewhere in the world had invented the wheel and that we could make it roll here too. These fears have been demystified over time, and I would venture to say that Colombia is one of the leading countries in the region in terms of green infrastructure.

Secondly, the political part, regulations, and laws that promote this type of infrastructure have been a challenge. There is still a long way to go in this regard. It is very difficult to ask a builder to put certain square meters in their projects if there is no clear incentive. Although there are many construction companies that are clear about the urgency in the face of climate change and think of a sustainable future, there are many others that are not, so there are limitations in political terms and in guidelines in terms of taxes or tax incentives.

A third challenge that I feel is very powerful for our industry is education. Sustainability involves a paradigm shift in engineering and architecture. Education should focus on thinking about a building that functions as a natural ecosystem not only for the human being, but also for a tuft, a pigeon, a bee or any of the many pollinators that exist in the city. This education in practice must think about the interdisciplinarity of our work, about a connection between engineering and the biological sciences that makes a difference.

LP: In specific terms, what are the benefits of these nature-based solutions for the environment and climate change?

FV: On an ordinary roof, all the energy coming from the sun will heat the building's covering material and that heat will be transmitted thermodynamically to the interior of the building, heating it up and requiring air conditioning consumption, for example. When there is a plant cover, a large percentage of the sun's energy will be captured in the plants so that they photosynthesize, capture CO₂ and generate oxygen, that is, to decarbonize.

Another part of the energy will be trapped in the substrate, and all the draining part will finish isolating all the radiation on the roof of the building. The same goes for the green walls. So, one of the benefits, of the many that there are, is that we will not be using as much energy in refrigeration or air conditioning. The plants on the roofs and green walls are capable of absorbing pollutants such as heavy metals from the air we breathe, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they produce oxygen. They also serve as islands of biodiversity where different species of animals coexist, which in turn pollinate and help keep the natural spaces within the city alive, species that are also in danger of extinction, such as bees.

In addition, this infrastructure contributes to a beautification of the city, and in that sense it has benefits for those who live or work in these buildings. According to several studies, green infrastructure contributes to the good mental health of those who enjoy it.

LP: What are the possibilities for green infrastructure in Colombia? What do you think the outlook will be in 10 years?

FV: It is a growing market. Construction is one of the main engines of the economy of a developing country. As long as there is construction and more awareness of the environmental and social benefits of green infrastructure, in 10 years this is going to be a more robust, more competitive industry. It's going to be a much bigger, better established industry.

We want to live in sustainable and green environments. It is very different if you are selling a building with bricks and glass windows than if you are selling a building that has greenery, green roofs or gardens. For corporate building builders, there are incentives such as Leed or Edge certification, which show how sustainable a building is during construction and in the long term in its operation and maintenance. When one talks about sustainability, they also talk about economy, sustainability spends fewer resources and has an impact on more economical operations. Those are sales pitches for the construction industry. Not only tax and legal incentives, but also the demands of the market and the final buyer, are making builders turn to consider green infrastructure as an option.