Environment & Engineering

Cultivating the seeds of innovation

Published Aug 22, 2022

The fields of architecture and conservation biology are unusual bedfellows. While one is focused on the need to reduce emissions and prepare our cities for the impacts of climate change, the other assesses the damage our growing and changing cities are inflicting on the flora and fauna they have displaced. But for Maggie MacKinnon, these two disparate fields go hand in hand. Her research is focused on finding ways to better integrate natural habitats into today’s concrete jungles.

Right across the world, there’s a major focus on using sustainable construction to reduce emissions, improve the quality of people’s lives and prepare for the impending impacts of climate change. These are worthy yet human-centric goals. Changes to our cities don’t just affect the people who live in them—they also have a significant impact on the surrounding flora and fauna. And while much has been written about the needs of people and the potential impact change will have on their lives and their environments, less research has been conducted into how to coexist with, rather than displace, plant and animal species.

After completing a BSc in Biology, Maggie MacKinnon was concerned about the impacts of urbanisation on the natural environment. She felt there was no reason for cities to expand at the expense of animal and plant habitats and wanted to learn more about regenerative building practices. As a result, she switched fields and completed a Master’s degree in Architecture. Now, Maggie is in the midst of her PhD research, which is driven by a desire to improve how built and natural environments relate to each other. Her goal is to find a solution to sustainable construction that involves, rather than impacts, the environment. She hopes to quantify the benefits of living walls and roofs and demonstrate that investing slightly more during the construction phase can deliver a better return on investment to building owners down the track.

Maggie is investigating regenerative design strategies that blur the boundaries between built and natural environments. The world’s cities will need to overcome plenty of challenges over the coming decades—in Wellington, for example, there are plenty of uninsulated buildings and places in need of a retrofit or demolition to mitigate against the risk of earthquakes. Maggie is hoping that, with a bit of thought and some compelling evidence, architects around the world can keep their eyes firmly on regenerative solutions as they anticipate and prepare for some of the impacts of climate change.

As part of Maggie’s research, ‘green’ walls are starting to appear at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Kelburn campus. Over the last few weeks, Maggie and her builder have been using a newly demolished site to construct four green walls—which will be covered in plants—and two other bare walls that will serve as controls. These walls represent an opportunity to observe the level of insulation and protection plants can provide, as well as their impact on stormwater management and biodiversity. The hope is that the data collected will provide enough evidence to encourage investors and architects to incorporate elements like living walls and roofs into future designs.

Wellington UniVentures has been working closely with Maggie to determine the commercial impact of her work. “I’d encourage any researchers and postdocs who feel they have an impactful research idea to engage with Wellington Univentures and explore how we can help them navigate the path to commercialisation,” says Mick Riley, the Commercialisation Manager supporting this project. “In Maggie’s case, so far our work has been focused on assessing the IP position of her idea and facilitating connections that will support the project’s development. When Maggie is ready, we can also provide her with opportunities to build her skills as an entrepreneur.”

In the long-term, Maggie hopes her research will contribute to developing processes and products to create regenerative urban habitats that increase urban biodiversity, improve human well-being, and enhance the resilience of cities and species to climate change.

Above all, what she hopes to show is that these natural walls aren’t just an insulation solution that attracts fauna and provides ideal nesting sites for birds. She wants to show that they could be one of the best ways of retrofitting buildings with insulation, whether people care about the plants or not.