Last week we published the first half of an interview with Paul Kephart of Rana Creek Habitat Restoration and Living Architecture. Paul has brought his ecological brilliance to the design tables of some of the world’s leading architects. But it’s not just the celeb-scale projects that excite him. In fact, Paul’s enthusiasm is clearest when he speaks of Rana Creek’s public projects, and of introducing principles of sustainability into urban communities where nature is scarce.

Read on for Part II of Inhabitat’s interview with Paul Kephart

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SR: Someone recently commented to me that they felt that the threat to biodiversity is our greatest danger, but I find that most people don’t really understand what this means, or what the implications are of lost biodiversity. It takes a lot of explanation for the gravity of the situation to make sense to people – it’s such a far removed idea.

PK: It is, and you know it’s not that complex. Biodiversity happens on a species level, it happens on a plant community level, it happens on a geophysical level throughout the planet; it’s the genetic expression of all life on the planet. Take insects, for example. They are probably the greatest, in terms of numbers. There are about 1.5 million insect species on the planet that we have actually classified, and there are quite a number of species we don’t know anything about yet.

I think it was E.O. Wilson that said that in the next hundred years we may lose 15% of all species represented on the planet, or lose the opportunity to understand them. Long term, we would like to understand whether living roof structures actually support biodiversity – and we don’t know that yet. Are they a biological trap? Are they a place that is limited in terms of resources? Or are they places where these species of birds may go to reproduce and are subject to predation?

All of these are great questions, from a science and ecological standpoint, to ask in the near term future; it just takes the conversation way up and above the amenity, adornment and ornamental applications of landscape.

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SR And yet the reason I was drawn over to the Rana Creek booth in the first place was those beautiful bent metal, vertical succulent gardens, which would make such incredible ornamental additions to a landscape. But those are a rain catchment system, right?

PK They certainly can be. The prototype you saw there is just a new idea from an artist, Freya Bardell. She is doing some wonderful experimentation and design with vertical systems. Rain water catchment is absolutely a byproduct, because of course you have a vertical column of soil that retains moisture. And, also because it transevaporates, it provides a similar process that a living roof does.

I can capture 70% of the rainfall that falls on the site and the wall can take care of the other 30%, because the design looks at conveying the water to the surface drains on a roof and then goes right down through the backside of that rainwater wall and is utilized there by the plants. The walls also are sound barriers, and they keep the building cool – evapotranspiration really cools the skin of the building. It’s a living skin.

At Rana Creek, we are all designers but we rely on science as part of our design, and often our designs lead to ecological benefits.

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SR I know that you put a lot of effort into doing natives and habitat restoration. Do you see people doing more ornamental green roof projects that involve invasive and non-native species?

PK You know I have seen a great interest in people wanting to utilize particular plants that are supportive of invertebrates or butterflies and humming birds. That’s not to say non-native plants cannot have ecological functions. Plants are adaptive and so are the species that utilize them. Philosophically, I don’t want to discourage people from using any kind of plant material as part of the structure of a vegetative system, and often times there are applications where non-native species have a range of utility that native species do not.

I look at these plants more for what kind of utility they provide and in terms of structural utility or shading or evaporation, drought tolerance. I look at it from that kind of site adaptive perspective. When you think about these types of environments, they are highly exposed to radiation. They’re usually windy, subject to intense rains and storms, and the soils that are on roofs and in walls have low nutrient capacity; so I look at plants in regards to their adaptability and performance.

Sometimes we find that the plants that volunteer are the ones most adaptive to that condition. In sustainability, as a part of our process, we need to redefine our aesthetics in regards to seasonality and letting things go dormant or die.

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SR You said that green roofs didn’t get the kind of response when you started out as they get now. With some of these large-scale projects that you first worked on, how did those early clients arrive at the idea that this would be a good design move?

PK That context is so important. At that time, we were talking about energy conservation and bound attenuation and heat island effect and water quality. We were just beginning to articulate those goals as a part of vegetative systems or living roofs. But with the clients and the architects that I have worked with, while we were just kind of discovering the vernacular and envisioning these benefits, we couldn’t quantify them. Yet people felt in their hearts and on an intrinsic level, that these were the right actions to take.

A lot of the time I would sit around a meeting table with a big design staff and we would look at these diminutive little plants and think about incorporating them as part of this living roof or structure, and the money people were saying, “No living roof, no living roof!” And the other people were kind of scratching their heads thinking, “Well what in the world is this?” It was not clearly understood. But in the long run it was the architects and the clients that felt it on an intrinsic level.

This is key to sustainability: We are going through a philosophical and spiritual renewal in regards to our connection with nature. That’s where it started. And now and in the future, we are looking at performance indexes — not only economic performance, but moving towards looking at biodiversity performance, and how we can actually measure a site capacity to support a healthy ecology even within the built environment. We apply some good science and discover what parts of these design processes are valuable and working and what parts we need to revise or redefine or refine.

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SR Obviously you have become a real leader in doing these projects; how did you come to know the people who led you into doing the bigger projects? What brought you here? What is your training, your background, and where did you have a break?

PK I lived on the Big Sur Coast as an oil painter and an artist and as a hobby I studied native plants, natural systems and ecology. I began to work with architects on a landscape level. I’m more of a technician than a designer. I like to stay behind the scenes. I see myself as someone who provides service to architects and planners, and technical information and design solutions. That’s where I like to stay.

I like to draw and I like to sketch and these are sketch problems sometimes. I like to incorporate natural systems within architectural standards. It’s an interesting process. And I also love the people I’m able to work with because of their passion and vision. I think we need each other to manifest a new and healthy, hopeful world.

SR One of our writers recently attended urban design conference where there was a panel called The Next Green Roof. It was asking what the next thing will be in sustainable design, because green roofs have already had their 15 minutes of fame. I’m curious for your perspective on the trendiness of green roofs.

PK Well let’s look at Malcolm Wells’ vision: Airports that were vegetated and beautiful causeways where we could see growth on highways winding through urban centers with parks over the top. Look at the Big Dig in Boston. The future is now. We’re seeing this new elevation because we are simply out of ground space in the urban environment. So let’s lift all of that vegetation and natural process above the streets and then where we can, incorporate nature and parks and natural systems on the ground plain.

I see these as places for food production, for a safe haven, for recreation, habitat, and really I think it’s just a refinement now. The industry has grown 80% in the last three years, so there are going to be some black eyes, and there are going to be some big mistakes. This is natural in an experimental process.

I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that a lot of the work that we are doing now is experimental and that we are going to learn a great deal from it and build upon it. So from the future standpoint, I think integrative and regenerative design will come forth where the idea of stacking functions and multiple process are included in the design. From an economic and policy standpoint, the cities and municipalities are getting up to speed really quickly in providing economic and planning incentives to those folks who want to incorporate ecological design in their process.

I think that is going to become more prevalent in the near future and from an economic standpoint this realm of ecological design and restoration will become a new level of economy. It is really important that this happen so we can turn our sights away from past economies that weren’t very healthy for the biosphere, like the oil economy or the war economy. From a social and cultural standpoint, it just demonstrates how important this architectural design, and art in general, are. They drive so much of our cultural and social functions.

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SR In closing, can you tell me about any new projects you have coming up? Anything exciting on the horizon for you?

PK In terms of energy and excitement and inspiration, I’m really drawing my energy and excitement and inspiration from main street now, commercial and industrial applications. We have to make it economically feasible so that it can become ecologically feasible.

You would think that these monumental projects with big name architects — libraries, museums, and municipal structures that are monumental architecture — would be exciting to me. But more exciting is Casa Feliz – low cost construction for housing low income people on Main Street in San Jose; or a police station in San Jose; or the Nueva school in Hillsboro that focuses on the environment and ecology with a living roof. Or the SPCA dog park that actually creates a park on a roof on which people will care and take care of their animals and pets; or small residential projects where people want to grow food on their roof. Those are the projects that I’m excited about now, more so than the monumental ones. It tells me that we’re going in the right direction.

+ Part I of this interview, originally published July 18, 2006

+ Rana Creek