Making Our Surroundings Sustainable (M.O.S.S.) is a program inspired by many environmental issues faced locally in Richmond, Virginia, and more specifically, in the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) campus. Since VCU is integrated with the City of Richmond, the air quality is not as clean as it could be for such a high pedestrian density. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Air Quality Index (AQI) of Richmond indexes at 50 out of 500 at midnight at almost any given day. The index varies throughout the day depending on major pollutants and pollen levels, however we felt the score at midnight accounts for the air quality after a typical business day. While a score of 50 is technically good, the ideal situation is to have an AQI closer to zero. For comparison, at midnight Northern Virginia has an AQI of 58, and Hampton Roads has an AQI of 30.

In addition to air quality, the VCU architecture had a significant influence for our idea. VCU has implemented a Green Wall to showcase the benefits of a vertical garden. While the project was initially successful, it proved to be hard to maintain long-term for various reasons. To build upon the sustainability wall and look at it from a larger scale perspective, we wanted to implement a program that vertically installs moss panels on building walls throughout the VCU campus. VCU is composed of many tall buildings with residence halls averaging at about 215 ft tall. By using moss panels on these tall buildings, we can effectively improve the air quality while taking advantage of the landscape and climate of Richmond. We believe the panels would blend into the Richmond environment seamlessly while solving everyday city problems.

What it Does

The primary appeal of M.O.S.S. panels is that they limit pollutants in the air in the urban environment, however they also have numerous other benefits. They act as thermal insulation for buildings, produce cleaner runoff water, and can have positive psychological effects due to a pleasing aesthetic. Moss can remove CO2, nitrogen oxides, lead, and particles from the air, and also produce oxygen. Annually, if these moss panels were implemented, they could remove hundreds of metric tons of CO2 which would ultimately improve the air quality. Moss panels can function as a natural form of insulation by retaining heat in the cold months and absorbing heat in the warmer months. The panels would also produce cleaner runoff water by naturally filtering rain water through the moss and through a water retention of approximately 50%. Use of these panels would also improve other qualities of life such as stress reduction and clearer skin due to improved air quality. According to a study conducted at the Yale School of Public Health, cleaner air and plant based surroundings have proven to improve a person’s psychological well-being. Additionally, with all of these aspects taken into consideration, buildings with the moss panels would qualify for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credits. When buildings are LEED certified, their market value increases and the building serves as a design example for surrounding buildings. Overall, the panels would be beneficial at VCU by being a cost-friendly and sustainable way to improve both the social and natural environment.

How We Built It

Moss plants are one of the most easily maintained plants, especially for a humid and urban environment like Richmond. There are three main reasons moss is the most beneficial plant for the panels: they don’t require deep seeded roots, they can survive in almost any range of light, and they are one of the most drought tolerant plants. These three aspects allow for long-term sustainability since moss does not require constant human care and can sustain itself off of naturally occurring weather.

The bottom concrete base section of the wall on the Laurel Street side of Brandt Residence Hall on VCU’s Monroe Campus was selected by our team for the following reasons: the natural ‘wind tunnel’ effect on mild days, the high density of pedestrian and vehicle traffic, the central location to the VCU community, its proximity to the revitalized Monroe Park, and its mostly shaded exposure. From the over 70 different species of moss that are native to Richmond City, the team has selected 6 to pilot due to their aesthetic benefits and potential hardiness in this specific application. Prior to and during the structural installation, the selected indigenous mosses will be propagated from local samples in and onto square panels of a hardy fabric. The arrangement and variation of the mosses within and of the panels will be constructed to maximize the aesthetic desires of the VCU Facilities Department in order to mitigate the challenges that were faced at the RamBikes wall. For presentation purposes, Flora Felt is the mat from which the pilot product is based; it has high tensile strength and resiliency, superior thermal insulation and acoustical properties, mildew resistant, and is lightweight. The felt is available to be purchased commercially by the square yard, but due to its extremely high cost (our rough estimate for the Brandt Wall is about $5,000 for felt alone), the team envisions the final design to recycle discarded excess fabrics from the VCU Fashion Design program. Taking advantage of this source within our community would significantly reduce or potentially eliminate the cost of the mat material. The mat of fabric will be mounted at the corners on top of a vapor barrier commonly found in construction projects, from which the project can source an additional recycled material which would protect the existing wall from moisture saturation and degradation. Each panel will be mounted with hooks on a web of anchored aluminum wires. The ‘Unistrut Mounting Method’ presented by Flora Felt again is an excellent illustration of a structurally sound installation system that would be potentially feasible within the existing or future city and state building codes. The aluminum wire system has a lifespan beyond 100 years which provides support for the largest portion of investment in the installation of this permanent feature to the side of Brandt Hall and structures throughout the urban landscape of Richmond City. In order to maintain the life of the wall, a small irrigation system fed by stored rainwater in barrels installed on the roof would provide adequate moisture levels as necessary, but due to the relative humidity of Richmond, Virginia and the shaded location the team determined that maintenance of this wall would require minimal input.

Challenges We Ran Into

One question we asked ourselves several times throughout the process was, “How are we going to fund this?”. While the M.O.S.S. program has many positive outcomes, it was difficult to think of an incentive for someone to invest in our program. However, by returning to the idea of taking advantage of our VCU community, we hoped to attract sponsors from the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) due to their smoke-free initiative as well as VCU in general since it is always looking to make great strides in the community. The publicity that would come with implementing an original program like M.O.S.S. would attract more sponsors and due to the cost effectiveness of the program (compared to others), the inherent health benefits, in addition to the environmental improvements. Another question we kept asking ourselves was, “What is the best moss for our project? What is the best material for the panel?”. Finding the most suitable moss that was locally sourced in Richmond while also finding a panel material that adhered to building codes in Virginia was a challenge. Since this type of program has never been implemented, we had to base our material choice off of research instead of example and rely on the potential to have a trial period to determine what is best suited for Richmond. In such a complicated environmental and political climate, we believe now is the best time for this idea, and a partnership would be the perfect way to promote it.

Accomplishments We’re Proud Of

Our group is proud of using knowledge from different backgrounds including, but not limited to, computer science, mechanical engineering, and public health. Our greatest accomplishment was finding a solution and refining it to address common environmental problems found in a city such as poor air quality, excess storm run off, and lack of greenery. We did this in such a way that doesn't interfere with the existing city-scape, but by taking advantage of what the urban environment has to offer. We did this by simply applying our own experiences of walking and biking around cities in our lifetime. While finding ideas for the “perfect” moss wall was difficult, we were proud because using moss walls to promote healthy living in a city is a completely new idea in the environmental field. By blending environmental solutions with city functionally, we hope this will inspire more ideas for the future where people can continue to advance technology while upholding our responsibility to the planet.

What We Learned

We were able to understand the environmental implications associated with the functions of a city. While we were already passionate about the use of vertical gardens, we were able to continue to refine and scale the idea to make help solve problems we see everyday on a city campus. We were able to explore fields outside of our major and how interdisciplinary collaboration is important in an academic and real-world setting. Specifically, we each learned about the benefits of moss versus other plants which was something we initially did not know much about.

What’s Next For M.O.S.S.

Ideally, we hope for the program to become more widespread and easily adoptable through cost reductions and increased applications. At a local level,we hope to implement M.O.S.S throughout the greater Richmond area so that it can follow an example set by VCU. If proven successful, the program could gradually make improvements and spread outside of Richmond . We also hope to continue refining its branding therefore making it more appealing to large and small consumers. If the program is easily implementable, its applicability would increase and both businesses and homeowners would benefit from the cleaner air and reduction of energy costs. This can be done by making the M.O.S.S. panels ready-made at a smaller scale so they can be applied to a back deck area, porch columns, and draftier areas of the house. Other business applications would include incorporating the panels into other facets of building like roofs, storm drain bases, backyard “tiles”, and more. We believe M.O.S.S could set the next big trend in garden architecture for the future.

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