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The greenery among the granite


Swamp white oak trees dot the edge of the sides of the North Pool at the newly opened 9/11 Memorial. There are a total of 225 at the moment, but more than 400 will eventually inhabit the 8-acre space.


They provide shade on a hot Sunday afternoon in May. They provide a horizontal splash of green amid a mostly subdued canvas.

But for the exception of the “Survivor Tree” standing on the western side of the grounds of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the visitors who make their way through the temporary entryway don’t pay much attention to the site’s collection of trees and other greenery.

Instead, understandably, visitors’ eyes gravitate toward all the names emblazoned in bronze to honor the lives of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 and 1993 World Trade Center attacks -- and the 30-foot manmade square waterfalls and pools on which they are etched.

So guests -- who have been coming following the opening of the 10-year anniversary of largest terrorism attack on American soil -- may not realize that the memorial is on course to receive the rare distinction of being LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified after the memorial, museum and museum entry way are completely finished.

In 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council developed the LEED system as a way to establish a base line on designing and constructing sustainable buildings in the 21st century. Those guidelines, though, were established in a pre-9/11 world -- and so the designers of the resulting 9/11 Memorial and museum have been setting their own precedents ever since the beginning planning phases.  In talking with those who have played integral roles to the memorial’s creation, every step has run along a fine line between sustainability and the understood sensitivity of the situation.



All of the oak trees at the 9/11 Memorial were grown within a 500-mile radius of the various 9/11 impact zones: New York City, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pa.


“What’s interesting about this project is it’s so atypical,” said Geoff Hurst, a senior architect at the firm Viridian/IBA who has been closely involved with the LEED certification effort since 2006. “The LEED system makes this apples-to-apples comparison, but there just aren’t many apples that are this color.

“Although sustainability was a huge goal, there were so many other project parameters, design parameters and requirements that were just paramount in importance, so you couldn’t steamroll a sustainable agenda… You really had to be respectful of the design concept and the users.”

“We’re inventing the relationships here,” added Ron Vega, the memorial’s director of design. While working as an architect for the New York City Department of Design and Construction, he helped with the recovery effort at Ground Zero from September 2001 to July 2002 before joining the project in 2007. He would later say that the “job has called upon every aspect of my design knowledge and every aspect of my compassion and love of design… and emotions I didn’t know I had.”

Hurst mentioned that he had hoped to hear back by June from the USGBC in regards to the first 27 points for the design submission alone of the memorial plaza, museum and entry pavilion, which actually will receive its own separate rating. This would give basic certified status, but not gold (at the time the proposal was being formulated, gold status was 39 points out of 69; now it’s 60 out of 100).

The final part of the equation, the construction phase credits, cannot be submitted until a substantial portion is completed and third-party reviewer comes in to review the design and the installation, mechanical and electrical components. Typically, the finally rating is handed down three to six months afterwards. “You never open with your plaque on the door. Everyone wants to,” he said. “That’s always [clients’] first question, but no one can.”



An intricate system of drains and pipes work in unison to collect and harvest rainwater, which is used to irrigate and aerate the plants -- as well as several other future uses at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.


The trailblazing process was made easier, Hurst said, by the USGBC offering to send out a liaison to the 9/11 Memorial Foundation to help interpret the LEED rating system for the special project -- as well as the foundation vowing to make sustainability one of the primary mandates “because it  helped galvanize the team.”

Vega said he and the others would have gone for platinum status (score of 80 or higher), but certain factors prohibited that pursuit such as not being able to use stone that was within a 500-mile radius of the site for the memorial pools. The group thought the stone that based captured the desired aesthetic was a Verdi Fontaine granite, which is from South Africa and quarried in Italy.

The gold status, though, is well in reach thanks to an intricate state-of-the-art catchment system that utilizes every last drop of rainwater and snowmelt that makes its way onto the site and eventually into one of two massive storage tanks -- powering everything from the drip-and-spray irrigation and aeration processes of all the trees and other plant life to the toilets that will be housed in the museum building to the giant waterfalls in the south and north pools.


Here is a video from PWP Landscape Architecture that shows how the stormwater catchment system works.


The plaza itself contains a drainage infrastructure that acts as a giant self-sustaining cistern. Its paving sits on a series of concrete tables that are suspended over troughs of nutrient-rich porous aggregate soil -- approximately 40,000 tons in total -- full of worm castings which allow the trees to grow into maturity in an entirely contained system. “On the driest days, those roots are getting tons of water,” Vega said.

Furthermore, the plaza also serves as a roof for the museum, which will extend four stories underground, as well as the World Trade Center PATH train station and other facilities located 70 feet below street level.

Of course, not all the green features are found below the ground. There’s those trees. Currently, 225 swamp white oak trees call the site home. They stand at about 30 feet, but the hope is they will one day form a canopy that maxes out at 80 feet. All of the trees were farmed in areas within a 500-mile radius of the various impact zones of 9/11 -- New York, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pa. -- before being meticulously placed and fostered in the exact arrangement that they are currently are at a nursery in Millstone, N.J. “They never really knew they moved,” said about when the trees were began being transported in August 2010. “When we brought them on they just flourished immediately.”



The "Survivor Tree," a Callery pear tree that was saved from Ground Zero and nursed back to health, is anchored by guide wires. It is located to the west of the 9/11 Memorial's South Pool.


Eventually, 416 of the oaks will cover the plaza grounds when the remaining the site’s remaining two acres, which largely consist of the area to the northeast of the entry pavilion, are completed. There will be only one Callery pear tree: the “Survivor Tree.” The tree was an eight-foot shell of itself when it was found in the Ground Zero wreckage. Now, it too has grown to about 30 feet.

It should be noted that the tree, which is supported by guide wires, has no sign near it as part of the guidelines from architect Michael Arad that no permanent signage would be featured except for the name of the victims. “There’s a demand for it,” Vega said of a sign. “Believe me. Everyone’s always asking for it, but we want to have at least a year of mourning, so to speak, where we say we’ve held onto our principals.”

Although the Survivor Tree stands as one of the most tangible symbols are of recovering and returning to normalcy, Vega said the tree is predicted to only last about 10 years in its current state. After trying many different options to improve its health, Vega and his team called upon the Summer Hill Nursery in Madison, Conn., to propagate its seeds -- a request the nursery had never received because of their tendency to usurp surrounding plant life.

The effort, which involved taking the two seeds from about 500 pieces of its fruit, resulted in about 400 seedlings after they sprouted this past March. Now Vega and company have a decision to make with what they want to do with them. He referenced how those who ran the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum gave out seedlings from its own survivor tree to the families of that attack’s 168 victims -- but said that would impossible due to the amount of 9/11 victims. “They’re expecting things to grow so big that we’re going to have to make a decision real soon.”



The 9/11 Memorial grounds feature two types of light green ivy that has begun to take root among sections of mulch in the southwest corner. The mulch is temporary feature to accomodate all of the foot traffic from the temporary entrance and exit to the memorial, while the rest of the grounds and musueum are being built.


Like most who have worked on this project would tell you, Vega has called the memorial and museum the pinnacle of his career. “There’s never going to be another point in my life where I won’t use this as a reference point for something,” he said. He noted that most architects mark their work on timeless structures such as churches as the apexes of their contributions to particular community. He has worked on several, but they all pale in comparison.

 “When you work on a church you envision that you’re working for yet unborn people, right? Because it’s going to affect worship for future generations: weddings and funerals and baptisms of people not yet born and you’ve designed it and you’ve been a part of it.

“So now you get on this site, and it’s all about death, right? It’s all about mourning and it’s all about recovery. And then you realize it’s still about future generations. It’s still about unborn children and it’s still about affecting the lives of people you will never live long enough to meet.”

Have you been by the 9/11 Memorial yet? What are your thoughts on its layouts and aesthetics and all of the sustainable initiatives that surround it? As always, we’d love to hear from you.


Tabatha Tidd

This drainage infrastructure looks like it can certainly be beneficial to both the people and the local environment. The good thing about this design is that it promotes ecological stability in the area by creating a system wherein the trees continuously get water, even on the hottest of days. And by applying sustainable techniques and technologies, the area essentially promotes a more eco-friendly environment. But what’s best about the memorial grounds is that it is a concrete representation of the fact that life can continue after trials and tribulations.

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