Dutch Aquatic Center Pushes Green Wall Envelope

For some green structures, the sustainable elements are designed to go unnoticed by the occupants, who merely enjoy the energy savings produced from the efficient materials and systems embedded within the building. Then there are those who wear their “greenness” on their sleeves — and their walls and roofs.

Sitting firmly in the latter category is Amsterdam’s SportsPlaza Mercator, designed by the Dutch architecture firm VenhoevenCS to have nearly every exposed surface covered in live vegetation. The sports complex and aquatic center, built in 2006 on the edge of a park in the city’s De Baarsjes neighborhood, appears to have mastered the ancient art of camouflage.

Somewhere behind the mass of plants is an actual fitness facility. Image via VenhoevenCS.

Somewhere behind the mass of plants is an actual fitness facility. Image via VenhoevenCS.

According to the architects, who spoke with DeZeen magazine, the impetus for the explosion of greenery on the building was for aesthetics rather than environmental issues. “Because the building was constructed in a park we wanted to preserve as much as possible, we completely covered it in vegetation, camouflaging its diverse program,” they said. “From a distance, it seems like an overgrown fortress flanking and protecting the entryway to the 19th century city.”

From afar, the complex resembles an overgrown ancient castle. Image via VenhoevenCS.

From afar, the complex resembles an overgrown ancient castle. Image via VenhoevenCS.

Recently, however, the seven-year-old building earned a nomination for a Green Building Award, sponsored by the Netherlands’ Dak & Gevel Groen magazine. The complex also has a green roof, but that hardly comes as a surprise.

True environmentalists may scoff at what seems to be a classic case of “greenwashing” a structure with a fairly ordinary carbon footprint, but nearly the entire surface area of the building — more than 76,000 square feet — does help absorb storm runoff and provide an added layer of natural insulation.

Diagram of Mercator complex, showing extent of green walls. Image via VenhoevenCS.

Diagram of Mercator complex, showing extent of green walls. Image via VenhoevenCS.

The lush, low-maintenance vegetation helps disguise the building, but it also serves another purpose: privacy. The three-story building contains swimming pools, a sauna, fitness studios, an events hall, a fast-food restaurant, a cafe and a nursery. The designers wanted to create a welcoming environment for the guests but also reduce the visibility of the aquatic facilities from the outside.

A closeup of some of the windows and plant-covered walls soon after construction was finished. Image via VenhoevenCS.

A closeup of some of the windows and plant-covered walls soon after construction was finished. Image via VenhoevenCS.

Most widows feature tinted glass so the spa guests could enjoy the facilities in peace. To help brighten up the interior, large skylights were included to let in the maximum amount of natural light.

Is the SportsPlaza Mercator one of the world’s greenest buildings? Maybe only if you’re measuring by the amount of chlorophyll per square inch. While its green cred would surely benefit with more efficient lighting and heating systems, or just by including any form of renewable energy generation, the center does stand as an accomplishment for taking the “green wall/green roof” trend to its logical extreme conclusion.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.