June 1st, 2008

operesque

Shibamune: grass on the roof, data under it

We hear a lot about the emissions produced by flying, but data crunching -- the thing you're doing right now as you read this -- actually produces twice as much, emissions-wise. According to this article, aviation produces just 2% of the UK's carbon emissions, whereas the electricity consumed by information technology produces 4%. One of the biggest energy hogs is data centres, those mysterious, blackout-proofed hives of interlinked servers which guarantee the integrity of stored data and the smooth operation of the internet -- and munch and crunch their way through heaps of fossils in the process.



Recently there's been a rush to make environmentally-friendly data centres. Iceland's clean water, stable power and cool air make it an ideal location for them, and last week Data Íslandia announced a collaboration with Hitachi to build an environmentally friendly archive for storing digital information in the town of Sandgerdi, on the Reykjanes peninsula -- the country's most geologically-stable area. The digital data archive was designed by Danish architect Robert Örn Arnarson, who was inspired by Icelandic turf farms, and construction will start this summer. Five or six more such centres will be built in Iceland over the next five years.



The Sandgerdi data centre will have a moss roof. Putting plants on the roof doesn't just drop a building into the landscape, it can absorb excess water, protect the materials of the roof from the sun, and increase the diversity of flora and fauna. Browsing round the Centre for Architecture in Vienna last week, I saw an Austrian example -- the turf-roofed huts you see above. And visitors to London's Horniman Museum can see the grass-roofed, passively-ventilated Centre for Understanding the Environment building, designed by Archetype:



The Scottish architect Kathryn Findlay has worked with grass roofs too, building them into projects like Grafton New Hall. Findlay researched the roofs at the University of Tokyo, probably in tandem with Terunobu Fujimori, whose own buildings have put leeks on roofs. Let's let Fujimori be our guide to the dying (but reviving) art of Shibamune: thatched roofs with plants growing on them. This is an extract from his essay "Background of my Work":

"Most people are unfamiliar with the Japanese word Shibamune, the name applied to thatched roofs with plants growing on them. On old thatched roofs, you can see such plants as penpen gusa (shepherd's purse) and moss, but I would caution you to pay particular attention to the positions and specific types of plants you see. If you discern plants lined up horizontally on the ridge of the roof, or if the plants you see are noshiba (Zoysia japonica), ichikatsu (a small type of iris), iwahiba (selaginella), oniyuri (a type of lily) or nira (leek), you should consider yourself lucky, for you will have found a true example of this ancient Japanese roofing method, which is on the verge of extinction.

"It is not yet clear when the practice began, but on the Japanese islands, especially the Pacific Ocean side of eastern Japan and the middle part of the moutainous areas, people have somehow developed the custom of using plants such as those above, which can withstand dry conditions, to form the ridge of the roof. Normally, when people covered their roofs with grass and built the ridge, they would finish by supporting the ridge with cypress bark or a cypress beam.



"I can't remember exactly when I first learned of Shibamune. Since the area of Shinshu, where I was born and grew up, is one of the best-known Shibamune areas in Japan, maybe the first time was when I went to the mountains to see these roofs. Certainly, there was not one Shibamune house in my village when I was a child. As far as I remember, the first Shibamune I saw was one with iwahiba plants.

"I became interested in Shibamune six years ago when I found a book entitled "Visiting the Flower Gardens of Shibamune Roofs" (Yasaka Shobo, 1991) written by the late Shunji Watari, who was the only Shibamune researcher in Japan. Since then, I have searched around as much as possible to find Shibamune roofs, but unfortunately there are hardly any remaining. Even in Shinshu, which Mr Watari said was the greatest Shibamune area until the Second World War, there are only three or four left now.

"As this method of roofing has almost disappeared, the only cases of Shibamune to be found as a group are now in the northern part of Iwate Prefecture and the eastern half of Aomori Prefecture, which used to be the old Nambu feudal clan's territory. I would guess that hundreds of Shibamune remain in these areas.

"Now I would like to introduce some examples from Ninohe in Iwate Prefecture. There are five or six Shibamune roofs remaining in one farm village in Ninohe within earshot of the Tohoku railway line. Every one of them looks as though at least 10 years have passed since any maintenance has been carried out. However, they are quite interesting because they do not look like buildings but rather, as I look at the green grass rising thickly above the swelling brown of the thatched roofs, something different. From a little distance, it looks as though green lines have been drawn smoothly with a brush from the tops of the roofs to the sky, and dots of light above the green swing as the wind blows. What on earth was growing there?"

The answer may soon be: data.