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Vertical Grounds

Cork gives life to sustainable vertical gardens

Interview with Mac Van Dam, author of the project “Vertical Grounds”

Cork is the main protagonist of Mac Van Dam’s project, “Vertical Grounds” - presented at the 2022 Lisbon Architecture Triennale. The installation is composed of large organic structures, in which the dark colour of the expanded agglomerated cork contrasts with the green hues of the natural plants. It aims to offer an ecological alternative to conventional vertical garden systems.

During his trip to Portugal, the Canadian designer visited our premises and told us a little more about his work, which benefited from technical support from ACC Design Studio and Amorim Cork Insulation.

  • Can you tell us about the creative process behind your project, “Vertical Grounds”?

    "Vertical Grounds" is an ongoing design and research project that attempts to push the limits of cork fabrication while searching for ecological alternatives to conventional greenwall (vertical garden) systems. After building and researching several greenwalls, I realised that there are two primary problems that need to be addressed if greenwalls are going to become truly ecological and make a contribution to healthier cities. First, greenwall systems must stop using plastic. Second, there needs to be abundant space for the plants’ roots to grow into maturity, and thus become resilient and structural. The project “Vertical Grounds” confronts these issues by designing cork tapestries that host rich bio-diversities.

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You used cork for your project “Vertical Grounds”. Why did you choose this raw material and how did you apply it?

The ecological role of cork and its primary molecule, suberin is to serve as a protective barrier for the tree’s roots and other vascular systems. Cork is anti-microbial and hydrophobic and therefore seemed to be an ideal natural material to replace plastic in greenwall systems.

After experimenting with cork at UCL’s Bio-ID Lab, I developed a novel cork bio-plastic which I use to reinforce CNC-milled hollow cork components. After robotically milling expanded cork blocks into hollow forms, I collect the waste powders from the process and transform them in to a bio-plastic, without using any synthetic binders. I then robotically extrude this paste on to the hollow forms, to increase the structural integrity of the components, while creating a closed-loop fabrication process. This allowed me to create highly expressive components, alluding to baroque design and fundamental geometries found in nature. My goal is to create a larger wall where we can watch vines and flowering plants grow into maturity.

“This project would not have been possible without the support of Amorim.”

The Canadian designer Mac Van Dam received technical assistance from ACC Design Studio, and cork from Amorim Cork Insulation, for his project, “Vertical Grounds.

Cork is increasingly being chosen by architects and designers, by virtue of its natural characteristics. In your opinion, should sustainability play a key role in architectural projects?

As cities continue to grow, bio-diversity loss is increasing. As an architect and designer, I feel it is important to counter this trend by re-introducing living organisms, such as plants, into urban spaces. One way to do this is by embedding them into our architecture. Living organisms are able to capture carbon and pollutants in the air, while creating micro-climates for other organisms, such as birds and bees.

Furthermore, there are many studies that indicate people prefer environments that have visible bio-diversity. As our digital world continues to expand and become a larger presence in our social lives, it is important not to forget about the beauty found in the physical world. I hope to create spaces and objects that re-engage people with the incredibly important physical, material and ecological world.

What made you choose Amorim? Tell us a little about how our team helped complete this project.

This project began when Raquel Laranjeira introduced me to Cork, while she was running a workshop for designers at Domain de Boisbuchet. There we shared a vision about cork’s possible contribution to bio-design, and we forged a strong relationship. This project would not have been possible without the support of Amorim. The knowledge of the community and the desire to work with experimenting designers has truly created a unique and powerful output.

About Mac Van Dam

Mac Van Dam is an interdisciplinary designer who works between London and Toronto. He studied Bio-Integrated Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University of London and was a research fellow in the Living Architecture Systems Group at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He has taken part in exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, Lisbon Triennale and has worked with several brands and artists.

About the Lisbon Architecture Triennale

The Lisbon Architecture Triennale is a non-profit association whose mission is to research, foster and promote architectural thinking and practice. It organises several initiatives and holds a major forum every three years for the debate, discussion and dissemination of architecture across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.


Credits: Photographer Manuel Casanova

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