Portanuova’s green thumb
Giulio Arnoldi, passionate founder and CEO of HW style – an Italian company with over 30 years of experience in design, creation, and maintenance of interior and exterior green spaces – talks to us about biophilia, NASA research, and the BAM.
PN: What is your role at HW style?
GA: I am its founder and CEO, with business duties. I like to follow clients and projects personally. The company has grown a lot, we are 220 now. We lead the green design sector in Italy, and have some projects abroad too.
PN: How did you approach the green design world? Is it a passion turned profession?
GA: My family was in the indoor plant (mostly flowers) business. In 1988, after coming back from military service, I launched HW style on my own. When I was 21, as soon as I completed my degree in Agricultural Sciences, I started, indeed, with indoor plants. Then, I gradually shifted from the design, realization, and maintenance of greenery at banks, offices, and restaurants to terraces, as the company took shape.
PN: Do you take work home with you?
GA: Yes, there is a lot of green in my private life too. Work is a fundamental part of my life, but ours is still an old economy related to the “nuts and bolts” of the job.
PN: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
GA: Yes, but not a radical one. Environmental protection is a priority. It gets on my nerves even when I see a piece of paper on the floor as I exercise outdoors, but I don’t go to any demonstrations. My effort concerns projects with local administrations, such as management of agricultural areas.
PN: The Office in the Woods of Madrid is perhaps the maximum expression of “green office”. What does your workplace look like?
GA: We have a greenhouse where we hold meetings too. And as you can see (turns PC camera to show the great indoor plants) green is an integral part of our interior design.
PN: Do you prefer to “design” the green indoors or outdoors?
GA: It makes no difference, I always fall in love with every single project, whether it is incredibly verdant or not, inside or outside buildings.
PN: And which do you prefer between the design, creation, and maintenance phases?
GA: The creation is an exciting moment, but maintenance is the most important phase, because even if you create the most beautiful garden in the world, it will wither if you don’t maintain it. It is easier to set up than to maintain, because there are numerous, often unpredictable factors to manage in the latter activity.
PN: Could you give me a couple tangible examples of that “passion for perfection” you mention on the homepage of your website?
GA: Maintenance must be previously analysed and requires state-of-the-art gardening tools, staff training, and verification of the final result: all of this adds up to perfection. In the application phase, you may instead create a hanging garden ignoring the layer nobody will see – the water drainage layer – but this negligence may be costly. The creation of the BAM, for instance, is the expression of a perfect design under every aspect.
PN: Tell us about a short, but nevertheless strenuous project.
GA: It concerns an event that will take place a few months from now: the Venice Biennale. The project was commissioned by a British firm, which asked us a classic Venetian flooring, combined with greenery. Given it is in Venice, the job requires an extremely complex engineering operation, especially in terms of transportation, logistics, and material dismantling.
PN: A recent article by Forbes discusses biophilia: a biological and genetic tendency towards nature and the psychophysical advantages it brings. Is it your clients that ask you for biophilic designs (as a “breakthrough” for their workplace) or is it you that offers them? Are they already educated on the topic?
GA: There used to not be an attention by the media and by professionals towards this connection between man and nature. We discuss this more and more often with our customers, and architecture firms do their part. Companies that change headquarters, for example, design their spaces in this scope.
PN: Speaking of greenery at the office, NASA research shows how plants absorb polluting agents from furniture and from the electromagnetic waves of devices. Do you know about this scientific evidence?
GA: Not to mention the glues in fitted carpets, paints, the outside air, or the air from A/C or heating systems: indoor pollution is increasingly higher, and lowers efficiency at the workplace. The NASA study, which was performed in the 1970s and then integrated with new data confirms that in an environment without plants, the level of Volatile Organic Compounds and CO2 is very high, with the risk of SBS (Sick Building Syndrome) affecting productivity, and even increasing absenteeism. Oppositely, when a plant is introduced every 10-12 m2, such compounds diminish and individual output rises.
PN: So plants bear the burden of this syndrome?
GA: They absorb pollution and turn it into oxygen by means of photosynthesis. When we talk about deforestation, we talk about, indeed, a growing amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is what happens, at a small-scale, in our offices. In the absence of light, plants emit CO2, but always in a lower amount than the oxygen they release.
PN: In practical terms, what has changed throughout this period of emergency?
GA: I got very scared during the first lockdowns because of the number of people on the team, so I immediately implemented any activity possible to reduce in-house infections. We even widened some of the outdoor spaces we once used as a living room, and are currently an open-air cafeteria that we will re-open in the spring and summer. But our job is even on-site: you cannot cut grass or pick up leaves in smart-working mode. Nonetheless, we try to apply every possible action to comply with the law even when we do work in person.
PN: Besides the protective equipment and the legislation, what is the greatest challenge you and your team face?
GA: The organization of outgoing staff, with suitable and always sanitized vehicles as well as the appropriate equipment. In the beginning, the gardeners even wore latex gloves under their work gloves…
PN: What is your role at Portanuova?
GA: We are in charge of the maintenance of the entire area, from Piazza Gae Aulenti, to the Varesine promenade, to the BAM and Bosco Verticale. We have permanent teams at the BAM – a point of reference for the people of Milan – every day. Even the Bosco requires a strong effort, but it is a pleasure to have maintained it for over 4 years now.
PN: What do you think about the design work for the BAM, performed by Dutch architecture firm Inside Outside|Petra Blaisse?
GA: An immense creation, a one-of-a-kind in Italy. Petra Blaisse designed it with a northern-European vision, which seems to be spot-on indeed. I have walked with her at the park during her visits, as we watched the project grow.
PN: What direction is green interior design going towards?
GA: As for the outside, the Bosco Verticale remains the cream of the crop; an international point of reference. As for the interior, with smart working alternating with office work, workplaces will be reorganized more and more. I am extremely happy to notice that the inclusion of greenery at the office is growingly popular, so that the workplace may be as liveable as our homes.
PN: In areas that cannot count on aquifers such as Milan, how can this vital “energy” demand for plants be satisfied? Expanded clay?
GA: Expanded clay works as a substrate, but does not generate a water reserve. In areas where there is less water, you need to implement smart irrigation to reduce waste, and garden design including “unthirsty” plant species. Where water is missing completely, instead, we need to reduce lawns and focus on low-consumption groundcover plant gardens.
PN: What Italian and foreign projects would you have wanted to follow?
GA: As the coordinator of the BAM project, I can consider myself gratified. Outside of Italy, definitely the High Line in New York, a linear park created over a decommissioned section of elevated railway. A beautiful and ambitious project.
PN: Let us recycle a question we asked to the agronomist-landscape designer Laura Gatti: do you talk to plants?
GA: What did she answer?
PN: She said it is plants that talk to her, because when they see her they say “help! She wants to take us up there!”.
GA: Very good answer (laughs). No, I don’t talk to plants. I only need to observe and listen to them to understand them.
PN: What makes you happy in your work?
GA: Seeing a project evolve from zero; watching it take shape after overcoming a thousand issues and setbacks. I am lucky, because I do a job I like. Plus I work with people who work happily, this makes me happy too. I was about to forget: don’t be scared to put a little plant in your bedroom; it’s always us who consume more oxygen and emit more CO2!