27 Jun Greening the Grey: Interview with the ladies behind Vivacity
From time to time we come across innovative and forward-thinking projects which grow our garden of curiosity until it begins to overflow! In this interview, we hear from two inspiring women Vanya Veras and Pia Vassallo, who have embarked on creating a business that offers a unique, highly sustainable product and service helping to transform homes on the Maltese islands. Their brand is “Vivacity” and their business model – “A Mediterranean green rooftop ecosystem that can survive the oven-hot weather and desiccating winds just like the wild plants do, with little water.” Following this intriguing summary, here’s a bit more of what we learnt from the women behind the brand…
Ladies, you sound very inspirational to us already. Tell us more about yourselves…how and why did you begin this journey?
Vanya: I have always felt very close to nature and because of this, chose a career in environmental protection. Growing up in Athens and the Peloponnese, I’d be be up a tree reading a book, lying in the grass, gardening with my father, riding my bike and walking in nature for hours on end. Initially this led to Brussels and working in environmental legislation – primarily waste management. During my 6 years working in Greece, I met a green roof system developer and was fascinated by his understanding of the local ecosystem and how when applied to a roof, it could dramatically reduce energy consumption. This led me to analyse how much CO2 could be avoided and absorbed as this was a way to counter climate change. I worked with him for 3 years before returning to Brussels and at the end of 2016, moved to Malta. During our first summer here, I felt the dust and the extreme heat in our house which forced me to put on the air conditioning – something I truly dislike, both as I find it unhealthy and because of all the energy it consumes. I then found that as soon as the air-conditioner was switched off, it was as though it had never been on. At this point I said to myself that I just had to bring the benefits of green roofs and green walls to Malta!
Pia: I feel happiest when I am in nature. I would choose wellies and flip flops over high heels any day! I remember reading an article on global warming and sustainability in my late teens. These were novel concepts to me but it was from that moment that I became aware of the environment and the consequences of our actions on the planet.
At University I met one of Malta’s pioneers in environmental activism – “Choppy”, Julian Manduca. He taught me a lot, making me aware of certain environmental and social issues I hadn’t known about previously. A few years after University, I left Malta and settled in the UK, remaining there for 15 years. Here I worked in media and education while raising a family in the Sussex countryside. In this part of the world, sustainability, respect for nature and organic farming were very much part and parcel of every day life. This became a lifestyle for me so when I came back to Malta 7 years ago, it was hit by a huge culture shock! The reason we returned to the island, was for a more laid back Mediterranean lifestyle, yet we discovered it was the opposite. Malta had changed so much!
Suddenly from being very much immersed in nature, I was living in a concrete jungle. The construction, the dust, noise pollution, lack of urban green spaces, traffic jams, made me feel helpless.
So when Vanya asked me to join her as a business partner I jumped at the opportunity. I very much believe that we can all make a difference. 25% of Malta is built up and the most densely populated country in Europe. 5 people a week lose their lives due to air pollution in Malta and we are slowly losing our beautiful countryside to more and more construction. Taking all these issues into consideration, it just seems logical to use our flat roofs and mitigate the environmental issues we all have to live with such as air pollution and the destruction of our biodiversity. I would love to see a more sustainable, greener Malta.
How would you describe the work that you do in a nutshell?
We create self-sustaining ecosystems for roofs and walls that bring electricity savings, pollution control, flood avoidance and biodiversity to each building we green.
Where does the name of your brand “Vivacity” come from?
We originally chose the name because we were thinking of ‘vivacious’ plants and plant growth. Then we realised that is also means an alive city, a living city- VIVA CITY, which made us love it even more. Our logo is also one of the ancient Greek symbols for life.
Do you have more than one type of client? Who are they?
Our clients include everyone really. We have had private individuals, NGOs, heritage organisations, public bodies, private companies and even schools contact us. People are becoming more aware of the environment and the benefits of green infrastructure.
What do you aim to achieve from building green rooftops to mimic the Mediterranean ecosystem?
Our aims are multiple, as the positive environmental and social impacts of our sustainable Mediterranean rooftop ecosystems are numerous and we are both very enthusiastic about achieving them all.
One of our goals is to increase the amount of living greenery per person in Malta and to help reach the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum of 9m2 per person.
Also to reduce the overall need for heating and cooling buildings, the urban heat island effect and air pollution in Malta – which will also first reduce and then eliminate the need to purchase carbon credits from other EU countries. We also aim to increase the surface area of greenery that can absorb rainwater and avoiding flooding.
Our green roof ecosystems attract and support local biodiversity so another of our aims is to positively impact Malta’s farming community and their ability to embrace chemical free farming methods.
How recent is the concept? What has been the response to your work so far?
Green roofs were developed in Germany in the 1980s and have since spread throughout the world. A green roof in Germany compared to one in Malta is very different, even though they follow the same basic principles. The concept of Mediterranean green roofs and the technique we use was created in Greece in 2007, arriving in Malta in 2018. So too the idea of safely putting plants on a roof in a green roof system was new to Malta as it is a very difficult thing to do in a hot, arid climate. Interest is growing and we have successfully installed a number of green roofs and walls in Malta which are all thriving.
What are the challenges presented to you by this business? How do you manage to overcome such scenarios?
Our challenges right now are the same as for any growing start-up. We are getting busier and are looking to scale up. We are tackling each challenge one at a time such as finding the right people for our team.
How do you envision your work developing in the not so distant future?
We expect demand to increase as Maltese citizens have realised through COVID19, that they need to make their home environments more comfortable, more energy efficient and greener. With only balconies and roofs as outdoor space during the lockdown, it became much more apparent that gaining living space by improving the roof environment is important.
In addition, The European Green Deal and the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals are pushing for a greener, sustainable circular economy. Both stress the importance of green affordable energy, preserving and restoring biodiversity, resilient communities and energy efficient buildings. Green infrastructure plays an important part in fulfilling the goals set by the UN SDGs and The European Green Deal. We believe that Malta should embrace the European Green Deal and lead in this transformation towards a climate-neutral, green and circular economy.
What do you hope to achieve for yourselves and your business?
Making a difference is at the forefront of any decision we take. We aim to continue being leaders in sustainable green infrastructure and nature-based solutions.
Our hope to grow the business to create a positive effect on our environment and community, as well as well as provide a healthy, work environment for each member of our growing team.
We want to achieve that growth by greening as many roofs as possible. Our focus is on roofs more than walls, as roofs provide much more efficient thermal insulation and flood relief.
Do you believe that attitudes to the environment and house-building trends on the islands are changing?
Having been back on the island a few years now, we’ve witnessed a gradual awareness by locals of environmental issues, in particular pollution. People are waking up to the importance of nature-based solutions such as green infrastructure.
With regard to construction trends, we collaborate with many architectural firms who are now building for energy efficiency, looking at incorporating green infrastructure and going back to ancient practices of water efficiency and storage.