The Kloeckner Metals York branch has partnered with Living Canopies to produce the world’s first shade umbrella to utilize plant life instead of a fabric canopy. The Living Umbrella is a patio sized umbrella with a steel frame that can host a variety of different plants. It is portable, durable, and contains its own irrigation system.
“It keeps nice, beautiful living flowers so that people can enjoy nature in a little different way,” says Dave Tilley, CEO of Living Canopies and Associate professor at the University of Maryland. “In our research lab at the University of Maryland, we are always trying to figure out ways that we can couple natural systems to solve human problems.”
The plant’s soil is kept aloft in the center of the umbrella, and a smart irrigation system keeps the plant hydrated. A solar panel charges a battery that powers the system, which automatically detects when the soil is dry and the plant needs watering. A five gallon reservoir of water feeds the system, and biweekly plant maintenance is an included service.
“The idea was that we wanted to make it so it was mobile, like on somebody’s patio or sun deck,” Dave says. “Basically you have a container of soil that can fill with water, so there is going to be quite a bit of weight overhead. The other thing that is important is being able to withstand high winds. So we needed the strength of steel.”
Dave first came up with the idea for the Living Umbrella beneath the unforgiving Las Vegas Sun. He was out at the hotel pool, which didn’t have any shade umbrellas. Dave noticed that people were huddling in the shade provided by the few plants decorating the area.
“At that point I just thought, ‘Why don’t we put vegetation on umbrellas?’” Dave says.
In addition to the shade provided by the plants, the Living Umbrella also is able to cool the air around it. Through the process of transpiration, the process by which the plants pull water from the soil and release it into their leaves, the plants draw heat energy from the surrounding air. Through this process, the plants can actually lower the ambient temperature by upwards of five to ten degrees Fahrenheit.
“Basically when you sweat, you get water on your skin,” Dave explains. “Then when that water is evaporated from your skin, what is going on is that it is changing from a liquid to a vapor. In order to do that, it takes a huge amount of energy. All that heat that you had is physically absorbed into the vapor. The plants are doing something very similar in terms of the physics.”
One of the popular plants currently being used in Living Umbrellas is the Mandevilla vine. In addition to being a beautiful, tropical flower, the Mandevilla also creates a great habitat for hummingbirds. Beyond flowering vines, which are popular for their aesthetic qualities, the Living Canopies team is also experimenting with various other plants.
“Depending on the species you use for the plant, you can do an edible plant like a green bean, or grape, and we’ve even tried some hops that you use to make beer with,” Dave says.
After what Dave calls their “beta sales summer,” Living Canopies is looking to improve the Living Umbrella and expand sales. The group has received an award from the state of Maryland to further develop the product. As part of the grant, they will be testing the Living Umbrella in a wind tunnel at the University of Maryland. These tests will be designed to determine the ability of the umbrella to withstand high storm winds, an area in which it has already shown great potential compared to traditional umbrellas.
“We were able to videotape one during a storm,” Dave says. “It was about 45 mph wind, and it didn’t even budge. Basically, the wind blows right through the plant canopies.”
So far the living canopies have sold well with restaurants seeking to liven up their patio space. The Umbrellas have been featured in garden shows, and the potential for growing edible plants on them adds another dimension. Hotels have also shown interest, as well as a few homeowners.
“The response has just been overwhelmingly positive,” Dave says. “One of the homeowners we sold to, he saw it in a restaurant. He called us up immediately wanting to buy one. He said that, ‘This is the best product I’ve seen in 10 years.’”
Steven Nghe is currently the Head of Marketing & Communications at Kloeckner Metals. Nghe is a marketing professional with more than 14 years of experience in various environments and industries. His goal is to tell you about the sexy side of steel. Nghe holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Management with a concentration in Marketing from North Carolina State University. Prior to Kloeckner, Nghe worked for Delta Dental, Wells Real Estate Funds, Georgia Institute of Technology and Doosan.