Dave Tilley’s office wall is covered in a work of art that depicts people’s relationship to nature. That’s because he has spent much of his career researching how we, humans, interact with nature.

Nature provides us with sustenance, spirituality and beauty. Our connection to nature is one that we should never forget, says Dave, so when he started a business with 2 of his former students, he wanted people to see how nature can benefit them in direct ways. One benefit is the natural cooling power of plants and Dave wanted to see if he could use that to make urban spaces more comfortable and more beautiful.

The idea was spawned one day on a warm Vegas pool deck. Dave and his family were enjoying themselves at their hotel’s pool deck, when Dave started to feel uncomfortably hot. Dave was experiencing the urban heat island effect, where concrete and other building material build up heat from the sun, warming the local climate. He looked for some shade but they deck had no shade umbrellas and only a few shrubs in planter boxes. In fact people had huddled around the shrubs because they were the only shade on the deck.

That’s when Dave came up with the idea of a shade structure made of plants - a living shade umbrella. He returned to the University of Maryland and recruited 2 former students, Nick and Tim, to prototype a design. The first model was made in our project development lab from found parts, including a wok donated by the University’s Dining Services. We named our prototype “Mandy” after the mandevilla vines we used in the canopy.

During this time, the University convinced Dave, Tim and Nick to participate in a “customer discovery” process. Customer discovery is the process of building empathy for customers by interviewing them in-person and listening to them. In our first 7-weeks of customer discovery, the team interviewed 101 people in the restaurant, hotel and green-building industry.

We took what we learned and re-designed our product to better meet their needs. A stand-alone solar watering system was developed to reduce plant maintenance for the busy urban environment. The structure was made sturdy and safe, so that high winds would not topple the umbrella on the patio.

While green roofs and green walls protect buildings, the Living Umbrella protects people.  It aims to have people intimately enjoy  nature so their lives’ are more pleasant. The Living Umbrella literally envelops a person in nature  

We believe that by using living plants to shade and beautify, we can remind people of their connection to nature.