[Quick Guide] An Introduction to Green Wall Systems

Living walls are quickly gaining ground (or wall, to be exact) as a hot new trend in green building and interior landscape design. And they are sprouting up worldwide.

Hotels, offices, airports, hospitals, restaurants, car dealerships, retailers, and even residential customers have already embraced this amazing technology.

The Benefits

So, what’s the big deal? Well, living walls integrate greenery into urban and indoor environments that otherwise lack vegetation; the benefits are numerous! First, living walls can cleanse the air and filter out carcinogenic air pollutants (consider some of these plants). Next, living wall systems can naturally moderate air temperature and humidity levels, potentially decreasing energy costs. Moreover, the plants used in a living wall can soothe the soul and increase worker productivity. Finally, living walls can serve as superb marketing features for you and your client. Whether serving as a living work of art or as a green-image booster, living walls draw significant attention. Overall, these benefits double as selling points for interested clients. What’s not to love?

How does it work?

Simply put, vegetation covering a vertical surface is a living wall. In execution, however, it’s not quite that simple. Living walls (also called green walls, living green walls, eco-walls, or vertical gardens) require project-specific innovation and several components to overcome the challenge of bringing sufficient light, water, and nutrients to plants on a vertical plane.

Characteristics vary from product to product, but some common characteristics and options include:

  • Weight
    • 10-20 lbs per sf, fully saturated
  • Attachment
    • Structural wall
    • Supporting structure
    • Freestanding
  • Systems
    • Modular panels or fabric layers
    • Designed for root support, water retention, and drainage
    • Soil-based or soilless
    • Some systems may integrate with HVAC
  • Irrigation
    • Integrated drip irrigation
    • Direct-sourced from the tap or recirculated from a storage tank
    • Fertilizer typically delivered via irrigation
  • Lighting
    • Lighting will dictate the plant palette
    • Interior living walls: near skylights or windows, may require supplemental grow lighting
    • Outdoor systems: orientation, nearby shade from buildings, trees, seasonal light
  • Plants
    • Interior: tropical plants that thrive in low-light
    • Exterior: succulents, perennials, grasses, ferns, wildflowers, and even food.
    • Modules arrive pre-planted or planted on-site

Recommendations

If you are interested in carrying/installing living wall systems, take the time to research product specifications and assess the pros and cons. Contact the manufacturers and ask for technical documents and product samples. If you can, install and evaluate working demo systems to determine the system(s) you prefer. Demos also allow you to evaluate plant varieties (especially relevant if you plan to install exterior systems). Choose a system that fits with your organization’s available resources and your client’s needs.

Depending on your expertise and experience, you may also have to collaborate with irrigation experts, grow-lighting experts, structural engineers, architects, landscape architects, and artists to get a project done. Outside help might increase costs initially, but you’ll quickly climb the learning curve and gain expertise without making reputation-harming mistakes.

Green for Green

NatGeo Greenwall Maintenance - GSky Versa Wall

-GSky Versa Wall Maintenance

If your clients are committed to greening their vertical space, they should be prepared to shovel out $100-300 per square foot for an installed living wall. That sounds like a lot, but take into account the continual product R & D, project planning and design, outside expertise, materials, growing media, plant materials, grow-out time, and installation. And keep in mind that costs vary according to scale, location, accessibility, plant palette, plant design, custom features, and project timeline.

The client must also be prepared for on-going maintenance. Along with thoughtful pre-design, stewardship is vital to long-term project success. Many reputable installers require maintenance contracts for the first year or two to ensure plant establishment and proper system function. I would be reluctant to even install a living wall if the client declines first-year maintenance. Beyond establishment, continued stewardship is still recommended to promote long-term plant health and to maintain aesthetics.

If a client is concerned about price and maintenance costs, recommend a scaled-down system, a simpler plant design, and lower-maintenance plants. Remember to also express value; living walls may increase savings through higher productivity, decreased energy bills, and boosted profit via ‘wow-factor’ marketing.

The Bottom Line

Living Walls are new and significant financial investments, but integrating nature into urban and indoor environments begets numerous benefits, enhances our lives, and improves our health. Your clients may be willing to pay for that.

 

National Geographic Versa Wall System photos courtesy of GSky

Mark is an accredited LEED Green Associate with a background in green wall research and product management and expertise in sustainability, ecology, green infrastructure, and green building. He currently works at Bela Flor Nurseries, a large wholesale supplier of annuals and perennials.

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  • Cindy Doorn-Nylen

    Are you going to be carrying a line of green wall systems?

    • Jeremy Dearringer

      Thanks for the comment Cindy! We LOVE comments. We’re evaluating our options with regards to green wall systems for 2015. We intend to cover a wide range of topics on the blog regardless of whether or not we carry specific products. Our goal is to educate and entertain plant professionals. Selling our products is secondary and a by-product of providing holistic value to the industry.

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