No longer just of interest to architectural companies looking to win innovative design awards, living walls or vertical gardens are sprouting up all over the world. Defined as being vertical planting structures – an upright ecosystem, complete with irrigation and drainage support, these walls can exist in both interior and exterior locations. They can be standalone structures or integrated into the layout, in and around a building. Reaching above and beyond the average interior decor, living walls make for an interesting focal point while simultaneously enhancing the space around it. You want specifics? No problem. But first.
A bit of history:
Vertical gardens aren’t new; in fact, they’re an ancient concept. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which some scholars say date back to 600 BC, are the first recorded mention of a vertical plant system with built-in irrigation. In the descriptions that have survived of the garden, it was said to be a feat of engineering that includes multiple tiers of plants and flowers hanging across high brick walls. It was built by the King Nebuchadnezzar II to please his wife, who had moved from a lush, green area to marry him (because even back then, it was known that a happy wife means a happy life). The Gardens are the only of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world that archaeologists cannot reliably give a location to, though many areas in Iraq have been suggested as its possible home. Though the mythical gardens may have been a work of fiction, they serve as inspiration for some of the most breathtaking living walls created by designers today.
Fast forward to the 1930’s and the development of modern green walls with hydroponic systems. Stanley Hart White, a professor at the University of Illinois, developed an early version, while experimenting in his backyard; breaking ground without ever breaking ground. He called his invention “Botanical Bricks” and took steps to patent the concept, beginning in 1938. The ideas he outlined are still used as a framework for modern living green wall designers.
The most notable creator of green walls in the last two decades is Patrick Blanc. Patrick has authored several books on tropical plants as well as designing and installing contemporary living walls in parks and buildings in major cities around the world, including The Lafayette Galleries in Berlin, Sydney’s Central Park, and the French Embassy in New Delhi. After creating one of the most famous green walls at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, he was designated the godfather of the “vegetal wall”, sparking a movement in sustainable architecture.
Now for the details.
Much like our children, living walls or green walls are raised to be self sufficient, receiving water and nutrients from within the vertical support instead of from the ground. They differ from green facades (e.g. ivy walls) in that the plants root in a structural support, which is fastened to the wall itself. Green walls contain a large amount of plants in a relatively small space. By extending upwards, providing the maximum benefit for growth, foliage is installed without reducing space on the floor, leaving so much more room for activities!
Our modern society is all about image and nothing beats nature for beauty. A well-designed, flourishing green wall can drastically improve a building’s appearance, adding color and texture that won’t go out of fashion. Each wall can be specifically designed, using different varieties of plants which vary in color, growth and flower allowing your space to, literally, come to life!
Improved Air Quality – Ever since the industrial revolution, unstoppable modern advancements have increased air pollution. In built-up areas, polluting gases and particulate matter are turning our air toxic, but we can utilize nature to reverse the damage we’re causing. A recent study into the effectiveness of green infrastructure for improving air quality in urban street canons (the gaps between large buildings), found living green walls have a big impact. These gaps are hotspots for harmful pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, but living green walls have been shown to reduce levels by 40% and 60% respectively.
It’s not just pollutants outside that are a cause for concern, as there are plenty of toxins inside that can adversely affect our health too.
Sick building syndrome (yes, it’s a real thing) is an issue of modern times. Homes, offices, in fact most buildings in general, are filled with invisible toxic fumes that are silently choking us. This is of particular concern with the increasing number of people working indoors; a reported 80-90% of North Americans spend a significant period of the day inside. Countless toxins are leeching from our indoor environment, such as formaldehyde, VOCs, trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide and benzene, along with many others whose names are even harder to pronounce. It’s long been known that adding office or house plants can improve indoor air quality and interior green walls do just that, but on a much bigger scale.Reduced Energy Costs – Buildings are adversely affected by changing temperatures that cause materials to expand and contract, which over time leads to deterioration, cracks and fissures. Exterior living walls give buildings protection (think a giant green shield), not just from temperature fluctuations but also by diverting water away from walls during heavy rain and providing protection from UV radiation. Researchers have discovered another worrisome effect to the relentless civic sprawl, urban heat island effect, meaning metropolitan areas are considerably warmer that rural areas. This increase in temperature ups energy demands in the summer as well as air pollution and emissions. Living green walls help to offset this problem by providing shade from the effects of direct sunlight. Also, unlike brick or concrete, plant surfaces don’t store up solar energy, but reflect it. Both interior and exterior living walls help to actively cool the air in summer by a process called evapotranspiration, reducing the need to artificially cool the structure. But the advantages of green walls don’t end with bikini season. The panels add insulation to the building and reduce energy costs for heating in winter, as well. That’s 365 days of investment return, people!
Noise Reduction – Plants have long been used to reduce noise levels on freeways and other busy roadways across North America and Europe. Living green walls expand on this idea. Vegetation naturally blocks high frequency sounds while the supporting structure can help to diminish low-frequency noise. As the use of green walls increase, our non-rural environments could significantly change. Eradicating the din of the hustle and bustle we’ve had to adapt to sounds like music to our ears!
With so many benefits to health and happiness, living green walls are leading the metamorphoses of our homes and cities, bringing an end to concrete and lending a helping hand as nature reclaims our urban areas. No matter how you look at it, they are the future, so join the revolution, today!
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