I fell in love with Living Walls in 1987 when I went to Europe after college graduation.
My degree background was in science and I was headed to grad school in the fall. Having grown up in farm country and with most of my jobs being in landscape, I appreciated plants but I had never heard of or seen a living wall. While moving around Europe, my eye was drawn to walls intentionally covered in plants and they jumped out at me everywhere. They made lots of sense to me and were beautiful in a way I had not imagined before. Living walls fascinated me then and I am now amazed that they have been the focal point of my career……but not how I had planned it.
In the early 90’s when I was setting out to create my first Living Retaining Wall System, no sooner than the first walls went up, did the drive to understand how to make them successfully grow over with healthy plants and stay that way become front and center to my mission. Lots of history, relationships and many stories have shaped my understanding of the subject. For the purpose of this post, I will stick to the main points and will offer some deep dives in other posts over time, so keep coming back for more.
Here I will cover the main issue any designer will need to overcome if they are to be successful with the specification and performance of living walls. Living Walls or Green Walls come in many types and perform in service applications from structural to facades and slopes to vertical. They all have the same needs and many of the questions discussed here apply to them all. Living Walls are environmentally beneficial while naturally beautiful, which makes them a great tool for Green Building but will not be utilized as often as they should, until more well thought out systems become available and specifiers become comfortable with their successful grow-in.
Its a fact that vendors will not discuss but most systems that claim to be living walls or to support plants covering the face are line extensions of non-living systems that have not been well thought out for the living applications they are sold for.
Plants grow in soil.
The more soil in the face the better and great soil, appropriate to the plants intended is even better. Living Wall vendors must understand this and communicate it.
If the product vendor cannot show how a large quantity of the right soil gets into the face, accurately every time…. they are not offering a properly thought out system.
Potential living wall systems must securely hold the soil so that it stays in place long-term or the plants will not be long-term either.
A qualified living wall system vendor will know exactly how many cubic feet of the right soil is held securely in the face of their system…. or living walls is not really their business model.
Well thought living wall systems will have several ways for plants to be introduced into their facings. Whether from seed mixed in the soil during installation or blown on the face after installation or live plugged into the face during or after structural completion. Their system will elegantly accommodate the method of introduction and they can quantify it and stand behind it. Its complicated and more to discuss that I care to type in this blog post.
Lastly, water is a key factor that can overcome poor seasonality of construction or harsh weather patterns to bring success to vegetation grow-in. Not all walls can be irrigated or need it but if a system has not designed an elegant system to add irrigation to their facing system…. they are not really in the living wall business. Again, lots more to discuss but this is a good start.
There is so much more to cover and it leaves me with plenty of room to run in later blog segments. Proper vendor and product selection is a major factor in the ultimate success of a living wall so this is a great place to start.