An interesting movement in the architectural design of larger buildings, particularly corporate buildings, is the use of living walls as part of the interior space. A living wall is essentially a vertical garden (The Free Dictionary, 2011). As the name implies, it is a wall on which a single type or a variety of plants cover the entire vertical surface of the wall. They are structures or walls in which plants are placed vertically rather than horizontally as in a conventional garden. Loosely defined, living walls are structures where plants grow.
Figure 1: Edmonton Airport on Inhabitat
They can be naturally occurring (i.e. vine covered walls in some old houses) or intentionally constructed. Living walls can be built indoors or outdoors as desired with the indoor version sometimes requiring additional lighting. Plants are rooted in a special material that enables them to grip to the wall and a water filtration system is designed as a part of the wall to ensure the plants receive the water and nutrients they need to continue to thrive. Living walls are used not only to provide users of the space with a more aesthetically-pleasing experience but also as more effective air purifiers than most commercially available air filters working at peak performance. There are a great number of benefits available to employees, customers, and visitors to a space utilizing a living wall as some examples will show, but there are also some challenges to installing a living wall.
There are a number of advantages experienced by anyone using a space in which a living wall has been installed. At the same time that planting the garden area vertically conserves space for interior space planning purposes, the greatest benefits of living walls is offered by the plants themselves. Therefore, once any major challenges have been overcome in terms of design, lighting, etc, the benefits are passive and consistent.
Benefits to Employees
People who work inside building areas that are filled with plants are naturally healthier than people who work in a more sterile, plant-free environment. This is because plants have a strong ability to reduce indoor air pollution which has been scientifically proven. They do this by absorbing toxic gases and air-borne particles that tend to make people sick. At the same time, plants will naturally improve indoor air humidity levels and create ‘natural’ air indoors. While employees are spending their days breathing in healthier air, they are more able to stay healthy and fight off any illnesses they may encounter either from visiting customers or in the greater outside world.
Figure 2: Effects of Living Walls (self-generated image)
However, a physically healthier work atmosphere is just the start of how employees live healthier lives in the presence of a living wall. “The individual experience of the subject’s state of health can be at least partly explained by the following reasoning: an improved sense of well-being raises the levels of tolerance for irritation. Consequently, the individual will experience the indoor atmosphere more favorably if there are plants in the working environment” (Fjeld, 1996). In other words, seeing plants in the environment causes people to feel healthier and that mental sense of healthy surroundings functions within the individual to actually make them be physically healthier.
Benefits to the Company
Companies operating large corporate office buildings frequently spend thousands of dollars per year and tens of thousands in installing and maintaining the best high tech air filters they can acquire in order to keep control of the build-up of commonly used items within any given building which can be very harmful to human health. These chemicals, called VOCs, can be found in our cleaning supplies, printer toner or ink, plastics of various types, chemicals coming out of the carpeting or paint on the walls.
Figure 3: VOCs from Biowall
Items that contribute these chemicals to the environment cannot simply be removed because they can include computers, carpets, paints, glues, photocopiers and refrigerants such as those used in the air conditioning systems. When the concentration of VOCs reaches a certain level, they create a situation known as sick building syndrome (Indoor Air Facts, 2010). Although there are a number of high tech air scrubbers available and commercial filtration systems developed to address these problems, they all cost money to install, don’t contribute anything aesthetic to the building space, need consistent and often costly maintenance, and quickly become saturated requiring replacement (Biowall, 2010). Installing a living wall can meet many or sometimes even more of the air filtration requirements of a large building in a more efficient manner requiring, in many cases, less maintenance and, at the same time, contributes greatly to the aesthetic elements of the building without necessarily detracting space for ugly mechanics or producing annoying additional sound pollution.
Benefits to Customers
Visiting clients and customers to corporate buildings utilizing a living wall also benefit from the experience. Immediately upon entering the building, regardless of their reasoning for doing so, the presence of an artistic “garden” and a relaxing atmosphere leads naturally to a more positive and welcoming attitude. Rather than the cold, dark, austere greeting given by most corporate entries, a living wall is literally a breath of fresh air, offering warmth and acceptance. Visitors entering this environment become more relaxed in an instant, maybe without even realizing it, and develop an intrinsic sense of well-being they can’t generally pinpoint. This sense of well-being therefore becomes automatically associated with the character of the company and the individual employees the visitor encounters. This improved attitude on the part of visitors may increase profits for the company in a variety of ways. People may wish to stay longer, increasing the likelihood that they will buy or they may feel less annoyed or irritated and thus remain a customer when they had been considering changing to a different company in the same industry. Having an innovative design in the reception area may also improve the image of the building itself while reflecting back on the company as one that is concerned with the same concerns held by the rest of the world.
Living walls have been used in a number of buildings throughout the world to great effect, demonstrating many of the above benefits for their employees, their bottom line, and the visitors to their buildings as the below examples will demonstrate.
One of the most striking features of The ING Direct building in downtown Vancouver is an almost floor to ceiling living wall in several locations throughout the building space. Two of the most notable of these are the one in the lobby’s cafe and another one located within the manager’s office. The living wall in the cafe provides a strong contrast appearing in the space between two windows which look out onto a concrete city scene. This is a striking contrast from the old days when windows looked out on nature with a constructed element rising in between. Rising from a beautiful yet simple marble base in which the water system is held, the plants themselves are rooted in a recycled synthetic fiber substrate that is commonly used for living wall systems (Webb, 2011). The particular variety of plants used for this wall provides an interesting texture and rich green color to the neutral setting, encouraging visitors to relax and unwind. Splashes of reddish-colored plants reinforce the ‘living’ state of the wall by adding energy and a sense of movement. The plants selected are also selected because of their strong ability to filter odors, thus reducing the scents of preparing food while also providing fresh air for diners to enjoy. Similarly, the living wall in the manager’s office helps visitors relax in a normally tense environment. Instead of using reddish plants for contrast as was done in the cafe but which could reinforce the anxiety some people might feel upon being called into the manager’s office, the wall uses purple plants to reinforce a more soothing, creative, and productive mindset. According to users of the building, the system is highly effective in delivering an aesthetically-pleasing, soothing environment (Webb, 2011).
Figure 4: Ing Direct living wall
Queens University in Ontario also has a very impressive living wall. This one stands the entire height of the three-story building and stands within a specially constructed recessed area. Installed with the express intention of using it as an air purification system, this massive living wall has been so successful as an air filter for the building that the university has created a webpage dedicated to explaining it at http://livebuilding.queensu.ca/green_features/biowall. As the site explains, the size of the wall allows for larger plants to be incorporated including ferns and peace plants, some of the most effective air scrubbing plants on the planet. These plants are rooted in layers of a porous plastic material which will hold greater weight than the synthetic fiber substrate used at the ING Direct building. This material is then screwed into a concrete backing. Water drips between the concrete and the plastic, keeping the plants’ roots moist. According to the website, the roots of these plants tend to grow downward and can extend several stories long. At each of the three levels of the building, fans installed on the other side of the wall pull air through the wall and into the rest of the building’s interior area to ensure full air filtration throughout the structure. “The wall requires no more maintenance than any other indoor landscaping feature. The plants are all chosen to spread no pollen, and the constantly running water and fresh air stop mould from getting a foothold” (Biowall, 2010). The living wall has proven highly effective in filtering dangerous or unhealthy elements from the air of the building more efficiently than any form of commercially available filtration systems.
While it seems like a no-brainer decision to install a living wall in a corporate environment, there are some disadvantages to living walls that should be considered first. While commercial manufacturers of living walls advertise the idea that living walls can reduce overall power consumption (Green Walls, 2008), there is still relatively unstable data to support this claim. Living walls, depending on where they’re located and the available natural light entering the building, can require heavy use of energy-hungry specialized growth lights and timers to ensure the plants receive what they need to maintain growth. In addition to specialized lighting, living walls may require their own air filtration system, watering, nutrient supplementation and general maintenance, thus incurring additional expense. However, when compared to the cost of attempting to accomplish all of the benefits of a living wall via other means (large scale artworks, air scrubber filtration systems, etc.), these expenses are negligible, particularly when considered with all the additional benefits listed above.
Living walls have become highly popular in some of the largest buildings in the biggest cities because of the many benefits they have to offer. Essentially vertical gardens within the building space, they help keep people and buildings healthier, working as more effective air filters than anything manmade can provide while also presenting a pleasing environment, living walls can be a simple answer to multiple complex questions regarding how to improve work life, health, and experience. A living wall increases productivity, lowers stress, and improves the air quality and aesthetic value within the building. This in turn results in greater profits which makes it a worthwhile long-term investment.
- “Biowall.” Live Building. (2010). Web. http://livebuilding.queensu.ca/taxonomy/term/230
- “Edmonton Airport.” Inhabitat. 2014). Web. http://inhabitat.com/edmonton-airports-beautiful-new-living-green-wall-works-to-clean-the-air/
- Fjeld, Tøve. “Do plants in offices have a positive effect on health?” Dresden. November 14, 1996. Print.
- “Ing Direct Living Wall.” FunFlowerFacts. 2015. Web. http://funflowerfacts.com/2011/11/22/living-art-the-vertical-wave-of-the-future/
- “Indoor Air Facts No. 4: Sick Building Syndrome.” (2010). Indoor Air Quality. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2010. Web. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/sbs.html
- “Introduction to Green Walls Technology, Benefits and Design.” (September 2008). Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. September 2008. Print.
- “Living Walls.” The Free Dictionary. August 8, 2011. Web. http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/living+walls
- Webb, Kate. “Artistic Vertical Gardeners Boost Biodiversity and Energy Efficiency.” Green Ventures. January 28, 2011. Print.