Green Wall Deception, Death of a Green Wall…
Let me premise this post as a reality check for living walls. No pictures, no examples, just my opinion. Over the years of my experiences of trials, I’m seeing living wall failures masked with pictures and unreal expectations. Like the stock market, it is time for an adjustment to bring this industry back to a beneficial level of reality.
It has been over three years since my first post about Green Walls (March 2008). Since then we have seen a rise in popularity for green walls being used in advertising, cosmetics, and urban agriculture, with claims for green walls acting as additional insulation, adding 30 points to LEED credits, and even cutting electricity by 20%. In short, some of the pictures and the statements advertised are bordering on blatant fabrication.
In the 1990’s and 2000's it was Patrick Blanc's innovative hydroponic system leading the way and hoarding the attention for his lush, bountiful displays. Through his example, many, including myself, saw the potential of this industry. Today there are more than enough newcomers, some blatantly knocking off patented technologies; I can’t keep up with the system designs and claims. Plastic boxes with bags, wire mesh with jute fabric, racks that hold potted plants, Do It Yourself felt fabrics, most of these are deemed “One Time Use” with the development of such products destined to becoming a novelty with no proven longevity or use beyond a single outdoor growing season, not to mention becoming a potential safety hazard if hanging more than six feet off the ground.
Personally, I have read recent blogs and articles painting living walls in a negative light questioning the viability and longevity of green walls. Fair enough, you don’t see websites that highlight the failures. To my own testament, I, too, have had a wall removed because of the lack of experience from a maintenance perspective.
Since 2007 I can attest to my own development and data collection that has lead to our improved maintenance techniques, dramatically improving survivability. However, I have never seen a reduction of electricity by 20%, and a recent article explains how some systems actually cause a greater carbon footprint than they purport to reduce. Is it green wall deception?
There are many products available to the consumer, contractors, and various installers yet, in my opinion, a large majority of these lack the training and education to maintain the green walls after the installation. Let’s face it - the ability to use a level, cordless drill and a little physical exertion doesn’t make you a green wall expert. It is not only the system's design that's important, but the long term science and know-how that provides success: it’s the service after the sale.
And the greatest learning experience is a failure. Failure has been, frankly, my own motivation for improvement. The issue in the industry, and specifically with a few of the systems, is the fact they do the same thing, time and time again expecting different results.
I have seen everything from green roof media to top soil being used as a growing medium for living walls. Some now use a coir husk that simply acts as a holding mechanism for a root structure, while the chemical bath keeps the plants alive, or at least that is the way it’s supposed to work. The structural advances of living walls are far and few. As mentioned earlier, racks to hold potted plants, boxes with bags and felt pockets are nothing but a means to hold plant material.
The real advances are now in the growing medium and improving holding structures that promote healthy plants. The science behind the system is what will prove viable, long term success. Getting back to my earlier point, just because you can use a level and cordless drill does not make you a green wall expert. The true success is being able to sustain the walls in a manner that will prevent plant replacement year after year, or in some cases on a weekly basis.
The amount of knowledge needed for success in this arena is overwhelming. You have to be an expert in design, irrigation, indoor and outdoor plants, growth media, lighting, pest and disease management and fertilizers; this doesn’t sound like your average contractor. To compile the problem, there are more than enough bloggers, architects, designers and members of the industry who seem to have all the answers. There is more than enough information, some good and some not so good, in cyberspace to confuse anyone, if not everyone.
I believe living wall success will rely on the combination of skills from an individual or company that offers services from concept, installation and maintenance to long term warranties. Recently I heard of a wall being installed at a high profile college outside of Philadelphia where the owner was told, and accepted the fact that, “All the plants are going to die and will have to be replaced after the first year anyway.” This was astounding to me that such an assumption was even remotely acceptable.
The reality of living walls is the long term education and training that is associated with the ability to apply multiple disciplines. I’m going to quote myself, “If you have a potted plant and you place it in the dark closet, you don’t water or feed it and the plant dies, do you blame the pot?”
The same is true with living walls, you have to accept and understand that living walls require an extended know-how that cannot be provided by every landscaper, contractor and architect. The most frustrating situations for me have included the project owners who insist they can maintain the walls. This does nothing to help solve the failure rate and it puts living walls in a bad light when one does fail. These systems are not maintenance free. Providing a plant the needs to survive on a wall, at times over 10 stories high, is not a feat for the inexperienced, yet some consumers are fixated with the allure of living walls with little to no understanding for long term maintenance and survivability - and for that fact neither do some of the existing manufacturers. Designing and creating a holding structure is a far cry from being able to sustain the long term health of a living wall.
The other complicating issue involves the hype of the real benefits of living walls. Fact is I have personally yet to see any long term data that can prove anything concrete other than aesthetic improvements. I have posted our own data about the findings of our field studies, however, I have yet to see any formal long term data on energy savings.
One website claims that the living wall will protect the façade. Here is one piece of reality: rhetorically speaking, can I justify a living wall at the cost compared to the exterior façade replacement? Green walls will protect the façade, however, the façade is designed for the exterior use anyway, so by protecting it where is the real return on the investment? Where is the payback?
Preparing the façade and façade penetrations don’t protect a whole lot of anything, in fact you have now damaged the façade via the penetrations. Also, if the manufacturing system representative you chose is not knowledgeable about plant material, did you account for the potential plant replacement? And show me a living wall that can provide 20% savings on electricity, I would love to see it.
But not all is negative! I do agree the walls provide a wow factor and benefit employee production, improved air quality, improved acoustics and can be a viable use for urban agriculture, but that’s only if they don’t fail, require high numbers of plant replacements, or just outright become a burden.
Are all green walls to be classified as sustainable? No way, not in my book. For one, some of the materials used to manufacture the units are in question. For example, one common material is plastic which in itself is not a sustainable material. In fact, LEED prefers the use of metal over plastic, making the LEED points applied to plastic systems contradictory.
Never thought I would be the one to write such a post but I’m a realist. The point of this post is not to give living walls a bad rap; in fact, the intention is to bring to light the reality of what can go wrong and how little the industry and many installers truly know.
My responsibility as an educator and an authority on these technologies is to protect and inform. The best use of failure is to learn from it and not repeat our mistakes. I'm sure others are not selling walls hoping they fail, but many people forgo needed changes just for the sake of another sale.
Although others are planned, currently there are only a few university green wall system and benefits testing going on in North America - BCIT and Maryland - and these studies will eventually help the industry and hopefully prevent dreaded deaths of green walls. Yet for now, consumers beware.
Designers, architects and consumers, my advice is to move forward with living walls under the pretense that not all are created equal and each system has its own application. Hydroponic vs. media-based are only two technologies. Educate yourself and gain an understanding of the science behind each system. Know you must be invested in your purchase in order to increase the likelihood of survival.
I have seen some beautiful successful walls, both interior and exterior. The success of such walls are the result of a well rounded research, design, training, installation, and maintenance program. Utilizing the right plants in the right setting for the right system as well as understanding the science behind the technology are key to your green wall's longevity.
George Irwin, The Green Wall Editor
George Irwin is the President and CEO of Green Living™ Technologies, International LLC (GLT) based in NY. Green Living™ Technologies is the only U.S. manufacturer of growing media based green wall and three types of green roof systems. Mr. Irwin is a former trainer for Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Green Walls 101.
Contact George Irwin at: GreenWallEditor@greenroofs.com, George@AGreenroof.com, www.agreenroof.com, or 1.800.631.8001.
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