Sasha Frate of Face the Current recently visited forward-thinking, award-winning SolTerra for BG Life Magazine, to talk about how living walls (also known as vertical gardens) are making an eco-friendly impact by increasing property value, easing stress and fatigue, improving air quality, reducing noise pollution, and adding aesthetic appeal to interior and exterior design. Living Walls expert Angela Jones is here to tell us more.
Angela, tell me how SolTerra is at the leading edge in eco-design and why your company is self-acclaimed as disruptive & adventurous?
SolTerra connects people to nature in the city by building super green apartment buildings, commercial spaces, and homes. We do this with our installation of living walls, green roofs and solar panels. SolTerra is adventurous because we are doing things that no one has done before, such as with our Vera living wall patented system that has been developed over many years. The Vera Wall is a modular system, meaning that it’s panels that connect in order to fit any kind of design. It’s integrated, so the roots of the plants can travel feet rather than staying within a small pocket like other systems.
We’re disruptive, because we have figured out how to build green efficiently. We are vertically integrated with in-house developers, designers, architects, builders and engineers and therefore we are able to work together to create the building efficiently, versus having to sub-contract out; and that’s disrupting the typical system. We are proving that living sustainability is within reach for everyone.
What is the basis for selecting plant varieties for living walls?
The plant selection for living walls is actually quite thorough. The first basis for selecting plant varieties is choosing plants that are going to be suited for the local environment; plants that typically grow natively in the area or are well-adapted. We then start with the aspect of the building. So if the wall is facing south or west, we’re going to choose plants that can tolerate high temperatures and full sun conditions. Whereas, if the wall is facing north or east we’re going to choose plants that handle a shady environment. Interior walls can be installed anywhere, but they do require artificial light to thrive.
Are living walls adaptable to any space or do they have certain requirements to thrive?
Especially for outdoor walls we select hardy plants, or plants from the local region that have a seasonal interest as well as our year round Evergreen. We also look for attributes that can produce berries and nectar sources for birds, amphibians and other fauna. We like to consider the client’s design intent as well, whether there’s a specific color they’re looking for or a specific purpose. We also consider the specific conditions on the wall; for the tops of the wall we’re going to look for plants that can handle a dryer environment, whereas in the bottoms of the walls we look for plants that can handle moist conditions. At one of our apartment buildings called The Woodlawn, we have one of the largest living walls on the West Coast and it boasts about 50% native plants. Right after planting we saw about 4 varieties of birds move in and actually nest in that environment.
SolTerra does a lot along the West Coast and Pacific Northwest regions of the U.S. Are you able to work with other climates and other countries?
We would be very interested in working with other parts of the world. We would love to collaborate with local horticulturists and designers to make sure that we’re using plant specific conditions and the wall with definitely thrive.
The idea of an edible vertical garden built into a kitchen sounds amazing! What are some options for edible vertical gardens?
The easiest option would probably be working with herbs for your edible vertical wall. The second would be working with lettuce greens or salads. Anything that’s quick and easy to grow in your garden could probably translate very well to a living wall. Things that would be harder to grow, would be root crops or large nutrient craving plants such as corn, squash and larger plants.
How does the re-growth work if you are consuming from the edible living wall?
Re-growth can really work if you have the right conditions, such as proper drainage and lighting for the wall. It also may not look perfect year round if you’ve cut them down, but the greens will re-sprout and you could probably get a few turns off one planting before you’d have to start over again.
You’ve mentioned flowers before, being incorporated in the living walls. Is that something that’s possible for the edible living walls as well?
Sure, there are actually quite a few edible flowers that I think would really enhance the wall as well as your salad bowl. Things like Nasturtiums and Violas would grow very well in a wall.
What kind of maintenance is involved with living walls?
You want to scale the size of the wall to what your means are and how much time you have to care for the garden, because it is a garden; it’s not just an art piece. You do need to interact with it and care for it on a regular basis. They do require regular maintenance and the best method is preventative maintenance, which is checking the wall about once every other week. Other maintenance includes pruning and fertilizing on a regular basis and ensuring that the irrigation system is working correctly. All living walls should have an irrigation system and we don’t recommend hand watering, just for the sake of consistency and the health of the wall. Again, you’re pretty much treating it like a garden, it’s just on a vertical surface.
Can it be cost effective?
Yes, it can be cost effective to have a living wall. One of the things you should consider is access; making sure the wall is very easy to access and the type of equipment that you’re going to use to access the wall. To ensure that the wall is cost effective, you want to scale it within in your means. You want make sure it’s accessible, easy to maintain and that the equipment needed to maintain the wall is not out of the realm of possibility. It should also be professionally installed with proper water-proofing, irrigation, drainage and correct lighting.
There’s definitely an aesthetic factor to living walls, but what is the REAL impact?
I believe the greatest impact living walls can make is in the urban environment. As cities become increasingly denser, there’s less square footage for trees to grow; trees providing one of the greatest environmental benefits. Livings walls are incredible at absorbing carbon monoxide and contributing oxygen to the environment. One could argue that living walls require more infrastructure; but the infrastructure is already there so we’re just asking the infrastructure to be more efficient in creating positive impacts.
Humans have a natural instinct to be close to living things. This is called biophilia, and it seems to be a growing trend in popularity that plants and people need to be closer together to create a healthy environment. Biophilia is a feeling that people get when they are close to living things. A lot of receptionists say that living walls placed in the waiting areas help the patients relax before their appointments. There are also some current studies with kids that have attention disorders and they experience a more relaxed and stress-free environment when there are plants in the vicinity. We’ve also noticed that when there are toys and a living wall in a room, kids immediately choose the living wall over the toys.
We all know that urban environments have historically not been healthy environments for people and it’s a great benefit that living walls can be incorporated virtually anywhere; from a narrow corridor to indoors. Whereas trees are not able to have that square footage anymore, plus it takes trees years to grow to a size that can contribute with a beneficial impact. As soon as a living wall is built and developed, it can immediately contribute to the environment.
How does it reduce noise pollution?
Living walls disrupt the sound waves that occur in noise pollution. They basically just create a barrier that prevents the sound from bouncing back off a solid wall.
Why would integration of green living systems actually increase property value?
We see living walls as part of the home’s personality and therefore it’s just making the home more attractive by incorporating nature as part of it. We think that it’s capitalizing on existing infrastructure by utilizing what’s already there, such as the structure, water and the landscape that already exists. For instance at the Woodlawn Apartments, we collect the rainwater off of the green roof; then use this water to irrigate the living wall; then the water that drains off the living wall is used into the ground landscape. So we’re taking a building and this system and we’re using the water three times before it’s drained into the ground. Very practical, functional, efficient and there’s a “feel-good” to know that you’re maximizing a resource and not just using it once.
Green spaces are growing in popularity around the globe and they can now be seen in new eco-design architecture in a lot of places. Where do you see the future of green spaces and living walls going? Do you see potential for vertical agriculture for example?
Yes I do believe there’s potential for vertical agriculture, just like there is an agricultural boom in doing it on rooftops as well. When we’re working with these denser urban environments and higher density populations it just makes sense to increase their productivity in a square footage, whether it’s on rooftops, on walls; we all know the traditional ground type of landscaping and agriculture is becoming more and more limited and therefore utilizing other infrastructures to create the benefits that we see from ground landscaping can only be a good thing.