Green walls might have been a fad if not for a redesign to meet architectural expectations. What’s next? by Hal Thorne, Chairman and CEO of GSky Plant Systems, Inc.
By 2050, 68% of the world’s population will call a city home. That’s an increase of 13% from today. The implications of this vast global shift are myriad and complex, but one effect on individuals is clear enough: some 2.5 billion more people will live in densely populated areas that are less imbued with nature but instead defined by concrete and steel. Why does that matter? Recent scientific findings have identified people’s tendency to see a connection with nature. “Biophilia,” as it has come to be known, is rapidly being integrated into architecture and interior design. It reveals an innate human inclination to focus on and interact with biodiversity. In short, the benefits are many. The green design offers health and psychological benefits to individuals; the absence of flora makes people less healthy and less happy. As the urgent question of sustainable, healthy design spurs the green wall market to new heights, architects and designers must consider market trends and recent growth to best plan for future biophilic development.
Today’s Living Green Wall Market
Any review of current trends reveals an energized market, defined by a number of demand factors. While green wall systems have long been incentivized by tax codes in Europe, policies in the United States such as LEED standards are spurring interest in them as part of building designs that take advantage of government support. Stricter regulations, meanwhile, are also pushing builders to integrate living walls into their projects around the world. Additionally, new institutional forces are reshaping the conversation. The WELL Building Standard, for example, challenges developers to design indoor environments that support the health and wellbeing of occupants—a goal ideally served by biophilic design.
As part of this shift toward environmental and wellness considerations, and toward social responsibility, one has to question the tolerance for “green” half-measures such as artificial green walls, stuffed with plastic plants. So too is the market moving away from living solutions that fail to account for sustainability, such as moss walls that require chemical preservatives and systems that fail to manage water usage efficiently.
Perhaps the most influential driver of the living green wall market, though, is the evidence that biophilic design changes, for the better, how people live within a space. For one, biophilic elements can aid noise abatement. Green walls help absorb the loud clattering of a city street, and improve the acoustic landscape of an office. More importantly, living design offers health and wellness benefits. Living walls can cleanse the air of pollutants such as formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, ozone, toluene, and benzene, and reduce particulate matter (dust) indoors. This healthier air improves worker wellbeing, meaning fewer days out sick, but biophilia also adds value for the modern employee in other ways: exposure to nature can facilitate high-order cognitive functioning and productivity—and even boost creativity and positive emotion. Millennials in particular take to these benefits, and employers use green walls as hiring tools, but its demonstrable economic and humanitarian value lends the living wall concept to a growing number of adopters.
After fifteen years as a pioneer in the living green wall market, GSky Plant Systems, Inc., engages these trends with unmatched expertise. Of course, trends do not necessarily last. A review of the North American market’s nascent moments and how the company interacted with that very different landscape proves instructive when predicting the shape of the next fifteen years. The key questions from architects from that moment—What is a green wall? Is it a fad?—have since shaped and been shaped by innovations in design and business practice.
The Early Years: Experimentation and Skepticism
The early 2000s, during the North American market’s first experimentation with the living green wall concept, one feeling pervaded the scene: anyone can build a green wall. This sentiment derived in large part from the sketchy definition of ‘green wall’ at the time. Everything from walls with pockets for potted plants to walls of climbing vines could claim the title. Additionally, because most of these early walls were more-or-less ad hoc, the living nature of the products limited the effective geographic reach of early providers. The result was a patchwork of dissimilar offerings scattered unevenly across regions.
Forward-thinking architects were cautiously interested. Many began penciling living walls into plans, but many of these plans unraveled. Climate outmatched early technology in many areas to create living wall dead-zones. However, even more impactfully, many early walls failed after installation. Without the right design or the right support, these attempts began to create a skepticism of living walls in general. During this highly-experimental period, living walls began to look like an unsustainable architectural fad.
There were relatively few systems to take green walls into the marketplace. Systems existed in the better-defined European market at the time, supported by French and German tax credits, but these walls were designed for Europe’s relatively limited climatic range. The closest approximation was GSky’s inaugural design, the Pro Wall®. Comprising one-square-foot pre-planted panels attached to a frame, this solution was highly successful in some climates and remains an important product for its designability. However, the performance of these walls wavered in other climates and, critically, indoors. Interior living walls required specific lighting conditions, and the tropical plants best suited for indoor use needed a water delivery system that would alternate wet and dry. Most importantly, plant replacement required either small plugs (which took a long time to mature indoors) to replace dead plants or replacement panels at the ready, which added significant cost.
Designing a System for the Market
In a regionally segmented market with one critical design challenge—plant survival—GSky® began the design process by considering the needs of customers and of plants. To address this challenge of long-term wall survival, GSky® consulted the professionals working to maintain their living walls. These conversations helped define a few key elements of a successful wall: larger plants should be used so that plants that perish can be easily replaced without having to grow a replacement in place, and a system’s water circulation should be closed within the system so water would not leave the system and not sit stagnant. GSky’s plant experts identified the specific requirements of tropical plants that are readily available in pots including water cycle, wall access and light conditions. Moreover, as the most useful plants for these walls grow vertically, an ideal solution would abandon the horizontal panel structure and the lengthy pre-growing required for the panel system.
The resulting product, the Versa Wall®, implements a tray system, allowing mess-free, easy installation and maintenance of modular potted plants in a closed water management system. This greatly improved water efficiency so walls consume resources at an environmental-friendly rate, and ease of maintenance so walls remain vibrant. Furthermore, GSky® expanded the concept of a living wall design from a one-time product to a service relationship. The company decided that successful walls demand adequate care over time—they are, after all, living. Implementing a start-to-finish design and maintenance program, GSky® includes expertly designing in the correct plants for an application, supervising installation and care, and ensuring long-term quality with wall maintenance.
This bottom-up redesign of the living green wall filled a need in the market for a reliable multi-climate indoor solution and quickly became a best-selling indoor solution—including in geographies where green walls previously would have failed. In fact, the company began installing greater amounts of international walls. Early adopters included retailers, especially in indoor malls, and developers looking to enliven a hotel or apartment lobby. In the years since the introduction of the Versa Wall® in 2011, GSky’s expertise-driven approach has led to the development of customized systems for workplaces, which account for much of today’s growth as biophilia takes root as a productivity engine. The modularity of the Versa Wall® also lends itself to a variety of aesthetic decisions; walls can serve a plain screening to objects of high design. Additionally, a new product, the Versa Wall® XT, now brings the tray design and easy installation and maintenance features of the Versa Wall® to outdoor applications.
Adding Value for Living Wall Customers: Current Challenges
Now, architectural ambition pushes the limits of living green wall systems. Many of GSky’s most successful recent projects have fulfilled the imaginings of an innovative architect, including walls that design in logos, sweeping curves, divider blinds, television monitors and more. The Pro Wall® for the exterior remains especially adept at reaching new heights on tall structures. Nevertheless, some of these dream concepts require further creative engineering and design on the part of living green wall providers, and some are simply not feasible given the very real limitations of the living components of some walls. Expertise on the part of providers will continue to define the possible and push to the edge of plants’ abilities. Furthermore, GSky’s worldwide network of dealers draw on unparalleled expertise to implement high-quality living wall solutions throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, Oceana, and elsewhere.
A critical challenge that shows little sign of abating, though, is that of plant sourcing. Worldwide plant markets are subject to major disruption from weather, and events such as hurricanes hitting Florida or winter freezes in plant supply areas can make it difficult to acquire the right flora for a green wall installation. GSky’s experience in the market has solidified relationships with nurseries, so in times of limited supply, green wall installation and maintenance can continue. This sort of service will come to define the living wall market.
Innovative Living Wall Design and Business Practices Changed the Market – and Will Again
In the short span of fifteen years, the North American market—and now increasingly the global market—has moved beyond blanket skepticism of living green walls to enthusiasm, a shift instigated largely by innovations in design and business practices from pioneering provider GSky®. Before the arrival of a true system, the green wall market was defined by disorganization and wall failure. The adoption of a focus on long-term success for each specific wall drove a surge in popularity, and the resulting modular designs have allowed architects to reimagine the role of walls from simply vegetation to another artistic medium. The next fifteen years of the market will, no doubt, be molded by the ambitions of architects—aesthetic, and toward the advancement of health through biophilia—and the innovations of living wall providers that allow those ambitions to take shape.
 The Biophilia Hypothesis (1993), edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson