Living walls: sustainable facades or a substitute for better ideas?

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Green walls are being hailed as a sustainable solution that can provide an instant, and very visible, improvement to a building’s environmental impact. But is there more to living walls than meets the eye?

Patrick Blanc's Mur Végétal, Paris

Patrick Blanc's Mur Végétal, Paris

Here are some of the benefits a vertical garden – if designed, installed and maintained properly – can bring:

  • help stabilise indoor temperatures
  • prevent the urban ‘heat island’ effect
  • promote biodiversity
  • absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen
  • provide thermal and acoustic insulation
  • add visual interest and soften facades

Treehugger quotes Frank Lloyd Wright – “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines” – and showcases eleven buildings with lush, living walls.

Beware, though: several green walls have withered and failed due to unwise plant choices and a lack of horticultural insight. Stephen Alton, in Sustainability misguided: architects and greenwalls, casts a more critical glance at the living wall phenomenon:

Plants do not a green building make. There is nothing inherently natural about plantings in an urban environment, since they subscribe to a host of restrictions that defeat or hinder their ability to thrive and reproduce in the long term. … For plants proposed as a substitute for an energy efficient curtain wall, one must ask to what end. Firstly plants with modified stems like vines and creepers tend to grow in a companion condition with trees and shrubs, using the stems for support while benefiting from the controlled temperature and reduced exposure. In addition, nature tends toward biodiversity, and monocultures of the same species and similar growth form invariably suffer from pathogen infestations and the inability to compensate for natural die-back during the regular growing season. Plants do not respond in the same way at different altitudes and orientation to the sun. Attached to a building façade, plants bear the added stress of heat radiated from absorbed surfaces. This requires a combination of more maintenance, poorer growth form and shorter life span. … As Sean Griffiths, director at architecture practice FAT, puts it: ‘I think living walls have become a substitute for having any ideas.’

Ouch… Have you designed, specified or installed a living wall? Do you live or work in a green-walled building? Do you have any success stories to share?

ESI information on living walls and vertical gardens:

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One Response to “Living walls: sustainable facades or a substitute for better ideas?”

  1. More than two ways to skin a building: smart façades « Building Says:

    […] We have also (in our very first, tentative and very short blog post!) looked at the emergence of living walls, a much-talked about example of which was recently seen at […]

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