September 6th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Reporters always have to grab a headline, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the new green wall near Victoria station started grabbing headlines such as “London’s largest living wall prevents flooding”.  It’s a misleading headline to say the least: A, it’s not the largest wall, that “accolade” (if size is all that counts) belongs to Patrick Blanc for his wall at Leamouth Peninsular, constructed by Biotecture in 2009 and B, it doesn’t prevent flooding.  How could it?  Striding about, with a big umbrella?  No, it has rainwater harvesting – as can any building, regardless of whether or not they have green walls (although they then have to have some use for it, such as flushing toilets), and that helps absorb water and delay rainfall from contributing to stormwater runoff.  It may directly capture a small amount on the surface of the wall, but not much.

Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and treebox

Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and Treebox

Now don’t get me wrong; this is a lovely green wall and most welcome.  I know all the guys involved and they’re all genuine people. The wall will have many environmental benefits. No, what bothers me is the way the press grab shallow headlines that reduce the very real benefits to glib catchphrases, often completely divorced from meaningful context .  Of course rainwater harvesting reduces the risk of flooding, but one small scheme in a large area will have negligible benefit (just as the Edgware Road wall I designed for TfL will, on it’s own, have a negligible effect on air pollution); unless many buildings in that area follow suit and harvest rainwater, the impact will not be felt.

What walls such as this do, is pioneer and display the possibilities of what we may do and the potential outcome if we do enough of it.  But the current attitude is, right, we’ve put up a green wall/green roof/planted trees, so job done, environment’s sorted… it’s just so NOT.

Right now i’m frustrated by this attitude.  For example, it seems that government, having done their bit (on air pollution, mentioned above), now have no monies in the “clean air fund” to take things to the next level; where we so urgently need to be going. The simple reality is that a lot more testing is needed, more system trials; ways need to be found to effect a large-scale roll out of affordable greening (a major criticism is that the technology is too expensive).  If the government won’t make funds available to do this, even in the face of massive EU fines for breaching air quality standards, then who will?  So the Edgware Road green wall becomes just another political chess piece, used then forgotten once it’s done it’s short-term bit of marketing.

It’s time that as a society, we grew up, stopped living off of vacuous soundbites and got to grips with our environmental issues.  One headline I got from a talk I gave last year, was “designer calls for environmental efforts to be put on a war footing”.  Another bit of melodrama, but I did use the phrase, and meant it.  Only with that level of serious intent and commitment can we get to make meaningful progress on adapting our societies to the incoming effects of now unstoppable climate change.

Time to get real…

Posted in Climate Change, Ecosystem Services, Environment, living walls, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , ,

August 30th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

A new green wall I designed has been put up in the HQ of Lend Lease at the Elephant & Castle, London.  It is situated in the company’s main reception foyer.

lend-lease_green_wall-2 lend-lease_green_wall-3

It consists of a variety of plants in loosely vertical banding, including Begonias, Peperomia and Phlebodium (Blue Ferns). Everyone seems very pleased with it! The system and installation was by Biotecture.

An outdoor wall has also been installed on the hoarding of a Lend Lease building site just across the road, the plant design is a simple repeating matrix.  Plants include Pachysandra, Tiarella, Liriope and Euonymus.

The outdoor green wall on hoarding at Elephant & Castle

The outdoor green wall on hoarding at Elephant & Castle

Posted in Biophilia, Indoor Plants, living walls Tagged with: , , , , ,

August 24th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I’ve got to admit it; plants do something to me.  When in their proximity, either indoors or out, things feel different.  It could be because they change the air, giving me oxygen, removing pollutants and humidifying the atmosphere.  It could be because they give me a subtle but direct contact with Nature.  Maybe they talk to me; I don’t know.  But I know I can’t live without them, and that too many people do just that; they don’t know what they’re missing.

Plant shelve in my office

Plant shelves in my office

Of course, I should have a green wall in my office and will have soon, for a new design I am prototyping.  But shelves will do, as will window ledges, if not in direct sun.  My shelves are beside a window, which is often actually the darkest place in a room.  To illustrate, I have several Tradescantia, of a variety called simply “Dark Green”.  One sits on the window sill and one on the shelf corner almost next to it, a mere 450mm away.  Yet the one on the window sill (West facing) is compact, fully dark green with purple undersides, whilst the other is leggier with larger leaves and less purple.  a quick test with a umol meter (which reads the light that plants “see”) shows that the window plant receives  (this morning on a dull day) a reading of 74, whilst the other plant gets a mere 20.  Come to the far end of the shelf and the reading drops to 03, leaving the plants, effectively, in the dark. Many plants can (amazingly) survive these conditions, but they will not be photosynthetically active and so not delivering the benefits I outlined above.  And of course, they can’t be happy.  So lighting is crucial, yet is a surprisingly difficult thing to fix.  Good fittings and bulbs not intended for greenhouse production are a rare thing.

It is worth mentioning, that what we call houseplants are simply plants that originate in sub-tropical regions and can tolerate the conditions found inside many buildings, such as low light levels, because many of the plants are from forest origins, low nutrient requirements and constant temperatures (little or no seasonal variation in the original home).  Low humidity can be the biggest problem, especially with central heating or in air-conditioned offices.

"inddor" plants on a green wall

“indoor” plants on a green wall

So given the right conditions (and even with a bit of light-abuse), plants will thrive indoors and ultimately, a green wall is the best way to display them, for several reasons: you get a huge area of leaf mass index in a small footprint, giving the maximum amount of benefit, whilst watering and feeding is automated, so you don’t have to worry about that.  The only problem with green walls is that they are expensive, and they need plumbing in to drainage, water and electrical supplies.  I’m about to change all that, so watch this space.

And there are so many plants to grow, although sadly, finding a good source of houseplants, outside of the standard ranges supplied by supermarkets and the larger garden centres, is surprisingly difficult.  Almost all come from the Netherlands these days.  Dibleys are an exception and good for gnesneriads (www.dibleys.com).  In my Biotecture days I had walls of plants being trialed, all gone now and I miss them, but I plan to resume trialing again soon, on a similar scale and have many new plants to test.  They excite me more than (almost) anything, and especially when I think we’re getting ecosystem services from them – but that is the subject for another post, other than the brief mention I gave above.

So do yourself a favour, rediscover your biophilic urges, give yourself a treat and buy some houseplants!

Posted in Biophilia, Ecosystem Services, Indoor Plants, living walls Tagged with: , , , ,

August 19th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I was pleased to see the green wall panels I designed for the iconic new building at 28 South Molton Street (just off Oxford Street) in a article in the September issue of “On Office” magazine. Whilst the green wall content is small, with five high level panels and one at ground level, next to the building entrance, they add a quiet touch of verdancy to this stylish building.
green walls at South Molton St

On_Office-02

Posted in Design, living walls Tagged with: , , ,

July 5th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Aveda_Green_Wall_Coming_Soon

Here’s a quick sneak-preview of the position of a new green wall I am creating around a column for Aveda Institute, High Holborn.

Should be installed by the end of August…

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Posted in Design, living walls Tagged with: ,

June 13th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Another of my designs is installed, after a long series of delays and frustrations – but it looks like it was worth it!  Another Biotecture project, nicely installed by Scotscape.

Green wall being installed at MTV Camden

Green wall being installed at MTV Camden  by Scotscape.

The wall covers three sides of a large courtyard; I’ll get some better pics soon.  I vertical and horizontal geometry overlays three wavy bands of matrix planting…

Posted in Design, living walls Tagged with: , ,

June 10th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Another green wall I’ve designed has recently been installed at Nestle’s redesigned factory in Derbyshire.  The wall is a Biotecture project, installed by Chris Rick (who’s photos I have merged together below):

Nestle Living Wall in final stages of installation.  Design by Mark Laurence.

Nestle Living Wall in final stages of installation. Design by Mark Laurence.

The design has sinuous, free-flowing bands of coloured foliage plants running along the length of it, as can be seen from this section shown below.  Looking forward to getting some shots of it fully completed – I’ll post them here when I do.

Concept-01-smA-sm

Oh, I’m normally fairly cynical about multinationals and their environmental ethics, but Nestle seems to be heading down the right road with their “shared Value” ethics on business and environment. Perhaps they learned something from the social-media bombing they got in 2010, spearheaded by Greenpeace…

Posted in Design, living walls Tagged with: ,

May 28th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I’ve been reading several websites by visionary developers in Azerbaijan, who are proposing some massive Dubai-style developments to the Bay area of Baku, the country’s capital. One, the http://khazarislands.com/ seems like an ambitious Dubai-competitor, an ultra-sleek development on up to 30 artificial islands (think the Palm Jumeirah), the other is based on an existing island and whilst just as pretentious,  http://www.ziraisland.com/ at least aims to generate all its own energy from renewables, and to be carbon-neutral.

Zira_Island

The buildings are all based on the forms of nine iconic mountains in the Caucasus Range.  Actually, not a bad idea from the point of view of seismic safety and thermal efficiency etc.  Serious plans to make a huge modern metropolis that is self-sufficient are rare, with perhaps only the Chinese actually trying this with some of their Eco-Cities.

Zira_Energy

What is needed is to develop a coherent urban greening policy to integrate technologies like living walls and urban tree planting and care, with a carefully thought out irrigation policy.  People still don’t see how essential green walls will be in integrating ecosystem services into a buildings basic functionality, but it will come.  Let’s watch with interest.

Posted in Arboriculture, Biophilia, Climate Change, Dubai, UAE, Economic Issues, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Green walls, living walls, Middle-East, Sustainability, Trees, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

April 30th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

UPDATE 2017

A lot has changed since writing this article in 2013.  I now work with Planters Horticulture to deliver living walls in the UAE, via my company Vertology Ltd

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I’ve just come back from Dubai again, following up on the Biowall green wall installer, Acacia LLC.  Indoors it is much the same conditions as anywhere in the world, but outdoors is a challenge.  Temperatures in the hot summer months can reach 50°C (in the oasis town of Al Ain, it can get to 62°C, with low humidity).  Finding plants that will cope with these levels of heat is not easy.  We’ve had test walls going for nearly a year now, so about to have a second summer test.

 

Biowall at Acacia

Biowall at Acacia (photo taken September 2013)

Indoor walls growing in Acacia's nurseryIndoor walls growing in Acacia’s nursery

 

I have just set up a stage two trial, to run from September, testing an expanded range of 50 outdoor species, mostly plants used there as groundcover.  This will be divided into sun and shade walls, for obvious reasons, and have a rigorous testing regime.

A Biotecture outdoor wall with shade canopy

A Biowall outdoor wall with shade canopy

There are, of course, other people trying green walls. Both of the ones I have seen (outdoors) I fear are likely to fail. This is not good news, because UK experience tells us that a major public failure can set the whole industry back considerably, as it takes a lot of proving then to show that it can be done.

This is a brand-new wall on a new hotel on the Sheikh Zayed Road. Plant are looking very poor already...

This is a brand-new wall on a new hotel using a compost pot system on the Sheikh Zayed Road. Plants are looking very poor already… since recovered but not that great.

So walls like this one cause a lot of problems, which of course, will be corrected with time; the momentum out there for vertical greening is becoming unstoppable.  Systems like the one above that use individual pots to hold compost, mean the root zone is exposed on all sides to heat and wind; keeping such a plant well watered will be a tough call, especially when there is no drainage fitted and it just drips onto the building façade.

Never mind. Pioneering always carries risks and at least they have been bold enough to try.  But the wall should look like this…

Biotecture outdoor living wall at Acacia's garden centre.

Biowall system outdoor living wall at Acacia’s garden centre.

Posted in Dubai, UAE, landscapes, living walls, Middle-East Tagged with: , , ,

April 14th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I have been asked what it costs to run a green wall; often, people imagine extreme costs and infra structure, so think a green wall can’t be justified on those grounds alone.  The fact is, early systems were highly consumptive of water and electricity (ie felt based systems) but modern systems are not.  I base the following on the Biowall system, because that is what I know; this was a case study done on the wall I designed at Edgware Road for TfL:

Green Wall at Edgware Road

Green Wall at Edgware Road

Water & Power Consumption

To realise the on going benefits of the wall there are a number of necessary inputs.  The two inputs that are often raised as a concern are water and power.  The following calculations confirm the minimal amounts required by an efficient living wall system:

Water

The unique design of the hydroponic Biowall system provides fully comprehensive planting at an average of 1 litre per m2 per day.  This is by far and away the least water use of any of the living wall systems available today.  Note: traditional summer ground planting in beds requires 3 to 4 litres per m2

200m2 x 1 litre per day x 365 days = 73m3 of water in a year.
At an average supply rate of £1.50 per m3 this gives an annual water bill of £110.00.  If this is harvested rainwater then there is not supply rate but there are extra installation costs.

Drainage

Remote sensing and remote control irrigation system allow fine tuning of the system.  To keep the wall flushed through, 10% of what is put onto the wall comes off the bottom and goes to drain.
7.3m3 of water going to drain at an average charge rate of £1.00 per m3 gives a drainage bill of £7.30

Power

The irrigation system is driven by a 4bar pressure pump rated at 0.8kW.

There are three irrigation zones on the wall at Edgware Road and during the summer months each zone may operate for up to 9 minutes per day.  During the winter months this will reduce to approximately 1 minute per day.  An annual average of 4 minutes per day per zone is expected.

4 minutes x 3 zones x 365 days = 4,380 minutes of pump use per year

This equates to 73 pump hours per year.  73 x 0.8 = approximately 60 kWh annually.  At an average supply rate of £0.10 per kWh this equate to electricity usage of £6 per year.

Exclusive of standing charges, the overall annual costs for water, drainage and electricity for this 200m2 wall is therefore expected to be £123.00

Therefore guideline running costs for a living wall (excluding irrigation and horticultural maintenance) can be assumed to be less than £1 per m2 per year.

Update:

I now run a new company Vertology Living Walls and have an advanced, patent-pending green wall system, Viridiwall™ which improves further on the Biowall system.

Posted in living walls Tagged with: , ,