These walls will really grow on you

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Green roofs are often out of sight and inaccessible, but green walls are visible to all

Kim Davis

The living wall recently installed by G-Sky outside the new Whole Foods Market at Cambie and Eighth. KIM DAVIS/ SPECIAL TO THE VANCOUVER SUN

They are eco-friendly, gorgeous, and grab people’s attention, but are green walls social amenities?

“For many people, it is incredible to be on top of a green roof in the city, and I think we have a great opportunity to create the same experience for people with green walls,” says Maureen Connelly of BCIT’s Centre for Architectural Ecology.

Connelly describes being invited to an alley in the Downtown Eastside by the owners of the surrounding buildings. They wanted to know how and what technology she had to green the space.

“As I stood in the middle of the alley and looked around, the only things I could see that weren’t built were some small, concrete-confined street trees. That is what people in the Downtown Eastside are being exposed to,” Connelly says. “We have an opportunity to bring nature back into the urban centre, and to do that across the whole socioeconomic spectrum.”

Connelly talks about how, in dense urban settings, there is far more wall space than roof acreage.

“We have to take the designs and technologies of the roof and apply them to the wall — up the ante of the contribution of the whole building envelope to the ecological balance of the urban centre.”

Biophilic benefits are just some of the attributes that Connelly and her BCIT colleagues plan to research in the coming months. Using data collected from test walls at the centre, as well as from a two-storey living wall that will be installed on the Capital Regional District’s headquarters in Victoria, the Centre hopes to help qualify and quantify the benefits associated with these systems. These include: lower a building’s heating and cooling costs, air purification, noise attenuation, increased urban biodiversity, and water management.

Vancouver is in the middle of a green wall revolution,” wrote Sun gardening columnist Steve Whysall in his July 4th article last year.

Following on the heels of a number of successful “boutique” green walls, Randy Sharp of Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture says there are more and more large-scale and commercial developments — restaurants, hotels, big-box retailers, and parking garages — expressing interest.

“We have built up the confidence in the design and technology of different kinds of green wall systems at the small scale, and now we are able to apply that to the large scale.”

Geneviève Noel of MUBI, a Vancouver-based living wall provider, says the growing popularity of green walls has been largely due to their accessibility and their visual appeal.

“I think the idea of vertical vegetation is catching on, even more so than green roofs as it is often closer to the public, making it a good opportunity for green buildings to be identified as such,” she says.

Unlike green roofs, which are often out of sight and/or inaccessible to many building users, let alone people passing by, green walls offer a stunning, street-level greenscape.

As Sharp points out, so much of what makes a building “green” — insulation, high-efficiency windows, Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber — cannot be seen or recognized by most people.

“It is truly green building,” Sharp says. “You are making sustainable methods visible.”


Another key reason for green walls’ rapidly growing popularity is their perceived low risk, particularly as compared to green roofs.

As Connelly points out, living walls can be much like vertical planter boxes. We know how to do it and, when installed properly, should be easy and accessible.

Green facades, where plants are planted at grade instead of a wall system like living walls, are particularly attractive, especially when it comes to cost and long-term maintenance considerations.

Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture successfully used this type of green screening on a parking structure at Richmond‘s River Rock Destination Resort several years ago, and will be installing another one at Hillside Centre in Victoria.

Vancouver-based G-Sky, which offers both living walls and green roofs, is probably one of the busiest providers in North America, with clients ranging from Starbucks and Whole Foods Market to the Vancouver Aquarium.

In the coming months, G-Sky and Sharp will install an 18-metre high living wall at the base of the new Canada Line terminal station at Vancouver International Airport.


Connelly says large-scale green roofs will likely offer the greatest ecological benefits in the near future, but believes there will be stronger interest in and applications for green walls in the urban core because they are so visually accessible.

“That is where they may have a stronger influence on affecting the change we need in terms of bringing vegetation back into the urban environment,” she says.

Here are few current and upcoming green building projects to check out.

Current: Millenium Water demonstration Centre, Whole Foods Market at Cambie and 8th, Joe Fortes Restaurant. Upcoming: The Flack Block, Westin Hotel in Richmond.

The BCIT Centre for Architectural Ecology holds an open house every third Thursday of the month. Come this spring, they will have one living wall and three green facades for people to see.



Sharp & Diamond


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