Off the Wall – Living walls

Alfresco September October 09

Featured article from September / October Alfresco Magazine 2009

Landscape designer Sandra Batley investigates the concept of Living Walls, the latest gravity defying technology literally changing the way we view gardens.

You’d be forgiven if you thought your eyes were playing tricks on you. A lush tapestry of plants growing vertically up the side of city buildings and walls and flourishing on interior walls? Living walls, also called green walls, vertical gardens or bio walls are fast becoming a global sensation. These
are feats of engineering. Horticultural marvels where vegetation grows directly onto a building’s facade or a
freestanding wall; making it possible to create a naturallooking, man-made landscape vertically.
While a relatively new concept in New Zealand, this emerging technology has already become very successful in other countries. The design principles are at “The leading edge of contemporary landscape design and Green build solutions” says Pip Patterson from Natural Habitats. They have installed a living wall covering eight square metres at the entrance of their Ellerslie office. Planted in New Zealand natives, including rushes, grasses, spreading plants and succulents, it’s a sustainable work of living art with a real wow factor. “It’s can be incorporated into most new building designs or installed on established walls. It is very lightweight, well proven technology that absolutely knocks the viewers’ socks off according to Graham Cleary, managing director of Natural Habitats. Tracey Peryman from Vertical Plantscapes offers a soil based modular system. This forms one of the largest living walls in UK/Europe using 5,000 panels but it is also a superb DIY option for residential homes and gardens. “It is a very user friendly system that allows you to change the panels if you fancy a new look, You can even plant with vegetable crops for a vertical edible garden,” says Tracey. Award-winning French artist and botanist Patrick Blanc pioneered the use of green walls. His trips to the tropical rain forests around the world to study rare and unusual plants led him to further investigate which plants could survive without any soil and could grow naturally on vertical rock faces and trees. He found many tropical perennials, ferns and orchids, all flourished with their roots in nitrogen-enriched water only.
The Vertical garden was conceived and perfected after experimentation with plants in his own home. He now has over 140 magnificent examples of his work worldwide, including the Siam Paragon shopping centre in Bangkok, the Caixa Forum in Madrid, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and a vast new green wall in the Rue d’Alsace, also in Paris.
There are basically three main systems that can have both external and internal applications.







A living wall on Rue d’Alsace







Quantas wall by Natural Habitats



Hydroponic Panel System: Usually comprising pre-planted panels that are bought on site and connected to a customized rail and bracket system that is then attached to the wall. It has a mechanical irrigation and fertiliser system, usually with a gutter drain at the bottom. Developed as a modular basket system used like cladding to create a ready-made green space. This system is soil free. Soil based Panel System: This is also a modular system using 500x500mm panels made from rigid 80% post industrial polyethylene (the most environmental plastic) panel and is fully recyclable. It has a planting depth of 62mm but this can be doubled by using a clever extension kit. They are simply attached to the wall by a recycled plastic mounting strip that spreads the weight across the panel and two screws secure it in place. Irrigation drip-lines are usually installed to control watering requirements. It can also be watered using a simple wand for the garden or via a trough with holes at the top of the panel and one at the bottom to collect any run off.Felt System: a hydroponic technique where plants are fitted as seeds, cuttings or already grown plants into a layer of felt made of polyamide. The felt is rot proof and its high capillarity allows good water distribution. This is then mounted on a 10mm thick PVC layer as a waterproof membrane which is riveted to a lightweight metal framework. The felt is kept continually moist with water that is supplemented with nutrients. Watering and fertilising is also automated. The whole weight of the panel, including plants and metal frame is lower than 30kg per panel. Therefore it can be installed on any wall with any size or height requirements. Interior Living Walls: Walls can be built out of any of the above three systems and set up indoors. Artificial lighting is then usually required. Plants grown indoors cleanse and humidify the air, thus improving the working conditions. Living walls create a ‘green space’ vertically, it allows man to re-create a living system very similar to natural environments. Current research has shown there are a number of positive benefits environmentally and commercially as well as for their sheer aesthetic beauty



Living walls are either hydroponic or soil based systems where water and nutrients are fed to the wall via an automated irrigation system. Some walls are designed to use recycled grey and black water such as the walls in Melbourne City Council’s CH2 building. The usual requirements of pruning, feeding and watering still apply when maintaining living walls.

As with any planting design, the orientation and microclimatic conditions of the area determines the choice of plant species and the visual effect you want to achieve. Many plants thrive in living walls such as epiphytes (plants which grow above the ground surface, using other plants or objects for support), lithophytes (plants that grow in or on rocks), bromeliads, ferns, succulents, climbers and grasses. Native as well as exotic species have been successfully used. Different colours of foliage are used to form tight knit patterns, while on other walls, large-leaved plants contrast with small-leaved species to give a lush textural contrast. The overall effect is incredibly rich, like a tapestry or a carpet. There is also interest in the possibility of growing food on living walls. There are proposals in China to create vertical greenhouses where families can grow food close to their living quarters. In any city or garden around the world a naked wall can be transformed into a vertical garden. Living walls are an emerging technology than can help improve our urban landscape, create a more pleasant, healthier workplace and offer a new way to beautify the built environment.


Sandra Batley is principal designer for Flourish.


3 comments on “Off the Wall – Living walls

  1. Chris on said:

    Thanks for your article above Sandra. It was a great read. Are the panels available for purchase, if so, do you know where? Also, my 18 year old son had designed a house that is nearing comnpletion (he was 16 when he designed it!) and we have the perfect internal concrete wall and natural lighting for a living wall. He recently saw the ‘Qantas’ living wall and as an after thought, would like to add one to his design. Irrigation connection would be difficult as the walls are ‘filled’ concrete blocks. Do you know of a portable system by chance? Kind regards

  2. Peter de Jager on said:

    We design and build complete walls to our clients brief. Retro fitting to existing walls is usually simple. Walls may need a drainage outlet, particularly if they are internal.

  3. Linda Slade on said:

    where do you get the polyamide felt from.

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