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Great Gardening: Green walls filter air, provide beauty to work spaces

Welcome to our new downtown water garden!” That was my greeting by Jill Pawlik of Uniland Development Co. when I first visited the new green wall installation early in January. I was dazzled by my first view of it, and you will be too when you drop by – the perfect antidote to a gray day in late winter. The wall is in the lobby of Uniland’s new building at 250 Delaware Ave., where visitors to the surrounding restaurants, hotels and office buildings are encouraged to stop by, relax a while, and breathe in the clean, moist air.

Green walls also are called living walls, bio-walls, eco-walls or vertical gardens. While they can be designed using several different technologies, they are basically vertical structures that are covered with living plants. And they are good for people.

In this case the wall concept was embraced by Michael Montante, vice president of Uniland, and chosen in part for its obvious beauty and for its health benefits to employees and guests. But it also was intended to signify important company values. After all, the same money could have been spent on nonliving art. But this living art makes the statement that this corporation cares about sustainability – its application for LEED Silver certification already having been submitted.

Air purification is a primary reason that living walls are especially valued in office buildings and medical facilities. Plants filter the air, acting as a bio-filter that can treat stale, impure air, including the removal of formaldehyde and VOCs. All living walls improve air quality, but all are not equally effective. This wall will filter lots of air in part because of its size: 22 feet by 21 feet, making it the largest living wall in Western New York. More important, this Nedlaw system (designed by Alan Darlington of Nedlaw in Toronto), is reportedly more effective than phytoremediation using plants in soil. This is a hydroponic system. It is the microbes on plant roots that do the cleaning, and in this system the air is forced directly through the biologically active zone. In a single pass this biofilter can remove up to 90 percent of harmful chemicals.

Aesthetics, especially all things green, count as well. As many studies reveal, green spaces increase a sense of well-being, decrease stress, increase productivity and reduce absenteeism – plenty of reasons for planted courtyards or green walls. This wall, pool and bench were designed to suit the space by Antra Roze of Diamond Schmitt Architects, in collaboration with Kathryn O’Donnell of Botanicus Interior Landscaping for plant selection and installation. O’Donnell will maintain this “green waterfall” into the future, using ladders or scaffolding and a lot of plant science.

Whether it’s because of the healthy air, the effect of so much light, or the expanse of green plants (in the lobby as well as in the wall), the entrance to this building simply feels wonderful. It is a gift not only to the tenants – Delaware North, Key Bank, GSA and the Cullen Foundation – but also to visitors and the community.

Around the world

Living walls aren’t new. Impressive installations can be found across Asia, North America and the Middle East; the popularity also spreading in Europe and Australia. The concept harks back to the use of vine-covered walls or free-standing clipped hedges. We humans like to be surrounded by green. New technology has made it possible to construct them larger than ever. For instance, an ambitious five-story wall was recently constructed at the Ravinia office complex in Atlanta by GSky Plant Systems. (GSky is the leading provider of vertical green walls in North America and the Middle East.) As O’Donnell told me, the technology and research are expanding every day to make living walls easier and more affordable, with integrated lighting and watering systems. Still, it requires the right professional firms and equipment.

Green walls in Buffalo

The engineering behind this hydroponic system at 250 Delaware is amazing. I have observed designs elsewhere using rows of potted plants lined up behind a wall so that they appear as a continuous wall of plants. Here there are no pots, no soil. The water runs gently and continuously through the system behind the wall and is recirculated. The water is monitored for its nutrients and pH balance. The temperature must be right at all times, too. Plants are inserted in slits through fiber, their roots reaching the water. And then there must be no leaking – not easy. As O’Donnell said, there’s “an amazing array of possible challenges!” In other words, a lot can go wrong.

The plants for living walls are chosen for their suitability for the environment – as in all gardening. There are outdoor green walls filled with hardy plants, for example at Whole Foods in Vancouver and at a Community Health Center in Middletown, Conn. In our Buffalo model, there is an indoor wall facing Southeast, with such wonderful light that an array of tropical plants will be very happy. They include Dracaena hybrids, Ficus elastica (Rubber trees) and several other ficus hybrids with bright and varied foliage colors – ruby, cream, burgundy and even pink tones. In this design you’ll see patterns that give the wall a wavelike, flowing texture.

It reminded me of the relatively new installation in the world-class conservatory at Longwood Gardens (Kennett Square, Pa.), where you can walk between two green walls that ripple with waves of varied plants including ivies and grasses. Other living walls use plants to create pictures, geometric designs, or to display a logo.

In Buffalo you might also check out other living walls that O’Donnell maintains: in the Science Building at Canisius (planting design by Zaretsky and Associates), two at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts and one at Jake’s Tavern in Kenmore.

Green walls are trending, as should be the case, especially in downtown urban settings where gardens are scarce. We look forward to many more in Buffalo. In the meantime, stop by and greet this great green wall.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.