Going green (literally) is easier than ever with modular systems
Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.Frank Lloyd Wright
A living wall can bring the outside world right into your work place. And it’s more than just an office design trend. It’s a solution with huge esthetic and practical benefits.
Several studies have shown that a little bit of green at work reduces stress1 and improves productivity among employees.2 A larger plant feature such as a living wall or vertical garden isn’t just a gorgeous conversation starter. It helps tackle that other office buzz topic – acoustics. Having a leafy wall can break up sound reflection in noisy spaces.3 Some say it also helps filter air in the work environment, taking some of the pressure off the building’s HVAC system. That's great, but for those of us who consistently kill house plants without even trying, keeping an entire feature wall of ferns alive feels daunting. According to Geoff Gosling, Director of Innovation at DIRTT, that’s exactly what inspired him to create Breathe® living walls.
“The way that I designed it was to use myself as the benchmark. Because I’m really good at killing plants,” says Geoff. “I took all the things that let me influence the plant’s life and then removed them from the system.”
How it works
Most traditional living walls require a complex hydroponic plumbing system. Chances are you read that last sentence and thought, “what even is hydroponic plumbing?” That’s fair.
Imagine this. You’ve got a wall and you want some plants on it. You put up a bunch of perforated pipes. Then you hook it up to the building’s HVAC system. (Are your eyes glazing over? C’mon, stay with me.) Then you put something on the wall that the plant can live in. Usually that means a waterproof backing with a two-layer synthetic weave on top. Each layer is about an inch thick. You slice the outer layer and insert the roots of the plant in between. Then you hope the plant doesn’t die. The rest of the job needs a reservoir to hold water. And a pump to circulate it. And a basin to catch it. And a backup pump in case the first one crashes. And. And. And. It’s a lot to consider, so most people don’t bother.
For Geoff it was different. He saw potential. “I visited my brother in California and he had this horrible living wall on the side of his garage,” he says. “It was a woven wool blanket sort of thing that he stuffed plants in, but I thought it was an interesting surface.” He loved that it didn’t take up much space because it was vertical. But how could he adapt it so that users didn’t need a bachelor’s degree to keep the system alive. The answer was getting water to the plants as easily as possible.
Instead of tapping into the plumbing, Breathe is independent. Each planter has a wick that supplies the water. A wick is like a straw with one end in the water supply and the other in the planter. It’s absorbent so it allows moisture to climb the wick to get to the plant. It’s the same process that lets trees get water up to higher branches.
With Breathe, each planter sits on top of a water trough. “Even though it appears like there is a whole series of troughs, it’s effectively one trough,” says Geoff. Water is poured in at the highest point. Then gravity and a series of connected drainage tubes allow the water to flow through the system. Any extra water is collected in an overflow at the bottom. It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine for plants.
A Rube Goldberg machine
It basically gets filled and it overflows. It's designed so that, again with me in mind, I can’t overfill it. The system won’t let me,” says Geoff. “It’s self-regulating that way.”
This solves a few problems. With traditional hydroponic systems, water flows top to bottom through the wall. You get super-wet plant beds up top and kind-of dry ones at the bottom. Using a wick draws water up to the plant, but only as much as it needs. That’s all invisibly built into the design. Since the drainage tubes are all connected, there is only one watering point. Having the water travel through the system prevents stagnation and bacterial growth. Both aren’t great for plants. For the people in the office trying not to kill the wall, all they have to do is water it once a week.
Making it modular
Another key to a stress-free living wall is the planter. Making it modular and demountable has plenty of upsides. First, the plant gets all the room it needs to be healthy. “Plants grow, oddly enough,” says Geoff. “So, you start off with them smaller and tighter and then as they grow you move them apart. You let the plants be plants.
“When they’re regimented it means you have to start off with a plant of a certain size and then you can’t actually let it grow in the way you might want to.”
The modular plant pot is crucial from a maintenance perspective, too. Hydroponic living walls are embedded in the building material. Making a change might as well be impossible because of how much work it takes. The plant is growing in the wall.
With Breathe, the plants all have their separate containers. This prevents the spread of disease. If one stem gets something nasty, it’s not sharing soil with the rest of the plants. It’s wicking up water from a shared source, but the water only goes one way. That means that changing out one problem plant can stop an epidemic before it starts. Not so easy with a traditional hydroponic system.
Remember how labor intensive it was to install that thing in the first place. Changing out a sick plant means digging into the wall. Removing the diseased roots is a precision job because you don’t want to kill any of the other plants. Then you have to mount a new plant on the wall. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the disease hasn’t already spread. With Breathe, the sick plant is replaced. In minutes. For a minimal cost. That’s huge if you don’t have a green thumb.
Everyone gets green
Given how much we rely on tech these days, its interesting to think of a solution that doesn’t rely on complexity. Wick technology isn’t new. Neither is gravity. Maybe moving forward means taking a quick look back, too. For modular living walls, the best solution meant stripping down and keeping things simple. That was certainly the case for Geoff when he came up with the idea of Breathe living walls. “I think the whole thing was maybe 20 hours of design. It just came to me,” says Geoff. “It was one of those things.”
Sources and further reading:
- Public Health Reports Healthy Workplaces: The Effects of Nature Contact at Work on Employee Stress and Health
- Journal of Experimental Psychology The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments.
- The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America Acoustic properties of green walls with and without vegetation
DIRTT Environmental Solutions uses its 3D software to create prefabricated interiors. Each space is tailored to our clients' needs. Manufacturing facilities are located in Phoenix, Savannah and Calgary. DIRTT works with nearly 100 Partners throughout North America, the Middle East and Asia. DIRTT trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol "DRT".