Who Doesn’t Love a Living Wall?

They reduce stress, help us think more clearly, and look supercool. In other words: a real no-brainer. Learn more in our interview with Habitat Horticulture founder David Brenner, who has turned everything from short office walls to a twenty-foot high column in the Tesla factory into vertical gardens.

Lobby space in Foundry III, one of the office buildings facing Foundry Square in S.F.'s Financial District. Photo courtesy of Habitat Horticulture.
Lobby space in Foundry III, one of the office buildings facing Foundry Square in S.F.’s Financial District. Photo courtesy of Habitat Horticulture.

Tell us a bit about your history as a company—what inspired you to start Habitat Horticulture ?

I understood the therapeutic benefits of plants at an early age which led me to believe in the importance of bringing greenery into urban areas that are often lacking in plants. Because of the spatial constraints in these places, the best way to do that was vertically.

My formal education is in horticulture, landscape design, and psychology. I became inspired by how plants grow on cliffs and rock-faces in nature while apprenticing at the tropical nursery at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London (Kew Gardens).  I was working with orchids, bromeliads, and aroids which have adapted themselves to grow on vertical surfaces. Meanwhile, I was studying horticulture and environmental psychology at Cal Poly University.

While at Kew I traveled around Europe and saw vertical gardens for the first time. After returning from Kew, I began to experiment with different ways of growing plants vertically in the greenhouse of the botany department at Cal Poly and later began developing a system to grow plants vertically.

Besides the living walls at DPR (which we love!), what other types of installations have you done?

As a matter of fact, we recently installed a 20 foot high x 18 inch diameter, 360 degree living column in the Tesla factory solely to provide the workers with a view of greenery while they work.

One of the most interesting and challenging  projects in my opinion was a 15 foot high x 7 high wide fully suspended, living double helix which I created as a mockup for The California Academy of Sciences. We worked with two biological mathematicians at UCSF to extrapolate the correct proportions from an actual double helix!

On the living logo front, I recently partnered up with Tudor watches and Dwell Magazine to create a living wall with the Tudor logo drawn with flowers.

How do you think a living wall contributes to and improves a workplace?

This two-story living wall in DPR's S.F. offices gives both floors a sense of life. Photo by Jason Cheung.
This two-story living wall in DPR’s S.F. offices gives both floors a sense of life. Photo by Jason Cheung.

Not only do living walls benefit our mental health, they also benefit the health of our environments by improving air quality. Plants naturally filter out some volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and toxins that are often found in workplaces, and provide a boost of oxygen to help people think more clearly.

It’s easy to take for granted the few trees and shrubs planted within the urban environment, but if they all suddenly disappeared, we would immediately notice something was missing. It’s no surprise that humans have integrated plants into the built environment for centuries.

A living wall can provide an impactful amount of greenery that almost fools the mind into thinking that you’re somewhere other than an indoor office setting; this often results in a restorative, stress reducing effect.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that human beings’ natural habitat isn’t a concrete city. A living wall can provide an impactful amount of greenery that almost fools the mind into thinking that you’re somewhere other than an indoor office setting; this often results in a restorative, stress reducing effect.

What types of plants were used in the DPR walls?

There are 26 different plant species on the DPR living walls.They consist mostly of plants native to semi-tropical regions around the world, with one exception: you typically see the bright colored Heuchera varieties in the wall outside in temperate regions, but they just happen to do really well indoors.

How long does an installation take, start to finish? Walk us through the steps.

It usually takes about 1-2 weeks depending on the size of project. Once all the electrical and plumbing is in place, we start with waterproofing the existing wall, as well as installing framing and borders. Then we install our living wall backing sheets, irrigation within the living wall, and HH geo-textile growing medium. Simultaneously, we install our irrigation recirculation system and catch basins. Once the system has been thoroughly tested, we can start laying out the design and installing the plants; this usually takes a 2-5 days.

What questions do you ask a client to determine what type of installation is best for them?

The Harvest Cafe in the Facebook HQ. Photo courtesy of Habitat Horticulture.
The Harvest Cafe in the Facebook HQ. Photo courtesy of Habitat Horticulture.

An important first step is to discuss what the client’s objective for wanting to install a living wall is. Are they trying to make an impactful and green first impression for visitors? Is this something they want for their employees to enjoy equally as much as the public? This helps to determine the most strategic place for the living wall. Once we have a spot selected, the rest is figuring out the most efficient way to provide water, power, and light which are essential in keeping the living wall healthy.

What are your favorite plants to work with?

The great thing about working with plants is there are endless combinations of plants which I can use. The colors, textures, and forms of individual plants are all affected by the colors and textures of the plants which surround them. I have my tried-and-true plants that I often incorporate, but I love to bring new plants into the mix. It’s not so much about one particular plant, but how they look and perform next to each other. I love designing with the contrasting textures, colors, and forms in mind. For example, the tiny compact apple green leaves of the  Pilea depressa, next to the metallic purple leaves of the Heuchera “Shanghai” with the delicate weeping fronds of the Adiantum capillus-veneris is an amazing combination.

What’s required in the way of maintenance? How often does a wall need to be watered?

A closer look at the living column in the Tesla factory. Photo courtesy of Habitat Horticulture.
A closer look at the living column in the Tesla factory. Photo courtesy of Habitat Horticulture.

Maintenance involves typical landscape and interior plant maintenance tasks such as pruning out dead leaves, cleaning leaves and looking out for any pests or disease. In addition, it’s important to keep the plants from shading each other out, especially in an indoor setting where lighting is often coming from a fixed location above the wall.

The wall is irrigated automatically typically once per day, but sometimes more depending on how close the lights are to the plants.

What’s the cost of a typical living wall?

They can range from around $125 per square foot to $175 per square foot depending on the projects requirement, irrigation system, local labor rates, access, etc. Typically an installation ends up costing around $150 per square square foot.

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This product profile was sponsored by Habitat Horticulture.

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1 Comment

  • Nice job on the article Mariah. I have a 22-inch diameter concrete pillar that is about 3 feet from larger windows facing an open courtyard. The patio is becoming more shaded as they are almost finished with a 240-unit ‘affordable’ apartment building that limits sun on the patio from west sunsets (Portland, OR). Could you or one of your cohorts suggest something climbing vine-wise to fit with my small condo? I can send photos. Thx. Brian

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