Green wall business grows to new heights


New Holland Brewing Company’s The Knickerbocker is one of the establishments using LiveWall’s outdoor landscaping products. Courtesy LiveWall

The concept of a vertical garden is almost as old as civilization itself — see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Viking dwellings of earth and plants — but the trend has gained new life in the past decade as the sustainability movement blossoms.

Nunica-based Hortech Inc., founded in 1983, has seen increasing success as a company in the past decade — first through its LiveRoof subsidiary formed in 2006, and now with LiveWall, a company it established in 2012 that offers a patented living wall system designed to be easy to install, plant and replant.

Dave MacKenzie — a horticulturalist, biologist, inventor and founder of Hortech and its subsidiaries — concluded after much testing that contemporary green wall systems patterned after French designer Patrick Blanc’s approach led to disease and plant mortality because of the way they were designed. They forced the plants to grow sideways, without sufficient soil, and the trickle-down watering approach posed irrigation and erosion challenges.

MacKenzie and his staff put their heads together and designed a new system that was essentially window boxes installed in a central frame with “upright stem orientation, downward-growing roots, a soil-based growing medium with beneficial soil-borne microflora and irrigation that moves downward like rain.”

The plants chosen for each design have to grow high enough or trail long enough to cover the planters and create the impression of a solid wall of greenery. Additionally, indoor installations need different kind of watering and lighting systems than outdoor projects.

After MacKenzie tested a prototype at his house over the course of three winters, LiveWall launched in summer 2012.

The company’s first two major projects were the outdoor and indoor living walls at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, 435 Ionia Ave. SW — the former installed in 2012 and the latter just in time for the market’s grand opening in May 2013.

Amber Ponce is business development manager for LiveWall and has been with the company since 2006. She said by the time LiveWall introduced its system, it was almost too late to make a big splash, as many early adopters had used Blanc’s system or similar approaches that didn’t work and were too “gun shy” to try again with another tactic.

“We had a very slow beginning, as we had to prove to people that our approach was different enough and horticulturally sound enough that it would support healthy plants,” she said. “Frankly, what it took for us to really gain acceptance was participating in ArtPrize in 2013 and 2014. Those were real catalysts to acceptance of the technology and getting the word out about our products.”

The 2013 and ’14 installations Ponce referred to were designed by MacKenzie and called “Back to Eden” and “Breathe.” They were displayed at The B.O.B., at 20 Monroe Ave. NW in downtown Grand Rapids.

Since its debut, LiveWall has designed dozens of West Michigan living walls for places such as 234 Market Apartments, Applied Imaging, Breton Village Shopping Center, The B.O.B., Forty Acres Soul Kitchen, Grand Rapids Water Resource Recovery Facility, Greenleaf Trust, John Ball Zoo, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, The Knickerbocker by New Holland Brewing, One Bourbon, The Rapid Central Station,, The Sovengard, Spectrum Health, Waterford Place, the Wege Foundation, Western Michigan University and more — as well as for clients around the country.

One of its more recent Grand Rapids projects is a 374-square-foot indoor living wall at the Jack and Mary De Witt Center for Science and Technology at Cornerstone University, which had its grand opening in December.

The center’s living wall was installed with two separate LiveWall structures (each 14 feet, 6 inches by 4 feet by 10 feet) with shared infrastructure. The structures were assembled so that from most vantage points in the atrium, the vegetation appears as one continuous wall that spans the second and third floors.

Ponce said although LiveWall’s system, from frame to planter box, is easy to install — “like putting together tinker toys” — the plumbing part is trickier, and therefore, the company recommends “experienced contractors” do the job, consulting LiveWall on horticultural questions as needed.

LiveWall produces a plant design guide each year to help customers, especially those that are planting annuals, know how to replant the wall by showing which plants work well together.

Many of its clients, especially restaurants, populate their green walls with herbs and other edibles to use in their kitchens.

LiveWall promotes its products as having numerous benefits, including boosting productivity; increasing health, including air quality; promoting conservation; offering aesthetic value; marketing the workplace as a destination; and offering the option of food production.

Ponce said clients have said they feel calmer and more connected to nature when working or spending time near a living wall, and she views having a visible green wall in a corporate setting as a “net positive” for everyone.

“In some cases, it can help you to meet code for green space while letting you have a bigger footprint for your building. Instead of putting a landscape down that takes up 300 square feet of ground-level space, you could potentially use that for parking, for making a bigger building and, instead, put that green space on the side of your building,” she said.

“It’s really hard to say one overall benefit because it really varies based on what’s important to (clients). But almost every client that we talk to, they have a different problem that they’re looking for us to solve.”

At least half of the clients cite sustainability goals as a factor in their decision to install a vertical garden, she said.

“Many of them are doing it more as a symbol that’s very visible of their overall commitment to sustainability. Low volume toilets and high-energy efficiency lighting, those are hard to show somebody that this is part of our overall commitment.

“But a green wall smack in your face when you first either approach the building or enter it? That can really show that you have this commitment. It’s a symbol.”

Ponce said LiveWall can provide clients with a quote in about a day, and standard turnaround time for shipping the structures is about two weeks.

Estimated project costs are $80-$150 per square foot, depending on the complexity of the project.

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