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Living walls breathe life into construction projects

Dan O'Reilly
Living walls breathe life into construction projects
LIVESCAPE—Livescape created this three-storey living wall which can be found at evolv1 in Waterloo, Ont.

Once a rare feature only found in a select number of buildings, living walls are now becoming more common.

But there are a lot of variables in their design and construction and members of the still-young living wall industry need to fully understand the needs of their designer/contractor/ developer clients, says living wall specialist Ashley DeMarte, founder of Livescape, a company which builds and maintains them.

“After all, these systems are designed to be a living component of the building and buildings last for a long time.”

A former tropical greenhouse worker who subsequently became a subcontractor for another living wall company, DeMarte drew on her knowledge and experience of both industries to establish Livescape three years ago.

Based in Waterloo Region, it has taken on projects in other parts of the country and is pursuing contracts throughout North America.

DeMarte entry into the trade can be traced back to her high school and university years working part time at a tropical greenhouse. During that almost 10-year period she learned both the horticultural and business components of the greenhouse industry. While attending the University of Windsor she learned about a firm that designed living walls and living roofs and decided she wanted to work for that company.

“I saw it as perfect way to blend my love for tropical plants with my university education in Environmental Studies and Visual Arts.”

Initially hired as a subcontractor to service the company’s systems in southern Ontario, she was later hired as a full-time employee, eventually overseeing all its projects in Canada and the United States. A few years later she was downsized in a restructuring. Even though laid off, she received a call asking for a quote.

“That’s when the entrepreneurial light bulb lit up for me and I decided to start Livescape.”

Right from the start, however, its business model and direction has been one DeMarte believes sets it apart from other contractors.

“After working in the living wall and living roof industry I saw an opportunity to create a more multifaceted living wall company — one with a focus on providing a system that is best suited for the clients and goes beyond a single system approach.”

Livescape meets the requirements of its clients by working with several suppliers, not being the sole representative of one, she explains.

“Designers, contractors, and building owners rely on our industry to educate them on what will work best for their buildings and their building culture. In sourcing different wall systems, we began to realize that clients need and deserve a wider range of options.”

Livescape is also developing its own wall system with the help of product development mentors at the Waterloo Accelerator Centre, a University of Waterloo startup facility.

At a very basic level a living wall is a wall with the infrastructure to support plant life. They’re also complex structures comprised of modules/panels, planted blankets, and bags. Some of these systems can be pre-vegetated and attached to a structural wall, or can be created as a free-standing frame or column, says DeMarte.

Several factors have to be considered in their creation including the location, the weight, and the availability of lighting, plumbing, electrical and other services. Certain plants also perform better in certain types of systems.

Tropical plants on interior walls are typically used because they don’t go dormant, while winter hardy plants are required for exterior settings and the specific climate zone.

Asked what is involved in the design of a living wall, DeMarte says it begins with a dialogue with the owner/client to assess their desires and addressing issues such as maintenance.

“It is important to consider who will care for it in the long run.”

As for the selection of plants, that is a process of working with the client and the plant supplier to come up with a beautiful and feasible design.

“If there is enough lead time we can work with growers to grow plants for us. Otherwise we have to see what is available.”

Depending on the scale of the wall, it usually takes two to four people to install one. But there is some planning and design time required and they’re usually the last or close-to-last feature to be erected in a building.

DeMarte estimates she has worked on at least 30 living walls over the course of her career. But the one she is currently most excited about is a three-storey one Livescape recently erected in the atrium of evolv1, a new ultra-modern office building in Waterloo.

Developed by the Cora Group, it has the distinction of being the first-ever project to receive a Zero Carbon Building — Design certification under the Canada Green Building Council’s Zero Carbon Building Standard.

“Our design is quite bold to recognize the building’s bold statement around sustainability.”

Cora Group vision was to build a replicable, Zero Carbon, Net Positive Energy building, says its chief operating officer, Adrian Conrad.

“A floor-to-ceiling, three-storey living wall will meet this need as it instantly awes visitors while simultaneously communicating that evovl1 is something different.

“When selecting a company to install the living wall, we needed a company that was going to bring our same passion to the project, with the expertise and creativity to go along with it. Livescape delivered this amazingly,” says Conrad.

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Ziani Janse van Rensburg Image Ziani Janse van Rensburg

We are extremely interested in this project and would want to learn more and draw from her experience. We are beased in south africa. With extreme drought conditions. Please advise or direct us.