Brutalism and Green Walls

Brutalism and Biomimicry
Brutalism and Biomimicry

Brutalism is an architectural style using a lot of concrete to make buildings that appear, well, brutal. I find them depressingly beautiful. They also sometimes replicate natural shapes, like crystals or a bunch of square stones piled on each other or whatever that shape is in the photo above. That biomimicry is beautiful.

But that’s not my point. Many people hate brutalism. It can look very Soviet Block. All that gray concrete gets dirty and the whole thing is depressing.

BUT…as a green wall installer it occurred to me that those large waterproof concrete walls are perfect for living walls!

Keep the shapes but make the material beautiful. Green walls and brutalism.

living wall brutalism
Imagine how beautiful a living wall would look on all those surfaces.


Using Plants to clean household air

One of the largest issues in a house is indoor air quality. Up until recently most people usually don’t pay any attention to it and subsequently the amount of headaches, foggy headedness, breathing problems and body aches are much higher than need be.

Not coincidentally the above body symptoms are also what happens to you when you are exposed to too much Carbon Dioxide. Basically your typical house has too much carbon dioxide, which is what humans exhale. Along with many other semi toxic gases and vapors.

With a badly built house this issue of indoor air polution is not crucial because the house has leaks that allow it to breathe. But now with high efficiency houses it becomes imperative that indoor air quality be addressed.

When we do a green renovation of a Brooklyn brownstone we seal up every single crack in the building envelope. We caulk, insulate, vapor wrap and tape the entire envelope so that not one iota of air can get in or out. That is great for energy efficiency.

Yet it can be deadly for indoor air quality because now the Brownstone does not breathe like it used to. Because we use natural materials there is no concern of toxins building up in the house from things like paints or wood, but normal living creates more than enough toxins – cooking, breathing, sweating, showering – all these things are a problem if not vented and replaced with healthy air.

So as green contractors specializing in energy efficient Brooklyn brownstones we need to pay extra attention to helping the building breathe. We usually do this with mechanical systems like an Energy Recovery Ventilator. We also design for good cross ventilation, a good stack effect, and for intelligent placement of rooms so they ventilate well.

But we need to remember that removing toxins is a job that has been, since the beginning of the planet, the job of green plants and the earth they root in! As we exhale CO2, the plants are concurrently breathing those gases in and exhaling the essential, pure oxygen that we need.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to have plants in the house to help filter the air for us. The key is to not let humidity from the plants cause problems. The best options are actually the plants that are traditional in the home: English ivy, rhododendron. and spider plants. These plants seem to be especially effective at filtering out the bad air, and bring pure “green” air into our buildings.

I did some digging on the subject to find out how effective plants are at filtering household air. Its still actually being debated how many plants per person are needed, but I’m told about 40 spider plants could balance out a small studio apartment with one person….that is a lot of plants!

Bill Wolverton did one of the original studies and concluded 100 spider plants would filter a 1200 sq. ft. house. There is a formula per cm2 of leaf area.  Obviously at that level humidity would be an issue amoung other things.

Some interesting work was done with living walls (hydroponic growing walls). One was in a commercial office in Toronto. The studies indicated that even tuolene was removed from the air.

Living Walls allow air to pass through a wall on which there is moving water and various flora and fauna to clean and condition ventilation air. Do a Google and you should find built examples. (Canada Life Building in Toronto is one, designed by a “Wolf Amelung” , it was probably 15 years or more ago) St. Mary’s Univ in Halifax is the site of another).

There was a school of thought in the previous millennium that one could utilize a plant-filled attached sunspace to function as the “lungs” for a house to provide fresh ventilation air to the house without having to utilize mechanical equipment.

It was a nice idea but unfortunately more mythical than factual according to a study that CMHC did back then. According to them plants do *help* to clean air but it’s actually the soil that’s doing the “purifying”. I would guess the roots of the plants also play a large role in air filtration.

NASA did a study of this recently (presumably for space stations) analyzing the best plants for filtering and Oxygen conversion. According to the Wikipedia description,  the recommendation of NASA is to use 16 good-sized houseplants in 7-inch diameter containers for a 1,800-square-foot house.

For a Brooklyn brownstone that typically means about six good sized plants per floor.

The bottom line: plants do filter air effectively. The above recommendations are probably more plants than most people want to live with but it is a good idea to have plants in healthy soil around the house. They are measurably beneficial to our health.

Living Walls FAQ

Lately, the idea of green walls has become very fashionable. Either part of a building or free standing, this sustainable innovation is healthy and great to look at. Also known as living walls, these vertical gardens are packed with flora that benefits everything from our lungs to our ears!

Let’s have a detailed look into the benefits of green walls and then find out how to install your very own green wall at home…

Lately, the idea of green walls has become very fashionable. Either part of a building or free standing, this sustainable innovation is healthy and great to look at. Also known as living walls, these vertical gardens are packed with flora that benefits everything from our lungs to our ears. Let’s have a detailed look into the benefits of green walls and then find out how to install your very own green wall at home…

Improved Air Quality

It has been scientifically proven that foliage can improve air quality. Indeed, the Amazon rainforest is often referred to as ‘the lungs of the world’.

A green wall will help to vastly improve the quality of air in any environment. It acts as a natural air filter, purifying the polluted air whilst releasing clean oxygen. If installed in an office environment, the presence of green walls can lead to greater employee productivity and overall health, since cleaner air leads to better concentration, healthier employees and fewer sick days.

Excellent Aesthetics

No one who has seen a green wall close up can say that they’re not impressive, especially the larger-scale ones such as Patrick Blanc’s Parisian creations. We’re simply not used to seeing gardens grow upwards, so it catches our eye!

Excellent for the home or the office, a green wall can turn any dull and dreary room into an inviting and alluring environment. This can be great for creating a good first impression on your clients when they visit your business. Or, if you want to give your home a nice colourful touch, it will add some green to your own four walls and be a great talking point when you have guests over.

Reduced Energy Costs

In the Western world, and America in particular, we love air conditioning. However, the costs can be astronomical. Did you know however than installing a green wall acts as a natural air conditioner, balancing humidity levels in the process to keep us comfortable.

Through a process known as evapotranspiration, the air surrounding the green wall is naturally cooled. In winter, a green wall on the outside of a building acts as insulation, reducing the need for costly heating too.

Reduced Noise Levels

You might be wondering how can a bunch of plants help to reduce noise levels! It is one of the lesser-known benefits of a green wall, reducing background noise in loud, communal dining areas, or reducing noise pollution from traffic on busy main roads.

The foliage absorbs and reflects the noise that comes its way, so if there’s a room in your home you want to make as peaceful and relaxing as possible, a living green wall can help – and that’s not to mention the general sense of calm and well-being that comes from being around greenery!

Wall Planters and Wall Plants

As a green wall installer I’m always reading up on the latest developments in living wall technologies. I recently read a book called Wall Planters and Wall Plants, Practical guide to vertical gardening, by Nicholas Jenkins. The tag line is Wall planters indoor and outdoor, vertical planting systems, DIY, planting, pots and plants, decor and ideas, all included.

If the title and tag line seem a little all over the place, then they are a good indication of the book itself. It attempts to give beginner advice on installing green walls. But it is disorganized and unclear.

living walls
A good try at explaining living walls that falls short
My main criticism is that it gives many variations on building living wall installations – pots, soil, artificial growing medium, air plants, yet nowhere is there a diagram. I’m a professional green wall installer and I had a hard time following his instructions on how to build a green wall.

Installing a living wall is not rocket science but you need the visual. You can’t simply write a description of how to build the green wall. You need diagrams of how the watering is hooked up, how the growing media is applied etc.

Even what he does write is not always easy to understand. Take this comment:

Make sure that the components of the system are of the right size; otherwise, when there is a rapid change in the pressure and velocity of the fluid (water), the dissolved air can precipitate and cause damages similar to those caused by cavitations.

What?? Say again?? I don’t know about you but I hate cavitations. They hurt like hell.

On the other hand the book has over simplistic instructions. There is a section called, “Be vigilant around electricity,” and another titled, “Always Handle Toxic Chemicals with Care.” Really? I never knew!

Anyone who knows what caviations means probably knows how to be safe around electricity. Bottom line, your average DIY person is going to be confused on one hand and bored on the other by this book.

As a living wall installer I managed to get some use out of the book. He has some good suggestions for recirculating pumps. I just skimmed over the rest. Overall though, I can’t say I would recommend this book to anyone, laymen or professionals alike.

Green Walls Increase Awe

There is something awe inspiring about staring up at a majestic green wall. The size and beauty of a living wall reminds us of our immortality and brings us back to what is important in life.

It turns out the benefits of awe inspiring nature is scientifically proven. Researchers at the University of California at Irvine had one group of people stare up at trees for sixty seconds. Another group stared at a building for the same time.

Guess who felt awe. The tree viewers of course. But what is really cool is that the people in the study group looking at trees were more likely to help a stranger than the group looking at a building. Nature made them more compassionate, cooperative and charitable

The researcher of the study, Paul Piff, had this to say:

Experiences of awe attune people to things larger than themselves. They cause individuals to feel less entitled, less selfish, and to behave in more generous and helping ways.

living wall
A living wall doesn’t have to be huge to inspire awe at it’s beauty.


The researchers also found that regularly experiencing moments of awe lowers levels of inflammatory compounds in the body. The reasoning that nature chills us out and brings us back to a more centered, relaxed state.

It’s not often people experience awe in their very own work space, but a large living wall can do that. People rarely tire of a living wall. It is always growing, changing and being humbling in its beauty.

That feeling of awe and inspiration it turns out is good for our values, keeping us more grounded and with a more healthy perspective on life. Pretty cool. Who knew a living wall can make people better team players.

As a NY green wall installer I knew this intuitively based on my experience and client feedback. There’s a real sense of wonder at these plants that magically climb the wall. It’s just cool to have it scientifically verified.

Green Walls Lower Blood Pressure

New York green wall installers are working in the most developed place on the planet, the birthplace of the term “concrete jungle”. That’s why a NY living wall installer can make such a difference. There is so much wall to cover in the big apple.

green wall
The soft color variations in this green wall are soothing to the eye.

This is important work given the health benefits of greenery and the stress of living in a big city. NY green wall installers are literally contributing to stress reduction with each living wall they build.

This claim is not baseless. Studies have shown that exposure to plants helps reduce high blood pressure, a large cause of stress related sicknesses. According to the results of one study in Australia where they exposed people to nature and measured their blood pressure, the author of the study says,

If everyone were to make time for nature, the savings on health care costs could be incredible.

She goes on to say,

It requires effortless attention to look at the leaves of a tree, unlike the constant emails at work or the chores at home.

The main conclusion of the study is that surrounding yourself with some nature reduces stress due to it’s relaxing effect.

New Yorker’s barely have time to sleep, let along take time off to seek out nature. It is a shame. But one thing that helps is to bring nature to New Yorkers in the form of living walls.

Living walls allow busy New Yorkers to look up from their desk and stare upon a wall of lush greenery. Or at home one might gaze upon a living wall in the bathroom as you take a bath and unwind. Wherever the living wall is in the building it allows people to stop for a second and ponder the shapes and the textures of the plants.

This effortless appreciation of living walls is soothing and relaxing to the eye. It is a momentary respite in the bustle of the city.

Living Wall vs. Green Wall

We install Living Walls. But the lay person might call them green walls. That’s fine. Most people don’t sweat the difference and use the two interchangeably. Technically a living wall and green wall are different though. A living wall has the plants rooted on the wall whereas a green wall also can have the plants rooted on the ground and growing up the wall.

green wall
A green wall can be as simple as a vine climbing up the wall.

In terms of how the wall is build, the difference is huge. It takes a lot of technical know-how to build a living wall but not so much for a green wall that grows from the ground. For a living wall you have to know how to attach the plants to the wall and once they are up you have to know how to keep them alive. As many a failed living wall has shown, this is no easy feat.

A green wall on the other hand is much easier. Anyone who has put a vine in a pot and let it grow up the wall has created a green wall. Over time the vine will cover the wall and create a wall of greenery. As long as you water the roots. Green walls are much hardier for many reasons.

The main reason is that the roots can sit in your traditional soil. And watering it is easy. When it gets cold the soil helps insulate the roots from cold damage. When it gets hot the soil retains water so the roots don’t dry out. Every good gardener knows that the secret to healthy plants starts with healthy roots.

A living wall, because the plants are on the wall, provides many more opportunities for designs.

Living walls offer one big challenge: lack of soil depth, if there is soil at all, which there usually isn’t. The trick on a living wall is to create a vertical environment that may not be soil but the plants like it nonetheless. The variations on this are many. Some companies use little pockets where you plug the plant into. These pockets could be molded plastic, felt, stainless steel, even terra cotta. Other companies use trays where you pre-install the plants.

Although a green wall is great, we only install living walls for the most part. The opportunities for creative designs are far greater. You can use plants that don’t climb. You can have hanging plants as well. You can control the textures and colors much more. With a green wall you are limited to vines and you can’t really control how they grow.

But like I said, most people don’t sweat the difference between a green wall and a living wall. If you asked us to install a green wall we would gladly do it, but just remember we would really be installing a living wall :). And now you know the difference.

DIY Vertical Gardens

Vertical gardens or living walls are a beautiful and efficient way to maximize green space within an urban context. Aesthetically, vertical gardens can be used to improve the façade of buildings while providing other ecosystem services such as enhanced air quality.

Perhaps first employed by the Mesopotamians to create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the principles of design have expanded past cascading plants to include plants rooted at different heights of a wall. Living walls vary in size, design, and complexity.

Two of the best-known living walls are on the Marché des Halles in Avignon and the Museé du Quai Branly, both designed by Patrick Blanc. However, man-made living walls are not constrained to grand public buildings.

Marche des Halles en Avignon, designed by Patrick Blanc

It is very feasible to create you own, and in fact personal vertical gardens beautifully complement the exterior of Brooklyn brownstones, although it is recommended a professional be consulted for walls higher than 7 feet.

The character of your vertical garden is determined by the framing material and plant selection. While plant selection may vary by individual taste, native species are generally hardier and better suited to the local climate and pest and disease conditions.

Green landscaping with native species is also a proactive way to support the area’s native ecosystems. You may decide to choose a theme to guide your plant selections, such as a foliage wall, mosquito-repellant wall, epicurean wall (pick your salad ingredients!), aromatic herb wall, or a perfumed wall.

Succulents are easy plants for beginners since they do not need substantial irrigation. For vertical gardens created sans soil, epiphytes and lithophytes are necessary plant selections. Epiphytes attach to other objects solely for physical support and are not parasitic. They obtain nutrients from rain, air, and debris. Common epiphytes in temperate zones such as New York are lichens and mosses.

We will list and describe framing methods with increasing complexity.

The Woolly Packet Garden Company offers a series of “woolly packets”, pouches made from recycled water bottles with an impermeable moisture barrier and felt to wick the water. These packets are easy to install and arrange as you please. Although the design is not constrained to vertical garden use, the pouches lend themselves well to such installations. Watch this video for further description:

Flora Grubb Gardens is featuring an example vertical garden installation in their store.

Wooly Pocket installation

For a more complex system, pre-made frames are available for sale from several manufacturers. Gro-Wall offers easy to stack frames.

VGM also offer green wall modules. Drip irrigation coupled with the effects of gravity water the plants in both systems, although this can also be adapted.

Our favorite option at Eco Brooklyn for small walls is using salvaged pallets as a frame for a living wall. We are currently creating a wooden pallet living wall installation in the Green Showroom. Simple and effective, this method limits the amount of new material needed for the project and decreases life cycle emissions and cost.

Pallet living wall


Pallets can often be found for free at local gardening stores. Pallets without significant back support may need to be augmented with scrap wood on the back. You can then staple landscaping paper to the back, bottom, and sides to create a secure void for the soil. Soil is poured through the slats and the selected plants are then planted in place and watered. Once planted, the pallet needs to remain horizontal for one to two weeks until the roots can take and stabilize the soil.

There are two easy ways to create your own frame.

The second method does not require the additions of any soil!

Succulent frames

Method 1: Cut 4 pieces of lumber to the desired length and nail them together at the corners to create a box frame. Staple or nail wire mash to the front face of the frame and a piece of plywood to the back face. Fill the void with soil and then poke the stems from plant cuttings through the mesh. Allow the installation to remain horizontal until the plants are securely rooted. Water lightly or use a drip irrigation system. For smaller frames, it may be easiest to lay it flat when watering and allow the soil to drain before hanging it back up.

Note that the above method works best for small frames, as it does not require a complex irrigation or fertilizer system.


Method 2: This last method is the most involved in terms of infrastructure but very rewarding. It isn’t that green either since it requires a pump. It is however the most popular system and many massive walls have been created this way.

Noémie Vialard’s book Gardening Vertically offers a more in-depth description of the process, which was initially developed by Patrick Blanc. While it is possible to make a portable system, it is most effective as a permanent display.

Wooden battens are first fixed to the selected wall space, and then a PVC panel and two layers of irrigation matting are added over the battens. The irrigation system consists of a perforated pipe connected to a pump, which activates a couple times a day for a few minutes.

Nutrients can be diluted into the water tank to fertilize the ecosystem. The plant roots are inserted through holes in the second layer of felt (such that the plant is secured between layers of irrigation matting).

Because the system has no soil substrate, there is no water retention. To mitigate the high water usage, you may want to plant perennials at the foot of the wall to consume surplus water or create a fish pond at the base. Use gray water to irrigate if possible.

Apart from the electric load, this system is not sustainable in another way: if you stop the pump the plants die quickly since there is no humid soil to keep them. In that sense it is a very artificial environment. The closest natural habitat is a rock wall in a tropical jungle.

For this reason we prefer the soil based living walls. We build our own structure instead of buying pre-made products because it allows us to save costs and customize to the space.

A vertical garden installation can beautifully augment the aesthetic value of your home. Living walls do not need to be grandiose or complex and the concept can easily be adapted to personal usage. Outdoor walls are easier because you don’t have to worry about flooring issues in the house. But indoor walls, provided they get sunlight, don’t get blasted by weather extremes. Indoor walls need special attention to avoid mold issues, but if that is under control they add a freshness to the air that is wonderful.

Eco Brooklyn is a living wall installer because we really love what a living wall does to a space. It fits perfectly with our mission to turn NY green!

Green Source Magazine Products

Reading through the March-April 2012 issue of Green Source Magazine I came across their products section, which featured some very interesting new green roof and living wall items and exciting companies.

By now most people are aware of and understand the benefits of living/ green walls and roofs;

-Health and wellness

-Urban wildlife


-Building protection

-Energy savings

-Acoustic dampening

-Property value


-Improved air quality

-LEED credits

The first product listed designed by Green Over Grey was an improvement on the typical modular living wall system.  Their living walls use a soilless grow medium in a stainless steel frame which allows for a greater range of plants grown per module including anything from ground cover to small trees.

The company was commissioned recently to design/ build the largest green wall in North America in the Edmonton international airport using this system.  While the design is nice and the system is effective it is still run on a hydroponic irrigation system that requires a pump running 24hours to the keep the plants watered, which in our opinion makes for a very nice wall but isn’t ecological.

We don’t use this system for that reason.

edmonton international airport green wall
edmonton international airport green wall

The next company is Colbond Inc. they are global manufacturer of high-performance construction products and textiles.  On their website is a section geared specifically to green roofs and roof gardens.  Their products are a small range of drainage/ water retaining mats and liners for various roof gardening applications.

Their featured item is the “Enkamat” which anchors roots, drains water and grips growing medium, making it useful in sloped roof or high –wind conditions.  Their “Enkadrain” is a water proofing membrane made from 40% pre-consumer recycled polypropylene.  The company itself is not quite a “green company” having a very limited selection of green products compared to the rest of their catalogue.

We have used the Enkamat is our New York green roof installations with good results. Because it offers drainage and water retention in one it makes for an easier installation.

enka drain green roof system
enka drain green roof system enkamat

Tournesol Siteworks is another company specializing in module green wall systems; this one like the Green Over Grey system is capable of supporting a variety of plants making it an improvement on typical systems.  This VertiGreen trellis and Tournesol VGM exterior green walls use soil, between 4 and 8 inches and are designed for easy maintenance with modules that can be independently replaced/ removed. The framework for the wall garden is comprised of recycled polypropylene boxes and stainless steel mounting brackets.

A couple drawbacks are; this system does not come with a built in irrigation system, they recommend a water saving drip system but you are left to figure that out with your green contractor/ builder. This is an important part that could make or break its success. Also the system comes disassembled, your green builder has to assemble the pieces, do the planting and wait 1-3 months before they are ready to hang.

At first you may think this is not the most efficient system or company model.  But it increases work for local labor, decreases shipping load, and moves you away from the “instant product” that people have become obsessed with at great cost to the environment.

Letting the plants grow in place has many benefits. You haven’t invested a lot of money in plants if they don’t survive, the plants that are happy will grow, you get to see them go from zero to full, and the cost is lower since you aren’t paying somebody else to grow your plants.

We like this product because it uses soil and not hydroponics. We also like the fact that it does not cater to people who are willing to spend lots of money for the instant fix. Assembly and growing in place is much more ecological.

The main issue I have with this system is that the square boxes are very visible even when the wall is fully grown. There is no way you can make the wall appear natural. If you highlight the squares like some installers have done then it looks great.

But Eco Brooklyn is more of a naturalist green wall installer in that we like it to look like it just grew there. For that reason we haven’t used this system despite all the great things we like about it.

tournesol greenwall
tournesol module
tournesol module