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Naked walls and rooftops turn green with envy

If there’s a niche space to keep an eye on in our urban landscapes and landscape architecture it seems we don’t need to look much further than the nearest wall or roof. The sustainable benefits of green walls and roofs are causing businesses around the world to look up, with the green roof industry in North America alone growing by an amazing 16 percent last year and still accelerating. And in Europe the French are particularly renowned for green walling entire buildings, most notably the entire exterior of the Paris Museum. 

Two of the go-to advocates for this niche space in New Zealand are Aucklanders Graham Cleary of Natural Habitats, the company behind greenwalls.co.nz, and Zoë Zimmerman of Resource Management Solutions, who is the living force behind livingroofs.org.nz, an independent organisation that is promoting the uptake of green roofs in New Zealand. 

Natural Habitats designed and built the first large commercial green roof in New Zealand for Mirvac’s Quay West development in Auckland. The company then went on to complete another landmark roof development at The Parc in Auckland’s Viaduct, where a visually stunning 3,500m² roof garden was designed by Natural Habitats’ Debbie Tikao. The Parc, which this year won Silver at the NZILA “Pride of Place Awards 2010”, is considered a rare oasis in the heart of downtown Auckland — a serene space that provides a degree of separation and privacy for ground level apartments on the ground level. The structure underneath the garden was developed to support extra weight around the edges of the lawn where extra depth in soil was required for the establishment of trees. Growing media was specifically manufactured to be lightweight and the depth of the lawn within the centre of the park is only 100mm. Five years on and the garden is thriving. 

On the green wall front Cleary has adapted green wall technology with indigenous New Zealand flora and installed New Zealand’s first two green walls. He describes greens walls as “very lightweight, well proven technology that absolutely knocks the viewer’s socks off… once you see a green wall, it inspires you to create more of these vertical gardens." 

Also known as bio walls or vertical vegetation, living walls certainly achieve a crossover between landscape and architecture, horticulture and art. Another success story has been thegreen wall installed at Stephen Marr’s salon Takapuna last October. The wall was raved about as a piece of verdant artwork on a par with a dramatic sculptural installation. 

The double-sided green wall, which measures 10m long by 2m high, boasts well over 1000 individual plants. It divides the upper level, promoting unique spaces that can be used for presentations such as fashion shows. The environmental benefits go beyond the visual and include increased thermal insulation, noise dampening and better quality air. 

Lydia Franken, also of Natural Habitats, says the “increasing popularity and growing presence of green walls and roofs in New Zealand speaks volumes for their potential in the both the realms of architecture and design in both the public and private arenas”. 

Natural Habitats also practices what it preaches, designing and installing a 6m high external green wall (NZ’s first native wall) at their Ellerslie offices just over ayear ago. Today the wall is thriving with lush native vegetation, and several plants look set to repeat last years flowering. 

In July, Cleary and Zimmerman combined forces at an Auckland City Council urban design seminar, where they presented the multifunctional benefits (economic, social and environmental) provided by green walls and roofs. 

In his presentation Cleary argued that the incentives for the use of green walls will increase, while cost will decrease. Looking to the future, he says walls may be mass-produced as cladding and that this green technology is an exportable technology for New Zealand. He also outlined the potential of pre-grown modular systems for green walls that could be adaptable to almost any site, aiding the regulation of indoor temperatures and reducing energy consumption by as much as 23 percent for air cooling. 

For Cleary the added benefits of green walls, which he also classifies as works of art, carry over into research-proven benefits for workplace productivity, building functionality related to reuse and purification of on-site water and improved property values. 

On a light-hearted note Cleary ended his Auckland City Council presentation with a mock-up slide of the new prison being built in the suburb of Mt Eden and overlooking Auckland's southern motorway fully clad in green walls. A solution to an eyesore that could actually have some serious merit. 

“Green walls continue to gain world wide interest because they are an innovative building technology that can help improve the urban environment and lower greenhouse gas emissions,” says Franken. “They create ‘green space’ while using minimal floor space. This provides an instant, textural, green solution to architectural facades and clearly brands the building and its owners as ‘green’ too”.