How Living Wall & Green Roof Systems Are Changing Our World

Nature & Environment | 0 comments

angela jones

Written by Angela Jones

July 26, 2022


As one of the largest installers of solar energy systems, living walls, and green roofs in the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., SolTerra’s business model incorporates an in-house operation as a sustainable building firm that results in maximum efficiency in product, build, and design.  What began as a solar installation business quickly grew to offer additional eco-efficient systems, connecting us even closer with nature.  SolTerra has now taken their vision beyond building development, expressing their plan to reinvent the way entire cities operate. They have set out to make their forward thinking approach to green living and business common knowledge, proving that sustainable living and its far-reaching benefits are within reach for everyone. 

Solterra connects people to nature in the city by building super green apartment buildings, commercial spaces, and homes.  We do this with our installation of living walls, green roofs, and solar panels.  Solterra is adventurous because we are doing things that no one has done before, such as with our Vera living wall patented system that has been developed over many years.  The Vera Wall is a modular system, meaning that it’s panels that connect in order to fit any kind of design.  It’s integrated, so the roots of the plants can travel feet rather than staying within a small pocket like other systems.

SolTerra Parq Rendering
Esker View Looking Up Capitol Hill
Antelope Courtyard View

We are disruptive, because we have figured out how to build green efficiently.  We are vertically integrated with in house developers, designers, architects, builders, engineers, and therefore we are able to work together to create the building efficiently versus having to sub-contract out; and that’s disrupting the typical system.  We are proving that living sustainability is within reach for everyone.”

Plant Variety

The plant selection for living walls is actually quite thorough.  The first basis for selecting plant varieties is choosing plants that are going to be suited for the local environment; plants that typically grow natively in the area or are well-adapted.  We then start with the aspect of the building, so if the wall is facing south or west, we’re going to choose plants that can tolerate high temperatures and full sun condition.  Whereas if the wall is facing north or east we’re going to choose plants that handle a shady environment.  Interior walls can be installed anywhere, but they do require artificial light to thrive.  

Especially for outdoor walls, we select hardy plants, or plants from the local region that have a seasonal interest as well as our year round Evergreen.  We also look for attributes that can produce berries and nectar sources for birds, amphibians and other fauna.  We like to consider client’s design intent as well, whether there’s a specific color they’re looking for or a specific purpose.  We also consider the specific conditions on the wall; for the tops of the wall we’re going to look for plants that can handle a dryer environment, whereas in the bottoms of the walls we look for plants that can handle moist conditions.  At one of our apartment buildings called The Woodlawn, we have one of the largest living walls on the West Coast, and it boasts about 50% native plants.  Right after planting we saw about 4 varieties of birds move in and actually nest in that environment.  

While we have strong presence in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, we would be very interested in working with other parts of the world.  We would love to collaborate with local horticulturists and designers to make sure that we’re using plant specific conditions and the wall with definitely thrive. 

Starting Your Living Wall

The easiest plants would probably be working with herbs for your edible vertical wall.  The second would be working with lettuce greens or salads.  Anything that’s quick and easy to grow in your garden could probably translate very well to a living wall.  Things that would be harder to grow would be root crops or large nutrient craving plants such as corn, squash, and larger plants.  Re-growth can really work if you have the right conditions such as proper drainage and lighting for the wall.  It also may not look perfect year round if you’ve cut them down, but the greens will re-sprout and you could probably get a few turns off one planting before you’d have to start over again.  There’s actually quite a few edible flowers that I think would really enhance the wall as well as your salad bowl.  Things like Nasturtiums and Violas would grow very wall in a wall. 

Kroger Living Wall Gig Harbor
Alberta St Living Wall
Lucas working on Living wall

Maintaining Your Living Wall

You want to scale the size of the wall to what your means are and how much time you have to care for the garden, because it is a garden; it’s not just an art piece.  You do need to interact with it and care for it on a regular basis.  They do require regular maintenance, and the best method is preventative maintenance, which is checking the wall about once every other week.  Other maintenance includes pruning and fertilizing on a regular basis, ensure that the irrigation system is working correctly…  All living walls should have an irrigation system, and we don’t recommend hand watering just for the sake of consistency and the health of the wall.  Again, you’re pretty much treating it like a garden, it’s just on a vertical surface.  One of the things you should consider is access; making sure the wall is very easy to access and the type of equipment that you’re going to use to access the wall.  To ensure that the wall is cost effective, you want to scale it within in your means.  You want make sure it’s accessible, easy to maintain, and that the equipment needed to maintain the wall is not out of the realm of possibility.  It should also be professionally installed with proper water-proofing, irrigation, drainage, and correct lighting.

Joseph Arnold Lofts Living Wall

Lasting Impact

I believe the greatest impact living walls can make is in the urban environment.  As cities become increasingly denser, there’s less square footage for trees to grow; trees providing one of the greatest environmental benefits.  Livings walls are incredible at absorbing carbon monoxide and contributing oxygen to the environment.  One could argue that living walls require more infrastructure; but the infrastructure is already there so we’re just asking the infrastructure to be more efficient in creating positive impacts.  

Humans have a natural instinct to be close to living things.  This is called biophilia, and it seems to be a growing trend in popularity that plants and people need to be closer together to create a healthy environment.  Biophilia is a feeling that people get when they are close to living things.  A lot of receptionists say that living walls placed in the waiting areas help the patients relax before their appointments.  There are also some current studies with kids that have attention disorders, and they experience a more relaxed and stress-free environment when there are plants in the near neighborhood.  We’ve also noticed that when there are toys and a living wall in a room, kids immediately go to the living wall over the toys.  

We all know that urban environments have historically not been healthy environments for people, and it’s a great benefit that living walls can be incorporated virtually anywhere; from a narrow corridor to indoors.  Whereas trees are not able to have that square footage anymore, plus it takes trees years to grow to a size that can contribute with a beneficial impact.  As soon as a living wall is built and developed, it can immediately contribute to the environment. 

SolTerra Niwa Seattle

Noise Pollution & Water Waste

Living walls disrupt the sound waves that occur in noise pollution.  They basically just create a barrier that prevents the sound from bouncing back off a solid wall.  We see living walls as part of the home’s personality, and therefore it’s making the home more attractive in bringing in nature as part of it.  We think that it’s capitalizing on existing infrastructure by utilizing what’s already there, such as the structure, water, and the landscape that already exists.  For instance at the Woodlawn Apartments, we collect the rainwater off of the green roof; then use this water to irrigate the living wall; then the water that drains off the living wall is used into the ground landscape.  So we’re taking a building and this system, and we’re using the water three times before it’s drained into the ground.  Very practical, functional, efficient, and there’s a “feel-good” to know that you’re maximizing a resource and not just using it once.

Woodlawn water feature
Woodlawn living wall

The Future Is Vertical

When we’re working with these denser urban environments and higher density populations it just makes sense to increase their productivity in a square footage, whether it’s on rooftops, on walls; we all know the traditional ground type of landscaping and agriculture is becoming more and more limited, and therefore utilizing other infrastructures to create the benefits that we see from ground landscaping can only be a good thing.

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