living walls

Survival prospects upbeat for living walls

Plants in personal workspaces may not fare so well in long-empty offices
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
By Barbara Carss

Like humans, living walls might be overdue for a trim, but few are imperilled in the now largely empty surroundings of commercial and institutional buildings. Horticultural technicians are among designated essential service providers still fulfilling property maintenance requirements during COVID-19-related shutdowns. Even where that’s not happening, building operations staff or an office facility manager should be able to cover the basics.

“I would say that most of the plants will survive as long as there is not some mechanical problem with the irrigation system or a pest invasion that nobody notices,” advises Jason Rokosh, a living wall designer and principal with Vertical Landscape Architects. “Even if it’s just a matter of keeping them alive by ensuring they have enough water and giving them a drink every week, we can deal with the damage when we get back.”

Suspending upkeep for the duration of business shutdowns could be both a costly and unsightly loss on investment. There are typically thousands of tropical plants in a larger living wall installation and Rokosh anticipates heightened demand for available product due to the approaching outdoor planting season and new COVID-19-related pressures on the market.

“Supply chains are trickier now. My plant supply is more limited and I have to go pick them up (from the distributor) myself,” he reports. “The expenditure for maintaining these plants is going to be less than replacement costs. If you’ve got a wall with around 2,500 plants, for example, it’s a lot of money’s worth of plants.”

Living wall designers have already been dealing with increased competition for supply as several Florida-based growers cut production or went out of business in recent years after hurricanes destroyed a vast number of greenhouses. Both production and shipping disruptions are expected now as businesses everywhere face cash flow turmoil, withdrawal of labour and more logistical obstacles moving products to market.

“The supply for tropical plants has gone down and the demand has gone up,” Rokosh says. “If walls slip, it’s going to be more challenging to make them look good again.”

He’s part of the backbone of Canadian contractors and skilled trades still venturing on-site to commercial facilities to perform services that ensure building functions and/or safeguard investments — also placing him among the few with an insiders’ perspective on no-longer-bustling workplaces and retail malls. Rather than eerie, Rokosh finds the quiet reassuring.

“It’s fine. It actually makes my job safer,” he affirms.

While he times some inspection/maintenance tasks for hours when he’s even less likely to encounter other essential workers or, in the case of malls, pharmacy/food store patrons, he also stresses that the eyes-on-the-street philosophy for enhancing public safety is equally effective for monitoring building systems. Leaks, equipment failures or unauthorized entry, for example, are all less likely to be caught early in a sparsely occupied space.

On the indoor plant front, automated irrigation systems for living walls and other types of indoor planters should be checked regularly, and any sign of blight should be reported to horticulture contractors immediately. “We have to proactively prevent pests from overwhelming a wall because that can happen fairly quickly,” Rokosh says.

Meanwhile, survival prospects for the myriad of plants in personal office workspaces across Canada are, sadly, not so optimistic. On the list of instructions for returning staff — when that time arrives — recycling specialists would like to add a reminder to keep the pot and its soil.

“The plant itself can be included in most organics programs, but a clean organics program won’t accept anything but food and plant waste,” explains Jaime Carnevale, manager, sustainability services, with Wasteco. “There are so many items that can contain synthetics so adding anything but food/plant waste really increases the chance that microplastics will get into our soil shed.”

“Keep that soil in the pot and reuse it for a new plant,” she urges. “The root system of the last plant will decompose leaving a boost of nutrients for the new plant — instant compost and less waste.”

That said, at least some workers will return to the greenery left behind weeks before. “I happen to know that some housekeeping staff have been watering plants in tenants’ absence so they can return to as much normalcy as possible,” Carnevale reveals.

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.

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