The death of London’s first living wall has led to questions about their viability – and sustainability. Merlin Fulcher investigates
The £100,000 living wall at Paradise Park Children’s Centre in Islington, North London, may have simply been killed by a broken water pump. But this high-profile failure could affect the future of green walls across the country, and has raised doubts about their sustainability.
The fate of London’s first living wall – which opened in 2006 at the £1.5 million Paradise Park, designed by South London architect DSDHA – was all but sealed in June this year. According to insiders, the water pump for the 9m-high wall broke and nothing was done to fix it.
Mina Samangooei, who was studying Paradise Park for her MSc in sustainable building at the time, has no doubt this led to the wall’s demise, while Islington Council maintains it is still examining ‘what went wrong’ and has found no evidence that the pump was faulty [see postscript for full rebuttal].
However, Marie Clarke of Clarke Associates, which built the living wall on behalf of DSDHA, makes the strong claim that: ‘It didn’t just die – the water supply was turned off.’
Chris Churchman, partner at Churchman Landscape Architects, believes the disaster threatens the immediate prospects of living walls. ‘The failure of this particular scheme is going to raise doubts in people’s minds about the viability of living walls as a valid technique for cladding,’ he says.
‘They are very much the product of the moment, the thing that everyone wants on their building, so everybody is moving into this market. But [clients] don’t really understand them.
‘[As a practice] we took a positive decision two years ago to try to understand this technology, but if you go with someone who has only been in the business of designing living walls for six months, you’re taking a big risk,’ adds Churchman.
Fionn Stevenson, co-director of the Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development, is also critical of the ‘science’ behind the walls. ‘The incident in Islington proves how vulnerable living walls really are,’ she says.
‘A so-called living wall relies on an artificial supply of water and fertiliser to survive, and the design… is over-optimised and therefore very vulnerable. Unlike a natural eco-system it has no redundancy, so if one thing goes wrong, it all goes wrong.
‘Just keeping [a wall] alive creates lorry-loads of embodied energy and pollution. The living wall cannot be sustainable because a basic principle of sustainability is that you do not live beyond your needs,’ adds Stevenson.
Furthermore, according to Stevenson, a living wall will not contribute to an eco-system if the designer has placed a threshold between the building and existing flora (such was the case at Paradise Park).
‘Architects tend to treat them as a building element,’ says Stevenson, ‘but in fact they should think of them as a landscape element, to think how they engage with the ground and the roof of the buildings.
‘Unfortunately, living walls have just become another part of the green eco-bling armoury,’ she adds.
Back in North London, a spokesperson for The Driver pub in King’s Cross, which recently fitted a living wall, concedes: ‘It is very risky – Patrick Blanc doesn’t give you any guarantees.’ French botanist and designer Blanc claims to have invented the living wall, and peddles his designs to clients such as international art galleries and hotels.
‘The [Driver’s] owner would look to do them on every single property he owns – he loves it,’ adds the spokesperson. ‘We have done a bit of replanting, but definitely less than 10 per cent of the surface area.’
Jeremy Blake, principal at Purcell Miller Tritton, installed a nine-storey living wall by Blanc at the recently refurbished Athenaeum Hotel in London. He says: ‘You’re dealing with a living organism and that means it needs to be appropriately selected, appropriately installed and well maintained and irrigated.
‘Your three key elements for a successful living wall are the growing medium, monitored irrigation, and appropriate plant types for that kind of exposure.’
A spokesperson for the Athenaeum Hotel said: ‘We have had a couple of bits which haven’t survived, but the majority of it is looking quite lush.’
Blake adds that the Paradise Park incident ‘will make people more aware of the critical issues that you need to ensure are incorporated into the design of a living wall’.
However, he is positive about the technology. ‘We are working on a number of major developments, equivalent to eco-luxury hotels, that feature living walls and are in the competitive pre-planning and concept stages.’
Nicola Giuggioli – whose shop Eco Age in Chiswick, South London, designs and installs living walls – admits ‘it is a learning process’.
Giuggioli encourages his clients (residential homeowners) to buy a maintenance contract from him, but warns that there are still risks. ‘[During a cold snap] we completely forgot to turn off the watering and the water froze – it broke the roots of the plants, which then froze and died.’
Doug McIntyre of Aldingbourne Nurseries, which installs living walls, claims that the incident at Paradise Park has had a ‘knock-on effect’ on his business. He says his clients are cautious, even though his walls, he claims, ‘are superior’ to those used at Paradise Park because they use a growing medium instead of rockwool.
Sean Griffiths, director at architecture practice FAT, says: ‘I think living walls have become a substitute for having any ideas.’
The Belvedere, a tower designed by FAT proposed for East London, was to feature a 19-storey living wall by Blanc. ‘It was the client who wanted it,’ adds Griffiths, who thinks the tower is now unlikely to be built.
A spokesperson for DSDHA said: ‘At the present time, all we can really say is that we are working with our client to resolve this situation at [Paradise Park].’
A spokesperson for Islington Council said: ‘The council and its partners are still examining exactly what went wrong with the wall and how best to restore it. We are not aware of any evidence the water pump was broken or out of repair and further speculation at this stage is unhelpful.’
Living Walls in Europe
1. Herzog & de Meuron’s CaixaForum arts complex in Madrid, which occupies a former power station, features a 24m-tall living wall by Patrick Blanc, who claims to have invented living walls
2. EDAW’s landscape architecture arm designed one of the UK’s longest living walls (above) – a 170m-long wall for the southern pedestrian approach to Westfield shopping centre in West London
3. Purcell Miller Tritton’s nine-storey living wall at the Athenaeum Hotel in central London is the tallest in Europe (above). The plants were arranged according to a scientific pattern specified by Patrick Blanc