Living Walls at Home

November 23, 2020

On 20 October 2020, we held our first virtual Planet Woking talk on the theme “Home”. Almost 50 residents joined us online to find out how making changes to our everyday activities at home can contribute to a sustainable Borough. Energy and water use; the amount of waste we produce; how we shop; and our health and well-being all have an impact. By making small changes, we can all help contribute to a more sustainable, healthier and more economical lifestyle for families and individuals and a greener future for Woking. We were joined by Jen Gale, author of The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide, and Wendy Wakenshaw, Woking resident and founder of the Imperfect Footprints website, who gave inspiring presentations and shared tips and advice on sustainable living. You can find out more about Jen and Wendy and download a copy of their presentation slides from the Planet Woking website here.

Following the presentations, we chatted with attendees to find out about their own experiences of living greener, answer any questions, and gather ideas to share through Planet Woking. 

Planet Woking is already reaching well beyond the Borough boundary! Karin, 42, living in York, tuned into the webinar and inspired us all with her idea to incorporate a living green wall at home to help insulate her house in summer and winter.

What are living walls?

Living walls offer multiple benefits by improving air quality through trapping and capturing pollutants, and encouraging insects and wildlife. On buildings, they can help mitigate the effects of climate change by providing an additional layer of insulation, helping to reduce a building’s energy costs. In the winter, green walls help keep heat in and in the summer act as a screen to the sun, keeping the building cool. There are also noted positive impacts to people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing through greening urban spaces.

Ivy Screens along High Street, Woking Town Centre

Two large scale examples in Woking Town Centre include a 75 metre stretch of ivy screens along High Street (see photo above) and a 25 metre high living wall currently being installed on Dukes Court central core as part of its refurbishment. The design at Dukes Court will include insect boxes and bird boxes to help boost urban wildlife and biodiversity. Find out more here.

Living Walls at Home

Here Karin (left) shares how she’s creating her own living wall on a smaller scale at home.

I have been living in my house (built in 1959) for 8 years, and have endured living essentially in an oven during summer and an ice box in winter, due to the collapsed insulation material in the cavity walls (as advised by an insulation expert). In summer, the two storey south facing wall heated up so much that I could feel the heat when placing my hand on the inside wall! And the house never heated up properly in winter. Refilling the cavity walls appears not to be an option, so I started to think how I can reduce the discomfort in summer (and use of fans!) and reduce the cost for heating in winter.

Example of a climbing frame

I started my research and found that a wall covered by a climbing plant with suitable foliage could help to reduce absorption of heat from the sun by up to 20%, and loss of heat in winter by up to 7%. This reduction of efficiency in winter compared to summer can be explained by the wall being shielded from the winter sun, hindering any absorption of energy, and the stronger winds in winter, removing the air gap between the plant and the wall.

Now, a green wall doesn’t equal a green wall! As I also found that the best insulation is achieved when the plant is not touching the wall directly, but rather grows at a distance between 7 and 15cm away from the wall, depending on the exposure of the wall to cross winds and the thickness of the layer of foliage. It can get very complicated if one digs too deep, but it’s also interesting, and an exciting project!

Close up of the hook and cage support

Another good reason for the plant not climbing on the wall directly is that clinging climbers (with suction roots) can and will damage the mortar of your house. They can cause permanent cracks, mortar to be pushed out from between the bricks, and of course, the unsightly lines the suction roots leave if you decide to remove them.

Now that we have decided to put a climbing frame onto the wall, which type of frame is best? My preference are modular steel cable systems that can be arranged around any size of wall and number of doors and windows (see link for how it works and where to order). They don’t add too much material weight either, compared to a wooden frame. Other examples of what the finished product may look like can be found here. There are, of course, other options.

One thing to be mindful of is not to have any strong, horizontal supports until about 2m of height, for security reasons. I will use thin wire lengths wrapped around the holds, up to 2m height, strong enough to hold the weight of the plant but not strong enough to hold the weight of a person. The diagram below gives an idea of what that means in planning the construction of the frame.

Karin’s diagram showing how the living wall will be supported

The last thing to consider is which plant to use and whether you prefer it to shed its leaves in winter, or be evergreen. There are also plants that have flowers and berries, but that can be poisonous or at the very least cause rashes when trimmed (such as the Virginian Creeper). One of the most important considerations for me, is that my brick wall is a bit aged and I must avoid any suction root getting near it at all cost, even if just by accident when they grow past the frame intended for them to climb on. So I am choosing a climber that twines around objects (my climbing frame). But it’s personal preference and you may like to use clinging climbers, especially if you are keen to get the wall green quickly- those guys grow fast! There is a plethora of web pages out there telling you about climbing plants (a good example from the RHS here).

Remember these key items to consider when choosing your plant:

  • can the plant grow as high as your wall;
  • what are its requirements for soil and light;
  • how long it may take the plant to get the coverage you need; and
  • maintenance – the faster they grow, the more trimming you will need to do once the whole area is covered, to keep things under control.

I am planning to have the frame installed early next year by my trusted local man-with-a-ladder. We will measure the wall together and I will then order the steel ropes and fixings. We’ll figure out how closely meshed the wires have to be to support the plant best, too. As I currently don’t have any soil near that wall, and do not fancy watering plant pots for the rest of my life, I will ask said man to dig a trench into my driveway next to the wall, and I will then fill it with soil. That fits in with project number two: redoing the driveway and getting an electrical charging point installed for project number three – getting an electrical vehicle!

Planet Woking would like to thank Karin for taking the time to put this inspiring case study together. If you have any questions, please get in touch via the Planet Woking email address: hello@planetwoking.co.uk

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