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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Living Walls Inject Natural Beauty, Color Into Design

CHICAGO—Who said it’s not easy being green? The color evokes a sense of freshness, vibrancy and a call to the outdoors. Hotels and designers are embracing this acidic hue in more ways than one—think soil-free living walls, hydroponic gardens, as well as splashes of bold paint colors or accents in furnishings—to create environments that are distinctive, energizing and memorable.

At Sagegreenlife, a designer of living walls and interior decor products based here, the emphasis is on integrating three elements: design, nature and technology. Founder Richard Kincaid witnessed the growth of “authentic sustainability” in Europe and was eager to bring this trend to the U.S., but first he had to solve the problem of upkeep on these vertical gardens.  

“We noted that the large living walls that were being installed in Europe were beautiful, but very difficult to maintain. Our patented growth system was designed to address the issues with these early living walls, and we have been able to do so in a very cost effective, flexible way,” said Kincaid. “The proliferation of LEED-certified buildings and the wellness movement have only accelerated the adoption of living walls as part of a comprehensive sustainability strategy. We have also benefited from corporations’ focus on creating better work environments for their employees. The key to increasing demand was to offer customers a more functional version of the product they want, and it has worked out nicely.”

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In the hospitality industry, the benefits of living walls are numerous. They make a highly visible sustainability statement, can earn LEED credits and successfully absorb sound in large spaces, according to Kincaid. This may also be a more cost-effective way to upgrade a space.

“It is much more budget-friendly to install a large green wall than it would be to replace granite or marble in a hotel. Typically, our clients are using our product to replace another material, which reduces the overall cost of an installation,” he said. “Moreover, most hotels already spend a significant amount on interior landscaping that is only marginally impactful—both visually and functionally. When working with us, our clients discover that our system requires very little maintenance, which can reduce costs, and the large surface area is much more impactful than a plant in the corner.”

As the hospitality industry evolves to meet the aesthetic preferences of younger generations and the young at heart, Kincaid noted that living walls are being used with embedded media to create imagery that accentuates the setting.

“We have seen restaurants highlighting their menu by using farm imagery to showcase the freshness of the ingredients and installing living herb walls in an attempt to create a distinct brand image for the premises,” he said.

He also sees a big opportunity to use portable living walls for meetings and events. “We think the hospitality side of our business will continue to grow rapidly as customers come to understand that there are multiple ways to use them in a hospitality setting.” 

Aware of the synergies and possibilities, Gensler partnered with Sagegreenlife to create Verdanta, a greenery-based product for office environments, which also has applications in hospitality. With this partnership in mind, the team sought to rethink its freestanding living walls from a design perspective.

“Unlike permanently installed living walls, freestanding living walls don’t require a water connection or landlord consent, as they are completely self-contained. Clients can simply plug the unit into an electrical outlet. These new units are easily movable, can have screens or blackboards installed on one side, and can be an attractive option for meetings, weddings and other events. We have designed larger versions of Verdanta that are being used as beautiful room dividers or backdrops for conference stages,” he said. “The movable freestanding living walls allow clients to create a unique setting whenever and wherever they choose to. With the hospitality industry’s focus on group meetings and events, these units could be very effective tools to differentiate the services and upgrades a hotel can offer to its events and meetings clients.”

In terms of overall wellness, one of Sagegreenlife’s core values is to build a better quality of life through living design. “Research shows that plants improve air quality, decrease stress and, in work environments, increase productivity,” he said. “I think the wellness movement is still just in the beginning stages, but it will be a powerful trend as customers begin to expect a health-focused environment wherever they go.”