It's Alive!

The Baltimore Sun

When the owner of Bluehouse, an environmentally conscious Baltimore home store, needed to decorate his newest location, he didn't want subtle.

He wanted something striking, something that would shout - even passionately sing - a testament to green living.

David Buscher went with a living wall.

The living wall, or green wall as some call it, is a massive installation of greenery that, reaching from floor to ceiling, dominates the new Bluehouse store at The Shops at Kenilworth mall in Towson. Composed of thousands of plants, the wall is part foliage, part air filter, part art - but all statement.

It takes the concept of bringing the outdoors in to a whole new level.

"I definitely wanted something that would really personify what we're about in a very dramatic way," Buscher says. "I feel it definitely encompasses that vision."

With its green wall, Bluehouse is on the cutting edge of an interior design trend that's slowly making its way into the United States from Europe and Canada, where it has been more heartily embraced.

Outdoor living walls - which are sort of vertical green roofs - are still novelties, too, but increasingly popular.

Baltimore, interestingly, became home to the country's first air-filtering indoor green wall in 2005 when Biohabitats, an ecological restoration firm, commissioned one for its headquarters in Clipper Mill.

Though some green walls are mainly decorative, Biohabitats' 10-foot-by-11-foot wall of tropical plants is designed to work with the building's heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system to filter toxins such as methane and formaldehyde from the company's 7,500-square-foot office.

Baltimore's Furbish Co., which specializes in sustainable building features, designed that wall with the help of Dr. Alan Darlington of Ontario, Canada, one of the pioneers of the green-wall-filtering concept.

In the three years since that installation, Furbish has built only a handful more living walls. But Jimmy Dick, the company's business developer, believes the situation is changing, largely because of people's growing acceptance of the environmental movement but also because of advances that could lower the cost of the pricey walls.

Next week, Furbish is installing a wall at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in Morristown, N.J. And the firm is working with a Hunt Valley engineering company that would like a living wall in its conference room.

In fact, Furbish is experimenting with a living wall in the library of its own office in Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood. With that wall, Dick says, Furbish is trying out new materials that could lower costs.

As things stand, Dick says living walls range from $90 a square foot to as much as $200 a square foot - a sizable one would cost about the same as a major work of art.

ELT Easy Green, a living-wall-systems company based out of Canada, sells kits online that range from about $200 to $400. But the kits are more like framed plant paintings than full-blown walls.

Another budding living-wall designer in Baltimore created the wall at Bluehouse.

Edmundo Ortega built the 16-foot-by-33-foot structure from about 15,000 individual plants.

His wife, architect Dianne Rohrer, designed the rest of the store with a spare, minimalist sensibility mainly so that the wall at the back of the store, as she puts it, "can sing a song back here."

Unlike the comparably simple wall of grass and ferns that Ortega recently installed in the reception area of his wife's downtown studio, the Bluehouse wall comes across like a mural.

Ortega used begonia, stromanthe, schefflera, calatheas, dieffenbachias, ferns, philodendrons and croton - plants varying in texture and color - to "paint" the image of a sun. Its leafy green rays shoot toward the upper reaches of the mall space.

"We asked the question, 'How do you convey some sense of integrity when you're in the mall?' " Rohrer said, as her husband added:

"We can do a lot for the environment but, to me, my goal is to help people's feelings. To see greenery, alive, I think it makes people's attitudes change. It lifts them up."

Ortega is more concerned with the style than science of his walls, though he believes they offer a degree of air filtering and insulation.

"It's not about function, it's just about the beauty," Rohrer says. "What he's doing is trying to make a more beautiful environment."

The couple also built a perennial wall in the backyard of their Hampden home. Next year, they're thinking about incorporating herbs and flowers. Rohrer says she'd like to run green walls along the exterior of her house, too, and create a true "green house."

Both Ortega's and the Furbish Co.'s walls rely on very little dirt. Ortega, in a technique he's trying to patent, creates walls using tiny plants wedged into slits cut into a panel of recycled fabric. The material can tolerate water without rotting.

The systems must have access to a plumbing line for the irrigation system that runs through the wall like a circulatory system, keeping the foliage moist and the air humid.

At Rohrer's studio, the water moves through the irrigation system, softly babbling like the tiniest of creeks. It sounds like a zen indoor fountain.

Though thrilled with his wall, Buscher was surprised at the extent of the legwork required to install it. From building and installing the framework and irrigation system to "planting" the thousands of individual pieces of greenery to adjusting the setup so that it worked smoothly, it took Ortega's team weeks of long days.

And now that it's in, the wall still requires maintenance - occasional feedings, pruning and replacement of various plants that might die.

Ortega and Rohrer warn potential clients that a living wall is a commitment.

"It's a responsibility," Rohrer says. "We wouldn't want anyone to make an investment without knowing what it will take to keep it alive."

Buscher says the wall is "gorgeous," a showpiece that his customers stare at, slack-jawed. Despite the work and the expense, he'd do it all over again.

Dick thinks other proponents of green living will soon agree.

"If you think of the idea of what this land looked like 200 years ago, there was a lot more green space," he says. "If we're concerned about the quality of the air and water and land, we have to start thinking about our consequences."

GREEN WALL SOURCES

Mundo Verde Ortega: : mundo verdeortega.com, 443-413-1233

Furbish Co.: : furbishco.com, 443-874-7465

ELT Easy Green: : eltlivingwalls.com, 866-306-7773

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