Originally published in Michigan Avenue Magazine
The latest luxury amenity? Living walls, which are making some local residences feel like the Garden of Eden all year long.
The lobby of The Grant combines greenery with art in Aspen Mays’s Every Leaf on a Tree.
An edgy piece of modern art used to be the boldest way to stop people in their tracks when they entered a high-end residential building for the first time. Now, though, local luxury developers are moving beyond art and are decking out their public spaces with lush “living walls,” the latest design expression of the trend that’s bringing elements of the outdoors indoors.
These are not your everyday installations of English ivy coaxed to climb a trellis; rather, these green walls typically feature an array of tropical or succulent plants embedded in soil or hanging gorgeously from panels or other wall-mounted structures. They’re made possible thanks to a recent bumper crop of efficient growing and watering techniques for vertical plant systems, and landscape designers are working with building owners who want to set themselves apart in a competitive marketplace. They’re finding that many successful urbanites want to live in chic high-rises but also like being around greenery.
“Putting plants together in an artistic way on a wall is still so new and unusual that people are fascinated by it,” says Daniel Weinbach, principal-in-charge at the Chicago landscape architecture firm Daniel Weinbach & Partners. “It creates a focus the same way a piece of art does. The natural environment also tends to promote a sense of well-being.”
Weinbach’s firm worked with The Habitat Company to create an interior living wall as part of the overall landscape design for the developer’s deluxe new rental building on the corner of Hubbard and Kingsbury Streets. In the ninth floor amenity area of Hubbard Place Apartments, located across from the East Bank Club, one wall is covered in 342 tropical plants, which creates an inviting setting in an open space boasting a fireplace and groupings of couches and chairs.
Hidden behind the wall is an irrigation and drainage system requiring little maintenance, says Steve Neumann, a plant specialist with LiveWall, a subsidiary of Hortech (a nursery in Spring Lake, Michigan), which installed the vertical garden last fall. The building’s amenity level has floor-to-ceiling windows, which create a well-lit environment for optimum plant growth, Neumann adds.
After the developer McCaffery Interests and Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds purchased The Lofts at Roosevelt Collection, on Roosevelt Road in the South Loop, a complete redesign of the lobbies in the twin residential buildings in 2012 included the installation of large panels of living plants, says Pamela Austin, senior project manager of development. The 342 rental apartments and the ground-level retail stores face a U-shaped outdoor promenade with green space, and Austin wanted to extend that feeling of being surrounded by nature right into the lobbies, she says, adding, “The lobbies also have a contemporary style with lots of hard surfaces, and the green walls soften that a little.”
AMLI Residential, known for its emphasis on sustainable design, decided to add a living wall this summer to the amenities floor of its new AMLI River North property, at Clark and Hubbard Streets, says Jennifer Wolf, senior vice president of development. The building, which opened last July with 409 rental units, offers other green and healthful features, including a smoke-free environment, fresh air pumped constantly into the ventilation system, and a garden of herbs on the outdoor deck that residents can snip for use in their home cooking, says Wolf, so the project makes perfect sense. “The living wall really adds to the intangible lifestyle factor of what people are looking for when they’re choosing a building.”
– Judith Nemes