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Singapore’s ‘plant whisperer’ on why ‘green walls’ are now a thing

And why everybody should have one in their home

veera



From living walls, to lush roof gardens and urban farming initiatives, the increased appetite for metropolitan nature is clear.

While Singapore's omnipresence at the top end of global sustainability rankings marks it out as a pioneer in the green building arena, one man who understands the importance of green – in its more literal sense – is Veera from Greenology.

Nicknamed “the plant whisperer of Singapore” by his botany students, Veera has seen how including plants within home design can drastically improve personal health and wellbeing, as well as reducing a buildings carbon footprint.

We met up with him at BEX-Asia earlier this month, to discuss the greenification of our homes and cities.

How did Greenology start?

I started Greenology about nine years ago. I’ve done a lot of different things in the green industry, but I’m a botanist by trade. I’ve been around the world and helped to build the Singapore Zoo and the night safari. I also was involved in doing the greening for Changi airport.

Driven by passion, I left the civil service and started Greenology. Reacting to the challenges coming along, I decided to look at technologies and solutions to bring plants closer to people, and that’s when I started developing the green wall system and all the other technologies that allow habitats to be created for people. Not only for people but other fauna: the bees, the birds and everything to co-exist, and I think that's the real intention and philosophy behind what we do.

More: Singapore ranks second in the world for green buildings

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You mention the challenges – you mean more people moving to the city?

Basically, the urban environment is a very real issue. Everyone from the rural areas wants to come into the cities, but the cities are not really prepared for it. Even if you were to take in more people within the cities, how do you deal with the interactions and the difficulties of managing that space and infrastructure? For people to exist the easiest thing to do is to get rid of greenery  and that’s what people do: take away trees and replace them with buildings. It's only then that they try and find ways to put the trees back. What people realise is that when you start putting up buildings so close together, they shade each other out, and lo and behold, plants require sun.

[pullquote]"The health and environmental reasons for doing this are completely mind-blowing"[/pullquote]

Tell us more about the three components to your business: living art, living walls and vertical agriculture

Green wall systems “vertical greening” is our main business, and it is done both indoors and outdoors. We try to bring that into outdoor spaces in the outdoors – the complete façade of the building, or on a balcony. Or inside where it’s in your home and in space that’s very close to you.

The other business is essentially about urban farming systems, which essentially allow you to grown your own produce, in the comfort of your home. So if it’s in a balcony, you can grow some vegetables that can give you some self-sufficiency. Because the challenges in the urban environment are not only the greening, but also about food production, and food security as well.

Do you need a lot of equipment?

[pullquote]"The technology is fuss free, maintenance free, and everything is able to look after itself"[/pullquote]

When we developed these systems we bore in mind that we needed systems to be fuss free and literally idiot proof, so you need the plants to literally look after themselves. The technology allows the plants to be watered and irrigated, the lights to come on at a certain time, so you can come back home to enjoy the greenery rather than working on it.

Or you can come home and have a fresh salad by just snipping a few leaves into a bowl. I think these are solutions that will evolve.

More: It’s official: Singapore, Seoul ranked Asia’s most sustainable cities

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Are more people coming to you now saying – I want a green wall in my house?

Yes – every day.

When I started the green walls, and providing urban green solutions, we were struggling and this struggle lasted about 2.5 years.

But then it suddenly took off. People began to realise that the technology was becoming more affordable, and that it makes sense in so many ways. The technology is fuss free, maintenance free, and everything is able to look after itself. The convenience is allowing people with urban lifestyles have more and more plant elements in their homes.

How do the plants get the nourishment they need?

It’s all automated. So we’ve got drip systems running at the top of each panel, and it drips in in very small
quantities, and the nutrients are dripping in from a small canister together with the water.

How is that different to hydroponics?

Hydroponics essentially is just water. It's soilless media and the roots are submerged in water. You need a layer of water for hydroponics, whereas this is a panel system with the organic media and the plants growing in pockets. So there’s very little water dripping through.

[pullquote]"If you have plants on the façade of the wall, the temperature drops inside by 3-5 degrees.[/pullquote]

So in this instance there’s very little wastage of water, water is a precious resource. The biggest challenge in vertical greening is how to get water up in a vertical plane, this is why we develop a particular project called a nanofiber, which is inserted into the panel, and holds water in the vertical plane.

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When people come to you and say "I want a green wall in my house," how do you advise them?

We will go to their home and assess the situation. Because every wall has a different orientation to the sun, and every wall has got a different environment. It might face east, west, north, south.

We’ll then ask the client what size they want the wall to be, we’ll create a design and discuss with the client what's possible and what's not. We then give them a budgetry figure, and from there, they decide whether they want to proceed.

If they’re still keen then we go into more detailed design, for example, the client might want a particular plant colour for the wall.  When everything is approved, we pre-grow the plants in the nursery for about 6-8 weeks, then we go and install it.

More: Tapei 101 earns title of the world’s tallest green building

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Are there any projects that people have come to you with that have not been possible?

Yes. We have. It’s very strange, there are some people who come to us wanting to do a green wall. They want it because their neighbour has one – it becomes a status thing. So some people really don't understand plants and don’t understand the environment; they just want to do it for the sake of it.

Sometimes I make an assessment, and I have to say to them, look, if you’re really not into it you shouldn’t do it. This shouldn’t be used as a fashion statement.

What are the health benefits of doing this?

I think both the health and environmental reasons for doing this are completely mind-blowing.

The environmental reasons are essentially that if you have plants on the façade of the wall, the temperature drops inside by 3-5 degrees,, which is really significant in Asia.

The other reason is because photosynthesis produces oxygen, so you get fresh air from plants if you have them on the façade of the wall or indoors.

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If you really look at the benefits plants can give to an individual at home, or even in hospital, then you realise that the psychological relief that it brings is phenomenal. That’s the reason why people with stress should go to a park, having that greenery around them is so helpful.

So having a big wall of greenery, being able to sit by it and just being close to nature gives you a lot of psychological relief.

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We all crave the peace and quiet around nature. Creating that ambience and that habitat is what this is all about.

We’ve also worked with dementia patients, when they work with plants, we’ve seen remarkable changes. We’ve seen social improvements, cognitive improvements, psychological, physical - they tend to become completely different people when they’re around plants. It’s amazing. Horticulture therapy is a proven science now.

Hospitals today recognise this, they want greenery everywhere. If you go to some of the hospitals in Singapore they have wonderful gardens.

This sense of calmness is what you get when you have plants all around you.

So the environmental and psychological benefits all come together with it. Not necessarily in a big building but a small house as well.

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Read next: Chen Lian Pang: ‘stretch your dollar and buy in a good location’

 

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