Jan./Feb. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Living walls take center stage as environmental art
More online: Bullet-proof houseplants and winterizing houseplants
David Brenner sketches the plant design for the living wall installation at the Palo Alto headquarters of high-tech video company Dailymotion.
David Brenner leans back in a comfortable chair in a downtown San Francisco coffeehouse. He ticks off the botanical names of plants—California natives, exotic tropicals and ordinary houseplants. Although the scientific names twist most tongues, he does this effortlessly as he describes growing requirements for dozens of plants, tossing in design possibilities.
Brenner, founder of Habitat Horticulture, a five-year-old company specializing in walls of plants, said his company's creations are often referred to as living walls. He isn't showing off his plant knowledge when he explains what he does. Instead, he's talking both business and art with soft-spoken intensity.
"I know enough about plants to match growing conditions to design and technology," he said. "But the fun part is coming up with creative solutions that will result in beautiful, vertical landscapes that are easy to maintain long-term."
Brenner holds a degree in horticulture from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he managed an on-campus greenhouse and added business and psychology classes to his academic workload. After graduation, he worked for commercial greenhouse growers, learning the wholesale production side of the plant business and building relationships with suppliers, including grower Rudy Garcia. Today, many of the plants used in Habitat Horticulture's designs come from Garcia's greenhouses in Half Moon Bay and Pescadero.
Up, up and away
Before launching his company, Brenner tinkered with greenhouse technology during evenings and weekends, experimenting with structural designs in the back of his father's San Jose used car lot. Through trial and error, he invented vertical structures for holding plants and adapted emerging technologies.
He gestures to one of his projects across the street—the lobby walls of social media company LinkedIn. The high-rise building's expansive atrium is covered floor-to-ceiling with more than 12,000 living plants, arranged in an intricate design using color and texture. The plants thrive because of the structural underpinnings created by Habitat Horticulture to supply moisture and nutrients.
Brenner's company has now designed and installed living walls for LinkedIn and about 40 other prominent Bay Area clients—among them the California Academy of Sciences, Autodesk, Facebook, Google, DPR Construction, Peet's Coffee & Tea and Tesla Motors. Habitat Horticulture is also installing a large-scale vertical garden in the new addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, scheduled to open in 2016.
Brett Castro places plants in pre-designed spots to fill in the wall's overall design.
"People's biggest concern with a living wall is how to maintain it," Brenner said of clients' questions about the emerging design concept. "We explain it won't look good all the time unless someone is a steward to the wall. Maintenance is essential."
Increased interest in living walls and their care means Brenner has had to hire more people for his San Francisco-based business, but growth has also made him think about how to harness technology to make things easier, he said, "rather than running around in circles trying to keep up."
The company maintains data on all installations—tracking water use from one season to the next, charting when fertilizer is needed, identifying pest cycles and determining optimum times to release beneficial insects—"just like farmers," he said and laughed. "And, like in farming, there's always some reason to worry. I'm usually just one mealybug away from disaster.
"We've got grow lights, climate control gauges, remote monitoring devices, sensor systems that send alarms to smartphones, commercial-scale fertigation equipment and recirculation systems for the water," Brenner explained. "Not every installation requires all that technology. We scale it to the wall."
'A welcome oasis'
Although hanging gardens are as old as Babylon, Brenner said there's increased interest in bringing art, architecture, science and technology together to make urban living spaces more inviting, comfortable and healthful.
Patrick Blanc, a French botanist, is credited with creating the first modern living walls, which include soil-free hydroponic systems and exotic plants. Blanc noted that today the amount of space in cities "is increasingly at a premium so vertical gardens can provide a welcome oasis."
Bay Area interior designer Lucile Glessner agrees. She worked with Habitat Horticulture to design a living wall for high-tech video company Dailymotion's Palo Alto offices. Glessner said she's always looking for materials that create a "green" environment that will have a positive impact on the people who work in the space.
"Plants help clean the air, improve productivity and generally support a creative environment, not to mention that Habitat Horticulture's living wall is a work of art," Glessner said. "But these conclusions aren't just mine. There's a lot of research into optimum living and working environments."
Working with manufacturers, Brenner and his team have helped develop planting fabric from recycled water bottles. The fabric retains the right moisture balance for the plants to thrive.
She cites NASA, for example. The agency is researching what are sometimes called "biowalls" or "vertical vegetated complex walls," which may eventually help support life during long space missions, because they can provide food and recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen.
"David helped us design a tropical living wall, which complements and extends our jungle design theme used throughout the building," Glessner said of the Dailymotion project. "Commercial design that adds art and nature to workspaces is becoming very popular. But there was concern with the engineering aspects of the installation, about how water is managed and conserved, what impact natural light might have on living plants."
She said Habitat Horticulture had the answers because the company brings a unique approach to designing living walls that includes plant knowledge, design skills and engineering expertise.
"The walls are now more possible because of technology and, in the past couple of years, the walls have become more mainstream," Brenner said. "It's on TV home improvement shows and there has been a lot of interest by the press."
From seed to structure
It's the plants—ivy, ferns, succulents, begonias, coleus, aloe vera and ornamental fig, to name a few—that are at the heart of Habitat Horticulture's business. Brenner said he works with a number of California greenhouse growers, particularly those along the San Mateo County coast.
San Mateo County greenhouse grower Rudy Garcia works closely with Habitat Horticulture to provide the thousands of individual plants used in the company's vertical designs.
"I've known David for quite a while," said Garcia, owner of Rudy's Greenhouses in Half Moon Bay. He said that back when Brenner worked for growers, "he'd come into our greenhouse and we'd talk. He always had a lot of questions, and I liked that and always tried to help him."
While Brenner was laying the foundation to launch Habitat Horticulture, Garcia had plans of his own. With 40 years in the nursery business, he purchased the greenhouse in 2008 from his employer. Since then, Garcia and his family, joined by longtime co-workers, have been building the business during what he said has been a difficult economy.
"We're glad to help David and all our customers," Garcia said. "We hope our customers appreciate not just the plant quality we provide, but also the variety of plants in our greenhouses. We have some plants that are hard to get anywhere else and I grow my own cuttings from mother plants."
In addition to supplying plants to Habitat Horticulture, Rudy's Greenhouses sells to wholesalers at the San Francisco Flower Mart and to many Northern California retail nursery and garden centers. Usually, ornamental plants are used a few at a time to brighten a home or garden, Garcia said.
"They don't think about it big like David does," he said and chuckled. "I mean really big."
Habitat Horticulture is on the leading edge of a new way to think about, display and enjoy plants that once were decorative accents, Glessner said. Indoor, vertical gardens use technology and commercial greenhouse techniques to bring the beauty and benefits of tropical and semi-tropical plants into public spaces, work environments and homes in ways that were not possible even a few years ago.
"Three years ago, I'd be at a party and someone would ask me what I do and I'd tell them," Brenner said. "They'd say, 'What?' Then I'd have to describe it with a lot of hand motions and pull photos out of my wallet. Today, people immediately know what I'm talking about."
The expansive lobby of 505 Howard St. in San Francisco is softened by the living walls designed and maintained by Habitat Horticultre. The high-rise building includes offices of a number of technology companies, including LinkedIn and CBS Interactive. Photo courtesy of Garry Belinsky.