"Living Walls" Made Of Plants Could Reduce Heating Costs And Environmental Impacts

Example of a living wall. Image Credit: Evannovostro/Shutterstock.com

Scientists have found a way to reduce heat loss from a building by over 30 percent. The approach is very green, and literally so – they employed a living wall.

The study, published in the journal Building and Environment, examined the effects of retrofitting an existing building with a living wall made of felt fabric and pockets allowing the placement of soil and plants. The building in question was the University of Plymouth's Sustainability Hub, built before the 1970s. One part of the building was covered in the living wall, and another was not.

Both parts have the same elevation and are west-facing. The team conducted measurements over the course of five weeks. They found that the wall with the living façade lost 31.4 percent less heat compared to the one without, also having a more stable temperature throughout the day, meaning that it required less energy to heat.

In the United Kingdom, buildings account for 17 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and space heating accounts for 60 percent of that according to the researchers. Reducing heat loss by one-third in older buildings would take a big chunk out of that.  

“Within England, approximately 57% all buildings were built before 1964. While regulations have changed more recently to improve the thermal performance of new constructions, it is our existing buildings that require the most energy to heat and are a significant contributor to carbon emissions,” lead author Dr Matthew Fox said in a statement.

“It is, therefore, essential that we begin to improve the thermal performance of these existing buildings if the UK is to reach its target of net zero carbon emission by 2050, and help to reduce the likelihood of fuel poverty from rising energy prices..”

The investigation is part of the University’s Sustainability Hub: Low Carbon Devon project. It’s not just about how well a living wall can insulate buildings – it is also looking at other properties of such an approach, for example, the carbon sequestration capabilities of the soil and plants. A wall that potentially not only reduces emissions, but actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

“With an expanding urban population, ‘green infrastructure’ is a potential nature-based solution which provides an opportunity to tackle climate change, air pollution and biodiversity loss, whilst facilitating low carbon economic growth. Living walls can offer improved air quality, noise reduction and elevated health and well-being,” co-author Dr Thomas Murphy, an Industrial Research Fellow on the Low Carbon Devon project, added.

“Our research suggests living walls can also provide significant energy savings to help reduce the carbon footprint of existing buildings. Further optimising of these living wall systems, however, is now needed to help maximise the environmental benefits and reduce some of the sustainability costs.”

Utopistic images of the cities of the future often show places full of plants and trees – and research such as this suggests that could be one very good future indeed.  

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