Developer plants ‘bio-wall’ project at Metairie building

by Ariella Cohen Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS – Green building is going live. Literally.

New Orleans developer Josh Bruno has taken the first step toward creating a vertical ecosystem of hardy climbing plants and lush foliage on the concrete exterior of a Veterans Memorial Boulevard shopping center. The living “bio-walls” will be the first in the Gulf South, bringing Metairie into the ranks of Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto, where living walls have flowered.

“We want to show people that you can put a live, green building in a place of tar and cement,” said Bruno, 27, who bought the two-story strip mall at 4427 Veterans Blvd. earlier this year for $1.7 million.

Bio-walls are essentially gardens planted on rectangular panels packed with moisture-retaining soil that are attached to concrete walls. Plant roots reach downward, sometimes extending several stories.

The living installations, which require a drip irrigation system, typically cost $40 to $60 a square foot, without plants. Including the greenery, costs can run up to $150 a square foot, depending on the type of vegetation chosen, said Eliot Pister, sales manager for G-Sky, the British Columbia-based bio-wall manufacturer designing the Veterans Boulevard walls. Annual maintenance of the landscaped walls runs about $5 per square foot per year, Pister said.

Bruno pegged the cost of his exterior bio-walls at $2 million — more than the building’s purchase price. He plans interior and exterior bio-walls and no plants that produce pollen will be used.

Health, environment benefit

First developed in the 1990s, the walls have been touted for their oxygen-producing capabilities and ability to purify air. Some advocates say bio-walls can be used indoors to prevent so-called sick building syndrome, a health ailment related to the gases emitted by chemicals found in paint, cleaning and office supplies.

The syndrome became notorious locally in 2001 when state employees working in the 44-story Plaza Tower filed a class-action lawsuit against the building’s owner, claiming mold, asbestos and other chemicals in the skyscraper had made them ill. The since-vacated building is undergoing a $10-million mold remediation project.

“Think about all the chemicals in a regular office building,” Bruno said. “The bio-wall is a living, breathing filter, so you don’t take that in.”

In a building the size of 4427 Veterans Blvd., however, the air-purification benefits may be hard to discern, or even nonexistent, said David Lay, operations manager of a much-studied bio-wall at the Integrated Leaning Center at Queens University in Ontario.

“A bio-wall is a pretty thing to look at and, in theory, it should clean the air,” Lay said. “In practice, you need a whole lot more plants than you can fit on a vertical wall to get quantifiable results. It’s a beautiful, impressive thing, but the benefits are primarily psychological.”

Bio-wall manufacturers say the energy savings produced by exterior installations can also be significant.

“A living wall acts as an insulating layer for the building,” Pister said. “We estimate it will bring down the temperature of the area behind the wall by 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit and reduce the need for air conditioning.”

Enhancing property value

Bruno is counting on the bio-walls to raise the value of his aging two-story retail and office space, which sits directly across the street from Clearview Mall.

Though his team of designers hasn’t started work on the building’s bio-walls, Bruno has already informed tenants he’d like to see a little more green from them. In addition to the rent increase, he envisions replacing some of the current lower-end stores with upscale tenants, including a brand-name cosmetic retailer and possibly a spa that could capitalize on the cleansing appeal of the bio-wall.

“The boutique places that are in Old Metairie and on Magazine Street are lacking on Veterans,” Bruno said. “The market is there and the bio-wall is a good complement.”

The strip is filled with a mix of small, locally owned stores on the first floor, with office tenants above. First-floor tenants include Louisiana Insurance; Perfume Y Accesorios, an accessories and perfume store that caters to Spanish speakers; D&L Hair Salon; V Nails & Tanning Salon; Pizza Florence; and Nordic Kitchens and Bath. EPS Alarms, Progressive Insurance and a number of other small business tenants occupy the second floor.

The second story, which will be completely renovated, is expected to attract a new tenant base that can “afford the rental increase,” according to a market projection done by Bruno. The only retail tenants expected to stay on under the new owner are Nordic Kitchens and Bath and Pizza Florence, according to the projection.

The sit-down Italian restaurant and the designer kitchen showroom cater to an upscale audience, and owners of both say the bio-wall and other planned improvements to the building will be good for their business.

“The concept is phenomenal,” Nordic owner Randall Shaw said.

A rendering of Bruno’s plans for the strip mall holds no hint of the neon-lit salons that exist in the strip now. Instead, there is a silver Porsche parked in front of a blank storefront.

Looking at her landlord’s illustration, V Nguyen, who owns V Nails & Tanning Salon, said she would she would probably leave the space when the rents rose, regardless of the “cool” bio-wall.

“We are a regular salon,” she said, standing next to an empty foot bath, the air thick with the scent of nail solvents and rubbing alcohol. “If the rents go up, we need a bigger parking lot for more customers, not trees on the wall.”

Concept sprouting in U.S.

Bruno is also developing a $20-million “green” office and retail complex in Slidell, on a site adjacent to the planned 400-acre University of New Orleans Research and Technology Park.

The Century Park complex will likely include a bio-wall, said the developer, who is also renovating a 14-story office building at 1600 Canal St. and apartment complexes in Kenner and the Treme.

“The New Orleans region is actually the perfect environment for bio-walls,” Bruno said. “We have high humidity so the tropical plants will grow, plenty of rain and a clear need for sustainable architecture.”

The United States has been relatively slow to pick up on bio-walls. Of the 200 bio-walls or roofs done by G-Sky, only a quarter of them have been in North America, said Pister, who credits government incentive programs in Europe and Japan with spurring popularity there. There are no incentives for bio-walls in the United States, though there are such programs for green roofs.

The eco-minded salesman believes bio-features will bloom as more corporations hop on the green bandwagon and look for new ways to convey that eco-consciousness to consumers. In the past five months, G-Sky has put the finishing plants on walls inside the Whole Foods Market flagship location in Austin, Texas, and on the exterior of a W Hotel in Atlanta.

“The biggest benefit is marketing,” Pister said. “The pedestrian and press attention a bio-wall brings is huge.”

Last week, Bruno shopped for retail tenants at the annual International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas. Bruno was not be the only developer with a green pitch, and he may need more than a living wall to fill his project, said Jerry Yudelson, the shopping council’s green expert.

“By itself, the wall might just look like the aftermath of Katrina,” Yudelson said. “I saw one in a development in London last week. It’s visually interesting but I don’t think it particularly says anything to the average person.”

Yudelson recommended the developer consider more effective — and less pretty — green additions to the building, such as a wind turbine or solar panels to supply clean energy.

“There is a lot of competition out there to be green,” he said.•