This 5-storey tall wall of tropical plants isn’t just for aesthetics

It might be icy cold outside, but step inside the glassy atrium of one Toronto university campus and you’ll be greeted with a five-storey tall wall of more than 6,000 tropical plants.

Plant walls, like the one in the University of Guelph-Humber’s atrium, serve two purposes.

There’s the goal of improving students’ moods and adding a nice splash of green, but they’re also biofilters that work to lower carbon emissions. You can think of it like a furnace filter, but made of plants. 

The original plant wall dates back 20 years, but during the pandemic many of the plants suffered as the system designed to keep them alive reached the end of its lifespan.

“When we first got in here it was a bunch of brown media, with really sad looking plants infested with pests,” said Dylan Robertson, the co-founder of the company New Earth Solutions, which was given the job of bringing the wall back to life. 

A man in a black shirt stands beside a wall of plants
Dylan Robertson, co-founder of New Earth Solutions, helped give new life to Guelph-Humber’s plant wall. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

“When we came in it was more of an eyesore than what it looks like today.” 

Now, it’s beautiful.

WATCH | Have a look at the plant wall and find out about the technology behind it:

On a Toronto campus, a towering wall of tropical plants has come back to life

2 days ago

Duration 2:18

The University of Guelph-Humber’s plant wall, which had turned brown during the COVID-19 pandemic, is once again a lush place despite the frigid weather. Bonus: it’s helping clean the air students breathe.

And it works. Robertson said air is pulled into root zones of the plants, where microbes break down particles and chemicals before fresh air is pushed through the building by a connection to its HVAC system.

Students like Ashnaa Narumathan appreciate it.

“Putting a pop of colour on the wall makes a really big difference to the entire environment,” said the second-year kinesiology student. “I’m someone who’s really big on learning in environments that are very spacious and bright and the plant wall contributed to a big part of that.”

A woman in a yellow sweater stands in front of a green wall made of plants
Second-year student Ashnaa Narumathan says having the wall back in all its glory is like a metaphor for a regular return to campus. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Joining forces with nature 

While plant walls make for striking visuals, there’s hope that expanded research on biofiltration can make them a more acceptable mainstream technology, said Alan Darlington, who was part of the team that built the original biofilter at Guelph-Humber 20 years ago. 

“It was kind of hard to convince anybody that it had any legs to it at all, but I think we’ve kind of shown that it does work,” he said. “There’s a lot of areas that can be improved, but as a general idea, it is proven and it does work.”

Darlington no longer works with biofilters, but is optimistic about their future. 

“It’s such a showcase for showing how if we work with nature, nature will work with us,” he said.

“If we give nature a chance to solve our problems, it works out better for everybody and that’s the sort of thing that I find very exciting.”

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