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Nov 26, 2017

A Living Piece of Art

On a November morning, Greg Lee of First Look Exteriors makes his way through Ward Village to tend to his company's masterpiece: The living wall at Anaha.

As a constantly evolving project, the living wall (which stretches from the interior lobby of the residents to the exterior) requires consistent care as it grows, changes, and evolves. Akin to a work of art, the living wall serves as a canvas for Greg to express his multifaceted approach to landscape design. In the interview below, he walks us through the evolution of state's largest living wall.

So let's talk backstory. When were you first introduced to plants, landscaping, and design?

It started probably when I was about six years old. I grew up around plants and my family had a nursery. But when you grow up around something, it's easy to say: "no, this isn't for me." Growing up, my dad would have us plant a thousand mondo grass starters—which wasn't the most fun thing to do as a kid. But at the same time, I learned so much about plants and landscape design just by being around it as a child and young person. Once I discovered that I really did a have a passion for this, I could take some of that knowledge and build it into something that I really enjoyed doing, which is landscape design and construction.

What are some important things to keep in mind when you're developing a living wall like the one we have here at Anaha?

I think you have to know where to have a pause in the design. Where to keep the flow simple, where to make it complex. How does it alter and change as it moves from inside of the residence to the outside? How do the plants react to their surroundings? How does the structure of the wall itself work? These are all questions you have to have answered before you can even really get started.

In your eyes, what makes this wall so interesting?

To me, it really feels like a fresh take on a tropical living wall...this one feels different from others we've done. I love how it transitions from outside to inside and its subtle use of color. Plus, I think it can help people feel good. Just being around that many plants can alter your mood in a positive way. And when you see it at night...it's really special. I believe there are 10,000 to 11,000 plants on the wall and at night they look even more amazing.

Can you describe the process from concept to execution?

This project actually took four years from concept to completion. We worked with the team at Ward Village and the construction teams at Anaha to create something that had to work on so many levels. The actual installation only took about a week, but the planning, designing, and troubleshooting took a lot longer. In the end, we were able to bring in a unique concept to this urban environment that we're very proud of.

I also understand that this is the largest living wall in the state. How do you maintain it?

That's right, this is the state's largest living wall and I think we're all very proud of that fact. When you're surrounded by the wall, you can even get a little lost and forget you're in the heart of a city. But as a constantly evolving project, the wall needs constant maintenance—which we provide at least once or twice a week. How we maintain it usually depends on the season, but we're always making adjustments to the vegetation or adding in new plants. It's always evolving, always moving.

It feels like this living wall is almost like a painting that's never quite finished.

We've helped to create something grand, beautiful, and unique. In that sense, it does feel like art. But, as you said, unlike a painting or a sculpture, our art is never truly finished. And I think that's important. We don't want it to stay the same. We want it to evolve into something even better and more beautiful.

Can you describe some of the challenges you had to overcome when designing the wall?

There's a lot of things you have to be aware of when you're designing a living wall of this scale. What kind of soil do you use to make the wall as light as possible? Each of these panels already weighs 1,000 lbs, but we only add 10 to 15 lbs when we saturate it. That's important. You don't want to have a whole bunch of weight on there pulling on the structure. So there's definitely a lot of foresight and technology that we used to make this happen, in addition to our knowledge about plants.

What's something most people might not understand about landscape design?

This isn't gardening. There's a creative side to what we do. There's planning, engineering, planting, and up-keeping. It's very multifaceted. You can't be afraid to move plants into a situation where you typically might not expect them. We've grown everything from bananas to papayas to potatoes on a living wall. Will it work or will it not work? Only one way to find out. Your failures are your best teachers. I think our living wall serve as our canvases and our plants are our paint brushes.

So what's next?

We're constantly examining what do we need to do to make it even better. How do we keep this artwork moving forward. And we're always coming up with new and creative designs that make things interesting. And you've got to keep that momentum moving. You don't want to be stagnant; you don't want to be standing still. You want to keep pushing forward to something new and better.

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