Lendlease Head Office, Barangaroo. Article published in Facility Perspectives magazine, December issue, by Ben Nicholson, The Urban Greener

In apartments across the country, where many of us are working from home, plants (and pets) are getting more attention than ever. But what about common outdoor areas that are either off limits or being loved to death by residents seeking relief from their tenth Zoom meeting of the week?

As the new year fast approaches, and we continue to adjust to life in a pandemic, many building owners and managers are re-evaluating their business models and asking tough questions about the costs and benefits of maintaining various assets, including living infrastructure. As part of this process, they should also consider the quality of maintenance being performed.

There’s nothing like a wall of dead plants or a failing rooftop garden to say we tried but failed’ and while Aristotle famously observed, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, he wasn’t responsible for maintaining multi-storey office green walls or residential rooftop gardens during a global health crisis!

Have you ever managed a building where the green wall plants seem to always need trimming? Or they never take off or they are being constantly replaced? It’s common knowledge that in order to survive, most plants need water and they also need access to light. Choosing the right artificial light for indoor green walls is especially important yet this is often overlooked or added as an afterthought.

Westfield, Sydney

The type, duration and lux levels for lighting around green walls are often specified by well meaning and uninformed clients or architects, lighting designers, builders or electricians. Once installed, ongoing operation or replacement of lighting often falls to the general maintenance team rather than skilled green wall contractors.

Greenwall Solutions director Ed Warbuton makes the case that green wall professionals should always have the say on any lighting that is close to a green wall. It’s high time the art and science of this was taken seriously. Issues with inappropriate lighting were exacerbated during lockdown, where access to most buildings was either restricted or prohibited.

In Victoria, where lockdowns were the most severe due to the pandemic, the ongoing health and wellbeing of many indoor green walls has been compromised due to restricted access. This is problematic as the routine maintenance of green infrastructure requires specialist knowledge and expertise, as well as regular visits. We all benefit when someone checks in to see how we are going – plants need this, too.

Without proper care, green walls can and will fail, and replacements of individual plants and entire systems can be costly. Infinite Landscape Director Gary Simpson says, ‘When it comes to the Victoria Government’s stance on permitted workplaces, the definition of “critical repairs” should have been expanded to  include “critical maintenance” to make sure green walls are properly maintained by the right people over the long term’. The need for an expanded definition is likely to remain relevant into the near future as cities, regions and states may need to shuffle between various lockdown levels.

Matthew Conroy, Horticulture Manager, Junglefy

In recognition of the long-term benefits of retaining green infrastructure beyond the harshest lockdowns of the pandemic, some industry players are going the extra mile for their clients. Junglefy Horticulture Manager, Matthew Conroy proudly shares, “Our Maintenance teams have soldiered on and looked after our clients plants, even if they couldn’t afford to pay us. Now more than ever, people are realising how important our connection to nature is. We regularly share and update our COVID-safe policy with clients and highlight the importance of keeping our plants alive. When start filling buildings again, they will enjoy coming back to a space filled with healthy plants.”

Beyond the pandemic, the benefits and costs of maintaining green infrastructure will continue to depend on how well they are maintained… There are around 15 green roof and green wall companies in Australia that have been operating successfully for more than a decade, training up highly skilled and knowledgeable personnel. To expand at scale and maintain quality, the sector requires nationally recongised training in the design, construction and maintenance of these assets.

The Australian Industry and Skills Committee has commissioned the development of the National Skillsets and Units of Competency. The process of being led by the Amenity Horticulture, Landscaping, Conservation and Land Management Industry Reference Committee is being managed by Skills Impact. Experts from the green infrastructure sector and representatives of Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) have been consulted from across the country. If approved by the various ministers of education, these will be used by RTOs to develop training courses for delivery to interested stakeholders in 2021.

Nationally recognised accreditation in green infrastructure maintenance would be a game changer for facilities managers seeking consistency in skills and knowledge. Skills Impact CEO, Michael Hartman says, “Extensive consultation with industry and RTOs has taken place to define the skills standards for this expanding industry. While job roles in this area draw on skills and knowledge relating to horticulture and landscaping, specialist skills and knowledge are required for this unique context. Thanks to those that contributed to the project work, industry may soon have access to national skills standards. Input from these experts helped to define the unique skills for design, construction and maintenance of green infrastructure to support future skills development and assist training delivery.

As millions of Australians gradually return to their offices and other workspaces, they will need to reconnect with each other and with their working environments in a COVID-safe way. How much better for them to be coming back to see living breathing walls, roof top gardens and terraces, rather than dusty dead plants – fake or otherwise.

* Read the full article in Facility Perspectives