Green facades

In addition to shading, leaf transpiration can create a cool microclimate against the wall surface and plant foliage can ensnare airborne particulates to improve air quality. With all of these benefits it’s no wonder so many of us are inspired to get digging.

How they differ from green walls

Green walls are increasingly being installed on commercial and apartment buildings to introduce much-needed greenery to sites where there is limited access to soil. Green walls, especially the highly decorative ones, require regular maintenance and commonly use a broad range of plants, each supported by a small pocket of stable growing media (e.g. potting mix). They are irrigated and generally highly dependent on this irrigation for survival – small quantities of growing media can be insufficient to buffer the roots from heat, for example.

Green facades are inexpensive, easier to maintain and far less dependent on irrigation. The roots of climbing vines used for green facades are commonly planted directly into the garden soil with access to rainwater. And one to two plants can sufficiently cover a house facade or wall.

Getting started

If you are considering establishing a green facade, then the very best place to start is by planting your west-facing wall: the late afternoon sun with its perpendicular angle makes overhead shading of walls ineffective. Any wall exposed to direct sunlight will benefit from the shading and microclimate a climbing plant can provide.

It is always important to improve existing garden soils in urban areas as they are often low in organic matter. With the addition of plenty of compost and a thick layer of mulch your plants will get off to a good start, especially if planting in summer. Winter planting requires a light sprinkling of mulch to protect the soil from the harsh battering of heavy rains.

Once you have decided on a climber, investigate its mode and method for climbing – is it self-clinging or will it need a supporting structure? Take note of its growing height and spread as this will determine how many plants you will use and how close to plant them, then be patient and focus on what will be. While the west face might be your starting point and your top priority, don’t hesitate to find suitable plants for walls with other orientions. The internet makes searching for plants extremely easy. I find the Royal Horticultural Society website very useful, and by searching for ‘climbing plants’ a broad range of other sites will appear, to help you sort through various species and cultivars.

Climbing plants climb in three main ways: self-clinging climbers use adhesive suckers to attach directly to a surface, like this Ficus pumila (Creeping fig); while other climbers use tendrils (think grapevines) or are twining (like passionfruit) and generally need structures for support.

Climbing plants climb in three main ways: self-clinging climbers use adhesive suckers to attach directly to a surface, like this Ficus pumila (Creeping fig); while other climbers use tendrils (think grapevines) or are twining (like passionfruit) and generally need structures for support.

Self-clinging climbers

Self-clinging vines, such as Parthenocissus tricuspidata (Boston ivy) and Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper*) are common plants to use as they require no structure to support them. They are popular because they produce thick growth and attach directly to masonry walls via specialised adhesive pads. They create a painterly display of blazing colour in autumn and shed their foliage in winter.

There are a number of other recommended plants that can be selected to provide self-supporting green facades. Ficus pumila (climbing fig) has dimorphic leaves where the juvenile leaves differ to the adult leaves (juvenile leaves can be retained with regular pruning). For shady areas the autumn yellowing Hydrangea petiolaris (climbing hydrangea) could be used. It has a mass of lacecap-style flowers and is dependent on moist soils – even in shaded areas it will need heavy mulching and frequent watering during summer months.

Structural support

The choice of climbing vines vastly expands once you forgo the self-clinging variety and move onto species that use structural support to help them climb. One of the downsides of using climbers that need structural support is that the framework adds cost and installation time. On the upside, vines grown on a framework can often provide extra thermal protection by creating an air pocket between the plant and the wall, especially if the frame is installed to sit off the wall.

When using structural support it is essential to ensure it will last the distance. Once the climber has matured, its weight will be significant. It can take climbers many years to cover the facade of your walls, and it is very disheartening to see it fall off if its support structure is not built for longevity.

There are a variety of products on the market that are very durable. Some of these are commonly used to reinforce concrete slabs, such as steel mesh which can be bought in a galvanised or non-galvanised form.

Native climbers

Native Hardenbergia violacea, has deep green arrowhead-shaped leaves and bright pea-shaped purple flowers produces thick, evergreen growth that will cover a two to three metre wall all year round. Pandorea jasminoides, an evergreen warm temperate plant with trumpet-shaped flowers, will do equally well in a sheltered frost-free site in southern Australia.

There are about 400 native climbing species to choose from, although this number reduces once climate is accounted for. Other native climbers include Pandorea pandorana (tropical to cool climate), Tecomanthe hillii (tropical), Hibbertia scandens (sub-tropical, warm temperate, cool temperate, Mediterranean), Passiflora cinnabarina (temperate to tropical).

Muehlenbeckia complexa, a non-native climber with small pretty heart-shaped leaves, is also an excellent choice with its wiry interlaced stems able to reach a height of four metres.

Do plants damage walls?

While some people have expressed concerns about climbers damaging masonry walls, this is rarely the case. Walls are primarily damaged by weathering from extreme climate fluctuations. Plants will then make their way inside if the damage is not repaired. The benefits of using green facades are far greater than the risks, and when combined with trees, shrubs and grasses, green facades are a far cheaper and more beautiful way to cool your home than air-conditioning.

And it’s not just households that are embracing nature to mitigate heatwaves. Local governments are reassembling their ecological skin and now employ green infrastructure officers whose job it is to design ‘ecosystem’ services to provide clean drinking water, clean air and shade. The direction we are taking is extremely inspiring – by re-employing nature we will be better positioned to mitigate heat waves in our thermally comfortable and visually stunning homes.

* The berries from Parthenocissus quinquefolia contain oxalic acid, which is moderately toxic to mammals.

Mara Ripani of Village Dreaming is a sustainability advocate with qualifications in horticulture and environmental policy.

Future-proof your house

Known as ‘forever functionality’ (and sometimes universal design or accessibility), making your house adaptable is not only common sense but a savvy financial investment.

Design for the unforeseeable

Good design begins with a comprehensive design brief that includes a definition of ‘who’ the client is and the needs of the occupants. This definition can greatly contribute to a property’s appeal, functionality and value. However, by focusing solely on the ‘who’ and their current individual needs, we are, by default, creating buildings that have limitations.

What’s needed from a home might change suddenly for someone who’s had a life-altering illness or accident. And as the occupants age, their homes must often meet different criteria for safety, ease of use and access. When renovating or building, people generally make the mistake of creating their homes for the foreseeable future – and yet the integration of design elements in a home for the unforeseeable future can add considerable financial and personal value to a house, and make it a more sustainable project.

Property entry landscaping

A family member or friend may require a walking aid or wheelchair at some stage, which requires level entry surfaces for safe access. Incorporating at least one accessible entry point increases a building’s inclusive attributes.

Consistent-level living is accessible for all

Split-level housing can create safety problems for toddlers and anyone with mobility impairment or fragility: for example, stairs can be a tripping hazard for the elderly. From an investment perspective, a home with split-level design has limited appeal, possibly reducing rental appeal and resale value.

Savvy stair design

Forward-thinking design incorporates space provisions for alterations such as residential lift systems or chair stair lifts, so that a multi-storey home remains useable with minimal structural changes in the event that an occupant’s needs change. Another approach is to ensure a layout that can be adapted to ground floor-only living, perhaps with the upstairs reserved for visiting family.

Ease of movement spaces

Consider for a moment that one family member requires a wheelchair or walking frame. Could that person enter the home, easily travel through common hallway spaces to use the bathroom, shower, kitchen, at least one bedroom and a living space? Incorporating simple design considerations such as wider doorways when building or renovating can make a home suitable for foreseeable and unforeseeable access needs.

Livable Housing Australia (LHA) guidelines provide technical space considerations for mobility design solutions, but as a guide, minimum clear doorway widths of 850-900mm and 1200mm for corridors are optimal for good access. Wider doors and corridors make it easier to manoeuvre when using the spaces with prams, walking frames and wheelchairs, and allow for functional longevity. This also contributes to a sense of spaciousness in the home.

Bathroom bliss

Bathrooms are a particularly expensive zone of the home to structurally adjust. If they are designed well in the first place, they can save a homeowner considerable cost, translating into a more effective investment. It goes without saying that the path to at least one bathroom should be designed to be accessible; in a multi-storey house, at least one bathroom should be on the ground level. When renovating, the time to maximise future benefits from bathroom spaces is at the rough-in and framing stage when the walls and floors are open and layout changes are relatively easy.

Reinforce and save

Reinforcing walls at the framing stage to a standard suitable for fastenings and grab rails is relatively inexpensive and is a form of insurance, layered behind a typical bathroom facade. The LHA guidelines recommend reinforcing timber-framed bathroom and toilet walls to withstand force applied from any direction. Add some extra noggins (the bracing between wall studs) in the shower in case a wall-mounted seat is ever needed. A reinforced and prepared structure gives plenty of options for adapting the space without the very costly need to strip back and replace all fittings, tiles, sheeting, insulation and possibly plumbing and wiring to make the space useable for someone with a mobility challenge.

An accessible entrance designed into landscaping avoids often awkward-looking and expensive retrofitting later.

Spacious throne

The style of toilet can easily be changed in a bathroom, but space allowances are costly to retrofit. Locating a toilet in a position that caters for accessibility requirements involves a minimum of 1200mm (excluding any door swing) clear space in front of the toilet, and a minimum clear width of 900mm between walls or bathroom furniture. Providing for a wall to be 450 to 460mm from the pan (measured from the centre line of the toilet) allows a grab rail to be affixed to the wall in the future if needed.

Walk or roll

Walk in (or roll in), step-free showers should be a minimum of 900mm x 900mm with 1200mm clear space in front of the shower recess entry. However, showers that are larger than 900mm do offer greater ease for those with a mobility challenge.


Like bathrooms, kitchens are also expensive zones to retrofit. Some basic, relatively inexpensive steps at the design and build stages will again save dollars should accessibility adjustments be needed to the kitchen.

Where possible, floor finishes should be installed wall to wall, not just up to the cabinetry. This allows for cabinetry to be changed at any stage without expensive flooring works. Designing the kitchen to have at least 1200mm clearance in front of benches and appliances caters for manoeuvrability by all ages and mobility levels.

Little but costly

Too often in construction, tradespeople are left to make decisions on the finer details such as where to mount light switches, power points and door handles. Instead, specify a suitable height for these items and it can add significant convenience for people in a wheelchair or those needing to stay steady with a walking device. According to LHA, light switches should be positioned between 900mm and 1100mm above floor level, horizontally aligned with the door handle at the entrance to a room. Power points should be installed not lower than 300mm above finished floor level and door hardware should be installed 900mm to 1100mm above the finished floor.

Integrating technology

Twenty years ago, few could have foreseen the changes wifi and computing would make to our lifestyles and the way we socialise or work from home. We can now recognise the benefits of designing and integrating technology into buildings, or at least allowing for its easy retrofitting. Ensuring that adequate cavities are provided for easy changes to cabling or device storage will allow dwellings to be upgraded as required.

Design flexibility

Outgrowing your home can have consequences that impact on individuals and families, both financially and emotionally, especially if a move is required. From the small apartment to a sprawling home, flexible housing design incorporating accessible design principles and flexibility of spaces can allow homes to adapt to the changing needs of their occupants and avoid the need to move away from familiar communities. Other initiatives, such as large homes designed with the capacity to be easily divided into two dwellings, provide exciting design possibilities for those in a position to build or renovate.


A well-worn phrase is ‘design with the end in mind’; perhaps it should instead be ‘design for the unforeseeable future’. As most buildings do not account for change or flexibility, there is an opportunity for people to build or renovate houses so that they can cater for all who may need to reside in them, saving the homeowner money, time, resources, heartache and waste. This equates to innovative, sustainable, profitable, inclusive design – and importantly, happy households.

Melissa Wittig is a design and property professional and health-focused interior designer. She is also co-author of The Smart Living Handbook and a licensed estate agent consulting in residential asset (property) management and design.

Sanctuary 37 out now

We range far and wide in this issue of Sanctuary to take you inside some of the most fascinating sustainable building projects in Australia and New Zealand. And they couldn’t be more different.

Our new associate editor Anna Cumming visits the striking 13-unit Artisan Apartments project which achieves an 8.6 Star energy rating and provides superior comfort, abundant open space and low energy bills for residents. The designer has already won multiple awards and we hope the accolades lead to equivalent developments getting community and planning support.

Our ‘design on display’ feature takes us to three sustainable houses that are regularly open to visitors. Classic display homes have been around for decades, but we are seeing something new emerging here. A prototype Tiny House in Brisbane opens for special events and the NEAThouse in Hobart is connecting locals with sustainable material suppliers. And hundreds of people have already been through the latest 8.2 Star display house at The Cape in Victoria – if you head down this summer, make sure you check out the estate’s extensive community garden!

Check out what else is in the latest Sanctuary!

We keep hearing from design experts who have recently visited prefabricated housing factories in Germany that prefab is the future for building here too, and if they’re right the future has already arrived for some. We check out two very different prefab projects: the renovation of a heritage-style house in Melbourne that has used SIPs (structural insulated panels) for the rear addition, with impressive results; and we tell the story of an astounding modular prefab home on French Island, Victoria (design Lai Cheong Brown, builder Ecoliv). It wasn’t just me that needed to catch a ferry there to visit – this off-grid house itself needed to travel by water.

We’re always asked for more design tips and landscaping features and this issue is packed with ideas. From using concrete slabs and incorporating clever storage in your home, through to future-proofing and green facades, we hope you find some exciting ideas for what you’d like to do this summer.

Sanctuary 37 is on its way to letterboxes and newsagencies near you, full of advice and inspiration for sustainable living and building.

And as always we feature a wide range of innovative sustainable products and design tips for your home.

We welcome your feedback. Perhaps there’s something else you would you like to see in Sanctuary? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or email.