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Trend Alert: Living Walls Add a Pop of Nature to Urban Honolulu Spaces

Ward Village, Tommy Bahama Waikīkī and Whole Foods Kailua are just a few of the places going green.


Living Wall Ward Village

The state’s largest living wall, at Ward Village
photo: courtesy of ward village


Most of those stunning living walls popping up around town can be traced to 1st Look Exteriors, a family business that’s created a hybrid art form here over the past 12 years.


With decades of plant nursery experience and a degree in landscape architecture, Greg Lee says he learns from each wall, from small homeowner projects that cost hundreds of dollars to big commercial projects that cost thousands.


Lee explains that the state’s largest living wall, at Ward Village, took four years of planning and about two weeks to install. Looking up at the indoor/outdoor sea of some 10,000 tropical plants—bromeliads, syngonium, laua‘e and other ferns—waving gently from the Anaha condo wall, the concept looks simple enough. There’s a series of various plants arranged in a grid and watered from a hidden source.


But Lee and business partner/wife Terri Rios-Lee explain that it’s far more complicated. “As soon as you go vertical, it changes everything,” Lee says. “There’s no book out there, so you have to just figure it out through trial and error.”


Since 2006, the Lees have experimented with plants, watering systems and design; they built systems large and small, residential and business. As they refined their work, the big living walls—with all of the engineering, construction and upkeep required to keep them green and growing—have come to dominate their business.


Living wall

One of two living walls at Pacific Guardian Center
Photo: David Croxford


For Howard Hughes Corp. the living art design and sustainable elements are worth the cost and care required. “We know we’re in the urban core with a lot of buildings and not as much open space,” says Todd Apo, vice president of community relations. “Living walls are a way to introduce nature to the street level.”


SEE ALSO: Kaka‘ako’s New Luxury Condo Tower Anaha Has the Largest Living Wall in Hawai‘i


The Lees clearly love what they do. “A lot of our colleagues in other states or countries just don’t have the palette of plants that we have,” Lee says. “It makes it fun. I think we are showcasing things that we can only do in Hawai‘i.”


Some problems do crop up when you least expect them. Take the time a client shut off the irrigation system during a rainy time to conserve water: The landscaping survived but the vertical wall plants died.


Other examples of their walls include the Tommy Bahama Waikīkī restaurant, South Shore Market at Ward, the Whole Foods Kailua exterior and a pair at Pacific Guardian Center’s downtown office complex.


The walls evolve as the Lees change plants based on the environment at each location. Rios-Lee notes that doctors’ offices often prefer a restful color palette in shades of green while other businesses opt for a pop of color such as plants with pink leaves.


“I’m all about people creating spaces for themselves that are healthy as well as stimulating,” Rios-Lee says.




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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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