Not your typical export

May 6, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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LiveRoof, a division of Hortech wholesale nursery in Spring Lake, began exporting its innovative roof-planting systems to Canada in 2007, for sale by distributors in Ontario and British Columbia. In the last year or so, LiveRoof added distributors in New Zealand and Chile.

Now there is a new product coming from LiveRoof — called LiveWalls — so representatives of the company are filing patent disclosures and trademarks “all over the world, from Australia and New Zealand, to South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East,” according to Amber Poncé, the business development manager at LiveRoof.

Last week, Poncé finished setting up the company’s non-resident importer paperwork for Canada — “something new for us,” she said. “In the past, our customer cleared products through customs and paid the Canadian HST/GST. With LiveWall, we’ll be the importer of record and will collect and pay these taxes to the Canadian Revenue Agency.”

Dave MacKenzie started Hortech in 1983 with a degree in biology and a desire for a career in horticulture. Eventually, Hortech began supplying sedums and other drought-resistant ground cover plants for the small green roofs that began appearing on flat commercial roofs in urban areas in the 1990s. A thick growth of plants on a roof provides excellent insulation in both winter and summer, protects the roof itself from the elements, and captures rain runoff that would otherwise go straight off the roof and into storm drains.

MacKenzie had the expertise in the biological development of green roofs, but then started solving the problems green roof enthusiasts were having with the plastic trays and soil medium the plants were growing in. He now has patents granted or pending on the plastic modules Hortech developed for planting and maintaining a green roof.

LiveRoof ships its plastic growing modules to Canada and overseas to authorized distributors, who then provide the plants to the customer in that country.

Hundreds of LiveRoof systems have been installed across the U.S., including at Haworth corporate headquarters, Van Andel Institute, Muskegon Community College and several at GVSU. Others have been installed in other countries, notably the 36,760-square-foot Toronto City Hall and New Zealand’s largest green roof at the Mt. Difficulty Winery.

The Mt. Difficulty Winery roof was just installed in March, incorporating 4,800 LiveRoof pre-vegetated modules containing a mix of local native grasses, wild thyme and locally sourced stonecrop sedums, according to the winery website. The 6-inch-thick vegetated roof, which is almost 9,700 square feet, took three and a half days to install and will help maintain an even temperature in the wine storage below.

Poncé said exports have accounted for about 10 percent of LiveRoof sales, but that will be going up with the introduction in June of the LiveWall product line. LiveWall is a brand name and a new subsidiary of Hortech.

According to Poncé, “green” walls are increasingly in demand throughout North America. She provided information indicating that planted living walls create a beautiful and relaxing environment and help reduce the “urban heat island” effect in cities. The vegetation helps by cooling the air, slowing air movement and acting as a substrate for air pollution to settle out. The plants and soil also act as acoustic insulators, reducing external noise by as much as 40 decibels. Green walls also create habitats for butterflies and songbirds.

Planted living wall systems may qualify for tax credits associated with green/open space in some municipal zoning ordinances. The plants and the growing medium can help reduce indoor temperatures significantly during warm/hot weather, reducing air conditioning costs.

The potential to grow herbs and vegetables on the side of buildings, fences and mobile screens expands their usefulness further, on either a personal or commercial level, which could make green walls of interest to restaurants, culinary schools and food service areas in institutions.

The LiveWall system, which has been in development for four years, was triggered by customer requests for a planted wall system. Members of the Hortech staff, which now totals about a dozen year-round employees, began testing existing planted wall systems. In each case, they found the systems to be too complicated to install, plant and maintain. They also found them to be inadequate at growing plants.

MacKenzie said most planted wall systems require irrigation that trickles down from compartment to compartment through the soil. They also require plants to grow in more of a horizontal direction, instead of vertically as they would in nature. MacKenzie said each of those situations seems to impose unique stresses upon the plants.

With conventional green wall systems, so much water has to be applied to the top of the module system that the top-level soil becomes waterlogged and oxygen depleted. This can induce root rot via fungal and bacterial organisms, which then can spread to the lower layers of plants.

LiveWall system, which has a patent pending, grows plants vertically and is designed to eliminate the problems of other systems. It also uses a specially designed integrated mist irrigation system for watering each level of plants.

Hortech’s LiveWall LLC will also offer LiveFence and LiveScreen products using variations of the LiveWall technology.

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