Z Living Systems installed this living wall in Playa Vista, California, last year. | Jasmine McDermott/Courtesy photos

Kelly Trom

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The average American spends 90 percent of their life indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and this fact was enough to inspire Cal Poly alumnus Robert Zacks to start his own company, Z Living Systems.

The San Luis Obispo-based company plans, designs, builds and maintains “living walls” for businesses and residential buildings. By installing plants such as grasses, lamium, ajuga, philodendron and maranta into exterior and interior walls, Z Living Systems can help others improve not only the aesthetics of a space but also the state of mind of those who live and work there.

“The vision for Z Living Systems is to infuse nature back into the places we live, work and play,” Zacks said. “Cities have become places filled with concrete and pollution. We want people to feel the refreshment and reap the benefits of simply incorporating greenery into the built environment.”

The idea occurred to Zacks while visiting Europe’s vertical gardens, and upon his return to the United States, he started building prototypes in his parents’ backyard. He began looking for a business partner and applying for a spot in the Accelerator program at the SLO HotHouse, a community space that encourages students and community members to create new innovations and start business ventures.

He was introduced to fellow Cal Poly alumnus Jasmine McDermott, and together they worked on customer development of their product through the accelerator.

Before McDermott came on board, Zacks had to do all of the work himself, including sales and marketing, project management and continued product development.

“I learned that you want to build a business instead of being the business,” Zacks said. “Building a business means that you can step away from it and everything still functions. Being the business means that the business is solely dependent on you and it leads to you taking on everything.”

Now, Zacks is in charge of the more technical aspects of the company, while McDermott manages the marketing and overall vision of the company. The two also work with an advisory board from the HotHouse, a horticulturist and certified maintenance crews.

“Our day-to-day is ever-changing, which keeps it fun and interesting,” McDermott said. “I think that is part of being a startup is that you are handling a lot of different tasks. It could be one day where we are on site installing and checking in and another day we could be getting a call from a client and getting a proposal ready.”

Zacks and McDermott work with their clients to identify the goals and challenges of the project as well as work with designing the structural design, specific plants they want to use and irrigation layout.

They then work alongside contractors to oversee the actual building of the living wall at the client site as well as procuring the plants at a nursery. But once those processes are done, Z Living Systems still works with the client to make sure the plants and irrigation systems are maintained.

“Oftentimes, there isn’t a whole lot of knowledge that living walls exist,” McDermott said. “It’s usually not the client that is approaching us saying they want a living wall, but the architect who is the visionary and recommends a living wall to their client.”

Living walls can help buildings meet qualifications for sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere. These categories can translate to LEED credits. LEED is the most widely used green building rating system. It helps companies publicly certify that they reduce stress on the environments and are energy-and resource-efficient.

Living walls can also help clean the air of a building as well as relax the workers who spend a lot of time indoors.

“There is a reason that people go outdoors, whether they go take a hike or go to the beach,” McDermott said. “It is relaxing. Providing plants in an indoor space gives people that same feeling of relaxation. They also help clean the air, they help with energy saving and can help fuel a building.”

Zacks and McDermott are well on their way to their original vision of educating people about living walls and helping to make buildings more environmentally friendly. Jon York, head of the HotHouse and entrepreneurship program at Cal Poly, worked closely with them to make this happen.

York is part of the advisory board for Z Living Systems and has seen Zacks and McDermott grow in the process of building the company.

“One of the things that was most important was that both of them knew how to work on a team and to put their egos aside to find the best solution to any problem they were working on,” York said. “Too many students fall in love with their own idea and spend so much time defending that idea that they never let it improve or morph into the right direction.”

Zacks and McDermott were able to adapt to the changes the mentors suggested in the accelerator program, which allowed them to recently complete a project at The Resort in Playa Vista. Z Living Systems installed a 1,200-square-foot wall that spanned both interior and exterior parts of the building. But the HotHouse is where their success really started.

And the success will continue: Next up for Z Living Systems is a living wall in MINDBODY’s new building.

“They learned to listen, ask good questions, rely on others and never just assume that they had the answer,” York said. “The answer to all startup questions lies outside the building. In other words, until you find out what your customers want, need and demand, you do not have a company.”

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