Another Plant in the Wall

This past May, the University of Texas’ 84-year-old Goldsmith Hall became home to a strikingly innovative design concept: a living wall.

The 10-by-25-foot honeycomb frame on the building’s northwest corner holds 148 hexagonal containers filled with dirt and plants. It not only looks cool, it IS cool—potentially cutting down on the building’s A/C bills while filtering air, mitigating storm water, reducing noise and adding a little pizzazz to the urbanscape. “We wanted to show how the same perks of a green roof could be applied to a wall,” says UT’s School of Architecture’s Assistant Professor Danelle Briscoe, who spearheaded the vertical garden with Mark Simmons, then-director of the Ecosystem Design Group with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Europe and Japan have already embraced living walls, but not necessarily in the regions as hot and sticky as Austin. That’s where the honeycomb structure comes into play—ensuring that each 16-inch module shades another. Meanwhile, the Wildflower Center planted Virginia creeper, crossvine, Mexican feather grass and other native plants that can survive harsh heat in a specially designed soil (patent pending) that doesn’t disintegrate in the heat, suck up ungodly amounts of irrigation water or weigh a ton. “We’re showing that, if done right, a living wall can provide lots of benefits, not just for the environment but for urban people living in a reduced plant space,” says Michelle Bright, an environmental designer at the Wildflower Center, who took over for Simmons after he passed away from leukemia in 2015. 

Not only is UT’s living wall one of the toughest ever crafted, it may also be the only one intentionally designed to nurture wildlife. The plants and specific nesting cells are designed to attract anole lizards, hummingbirds, butterflies, songbirds and raptors such as hawks and owls. “We’re trying to promote an ecology system,” says Briscoe. 

Funded, in part, by UT’s Green Fee Award, the wall is a trial run for a larger version Briscoe wants to build on the Guadalupe parking garage once funding comes through. In the meantime, the wall may inspire copycats, if the interest that’s come in from around the country keeps up. “We hope to give people confidence to build living walls everywhere,” says Briscoe.

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By Steve Wilson