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North America’s first modular living wall installation opens in Vancouver

Case Studies | November 1, 2009 | By:

A new frontier for fabric applications begins at the Vancouver Aquarium’s new Aquaquest-Marilyn Blusson Learning Centre

The Vancouver Aquarium’s new Aquaquest-Marilyn Blusson Learning Centre immerses visitors in the temperate rainforest along British Columbia’s coasts. As a certified LEED Gold project and one of the province’s most “green” public buildings, Aquaquest is also home to the first modular living wall installation in North America. The new building and its outdoor living wall evoke the sight and smells of a cliff face or canyon wall rich in plants, insects, birds and butterflies. Green design is also part of the learning message. By combining rain forest plantings and showing strategies for rainwater collection and reuse, Aquaquest’s building and landscape architecture offer a public demonstration of the promise of sustainable integrated design.

Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc., of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, began the living wall design with what principal Randy Sharp calls a plant “wish list” of 15 possible species, including ferns, grasses, sedums, perennial wildflowers and evergreen groundcovers. Yet, because green and living walls are so susceptible to local climate extremes and site-specific conditions such as sun and wind, their plant palettes must be carefully tested. A key to success in any green wall project is to find the right fabricator and contractor who bring technical experience and a willingness to test design strategies on-site. G-Sky Inc., also of Vancouver, worked closely with Sharp to experiment with the wall fabrication and its plantings.

Sharp explains that there are two basic types of green wall systems, “Green façades are trellis systems or cable structures installed for climbing plants to grow vertically without attaching to the surface of the building.” In contrast, a living wall, as seen at Aquaquest “is part of a building envelope system where plants are actually planted and growing in a wall system.” A living wall offers the chance to plant a greater variety of nonclimbing species, yet they are also more technically challenging.

Like green roofs, successful living walls require a careful balance of trade-offs: overall weight and plant growth must be manageable while (in the case of Aquaquest) achieving a visual diversity that conveys the textures and seasons of British Columbia escarpments. For example: in testing, sword ferns and fescue grasses propagated quickly with beautiful textures, but they created excessive pressure inside the wall panels. Ultimately, Sharp & Diamond chose tough hardy native groundcovers and ferns (see planting list below). G-Sky grew the green wall panels in a greenhouse and delivered them to the site for installation in one day. Such rapid assembly is a major advantage of modular panel systems, as is ease of access the core wall and spot replacements.

Sharp & Diamond, working with G-Sky, has recently completed a new generation of living wall at the Vancouver International Airport. With documented benefits for heat islands, sound control and building energy savings, this market will continue to grow. The challenge is to develop wall systems that are more durable and cost-effective for commercial applications and prefabricated structures. “There is a huge potential for inexpensive green facades on big-box retail, industrial buildings, freeways and blank concrete walls, as well as rooftops that cannot support the weight of a green roof,” Sharp says. “By transforming urban environments with green facades and living walls, cities will become more livable, cooler and quieter.”

Frank Edgerton Martin is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture specializing in design and urban landscapes.

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