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Randy Sharp envisions living cities

Case Studies, Features | May 1, 2010 | By:

A leading Canadian landscape architect discusses green roofs, walls and opportunities for new technologies

Randy Sharp is a Canadian landscape architect with American roots. “I come from a family of landscape architects and designers,” he explains. As a teenager, landscape architecture was actually his “third choice” in possible careers. Growing up in South Bend, Ind., within the reach of Detroit and Chicago radio stations, his top choice was to become a radio DJ, sending Motown and rock n’ roll out into the night. His second choice was to move to Detroit to design the city of the future with cars that had wings, but that idea did not fly.

Another early creative force in Sharp’s life was his grandfather, Harlow Whittemore, professor in landscape architecture at the University of Michigan, who “introduced me to Primascolor pencils.” In 1980 Sharp founded his current firm, Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture, in Vancouver. Over the last 30 years, the office has built a large portfolio of civic spaces, high-performance buildings and parks. He came to green wall and roof design through a long-standing interest in ecology since his studies in landscape architecture at the University of Oregon in the 1970s. At that time, Sharp came to admire the Brazilian landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx, who was friends with Claude Monet in France. “For Burle Marx, like his friend the painter Claude Monet, the landscape could be imagined as a giant canvas.

“I have always followed the principles of ecological design,” he adds. “Our offices’ extensive green roofs are designed as self-sustaining ecosystems, requiring no irrigation and fertilizer once established.” Now one of the leaders in green design, Sharp applies this canvas concept to the “vertical landscape,” creating large green tapestries of green plants on buildings and-eventually he hopes-entire city ecosystems. “Green façades and living walls provide an exciting, fresh canvas for landscape architects, putting in play urban surfaces that were once the exclusive province of other disciplines. These vertical landscapes provide as yet unexplored opportunities for biodiversity, urban agriculture and energy performance, not to mention the creation of green collar jobs.”

Conversations with Randy Sharp

In conversations leading up to this article, Sharp shared in-depth answers to several questions about his office, the future of “living architecture” and how the industrial fabrics community can develop innovative and relevant new products.

Q: What is the focus about your firm and the range of your work?

RS: Our office features a broad diversity of talent including the three principals-myself, Ken Larsson and David Stoyko-in addition to 10 landscape architects and MLA graduates. Areas of expertise include community design and planning, public spaces and regional parks, working and industrial waterfronts, landscape restoration, research and education (green roofs, living wall, stormwater management).

Ken Larsson is leading our team of landscape architects through the Living Building Challenge for the new Visitor Centre at VanDusen Botanical Garden. The building includes extensive green roof meadows, blue roofs where rainwater is collected and a living wall that seamlessly rolls down from the green roof, connected to the botanical gardens. For the sloping green roof/living wall, we are proposing a flexible modular fabric system featuring pockets of plants nourished by rainwater, organic nutrients and hydroponics between layers of moisture-retention fleece.

David Stoyko is also pushing the building envelope designing interconnected rain gardens on rooftops of high-density residential developments, part of an overall water management strategy on projects we first developed in the city of Los Angeles. We are adapting the concepts of Design with Nature by Ian McHarg, and the work of Ken Yeang to the vertical landscape, one component of creating healthy communities.

Q: What do you consider to be some of your most important projects?

RS: I’ll share with you three projects that range in scale and program. They are:

  • Vancouver International Airport (shown above), 2010 CSLA National Honor Award for the landscape management of Sea Island, integration of First Nations art inside and outside the terminals, as well as the Canada Line Living Wall, largest in Canada at 60 by 36 ft.
  • Burnside Gorge Community Centre, first stage in the restoration of the endangered Garry Oak ecosystem on a rooftop (the community centre is buried into a hillside, see photo above), the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, 2009 Green Roof Award-of-Excellence for extensive institutional.
  • Granville Island, a 33-acre industrial precinct in the harbor transformed into an urban forest complete with public market, cement plant, art school and multiple performance venues, inside and in the landscape (first project out of school).

Q: What are some of the industrial fabrics, metal meshes and other products that you find most useful in your work?

RS: We specify stainless steel cable net systems for a variety of applications including building performance, structural support, green facades with climbing plants and water curtains. We are designing big-box retail centers with green walls using trellis panels to economically grow a diverse range of climbers to cover large areas. The green facades are an essential component of building performance and energy conservation. Both the green facade and the water curtain cool the ambient temperature, glisten in the sunshine and glow at night with LED lighting.

For sloping and flat green roofs, and for steep highway embankments, we specify lightweight products that contain nylon filaments for plant germination, root reinforcement and drainage. A post-industrial recycled polypropylene drainage core of fused, entangled filaments contains significantly less mass and material derived from petroleum products.

Q: What new products are needed to support living architecture and cityscapes?

RS: Products that greatly reduce or eliminate the consumption of hydrocarbons in manufacture and delivery are needed for green roof or living wall applications. Better materials are needed for drainage trays, modular wall systems and fabrics that are not manufactured from petroleum products. We recommend that government and industry partners provide funding for research and the development of products that may use nonbiodegradable, stable biocomposites, minerals and/or webs that mimic structures found in the natural world. Alternative products are needed in the industry to offer lightweight support, separation of materials, water management, air movement and gas exchange.

Q: Does your office have an overall philosophy on urban sustainability and design?

RS: Climate change is impacting the quality of life in the city, our personal health and the economy. By increasing evaporative surfaces that function in a similar manner to the predevelopment grassland, woodland and/or diverse natural landscape, we will greatly reduce the urban heat island effect and the consumption of fossil fuels. By transforming urban environments with green streets, planted roofs, green facades and living walls, cities will become much more livable, cooler and quieter.

We practice what we design. Our offices are located in a high-density mixed-use neighborhood, with direct access to multiple bus lines, bike routes and the train: Canada Line rapid transit. Productivity and job satisfaction is high with daylighting, access to green (a balcony and outdoor laboratory) and a high level of amenity. All employees receive benefits including a transit pass, universal health care and continuing green education as well as organic baking and beer on Fridays. We are a lifestyle office.

Q: Where might you see the role of green building envelopes going in the future?

RS: Benefits of green building envelopes include urban climate mitigation, carbon sequestration, energy conservation, biodiversity, acoustics, food production and aesthetics. The market for green walls and rooftops is growing rapidly. Living walls expand the traditional canvas of landscape architecture, offering a whole new universe of options to enhance the environment.

The challenge for designers is to deliver roof and wall systems that are durable and cost-effective. We need to tackle the sprawl of North America, the suburban automobile oriented strip malls, high-rise residential towers, and newly engineered structures. We need to develop inexpensive green façade systems for the big-box, the tilt up industrial building, freeways, rapid transit, blank concrete walls and over rooftops that cannot support the weight of a green roof. Modular living walls can support higher density plantings of groundcovers, ferns and flowers, and are nourished by clean odorless gray water, full of nutrients.

Frank Edgerton Martin regularly writes for Landscape Architecture magazine, and is a contributing editor to Fabric Architecture. His profile of Jeffrey Bruce, FASLA, appeared in the November/December 2009 issue.

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