Living walls transform plain exteriors into vertical gardens

Mike Weinmaster (left) and Patrick Poiraud with the living wall they designed for the Semiahmoo Library in South Surrey.

Mike Weinmaster (left) and Patrick Poiraud with the living wall they designed for the Semiahmoo Library in South Surrey.

Photograph by: Ric Ernst, PNG

It’s Mike Weinmaster’s job to make ugly grey concrete walls beautiful by turning them into fabulously verdant vertical gardens.

Last year, at a luxury condo in the Pennyfarthing development at Creekside Drive in Vancouver, he was asked to find a way to disguise a prominent eight-foot brick chimney stack that was blocking a million-dollar panoramic view of False Creek.

By turning the chimney into a lavishly planted garden pillar, spilling over on all sides with lush green foliage and scented flowers, Weinmaster didn’t remove the obstacle, but did manage to turn the offending obstruction into a more acceptable and attractive distraction.

«As each side of the chimney had a different exposure, I had to come up with a different planting for each face,» he says.

«I used sun-loving plants like dianthus, thyme, rosemary and lavender for the south-facing side, and tellima, Japanese tassel fern and hakonechloa for the shadier north-facing side.

«For the other two sides, being partsun, part-shade, I was able to mix it up a bit and use plants that tolerate partial sun and shade.»

Weinmaster says the green chimney-garden is now a key feature and popular conversation piece on the condo’s patio-terrace where the owners regularly entertain.

In November 2010, Weinmaster, who is chief designer for Vancouver-based Green Over Grey Living Walls and Design, made a presentation at PechaKucha Night, where young designers get to present their ideas.

He wanted to show people what the ugliest buildings in Vancouver would look like if they were simply given an elegant garden facade; in other words, how an unattractive concrete wall could be dressed up by applying a top coat of living greenery.

«I researched blog posts from all over the Web by searching ‘Ugliest Buildings Vancouver’ in Google. I used the blog a lot as well.

«The final choices were also based on my opinions. And I decided to choose buildings that had suitable facades for vertical gardens; nothing too complicated in terms of installation.»

Weinmaster ended up selecting the Sears building («it uglifies three streets -Robson, Granville and Howe»); CBC building at West Georgia and Hamilton; The Centre at West Georgia and Homer Street; and BC Place Stadium at Robson and Beatty («But there are many other similar concrete walls that encircle this monstrosity»).

When he showed his before-and-after images at the PechaKucha event, the crowd of design-and-style conscious professionals went wild with enthusiasm.

«The feedback was instantaneous. And it was very positive. People loved the idea and the look. I think everyone would like to see more green walls throughout the city.»

Last October, Weinmaster did his biggest project so far when he completed the 3,000-square-foot spectacular green wall at the Semiahmoo Library and RCMP facility at the corner of 18th Avenue and 152nd Street in White Rock.

With its imaginative swirling foliage patterns drawn from Coastal Salish art, the work is being touted as the largest and most biologically diverse outdoor green wall in North America.

It is already being acclaimed as an exceptional living work of art and outstanding example of vertical-garden design and technical expertise.

The wall takes his cues from the European rather than North American model. As a result, it makes a more adventurous and dynamic use of plants and aims right from the outset to grab attention and stop people in their tracks and make them gasp with admiration.

Not content to be a merely applaudable environmental project with practical, energy-saving aspects, the wall had to be esthetically exciting, a three-dimensional living piece of art that added beauty and energy to the community.

With the White Rock wall, Weinmaster broke many of the traditional rules of gardening about right plant in the right place.

For instance, the wall contains such big plants as a fig tree, ocean spray, mahonia, spirea, hydrangeas and hardy fuchsias -plants normally dismissed as far too big and bulky for shallow planting in a vertical garden.

But Weinmaster says it works. He has seen it done in walls in Europe where shrubs like fatsia and largeleafed hostas have been confidently featured 30 and 40 feet off the round.

«We decided from the outset that we want to push the boundaries, » says Weinmaster.

«We wanted to inspire people, too. When people see a fig tree growing in the wall or a huge plant like Holodiscus (ocean spray) it blows them away. It is always a wow factor. There is no fun in playing it safe all the time -you have to show what is possible.»

The system used at the White Rock project was invented by Patrick Poiraud, owner of Green Over Grey.

He became fascinated by the idea of green walls as a schoolboy growing up in Paris in the 1980s when botanist Patrick Blanc, considered the originator of green walls, was doing his first public presentations showing how plants could be grown vertically.

Architects quickly seized on Blanc’s ideas and today some of his «vertical gardens», such as the spectacular one near the Eiffel Tower at Branly Museum in Paris, have become major tourist attractions.

Poiraud spent a few years travelling around Europe, especially in Germany, Sweden and Spain, studying green-wall technology before coming up with his own system, the one used at the wall in White Rock.

Both he and Weinmaster spent time with Patrick Blanc, and even got to stand with him in front of one of his installations as he explained how he used layers of polyamide felt to mimic cliff-growing mosses and hydroponics to ensure plants were adequately feed and watered.

In the end, Poiraud rejected the green-wall technology that has been mostly embraced in North America -a system that uses a grid of metal box-shaped containers in which to grow plants.

Instead, Poiraud create a system based more on a European model and came up with a way of using recycled synthetic fabric with multiple plantpockets.

With Poiraud’s system, a waterproof board is attached to a metal frame that is first fixed to the wall of the building, leaving a 1.5-inch gap.

«This air space allows any kind of precipitation to escape freely out the bottom, behind the green wall.

«As well as looking nice, the living wall also protects the building from driving rain and ultraviolet radiation,» says Poiraud.

«You also don’t have the same degree of expansion and contraction happening, which in turn prevents cracking that can occur in a exterior walls of a building.»

Next, a mosslike, non-toxic material made from recycled plastic bags and milk jugs is placed on the board, providing dozens of plant pockets. Plants are placed into the pockets and secured using stainless steel staples.

Poiraud prefers this system, which he first introduced in 2004, over the box-grid system because he claims it allows plants to grow more naturally, allowing them to establish their roots throughout the mosslike membrane.

«The plants don’t have to re-orientate themselves from growing horizontally to growing vertically,» he says.

«We have tried to mimic how plants grow naturally on cliffs or on the side of waterfalls or rock outcroppings or on the edge of rivers.»

Poiraud says the wall system used at the White Rock project allowed for use of a greater variety and diversity of plant material.

In his famous north-facing Branley wall in Paris, Blanc astonished observers by using big shrubs like fatsia and by creating impressive vertical hosta and heuchera beds.

In White Rock, Weinmaster and Poiraud have been equally daring, using large perennials like Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ and Echinacea purpurea, as well as shrubs like Juniper ‘Blue Star’, rosemary, huckleberry and four varieties of mahonia.

«The North American approach to green walls tends to be to create a more industrial, homogenized look,» says Poiraud.

«The thinking is ‘How can we standardize everything so that it has a uniform look.» You see the same five plants used everywhere.

«It didn’t appeal to us to limit ourselves in this way to using a few plant species. We think it is much more interesting to design using plants that also give depth as well as interesting flower and foliage textures.»

Poiraud says while green roofs continue to get most attention in the media, in reality the public gets to see and enjoy green walls far more, simply because they are more accessible.

«To see a green roof, you either have to be in a plane or helicopter or up higher in a neighbouring building.

«But a green wall is like putting a garden in the middle of the community. It is something everyone can see and enjoy.»

The sunny, south-facing White Rock wall is covered by more than 10,000 individual plants, covering about 120 species, planted in the shallow plant pockets.

Irrigation lines embedded in the planting fabric keeps plants watered and occasionally fed with organic fertilizer.

Surprisingly, Weinmaster used some plants that are traditionally regarded as shade-loving plants, such as bleedinghearts, aquilegia, tellima and Hakonechloa macra ‘Oreola’, but he says all these plants have been tried and tested and do very well in a sunny location provided their roots are kept moist.

The wall’s complex tapestry-like design draws heavily on Coastal Salish and B.C. first nations art, including frog, salmon, hummingbird, killer whale and sun images.

The planting was done in October 2010, but neither Weinmaster nor Poiraud was expecting such unseasonable weather to hit the wall during its first winter.

«We had the coldest November in 20 years followed by the coolest and wettest spring in 55 years,» says Poiraud.

«The thyme got hit by the cold snap in February, but apart from that the rest of the plants, came through relatively unscathed.

Weinmaster used plants with gold and yellow flowers or foliage to add striking sweeps of colour to the wall along with silver and white accents, but he stayed away from using large splashes of red, purple or pink.

Weinmaster also resisted the urge to use predictable plant choices such as sedums and blue grasses. Instead, he went for more imaginative selections like hardy geraniums, hydrangeas, huckleberry, salvia, blue flag irises and ornamental grasses like orange sedge, Carex testacea.

«When we were doing the planting, people walking by kept giving us thumbs up. And it was all ages, all generations, stopping and saying how much they liked what we were doing. It got very positive community feedback right away.»

The biggest maintenance challenge will be clipping plants to keep them from growing too far off the wall, says Weinmaster.

«We do this once or twice a year using a scissor-lift. If plants fail for whatever reason, they will also be replaced, but we don’t expect that to happen much.

«It will be interesting to see this wall when it has had time to mature and the plants are more well established. I think it will look even more spectacular when it has achieved its full potential.»

And how much does a green wall cost?

«The price really depends on the size of the project and complexity of installation,» says Weinmaster.

Key factors determining the cost of a project include the amount of framing around windows, doors and stairs, as well as extreme heights and the wrapping of chimneys. «We always provide custom quotes after visiting the potential space,» he says.

However, Green Over Grey’s smallest installations typically cost around $15,000. «The price per square foot can range anywhere from $110 to $250,» says Weinmaster.

Meantime, Poiraud says Surrey’s Mayor Dianne Watts deserves credit for taking a leap of faith and having the vision to allow the White Rock wall to be built in the first place.

«It was a very progressive decision on her part. The wall has become a tourist attraction. People come from all over just to see it.» he says.

«Garden clubs even start their tours at the wall. The feedback from the community has been incredibly positive.

«It is a very good example of what could be done to make our cities more green and friendly.

«Parkades, for example, are particularly ugly. They are perfect candidates for green walls.

«If you covered them with a vertical garden, you not only improve the environment by making a garden in the middle of the city and it becomes a tourist attraction.»

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Source / Fuente:

Author / Autor: Steve Whysall

 Date / Fecha: 26/07/11

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