UT’s First Living Wall is Built to Endure the Texas Summer

Standing 10-by-25 feet tall, the white honeycomb structure sits at the northwest corner of Goldsmith Hall, facing Guadalupe Street. Covered with native plants and animals—including striking wildflowers, hummingbirds, lizards, and shrubs—this environmentally friendly living wall draws some curious onlookers.

This living wall serves to explore the role of architecture in ecology. According to project leaders Fritz Steiner, former dean of the School of Architecture, and assistant professor Danelle Briscoe, it took five years of research and planning. The two also collaborated with Patricia Clubb, the vice president for the University Operations office that funded most of the project; Mark Simmons, who was the director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center before he died from leukemia in August 2015; and Michelle Bright, an environmental designer at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center.

The living wall was Steiner’s last major project as UT’s dean. Following the implementation of the new campus carry law, which will go into effect on August 1, he resigned and took over as dean for the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

“I loved seeing the enthusiasm everyone had about the project,” Steiner says. “The most gratifying thing about the wall now that it’s done is seeing people react to it. It’s wonderful to see people stop and ask questions—this proves the wall is both attractive and intriguing.”

Besides the wall’s striking looks, it also cools the building, reduces noise, captures water, and serves as an ecological incubator. The wall is equipped with instruments that monitor how much water it uses, how much heat it absorbs, and, as an added bonus, how many people stop to admire it.

Briscoe developed the honeycomb structure to ensure the plants had the best chance of survival. According to Steiner, the researchers chose native plants that could both adapt to the summer Austin heat and are good for specific kinds of animals. The wall’s 148 soil containers were designed to accommodate a greater amount of dirt than is typically used, which is critical to sustaining the plants in Austin’s climate.

“Oftentimes, architects use pattern merely as decoration, but this pattern actually holds a lot of meaning and functionality,” Briscoe says. “We are hopeful and have gone to great measures to develop a system that can stand up to this environment.”

The project is also designed to educate onlookers and spark curiosity about ecology and design.

“I hope that from visiting and seeing the wall, students can see alternative approaches to building smarter in the future,” Briscoe says.

Steiner adds: “I hope it inspires students to think about the possibility of built environments for living systems like this.”

As for what’s next, Briscoe says the heat isn’t stopping her from going forward. She says she’s been approached by “several interested parties” who want to design and produce similar walls in locations all over the U.S. Steiner adds that he wants to adapt the wall for his new hometown of Philadelphia as well.

However, the next one may be here on campus. Briscoe says her goal is to install another living wall by the Guadalupe Garage.

“My hope is that one day, the UT Guadalupe project will be realized and that other parking garages throughout Austin can serve as ecological infrastructure through this approach,” she says.

Photo courtesy UT School of Architecture

 

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