This Prototype Modular System Could Bring Green Walls to Parking Garages

This Prototype Modular System Could Bring Green Walls to Parking Garages

By Heather Corcoran
At the University of Texas at Austin, vertical gardening gets an architectural update.

Across the United States, thousands of parking structures litter the landscape. One day, when the late Mark Simmons was sitting at a restaurant, the director of the Wildflower Research Center gazed through the window and realized he had enough of staring at garages, so he came up with the idea of using them to support vertical gardens.  

The prototype green wall system at the University of Texas at Austin isn't just a home for plants—it's also an ecosystem for local fauna. 

In draught-prone Texas, however, the project proved a challenge. So together with a group of researchers from the University of Texas's architecture, natural science, and computer science departments, he set out to develop a new way of gardening—the first trial of which debuted on the school's Austin campus this June.

The plantings—including Virginia creeper, cross vine, and Mexican feather grass—were carefully selected to attract anole lizards, hummingbirds, butterflies, and birds like hawks and owls. 

The system that they've developed over the past five years takes an architectural approach to green walls, with parametrically designed modular cells that can easily be swapped out as needed. In addition, the honeycomb structure, which is currently patent pending, provides the necessary strength to support the weight of the dirt, water, and plants. That's especially important, as the 148 modules that make up the system are 16 inches deep and have a greater soil capacity than other systems.

Specialized cells provide other goodies to attract animals. The system also features sophisticated measuring equipment to track movement as well as the wall's impact on its local environment.

The cells host a range of native plants including succulents, shrubs, climbers, and grasses. The system acts as an "ecological incubator," by attracting local fauna with specially selected plants chosen in part by a bee specialist, explains assistant professor Danelle Briscoe, one of the leading forces of the UT Green Garage Living Wall Research Team.

The green wall's 148 cells are supported by a 10-foot-tall, 25-foot-long metal frame. 

Not only is the project a first for the school, it marks a new way of thinking about buildings. "This is a change from conventional architecture," says Briscoe, "where you put the wall up and you sign off and that's the peak. This will peak in a year from now."

The hexagonal cells are designed to be ergonomically easy to take out to simplify maintenance. 

As the plantings develop, so too with the university's understanding of the system, thanks to careful data capture that will measure building and city cooling, storm water mitigation, noise buffering, and air filtration. If all goes well with the test, this could be a major step in creating a full-sized system for an 18,000-square-foot wall on the school's Guadalupe Garage.

"That's sustainability," says Briscoe. "When a design can make you pause; make you smile." 

Cover photo courtesy of the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin


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