A ‘Living Wall’ At Texas A&M Could Be The Key To Smarter Cities
Tucked between the three buildings of Texas A&M University’s Langford Architecture Center, a “living wall” has been turning heads, gaining international attention and fueling cutting-edge research since it was installed in 2018.
A previously-bare brick wall is now home to an impressive 10-foot-tall structure housing soil, an irrigation system and a colorful assortment of drought-tolerant plants. Part of what makes this particular living wall stand out is its striking modular design: each plant is held by one of about 300 metal, diamond-shaped planters that can be removed and replaced for easy maintenance.
Recently replanted after the unprecedented freeze that hit Texas in February of 2021, the wall continues to be a popular photo spot as well as a demonstration of what collaboration and smart design can accomplish. The minds behind the wall, associate professor of architecture Ahmed K. Ali and associate professor of landscape architecture Bruce Dvorak, said they’re thrilled to see the beauty that this joint venture between their departments has produced.
“It feels good to see something built that brings life to a space that had no life before,” Dvorak said.
A Living Wall That Stays Living
As Dvorak explains, the wall’s distinct design is not just for show — it actually helps solve a number of problems he encountered with previous living wall systems.
“I had been researching living walls on top of the Langford building, and if you go to the roof, you’ll see that none of those plants are alive,” he said.
Most systems on the market force plants to grow at an unnatural angle, or they simply don’t offer enough soil space for them to spread out their roots, Dvorak said. To solve these problems, he partnered with Ali, who is known for adding value-by-design and finding new and creative uses for industrial byproducts and manufacturer waste-flows such as discarded sheet metal or single-use plastic matrix trays.
“In our Resource-Based Design Research Lab, we activate the idea of circular economy through industrial symbiosis. As architects and designers, we employ our critical design thinking into some of the most difficult global problems that faces our time,” Ali said. “We are always looking for collaborators from industries and manufacturers that produce large volume, consistent, and predictable waste-flows and thinking about how to make beautiful and functional alternative building systems with them.”
Together with a small group of graduate students, Ali soon devised a method of folding leftover sheet metal from the automotive industry into eye-catching and functional diamond structures that each hold their own plant. Crucially, Dvorak notes, this new system gives the plants plenty of soil and allows them to assume their natural, upright positions.
“There’s room for those plants to grow, so we really designed it for larger plants that could survive in this extreme climate,” Dvorak said.
The diverse assortment of plants receives water automatically through a drip irrigation system running behind the wall — and because of the unique modular design, each plant can be given as much or as little water as it needs.
Naturally, Dvorak said, the wall continues to be an excellent hands-on research opportunity for students. They were heavily involved in the wall’s initial construction, and additional teams of students have taken an active role in monitoring plant health and survivability. The data they’ve helped collect has formed the basis of two peer-reviewed papers on that subject so far.
“The student effort has been a big part of the success of the wall,” Dvorak said. “They love getting their hands dirty and working on it, and there’s a sense of pride in doing that.”
“There’s room for those plants to grow, so we really designed it for larger plants that could survive in this extreme climate.”
As Ali notes, Langford’s living wall has since attracted attention from researchers across campus and beyond, each focusing on a different facet of its design and functionality.
The wall’s diamond-shaped planters have been analyzed by professor Amine Benzerga’s team in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering to see how the folding process impacts the molecular structure of the metal, Ali said. Wastewater harvesting and irrigation researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have taken an interest in walls like this as a vehicle for safely and efficiently reusing wastewater. Others approached Ali and Dvorak to experiment with different types of soil, and electrical engineers thought about imaging and sensor technologies to deliver smart nutrition to plants.
“We are also working on urban agriculture,” Ali said, noting that future designs could include larger modules built to house essential everyday crops. “The war in Ukraine, and the pandemic revealed how fragile and broken the world’s supply chain system is. It is time for people, especially in urban areas, to rethink how they get their food.”
As Ali and Dvorak’s existing research shows, the wall has also done an impressive job of shielding the building behind it from excess heat — essentially absorbing the brunt of the sun’s rays and leaving a layer of cooler air between itself and the brick wall underneath.
The practice of cutting energy costs by creating this kind of “second skin” or “double envelope” on a building is becoming increasingly prevalent, Ali said. And while most use a simple metal cladding to get the job done, the addition of air, soil, insulation, moisture, and plants as extra buffers could make living wall systems the superior option.
“Imagine Dallas, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, all these big cities in Texas with a massive amount of exterior brick and concrete walls in the stifling heat of summer — all of these emit heat back to the environment,” Ali said. “Just by adding this second layer, the impact on the environment and the building is exceptional.”
Looking ahead, Ali and Dvorak are currently in the process of finalizing a patent on their living wall system. They’re also working with Texas A&M Technology Commercialization and Texas A&M University Innovation Partners to find industry partners interested in mass producing it.
At the end of the day, Dvorak said, the success of the wall and the interest it has garnered across many different disciplines demonstrates the need for integrated design in architecture and urban planning. Figuring out how to implement living walls and other beneficial systems from the very beginning of a building’s life is ultimately the key to creating smarter, more sustainable cities, he said.
“You need the input of designers, ecology, living systems, mechanical systems, all those people,” Dvorak said. “If everyone is around the table, amazing things can happen. An ecosystem works all together like that. So how can we make cities and buildings more like that?”