Big wall on campus

February 8, 2013 -  By

Founded in 1857, Queens University of Charlotte is a private university located in Charlotte, N.C. The university serves approximately 2,400 undergraduate and graduate students through its College of Arts and Sciences, McColl School of Business, Blair College of Health, Wayland H. Cato, Jr. School of Education, the James L. Knight School of Communications, and the Hayworth College for Adult Studies.

“As we add academic programs and extracurricular activities to meet the needs of our expanding student body, we’re also working hard to improve our beautiful campus,” notes Bill Nichols, vice president, Campus Planning & Services for Queens University of Charlotte. Nichols has been overseeing the design and construction of the new $18 million Rogers Science and Health Building. “While remaining faithful to our beautiful Georgian style, we sought to invigorate and inspire our campus—and add design elements that were not only visually compelling, but educational, too.”

Nichols, who ran his own architectural firm prior to joining Queens University, hired Little Diversified Architectural Consulting in May 2010 to create the construction documents. Matthews Construction was brought aboard in May 2011 to oversee the construction.

The challenge

“Queens University of Charlotte has a very established architectural tradition,” says Philip A. Kuttner, AIA, LEED, BD+C and CEO of Little. “For the design of Queens’ Rogers Science and Health building, we sought to respect tradition while bringing aboard a modern twist, which celebrated environmental science.

“We considered many sculptural ideas, and were captivated by the building’s greenhouse where students will be able to monitor plant growth conditions and environmental factors in ways not possible in a traditional laboratory,” Kuttner continues. “After some deliberation, we proposed the addition of an exterior green wall, which we felt could be visually compelling, environmentally responsible and also serve as an educational tool.”

Dr. Reed Perkins of the Environmental Science Department immediately embraced the green wall concept as a key teaching tool for his students in the Rogers Building. “A living wall can offer an opportunity for our students to truly live science, not just learn what others have done. From the beginning, the faculty wanted even the most casual observers of the university to see that this building was a place of science, discovery and imagination.”

“We recommended Ambius to install this living wall,” says Kuttner, “as they had vast experience designing and installing some of the expansive living walls ever created.”

Ambius, a global interior and exterior landscaping company, was hired in the fall of 2011. The lead designers for the project were Denise Eichmann and Mark Hawry. Some of the countries’ most beautiful and distinctive landscape designs have been created by Eichmann, who is internationally recognized for the design and construction of uniquely challenging, one-of-a-kind sustainable landscape projects with award winning expertise on the design, construction and installation of vertical gardens and living walls.

“Dr. Perkins was the originator of the green wall’s plant pattern, which is a DNA double helix strand which highlights a DNA strand made of evergreen so that it stays green all year round, as well as seasonal changes with evergreen and flowering plants,” Eichmann says. “Working with Dr. Perkins, his colleagues, and the architect firm, we produced four drawings with recommended plant species and plant design for the spring, summer, fall and winter living wall prototype.”

“Part of our green wall message is that DNA is always with us, and as the DNA stand is made of evergreen, we have a living statement that the fundamentals of life are always with us,” says Perkins.

“It was important that the plant species were noninvasive, and we labeled plants as ‘red’ light (too invasive or not indigenous), ‘yellow’ light as possible contenders and ‘green’ light as our top recommendations,” Eichmann explains. “After the plants were selected, we started the design and plant acquisition process.”

“The plants were all grown at the Twixwood Nursery, in Berrien Springs, Michigan,” Nichols adds. “Steel panels were plugged in with the different plant species, which remained in the nursery for 16 weeks to grow into their panels. After 16 weeks, they were shipped to our site for the Ambius team to install.”

“A vertical green wall is an unnatural growth environment for plants in terms of drainage, solar input, and other factors,” Perkins points out. “Plants that do well in high-stress environments are often invasive. Ambius worked collaboratively with us, patiently and enthusiastically, to identify plants that were able to tolerate those unique conditions and not disrupt the surrounding vegetation communities. We weren’t so much concerned that the plants were native to North Carolina —that’s a really tough designation to pin down, anyway—as with whether the plants would invade the surrounding landscape (i.e., be the next kudzu or autumn olive).”

The solution

The university has an underground irrigation system that captures rainwater. “The irrigation system for the green wall is quite complex,” Nichols says, “with the wall broken out into seven different irrigation zones.”

“The top zone is the most exposed and requires the most water,” Eichmann explains. “We established a system where each zone was watered separately from each other, taking advantage of the university’s underground irrigation system and ensuring that each zone was appropriately watered.”

The installation of the green wall took about two weeks. “It was fascinating to watch the installation process,” Nichols says. “The wall is 24 ft. wide and 35 ft. tall, and there were 693 standard panels and several custom panels—so ensuring that the right plant was placed in the proper place was crucial. Each plant container was numbered and Ambius followed their chart, which showed exactly where to put each container on the wall.”

The living wall features 14 plant species, according to Eichmann, including Carex (sedges), Polystrichum (Christmas fern), Heuchera (coral bells), Sedum (stonecrop), English Lavender, Gelsemium (yellow jasmine) and Hellebore (Lenten rose).

“Ambius was able to deliver a truly turnkey system, and were great partners to work with,” says Michael Heavner, project manager, Matthews Construction. “We had never been involved with a green wall of this size and magnitude before, and we’re happy to report that the system was installed and working beautifully just as projected.”

“This living wall at our Platinum LEED-certified facility is now directly involved in teaching about environmental conservation,” says Perkins. “Queens University of Charlotte is demonstrating conservation, as the abundance of green design features ensures that students learn both in and from the building. Its green wall features non-invasive plants which keep the building cool. The students understand how living walls come complete with their own ‘life support’ system, which is comprised of a supporting structure to hold the plants vertically, a growth medium to ensure plant longevity, an irrigation/fertilization system to deliver the correct amount of water and nutrients, and a drainage system to properly re-circulate the spent water. They understand how proper selection and design of a system for a particular locale necessitates plumbing and electrical considerations.

“This living wall at Rogers Science and Health building serves as the front porch of the university,” he concludes.

About the Author:

Nancy Tamosaitis is president of Vorticom Inc., a New York-based public relations consultancy. Contact her at

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