Commuters and pedestrians at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere streets often gaze up at the gravity-bending Institute for Contemporary Art. Now, those stuck in traffic have something new to admire thanks to the VCU Green Walls Class.
The low-key building shared by VCU RamBikes and the Office of Sustainability has been transformed with vertical planters — commercial, stick built and even made of recycled and adapted materials — in the culmination of a class meshing students from the School of the Arts, School of Engineering and College of Humanities and Sciences’ Department of Biology.
Stephen Fong, Ph.D., associate professor and vice chair of chemical and life science engineering, said he began tossing around ideas with Jon-Phillip Sheridan, assistant professor of photography and film, after meeting at a sustainability retreat.
“This idea of the green wall came up as one we both saw as interesting, tangible and meeting immediate needs. It’s timely with the global level of CO2,” Fong said.
The project could also be completed within a short timeframe. Green walls, also known as vertical gardens, involve support structures, growing material and durable plants and watering systems. They serve multiple functions, including carbon dioxide sequestration, cooling of the local environment, improving building energy efficiency, and beautification.
“They definitely have a cooling effect, for the building and the local area,” Fong said.
Forty-five students — with roughly equal participation from engineering, arts and biology — enrolled in the class.
“I advertised knowing this course is outside of the box of what a typical biology student would take. And that’s kind of the point,” said Chris Gough, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology. “I have always recognized the value of art, especially in the context of communicating complex scientific ideas. Not everyone communicates in the way a scientist does. Something as complicated as climate change requires a lot of ways to look at the challenge.”
Fong, who recently taught a class merging engineering and business students, learned that creating interdisciplinary efforts requires some encouragement.
“You have to foster interactions, and help people find common ground and find ways to work together,” he said.
Sheridan believes artists can serve as a nexus for collaboration, since every field involves imagination.
“Artists exist completely in that world,” he said. “[As the class formed] I was open to the serendipity of whatever skill sets would come into the class, confident in the fact that the conversation would be enriched by those different perspectives.”
In an early class meeting at the Depot, students read passages from Edward O. Wilson’s “Biophilia.”
A talented writer and biologist, Wilson “in some ways manifests the ethos we were interested in exploring,” Sheridan said.
Students also drew inspiration from a visit to the Fan-area home of Susan Miller, M.D. The home’s two-story tall interior green wall, one of the largest on the East Coast, was discussed with designer Scotty Dilworth of SG Designs.
There is no playbook for this class, which students and instructors alike embraced.
“The students realized that addressing a challenge as complex as designing and installing a green wall requires a very interdisciplinary perspective, but also one that brings multiple skill sets to the table. That’s how the real world operates,” Gough said. “The second stage of the course was allowing these groups freedom and creativity — a really important aspect of science that’s often undersold.”
That freedom to try, struggle, fail and reiterate was a unique aspect of the class. Early in the class, Fong said students would pointedly ask what their contribution was expected to be. He told them, “You have capabilities as a person with different backgrounds and ideas, and you can contribute to the project in any way.”
It was something that had to be explained explicitly: “You can do any of it. All of it! Your major doesn’t dictate your contribution,” Fong said.
Each team pursued a different avenue to build and install a green wall.
“We had these ideas and everything’s gone in a completely different direction than we expected,” said Erin Mahone, a senior fashion merchandising student. “It’s been cool to see everyone’s expertise and knowledge. Even though someone’s in engineering or biology, they have other special interests.”
Josh Almeter, a senior mechanical engineering major, said his team decided to compare and contrast nylon fabric vertical planters.
“The purpose of this semester has been to research different ways to compose green walls. We bought a commercial Florafelt wall and we built our own, and we’re going to compare them and see how viable it will be to do your own large Florafelt install,” he said.
They will also monitor how different plants perform in an urban heat island, a phenomenon where acres of asphalt and buildings raise the ground temperature in cities.
“We all started in the same place, with the same big idea and the context. Then we said to students, ‘Let’s all go to Lowe’s and start grabbing materials that we think will be useful to our design,’” Gough said. “There wasn’t a cookie cutter template for how they should plan their projects.”
There wasn’t a cookie cutter template for how they should plan their projects.
Planning and design concepts met the real world along bustling Belvidere Street. Drills whirred, hammers ripped apart pallets and students clanged up and down ladders as traffic roared around them. Staff and interns from the Office of Sustainability helped pack soil and plants into the biggest piece, a 64 square-foot commercial green wall system. Dinkus Deane, director of operations for VCU Arts, welded a frame to hang from the building.
“I think we’ve all just learned to adapt to whatever thing has to be done at each moment in the process,” said Kelsie Crossman, a senior biology major. Watching the green wall come together “feels wonderful, I cannot tell you.”
Day by day, the wall took shape.
“We stated to our students, ‘We want to draw attention to this challenge, and also make the point that we can reconsider how we approach design elements in urban areas.’ Getting people to take notice is the first part of that,” Gough said. “It’s been rewarding and unexpected to see the immediate response from the public.”
An aesthetically pleasing green wall presents the scientific message that urban areas are part of the problem, but also part of the solution.”
The ICA assisted with several steps in the process.
"They provided a lot of behind the scenes logistic help," Sheridan said. "The ICA is also really interested in being involved in community-engaged work that transcends disciplines."
Fong said public response to the building went from bland to eye-catching.
“The students had fun, we had fun and we produced something that we loved,” he said. “It really just gave them another level of reinforcement that this is real, and people like it.”
Erin Stanforth, director of sustainability, said each component of the green wall is a learning opportunity for the broader VCU community.
"The installation is experimental to determine the best method of installation for future green walls at VCU," she said. "We're glad our building could serve as the first test canvas for this project."
Students embraced the challenges of the Green Walls class, and encourage VCU to break down more walls between schools.
“I spend most of my time with the same students in the engineering school. But here, collaborating with the different majors, it’s really nice. It’s like a break in my day, a breath of fresh air,” Almeter said.
“I hope more classes like this are offered at VCU,” she said. “It helps with a more rounded education and better preparation for out in real life — field work or work in the business world.”
The Green Walls class was supported by the ICA; School of the Arts; Facilities Management; Office of Sustainability; Meghan Gough, Ph.D., associate professor of urban planning; School of Engineering VIP Program; and a $5,000 grant from the VCU UROP Research Exposure Program.