The living wall at Matthaei
By Joseph Mooney
The long-awaited living wall at Matthaei is a reality, thanks to a 2019 grant from the University of Michigan Planet Blue and an idea hatched two summers ago by then student intern Shawn Farrell. Shawn completed the installation earlier in July and planted it with colorful annuals suited to the shadier north side of the botanical gardens’ main building, near the entry doors.
Shawn’s living wall light-bulb moment flashed when fellow intern Kevin Bechard told him about the Living Building Challenge. This challenge calls for new buildings to pass seven “petal” requirements that include place, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty.
Getting started with the wall supports
Wall suports in progress

Riding the Wave of an Architectural Trend

At its simplest, this rising architectural trend is simply a wall covered in plants. Beyond that, Shawn explains, “the benefits of a living wall are many and can include everything from recycling and cleaning water to aesthetics to food production.”
Shawn’s biggest challenge was—no surprise—the pandemic, which seriously sunk the timeline. “I couldn’t do work until June and then the contractors who installed the irrigation didn’t finish until late July,” Shawn explains. “No matter, I waited and I’m just thrilled to have it finished.”
Installing the living wall supports
Working on the wall supports

Change the Plants, Change the Wall

For Shawn, the ever-changing nature of the wall is the most exciting part of the project. He opted for annuals because of the northern exposure. The exterior walls at Matthaei are the original warm orange brick chosen by architect Alden B. Dow. “Most of the walls of any old building, especially exterior, are usually bare and I love how a plant wall can turn it into a environmental masterpiece,” says Shawn. “It’s sustainability and art.”
Living wall supports attached to wall
Living wall with planters
Shawn Farrell in front of finished wall

Project Is U-M Planet Blue Funded

The project will provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about living walls and their applications along with U-M sustainability goals, according to Shawn. “My hope is to inspire students, staff, and visitors and educate them about the many different ways that we can create a more sustainable environment.”
The project was sponsored last year by the U-M Planet Blue Student Innovation Fund, which offers grants of $5,000 to $50,000 for student-initiated projects that promote environmental sustainability on the University of Michigan campus.