Vancouver’s Living Walls

             Semiahmoo Library

                                                                                                                         PHOTO CREDIT: LUCAS FINLAYWhen Patrick Poiraud and Mike Weinmaster showed 1,100 people at the Vogue Theatre their vision for a downtown Sears building covered in thousands of plants, there was a healthy share of snickering among the oohs and aahs. “But we were completely serious,” Poiraud explained later in their Burrard Street office. Back in 2004, Poiraud, a Frenchman working for Michelin, and Weinmaster, an environmental science grad from the University of Northern British Columbia, had made it their mission to visit every “living wall” in the world. They travelled through Europe and Asia—both continents boast vertical gardens far ahead of North American samples—then founded their firm, Green Over Grey, in 2008.

The exterior of Surrey’s Semiahmoo Library (pictured here) is their largest project to date, and the largest such wall in North America. Some 10,000 plants cover nearly 3,000 square feet of concrete. Thirty designers, contractors, and engineers toiled for six weeks to install the perennial mural, as White Rock retirees gave thumbs-up from their electric carts and local teens bound for the nearby McDonald’s offered high-fives. First a steel frame was built to maintain one inch of air between the garden and the library’s wall; then waterproof boards (made of recycled plastic) were attached to the frame; finally, a growing medium made of recycled fabrics was installed (the plants themselves require no soil and simply grip the textile mesh). The entire system, including the air space between wall and frame, is only 2.25 inches thick.

Like the Sears proposal shown at the Vogue, the Semiahmoo Library wall began as a rendering. “People need to be shown that these ugly buildings, they don’t have to be ugly anymore,” says Poiraud. “I think the Sears building is an eyesore and Vancouver deserves better.” He also has his sights set on the aquatic centre on Beach Avenue—“It looks like a coffin.”

More and more people share Green Over Grey’s vision. Business is booming, with a major project underway at the Edmonton Airport expansion and another at Vancity’s latest (and largest) branch, in Burnaby. Is there a limit to the size of wall they can work on? Poiraud and Weinmaster say that scale is no obstacle; what worked at the Semiahmoo Library could be expanded to cover any building. “If there’s the will,” says Poiraud, “it could definitely be done.”