A tale of two walls


Flexibility is a key part of the design and construction process.  You can present the client an amazing vision but sometimes real world limitations can force major changes in approach after everything has been set.  Research and experience help to limit issues, but sometimes unexpected problems still pop up in the form of hidden obstructions, out-of-stock materials, or in this case, unforseen restrictions on construction.  For this roof terrace project I proposed a living mosaic for a large blank wall behind a seating area.  The abundant sun and dry conditions were perfect for a living painting, something special and unusual right where people would be able to see it closely and appreciate it.  I came up with a large abstract composition based partially on the billboard of T.J Eckleberg in "The Great Gatsby" and Alexander Hamilton's eye on the $10 bill.  I thought it would be striking and fun and DC-appropriate on a grand scale (6’ tall by 12’ wide) and knew it  would be visible from blocks away.  The mosaic would be composed of a grid of plastic cellular trays, mounted vertically on the building wall and watered with a specialized irrigation system.

I broke the design into 600 colored pixels with each cell having its particular color/plant type. Each tray was coded and numbered so that when installed the trays linked to create a seamless pattern.  I calculated the weights of each tray filled with wet soil and plants and it seemed like everything was going well…until it turned out that we weren’t be allowed to affix anything heavier than a sconce to the condominium wall after all.  Unfortunately we’d already planted the cellular grid with all the sedum  and it was rooting in at a 60 degree angle before we permanently affixed it to the wall at 90 degrees, see photos of the process below:

 I had to completely redesign the element.  I knew I wanted to keep the idea of the mosaic and the general size and shape, it just couldn't be heavy and filled with water.  I'd worked with aluminum flashing on a previous project and thought using various thin metal sheets that would age to different colors would be a striking and simple way to create the same look.

Since we couldn’t attach anything to the wall, I designed a frame that was self-supporting, yet also sat flush with the wall surface to make it appear as if it was part of the wall.  Since the frame was free-standing, weight became key.  Too little and it could be blown off the windy roof, too much and it could overload the roof.  Working with a metal fabricator I designed a modular tubular aluminum system (which come up in pieces via the service stair since it was too large for the elevator) that weighed about 250 lbs.  

The frame held a steel grid system that we then attached metal foil squares to…very light and creates an interesting element of movement as they swing in the wind. Here's one of the panels ready to go up in the elevator:

To give the pieces some depth and character, they were patinated after being attached and the copper ended up matching the color of the couch accent cushions perfectly…the designer’s version of a happy ending!