Is This the 21-st Century Version of a WPA Project, or the Silliest-Looking Thing Ever?



The General Services Administration building in Portland is getting itself a — well, a — one of these.  You know, one of those 200 foot-tall green shag carpet things that you put on one side of your building and grow plants on. Those things.

It's part of the stimulus bill; it, along with other renovations to the building, will cost $133 million.  The idea is that the plants shade the building in summer but die back (dropping the world's largest pile of leaves on that nice plaza, or somehow simply defoliating through evaporation?) during winter, letting light in.

Just don't ask me to deadhead it, that's all I say.

John McCain isn't so happy about it.  The New York Times reported that he and Senator Coburn included it in a list of the worst stimulus projects in the bill. So I had to go find the report.  You can read it here (this project is #2); I love the way this–uh, whatever it is–is described in McCain's report:  "For now, agency officials expect to construct a type of vegetative skin—made of plants—on the exterior of the building, to help with heating and cooling costs."

Vegetative skin.  Well, yes, it does sound kind of repulsive when you put it that way. Like pond scum, only on purpose.

Green wall!  That's the term I was looking for. It's a green wall.  Of course it is. 

So what do we think of Portland's green wall? Anyone?

Oh, and by the way–in other news of interest to GardenRant readers:  McCain is also not fond of a study researching the malt liquor and marijuana consumption of Buffalo residents (#17— help us out here, Elizabeth), a study on how honeybees learn (#29); a study on the impact of climate change on wildflowers in Colorado (#35); a study of ant colonies in Arizona (#50); a "talking water garden" at a wastewater treatment plant in Oregon (#64), and a grant to protect Michigan State University's insect collection from the ravages of carpet beetles (#82).

Here's one item in the stimulus bill that McCain and I can agree on. We are apparently spending $221,355 of taxpayer dollars on a study that will tell us why young men don't like to wear condoms.

Oh, honey.  I'll give you the answer to that one for half the price.  Just call me up and I'll whisper it in your ear.


  1. Can I have all the fallen leaves for my compost? I would like a green wall better if it had some color now and then to break up the monotony.

  2. I’ve read about this project, and nobody seems to know how much the green wall aspect of the renovation is going to cost out of the overall budget. I’m really curious.

    It’s still such a new area in green building that they’re working out how the watering system will work, whether grey-water can be used from the building itself, and other technical details. It will be great if they find innovative and cheap solutions that allow the technology to spread more easily, since I think it will look really, really cool!

  3. The bitter flip flopping John McCain needs to retire to one of his beer rich wife’s seven or so, I can’t remember, posh estates and leave the national stage permanently.

    I for one am very happy to see science given the respect it is due by the federal government after such a long assault on it. You may find some of these projects obscure or silly, but they amount to real jobs in real universities or other institutions that have real economic impacts on real people’s lives.

  4. I have more than a passing interest in “vertical gardening” or living walls, as they’re called, so I feel somewhat qualified to respond about this entry. First, I wholeheartedly agree that this sort of technology should be thoroughly vetted and tested before potentially millions of dollars of taxpayer’s money are spent.

    In my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that by far the most sound system is that of the vertical gardening pioneer Patrick Blanc, who has patented a unique soilless system for plant installation. Properly installed, a vertical garden using his system can in fact use graywater as well as storm water runoff for irrigation. The increased insulation and soundproofing, as well as beneficial microclimate may well indeed offset the rather staggering installation costs as well as the moderate yearly maintenance costs, but to my knowledge, that is an unknown quantity in this project.

    Patrick Blanc’s vertical gardens have existed and are thriving since the early to mid-1990s; I do believe they have been field tested long enough to conclude that they are in fact a viable long-term landscape design feature.

  5. *Le Sigh* The “Stimulus” Bill… You know when there are so many things wrong, that to begin listing everything wrong with the Stimulus Bill would result in an endless list and at the end you are emotionally drained and yet your rant feels like it is falling on deaf ears and no one is reading/listening to your input? Yeah… I give up.

    You know who should pay for the condom study? The condom industry. If anything, if they can figure out why guys won’t put one on, then they can find ways for more guys to buy them.

    Climate change on Colorado wildflowers? Go have some doctoral student go do a study on that.

    Michigan S.U. carpet beetle problem? Between the entomologists professors on staff and a consultant from Ortho, they can figure that one out themselves.

    This is insane.

  6. I agree with McCain that the Buffalo study sucks.
    The study will reportedly pay 100 Buffalo-area residents $45 each to record their daily malt liquor drinking and marijuana smoking usage through an automated phone hotline.
    I will need a lot more than a flat fee of $45. We don’t get it by the prescription here! Malt liquor is awesome so i am happy to contribute my findings on that gratis.
    Seriously, the University at Buffalo has a big addictions research program. They study booze consumption all the time. I have hard-up student friends who have participated. The ads are already in the paper here for the dope/40 ozer one. They are great–they show a guy glumly swilling beer in a recliner.
    This is Buffalo. We know how to live.

  7. Senator Coburn is the same guy who roadblocks the funding bills for the Washington Metro (subway)system, because, while it is the only transit system in the country that DOESN’T have a dedicated source of funding, it is supposed to somehow pay all its bills and maintain its system on fares alone.

    Or so he says, anyway. Me, I tend to think that he carries a lot of the blame for the fatal Red Line crash last summer, and his opinion about the value of green walls is not even fit for composting.

  8. “Climate change on Colorado wildflowers? Go have some doctoral student go do a study on that.”

    Grad students and all these studies rely on funding. It’s not done for free! My own university is very excited about receiving stimulus funds…it leads to research and jobs for us graduate students.

  9. I’ve posted on that the other day a brief thought. See it by clicking me link. Simply, not so much sustainability as the “plant-i-ness” that gives the sensation of sustainability. It appears over the top in the engineering to make it work. High input conceived as low input. Whew.

  10. If it is in your district or state, it’s a good idea. If it’s in someone else’s district or state, it’s “pork”. Arizona, McCain’s state, has plenty of projects just as silly as that plant curtain. But he’s not talking about that.

  11. I know next to nothing about vertical gardening, but the articles I’ve seen on this project keep saying that they don’t know how they are going to prune the plants. I suppose it would be too simple to plant something that doesn’t need pruning? Or do we have non-gardeners writing about this and are they using the term “prune” to mean any kind of maintenance?

    I like the idea of vertical gardens, but the conceptual drawing doesn’t appeal to me, and I would have concerns about trying vertical gardening on such a grand scale.

  12. Marlene, again this is according to Patrick Blanc, maintenance consists of quarterly for the most intensive (tropical conditions) to yearly cleanup and tidying. The most expenditures are on irrigation, apparently.

  13. I’m sorry, but I think this is ridiculous-looking. I’m all for green walls, green roofs, green anything. But isn’t this going the wrong way with a good idea? Maybe the idea is to build shorter buildings that don’t need screening? Shade with trees? How about Earth-sheltered/’underground’ buildings? I know, I know, the vertical element allows for a smaller building footprint. It’s just that my gut reaction is that this kind of giant green ‘drape’ will be a nightmare to maintain. But if I’m wrong I will be pleased. So go ahead, Portland. I’ll come admire it next time I’m over.

  14. Obams clearly communicated what a small percentage of the budget pork barrel accounts for of our deficit and told McCain there were bigger fish to fry in DC. He’s still obsessed and won’t let it go. Who knows if that green wall experiment may be the breakthrough study to launch a revolution environmental action. Irony is the dry climate of Arizona is a plsce this break through thinking will come up short.I may be a simple master gardener in the midewest but it makes sense to me to try the concept.

  15. Projects like these are a pretty good litmus test of how much a person is immersed in gardening, and probably what socio-economic class they belong to.

    An experienced gardener naturally intuits that this thing is a nightmare of maintenance because the more unnatural a planting scheme is, the more work it is to maintain. And very expensive. I think also the ‘money-is-no-object’ crowd can afford to be profligate on the basis of whether something is cool or not. How nice for them.

    I see the project as a bunch of social-climbing bureaucrats trying desperately to establish their eco-hip creds in a lifestyle where fashion isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. The fact that previous green wall projects (on a smaller scale) have failed spectacularly is irrelevant when pursuing a status symbol of this magnitude.–dried-died.html

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