Designing Turtletown: Part 2, The Larger Framework

Posted by Kenneth Black on October 18, 2016

There are a wide variety of ways that personalize a built environment. The most interesting of these built environments are the places we make for ourselves.

I call my project Turtletown. Judging from the name, you can probably guess where this is going. I think that Turtletown will be fun to build and will meet the requirements of the client—my fiancé and our turtle, Sheldon.

This post continues the story of designing Turtletown and introduces a framework for designing structures that include something of nature—not necessarily a turtle.

The Larger Framework

I have been developing this method of using frameworks for a couple of years now and have been using it to teach others about how to include nature (plants) in different types of projects. The framework serves as a design support framework that provides some information, but leaves the final analysis and creative decision to the designer. The full adapted framework for color theory, vegetated assemblies, and the concept of the designed response can be found at: livingwalldesigner-prototype.org.

This larger framework goes into much more detail about the specific considerations, and these steps (used in no particular order) are dependent on each other. Here are some pieces that have general considerations in design that often help others. First is the framework related to the larger design process.


This is the first example of how the process is available to those who have less experience in an area. This particular framework assists with vegetation, building assemblies, color theory, and the design process.

The framework recognizes that information and the design process influence and informs each other. For example: I would like to design a certain aspect of the project, and I have an idea about material. What do I need to know to use wood in the project?

Perhaps my project criteria are not defined yet, so it is necessary to see the framework (left) side first to discover what types of considerations would be needed. Then from these ideas I could know if wood is a useful material in the project.

If I wanted to use this to develop Turtletown further, I might start with Plant Biology (Appendix A4 on the right side) to understand what sorts of plants might be able to survive in the area or what kinds of considerations would be good to know before buying a bunch of plants for the structure and to serve as food for us and Sheldon.

We also need to know what types of plants are readily available in the area. Plants that can be common cultivars or rare. A plant might have the best characteristics and be perfect, but if it is uncommon or will not survive, it is unsuccessful as a designed response. Looking at the table of contents (see the figure above), we should move on to Appendix A4.


Typical Overview Page

The overview page is what it sounds like. It gives a little bit of information on a number of topics within a larger idea, in this case plant biology.

The topics shown do not have a order of significance. What is central to the process of the framework is that the information is present and the designer then chooses which ideas or characteristics are the most important or drive the design. These choices then lead to limit or define other considerations and serve as rules for the rest of the project. 

In this manner, plant biology serves to explain how a plant behaves and interacts with its environment and how this response is expressed as a physical structure. Think of a flower. Flowers have a series of structures that might look different and be different colors but serve very similar functions (leaves, stem, roots, petals, pistil, and stamen). This is an example of how plants are a rule that defines other aspects of the project. Each of these plants behave differently and might need more or less care or maintenance and this is important to consider in choosing plants for the project.

Thinking of our plants, we need to know the species, as this can tell us common characteristics across many different individual plants and if it will survive and work with our materials. This will show us its climbing mechanism, colors, foliage over the year and much more. So we will end up checking Appendix A12 for now.

Typical Process Page

Using Appendix A12 (above), we have found the information that we need when looking at different plant species. Using the USDA plant catalog we can start to choose plants according to the type of project we are pursuing.

There are three levels or types of designs. The simplest has plants climbing directly on the wall. The intermediate level has a trellis system that is designed for  plants that are directly rooted into the ground. The most complex has growing media, irrigation, structure and more to recreate the living conditions of the plants.

We need to have an enclosure for the tortoise, cannot have plants directly on the wall (per our landlord), and have plenty of space to plant directly into the soil, so we are working in the intermediate level.

This allows for the enclosure to also be the trellis system for the plants to grow on. From Appendix A12, we know that we need a twining plant as rootlet and tendril vines are not good for wood (our material) and we need a permanent or replaceable matrix from the main structure so that we can see the tortoise inside the space.

This systematic process takes time. There are a number of ways that the idea can begin to form and I highly suggest being iterative, or having multiple options. This gives the opportunity for refinement and inspiration. The most interesting conversations take place between designers and the clients, particularly if both are engaged.

The refinement of details also begins to guide how I can represent the project to others. I can use standard drawings to get the message across, and this is good for making the final project. However, volumetric drawings can bring it to life. Part 3 of Designing Turtletown will include drawings from the design charrette and photos of the finished product.


Kenneth Black is a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech in the Center for Higher Performance Environments. He has 10 years of experience in design or teaching in architecture. His research involves studio pedagogy, the performance of the building envelope (vegetated walls and roofs, and black and white roofing membranes), and design frameworks.

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