Our Road Trip!
This April my family made our annual trip south to Florida for spring break and we had a wonderful time together. I often found the four of us having big belly laughs together, which is pretty cool when we’ve been married for almost 16 years and have 12 and 9-year-old boys. We always drive for spring break. Partly because it’s too expensive to fly and partly because as landscape architects, my husband and I like to see the country by car. We take detours, stop in diners to eat, talk to the people who live where we have stopped. It helps us stay connected to the world, one person and town at a time. Often we stop in places that have just finished civic “place making” projects. We like to take pictures of the details that show us how it was constructed, good and bad. It reminds us of what we, as landscape architects, do well and what we should do better. I was always taught that the true success of a project is in the details. Those often overlooked or forgotten transitions show the world how well we as designers truly understood the complexities of the materials we were specifying, or not. When we travel around, I am often impressed with the quality of the finished projects we stop to see, but this trip I was reminded that sometimes I am not.
Late Night Hotel Stop: Chattanooga
We spent the night in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is working very hard to revitalize and reinvent its downtown, as many mid-sized cities are also working on. In the morning we took a walking tour of the newly finished riverfront project, designed by Hargreaves Associates. The new extension is a wonderful addition to this short stretch of the Ohio River. Its clean lines reinforced through the monumental concrete steps and stainless steel rails have created a space for the citizens of Chattanooga to embrace and enjoy their river front access. As we headed back to the hotel through an older, adjacent plaza that surrounds the Aquarium, I
was struck with how this civic space did not weather very well. Now, I’m not trying to bash the designer, because this place has a very strong concept. It brings the river, the train history and local art into the space and integrates them all together throughout the plaza. My issue is with the material choices, construction detailing, planting spaces, and maintenance of the space, and it reminded me of how important each of these are to the long term success of a project, especially a public space that is used by hundreds of thousands of people with often less than optimal maintenance protocols in place.
The Project Manager in Me!
There were so many different materials used throughout the space, it lost any cohesiveness it might have had. Multiple types of concrete pavers, clay pavers, concrete paving in different scoring patterns, granite inlays, bronze inlays, stainless steel railings, powder coated railings, wooden benches that were literally chained to the railing so you couldn’t throw them overboard, just to name a few. Now, this may have been multiple projects over many years, by different firms, but part of timeless design on public projects is selecting materials that will endure the years of use and somewhat lower level of maintenance our public projects tend to receive. Materials need to last, and represent what they actually are. I’m not a fan of stamped concrete, stained to look like stone. It always looks fake…always. When the concrete spalls and cracks, like concrete always does, you can not repair it to match the original installation. Don’t be tempted to make fake stone pavement. If your project budget can only support concrete pavement, then use concrete with clean, simple score joints that will absorb the cracking that we know will happen. In the long run, it will look almost as good as the day it was installed, I promise.
Construction Detailing Mad Skills
Construction detailing is a skill learned over many years of being out in the field talking with the contractors who are actually building what we draw. If done well, there is little interpretation that needs to be done by the contractor, which is what we strive for as designers. If not, well, good luck keeping up with with all the questions you’ll be answering during construction. Taking time during the design phase to understand the construction techniques recommended by the manufacturer is time well spent. Minimize slivers of pavers, have score joints and
expansion joints in appropriate places to minimize cracking, use paver restraints in the proper way, secure site furnishings if they need to be, put trash and recycle containers in very convenient locations. Think about how the transitions will work, both horizontal and vertical, with every material you are proposing, and draw details that represent the design intent. This will accomplish two things. It will show the contractor that you had your thinking cap on while you were dreaming about the project, often resulting in lower costs, and it will help you have conversations with the contractor during construction because you will have already spent a lot of time trying to understand how the pieces would go together. Ultimately, having the contractor successfully implement your design is the goal of every project, having the details in place is a big step in the right direction.
Planting Design and Long-term Maintenance
Planting design is often the last part of a project completed, but it needs to be thought about from the very beginning. Seeing small slivers of planting beds, anything less than 2-3 feet is too small for plants to thrive, planting anything in a box, particularly trees, is not useful for the long term success of the plant material, and make sure to have irrigation included in the project as well. Trees need space for their roots and if they don’t have it, they’ll die trying to get it. Some of the best advice I received was that you need to plant a 50-cent tree in a $50 hole. Make sure roots have space to spread, if the project conditions require boxes for tree pits, use grade beams and structural soil systems to provide the critical root space required for the trees. Utilize plant material that is readily available in the nursery trade in the climactic zone the project is in. Select sturdy material, that will thrive with the level of maintenance the Client is prepared to provide, whatever that level will be. This is really important, this thing called maintenance. As designers, we need to have a frank and honest conversation with our clients on every single project to get an understanding of how they plan on maintaining the project, regardless of how much or little they plan on providing. We should make material selections, design decisions and plant material choices with the long term maintenance in mind.
Thriving Community Spaces
Our civic projects need to have soild designs that stand on their own, use materials that will withstand the use and abuse they will inevitably receive, utilize plant material that is durable and beautiful, and match the level of maintenance our clients can consistently provide. If we don’t embrace these issues with every project we work on, we lose the opportunity to create enduring civic spaces that will help rebuild our communities. As landscape architects, this is one place where we have the technical skill and design artistry to make these civic spaces shine. Won’t you join me?