Artists' Backyard integrates sustainability, functionality and beauty

Artists' Backyard

On April 26, the 2013 Design + Build team of eight students, four teaching assistants and instructor, Andrew Fox, celebrated the completion of the Artists’ Backyard: Phase III with a ribbon cutting ceremony. “Design + Build is a model of transformational experience outside the traditional studio model,” Fox said. He developed the Design + Build program to build a legacy of landscape as a laboratory. This semester, his class tackled two different projects, including improvements to the Syme Rain Garden and the Artists’ Backyard: Phase III.

The class began with improvement work for the Syme Rain Garden, the Design + Build program’s very first project in 2010.  The initial rain garden design was so effective that it needed a few updates to increase the amount of water flowing through the garden. The mix of undergraduate and graduate students with majors in Landscape Architecture (LAR), Horticultural Science, Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) and Planning met for this hands-on experiential learning class Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1:30-5 p.m. to plan, design and implement these improvements.

“This studio was an incredible opportunity to learn by doing and it’s the best class I’ve taken so far in my program,” said Rachel Freyer, a master’s student in LAR. “I love that this site is built by students for students. From the very beginning, it’s been about creating the best possible learning and living environment for students. I think that we’ve really been able to enhance the student housing experience with these projects.”

The class first updated the Syme Rain Garden by opening four new downspouts from the roof to the garden. They dug trenches and built walls to connect the PVC pipe to the downspouts and guide the water to the garden. They used recycled concrete from the field house demolition with a hand-ground bowl shape to catch the pipe overflow. Students also designed and built splash pad fins to slow the velocity of rainwater from the downspouts to the garden. They then replanted some of the grasses from the garden that were thriving too well and spilling out onto the sidewalk.

The 2013 Design + Build team also completed Phase III of the Artists’ Backyard, a five-year, four-phase project funded by University Housing. “The Design + Build Program is a powerful overlap between research, community and outreach,” Fox said. “The partnership between University Housing and Design + Build works because of the many overlapping values of the two entities involved. Both care about providing beautiful and functional sustainable spaces.”

Phase III of the project “introduces both hardscapes and Low Impact Development (LID) techniques to the project site. Innovative LID techniques allow for improvement in watershed hydrology by slowing, capturing and cleansing water on site,” Fox said. The design created a curvilinear path along the radial wall, water conveyance channel between the path and wall, natural stone walls to solidify the pathway and wide stairs to accommodate natural movement of the space while still allowing for continuity between phases, lift truck access and seasonality variation.

“It was incredibly rewarding to see the stairs poured and to see the progress at the end of each day,” Freyer said. “At the end of our planting day, I was especially proud. It all came together so beautifully and looked like it had been there forever. It’s a real rush to see an actual concrete built site that didn’t exist just a few short months ago. I came into this studio with no construction experience whatsoever. I was calling tools ‘thingies’ most of the time, so everything was new to me. Taking Design + Build this semester really helped me connect the dots. It was a great integration of design process, creative thinking, construction and working with stakeholders.”

Not only is the Design + Build program important for students to learn essential skills before entering the “real world,” it’s also sustainable and award-winning. The Artists’ Backyard received the City of Raleigh Award for Natural Resource Conservation on April 22 at the Nature Research Center of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The program has also received an additional 12 awards for various projects, including the Syme Rain Garden - which received the Institutional Innovation Award in 2011, in the past three years.

For more information about the Design + Build program, their projects and accolades, visit the Design + Build website at