Archive for November, 2010

The Power of Natural Places


Natural places have a role to play in our neighborhoods.  The best urban sites share space with nature so well that you can not tell when the bricks stop and the trees begin.  Whether it is a chestnut tree in a courtyard or an old street lined with elms, nature has to be present or our cityscape is unsatisfactory.

The beautiful streets of Lockerbie Square did not happen by accident

Michigan Street in Irvington with sidewalk and tree canopy

The ability to incorporate natural spaces into our neighborhood is often limited by our choices in infrastructure.  We refuse to plant trees along streets because it is considered dangerous for drivers (even though its much safer for pedestrians).  Once we convince ourselves that trees are a good idea we find that the power company “tops” them to keep the power lines free of limbs.

Using alleyways or underground wiring can solve part of the problem.  But even then our arborist friends are thwarted, sometimes because steam pipes rot tree roots (even wonder why we have so few trees downtown?) or the city starts poisoning vegetation to save on costs (checked out Robert D. Orr Plaza lately?).

A small street near Pleasant Run Creek has kept its natural appeal

Integrating nature into our neighborhoods doesn’t happen by accident.  It has to be an explicit strategy that is aggressively pursued and maintained.  It must have support from everyone in a community, from the family next door all the way to the deputy mayor.  Otherwise, we end up in a desert of concrete and asphalt.

Using natural elements in our city improves our quality of life.  But some places deserve the right to remain natural. Sometimes the beauty of an area overwhelms us and we realize that we can’t improve it.  The Kyle Oak in Irvington is just such a place.  The Kyle family loved their Bur Oak so much, that they abandoned and bulldozed their home rather than put the tree at risk.

Meet the oldest resident of Irvington

The tree limbs span time and space

People need access to nature to stay healthy

While the Kyle Oak is a unique example of nature in our neighborhoods, there are opportunities all around us that we should be taking advantage of.  Pocket parks reclaimed from shuttered houses, community gardens, tree-lined avenues and shopping streets, or wildflower meadows instead of lawns.  Let’s get serious about inviting nature to live with us.

A wrinkled carcass reminds us that trees grow old and pass like all things in nature

Efroymson Conservation Center


The Efroymson Conservation Center is one of the best new buildings in Indianapolis.  It has several innovative features that make it a great fit for The Nature Conservancy. I encourage everyone to go explore it and see what it can teach us about conservation in the urban age.

The center serves as the main office and gathering space for conservation efforts in Indiana

It’s hard to explain why this building is so important, but it all comes down to holistic design.  Every piece works towards the greater goal, establishing a synergy that few projects have realized.  If sustainability is the key metric of contemporary architecture then this project is a landmark worthy of its accolades.

The building has an F.A.R. of about 0.5, which is lower than the nearby Maxwell Commons and lower than a typical downtown project.  But the stats don’t tell the whole story.  This project is just as much about the outdoors as the indoors.  1/3 of the one acre site is native landscaping, combining a bioswale and representative ecologies of Indiana.  The land serves other purposes as well, collecting stormwater and containing a Geothermal system.  So, when one considers that the project designers used every bit of square footage to further TNC’s mission, it is clear that this building is a success.  (see this brochure for a summary of the design)

Just like the Cultural Trail, this is one project that people around the country recognize as important and worth attention.  Here are some photographs of the Efroymson Center in case anyone has not had a chance to visit yet.

The center serves as the main office and gathering space for conservation efforts in Indiana A view of the Ohio Street frontage Another view of the street frontage More reclaimed wood and shading structures All of the bricks are reused from the original building on-site The entry hall is decorated with Indiana hardwoods I am a big fan of the detailed structural elements The bricks are mixed in with Indiana limestone elements The Nature Conservancy hosts walkthroughs - the building is expected to achieve LEED Platinum Much of the wood was selectively harvested from TNC managed lands The high efficiency lights dim when daylight is sufficient The HVAC is an automated geothermal system A typical office space Conference rooms are in the middle with windows on both sides Another office - note access to daylight and underfloor register The Nature Conservancy has an important mission A view of the basement meeting room with light well and living walls A closer view of the living walls A view of Ohio Street and the roof meadow An accent planter Recycled materials are used throughout the building The green roof A view of the Easley Winery just to the East The green roof has some special break-in requirements A view of downtown and the Maxwell Commons to the West More of the green roof material The green roof is compatible with conventional building infrastructure The green roof filters the rainwater before it is collected and stored in the basement cistern A specialized water distribution system handles clear water and grey water The tank can store enough water to last through the typical Indiana dry spots Another shot of the special plumbing The center will soon have wind turbines installed here A little bit of design for the street furniture The West elevation is all business Reclaimed brick screen walls hide utility space A view of the light well on the back side A closeup of the living wall from above All of the plants on site are native to Indiana The parking lot is actually a stormwater catchment device All rainwater that hits the property is treated and absorbed on-site (this is quite an accomplishment) The native stone paving transitions nicely from auto to pedestrian use More views of the native species and the North elevation The North elevation and Maxwell Commons beyond Plants are spread throughout the space An accent wall with green elements The floors are low maintenance stained concrete in this area Exposed structural elements were selected for their appearance, sound, and insulation properties A secondary grey water system is used whenever possible to preserve treated water for potable uses The break room An extra room used for workout space with adjacent lockers and a shower