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Setting the Tone
A sustainable tale of campus life from the other side of the tracks

By Jonathan Martin, PLA, ASLA and Bruce Niedermyer, PLA, ASLA - RDG Planning & Design, Des Moines, Iowa



The entrance plaza of the Leonard J. Kaplan Center for Wellness at the University of North Carolina Greensboro is on the north side of the lot facing busy W. Gate Boulevard. The "pick-up-sticks" repetitive pattern banding is seen at the northeast corner, transitioning to turf and trees (26 Shumard oaks) along the walkway that extends to the southeast corner. Other site trees include maple, serviceberry, river birch, redbud, hornbeam, flowering dogwood, crape myrtle, magnolia, Zelkova and fringe trees.
Photo: Iris 22 Productions

Recreation and wellness centers are built to allow people to work on their personal health and wellness. To succeed in such an endeavor, one must be dedicated and put forth the effort and commitment. It's not easy. It's about maintaining a schedule and following exercise regimens. While there is a certain amount of repetition involved, repetition alone cannot help one achieve physical and wellness goals. Variety and creativity in the routine is also necessary to engage different muscle groups in different ways. This mental picture of the way one builds a healthy routine became the overlying symbolism for the sustainable site solution created for the Leonard J. Kaplan Center for Wellness.




The entrance plaza offers granite pavers, Brazilian hardwood (ipe) boardwalks, Mount Airy granite blocks (quarried near Greensboro), Pine Hall Brick clay pavers (fabricated just north of Greensboro), Victor Stanley site furnishings, LED post-top period style luminaires on 12' fluted poles, five 'Red Sunset' maples and native and adapted plantings (see perennial collage at bottom).
Photo: Iris 22 Productions

In the late 2000s, the University of North Carolina Greensboro realized they had a problem. They had run out of space. As the institution continued to grow, plans were set in motion to expand the campus just south of the rail line, which had been the southern border of campus for decades. The plan called for a mixed-use village, including student housing and a new state-of-the-art recreation and wellness center on a site formerly occupied by industrial, business and residential properties bounded by city streets. This new recreation and wellness center, the Leonard J. Kaplan Center for Wellness, is 216,000 gross square feet of recreation and wellness space occupying the majority of the five-acre site.

UNCG is committed to fostering a sustainable culture on campus. Its mission statement says in part: "to encourage and support development and implementation of sustainable practices in administrative units of the university and create a meaningful link between academics and operations that supports use of the campus as a teaching laboratory." That statement became a primary goal for the Kaplan Center and the site design.

More than just Environmentally Sustainable--Holistically Sustainable
To foster UNCG's sustainable culture achieve this goal, the design team employed seven sustainable design principles to guide the site design: natural, financial, social, human, cultural, health and political. The site solutions began taking shape by asking questions like, "How will this project impact the environment beyond its boundaries?" (natural); "What significance does this project place on the emotional and physical health of the occupants and neighbors?" (health); and, "In what ways can this project incorporate or support the community?" (cultural). Through numerous rounds of facilitated group meetings, the design team worked with all the stakeholders to provide solutions to the issues realized during the planning.

Boil all that down and a clear project statement was crafted: Create a comprehensive design solution that addresses the key site challenges, aide the project in achieving LEED® Gold certification, and do it all in an aesthetically strong design that contextually ties to the main campus.




Nine granite blocks (2'x4'x3') at the entrance plaza demarcate the north bioretention "cell." The benches, trash and recycling receptacles are from Victor Stanley (Ironsites SD series). Photo: Iris 22 Productions

The Challenges
As the design team worked through programming, several challenges with the site became evident. First and foremost was the limited space. The sheer size of the facility placed stress and restrictions on the site improvements. This challenge alone was going to require creative solutions by the design team, but this was not the only challenge. Other challenges included strict stormwater management requirements; contaminated site soils from years of industrial use and abandoned underground fuel tanks; pedestrian safety (nearby railroad tracks and the busy West Gate City Boulevard); creating a human scale next to the large facility; and being a good neighbor to the existing residents.

The design team established an overall design motif, a repetition of bands that dissect the site from north to south, starting on the west and moving east. As we move east along the north facade of the building, that repetition breeds innovation, growth and change, which is symbolized by the pavement beginning to splay in different directions. This symbolism activates the space and begins to create opportunities for interaction as well as establishing an aesthetic that was translated into applications within the building, much like the change one makes to their workout routine. The design aesthetic harkens back to other outdoor spaces on campus, using similar materials, Pine Hall clay brick pavers, locally sourced Mount Airy granite pavers and quarried blocks, to name a few. Other traditional campus standard features were paired with more contemporary pieces in artful ways, like the campus standard site furnishings and the Brazilian hardwood boardwalks.

With Greensboro being a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase 2 city, the site needed to adhere to NPDES stormwater management requirements. The design aesthetic, paired with stormwater management solutions and campus design best practices, helped to provide the structure for the large, multiple tiered bioretention cells necessary to meet the NPDES Phase 2 requirements. The landscape architect and civil engineer worked closely to create this sophisticated solution, keeping the function and aesthetic goals in mind. The bioswales more than met the requirements for the removal of total suspended solids (85% removal) and the reduction of the peak runoff discharge from the developed site to less than the predevelopment rates for the 1-yr, 24-hr design storm. The bioretention cells contained extra storage volume to also detain runoff from the 2-year, 10-year and 100-year design storms to negate the impact of the new construction on the existing city drainage system downstream of the site. The large, heavily planted bioswale and adjacent lawns create a dense buffer for the single-family residential neighborhood to the south.



Under the EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Greensboro is required to reduce adverse impacts to water quality and aquatic habitat by "instituting controls on stormwater that have the greatest likelihood of causing continued environmental degradation." Here, the "controls" are bioretention cells, essentially bioswales with weir walls to collect stormwater. The site design achieved LEED® Gold certification.
Photo: Jim Sink

With the largest feature on the south end of the site, the ability for patrons to experience this was limited. The primary entrance to the building is located on the northeast corner of the site. Adhering to the same design parameters, the design team created a miniature version of the bioretention cell system as a nod to the importance of the primary stormwater treatment area, even providing opportunities for patrons and passersby to crossover the bioretention cells on boardwalks and experience a small piece of nature within an urban environment. This space now met several site needs, including safe passage into the building, stormwater management and human scale. The use of locally sourced materials for site features, including the Mount Airy Granite (quarried near Greensboro), Pine Hall clay pavers (fabricated just north of Greensboro) and regionally grown plant materials helped keep the carbon footprint of these materials low, while supporting the local economies and trades.

The site improvements for the Leonard J. Kaplan Center for Wellness at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro are not only beautiful but "hard working." A variety of hardscape materials and vegetation are arranged in a repetitive banding pattern that erodes as one travels to the east on the site into a pick-up-sticks pattern. This design is clearly visible from the glass-enclosed cardio area, which is cantilevered over the facility's front doors. In front of the facility is a demonstration rain garden that slows and filters rainwater and runoff before it enters the storm system and ultimately the local watershed. The brushed concrete intersects with the paver bands and Brazilian hardwood boardwalks, which traverse a mulch bed of trees, flowering plants and switchgrass, all selected for their ability to tolerate periods of saturation and drought. Two hardscape bands are extended by dotted lines of locally sourced granite block, which harken to the retaining walls of a tiered bioswale that's 20 times larger and located on the building's opposite side. The repetition of the site and the transition to a change in that repetition show some of the movement that typically happens in and out of a campus facility like this. This space is so much more than an entrance plaza.


Client: University of North Carolina at Greensboro Department of Recreation and Wellness
Landscape Architect/Design Architect: RDG Planning & Design
Architect of Record: Walter Robbs Callahan & Pierce Architects
Civil Engineer: CLH Design
Structural Engineer: Stewart, Inc.
Mechanical & Electrical Engineer: McCracken & Lopez, PA
Construction Manager: Skanska Rentenbach Joint Venture

As seen in LASN magazine, January 2018.

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