Creating a Living Laboratory on Your Campus

April 20, 2018
Landscape Architecture Civil Engineering & Water Resources Sustainability Public Art

More colleges and universities are discovering the benefits of planning and implementing campus landscapes that are more than function and aesthetics but are transforming the campus into a “living laboratory.”

These integrated learning environments are fostering strategic use of the exterior environment, connecting students to real-world applications, establishing new multipurpose spaces, and will continue to evolve as education demands change.

The importance of these multi-faceted spaces on a collegiate campus is founded on the close proximity they offer to students and faculty. With shorter class periods and longer distances between academic facilities, the ability to conduct off-campus visits is limited. These spaces offer students the opportunity for direct hands-on learning, a place where students can engage and make connections between concepts in the classroom and concepts in the real world. These multi-purpose spaces can equal greater campus efficiency by encouraging more collaboration and integration between programs.

Where to begin: A strong project champion(s), people who buy into the idea, help drive the project through the process and develop a comprehensive and strategic plan. Your champions can come from high-level administrative involvement, as a grass-roots effort, or developed by a group or individual that is going through the design process.  No matter who or where they come from, the project champion becomes an important player(s) in the process. Creating a good plan is equally important. Making informed decision early on can reduce perceived additional costs and provide a necessary connection between academics and facilities groups, and helps set the expectations for moving forward. Balancing function and aesthetics within the right site begins with engaging the user in the site.

Western Technical College – Cleary Courtyard Site Improvements integrates key academic departments and students early in the design process. They embrace the Academic benefits of teaching and learning. The Biology Department wants the ability to reference native local ecotype plants and insects while studying soils and plant identification. The Horticulture Department strives for opportunities for plant walks, student demonstration projects, design installations and technical skills. The Graphic Design Department needs locations on campus to display student work. The Culinary Arts Department wants to connect its students to the food production process and foster an understanding of where our food comes from.

Courtyard at sunset.

Community Benefits – The opening of Western Technical College’s Integrated Technology Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is a culmination of college and community collaboration, sustainable research, design work, and on-the-ground success. Over the past decade, Western Technical College has undertaken an exceptionally comprehensive approach to improving the college’s academic environment, helping advance the La Crosse region and re-establishing Western Tech as one of the premier leaders in sustainability.  Their mission statement of “providing relevant, high-quality education in a collaborative and sustainable environment…that grows our communities” will be highly visible as they mark a major milestone in their Vision 2020 Campaign.

University of Florida – SW Recreation Center Addition and Site Improvements as a living laboratory is a product of the process and good design.  It encompasses creating a campus gateway, integrating public art, enhancing pedestrian safety and managing stormwater runoff.

Let the water shine! This project takes the little space left after the building expansion and uses the need for stormwater detention to create an ephemeral water feature that brings the water from the building’s roof onto the site through a series of runnels that eventually cascade into a series of rain gardens, filled with native Florida plants and boulders. This system, while beautiful, also works to clean, cool and slow the stormwater down, allowing for infiltration of some of the water before heading into the regional stormwater system. The incorporation of public art into the rain gardens further enhances the site overall aesthetic along a pedestrian walkway near the student recreation facility.  Soon after the project’s completion, various academic departments, including Landscape Architecture, began using the creative stormwater solution as a practical teaching tool.

The investment and the payoff for Western Technical College are realized by improvements in their Academic, Social and Operational programs, their ability to keep and retain students longer, and strengthening their sense of campus and community pride. For less than 1% of the total project cost, the University of Florida has a site that brings academics to one of the busiest student spaces on campus, is a dynamic entrance to campus, tells a story through art and site, and works to connect the community to the university.

Written by Jonathan Martin, Landscape Architect; Ryan Peterson, Landscape Architect