From the Ground Up: Integrating Story and Site in Higher Education

Exploring RDG’s innovative collaboration with Des Moines University to design a cutting-edge new health science education campus.

The year: 12,000 B.C.

The place: what we know today as Des Moines, Iowa.

Vastly unlike its modern iteration, the ground of this time is blanketed by the Wisconsin Glacier, a large glacial mass that scrapes and flattens the landscape of the upper Midwest like an enormous bulldozer. Over the next thousands of years, the glacier continues to move south across North America, shaping the land as it inches forward. Near the end of the Ice Age, the Des Moines Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier makes its final advances into the northern half of Iowa, bringing everything in its path along for the ride. As it comes to rest, it creates the definition of a hill over the flat expanse of land and become known to geologists as the “edge of advancement.”

Fast forward to 2019, and a vision for a campus of the future now lies on the edge of this massive advancement. Des Moines University (DMU) has set its sights on developing a brand-new campus, which, once complete, will establish a premier health science education destination unlike any other in the nation. The institution has outlined a bold vision for its future, shifting and evolving its culture, curriculum and pedagogy, and defining the future state of health science education for DMU in the form of a new 88-acre campus set amid the West Des Moines Innovation Corridor. The ground-up campus will have distinct and compelling architecture, design and landscape and serve as a premier destination for students, faculty, staff, friends of DMU and the West Des Moines community. Set against an ambitious timeline, it’s slated to open in 2023 and will coincide with DMU’s 125th anniversary.

Before we get to the ribbon cutting, however, we must first begin at the beginning and engage in iterative discussions to help define a campus master plan that’s reflective of both the university’s future needs and its mission, vision and overarching story. In this article, we explore the first stages of that process and discover what it takes to create a revolutionary health sciences campus from the ground up.

DMU’s Mission, Vision and Story

To fully understand campus master planning and programming we first need to understand the history and heart of DMU. Founded in 1898, DMU is the second oldest osteopathic medical center in the country. Since its founding, the university has expanded over the years to encompass three colleges with eight graduate programs and continues to be an established leader in medicine and health science education. DMU’s pedagogical approach is driven by its core mission to improve lives in the global community by educating diverse groups of highly competent and compassionate health professionals. Complementing this mission is DMU’s vision centered around national leadership in healthcare education and patient care that aims to improve the overall health and wellness of the community.

DMU’s mission and vision help define and solidify the story we want to tell through the West Des Moines campus. At its core, this story is the heartbeat of the new DMU campus – it’s the energy of the students, the passion of the faculty and staff and the excitement visitors experience when they come to the campus. In essence, the DMU story exemplifies the expression “From the Ground Up,” by responding to the culture and community of DMU and embracing the new land on which the campus will be developed.

RDG’s design for the DMU West Des Moines campus takes direction from the site’s natural beauty and diverse physical characteristics.

This phrase, “From the Ground Up,” has become the rally cry for the new campus design and represents an opportunity to write a new chapter in DMU’s history. It’s also led the design team to ask a profound question: “What is the ground telling us?”

The Story of the Ground

A critical step in the evolution and development of the new DMU West Campus master plan involved gaining a deep understanding and appreciation for the land on which the campus would be built. Fronting the newly constructed West Grand Avenue on the south and bounded by Booneville Road on the north, the site stretches from South Jordan Creek Parkway on the east to 88th Street on the west. 

Researching the history of the land revealed several fascinating discoveries. The site contains many unique physical characteristics, including a terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Glacier, alluvial fans, drastic grade changes and fertile lowlands. The three main characteristics that help define the site include:

  • The Wisconsin Glacier: In the last cycle of climate cooling and the glacier expansion in North America, Iowa was blanketed by the Wisconsin Glacier, a large glacial mass that scraped and flattened the landscape of the upper Midwest like an enormous bulldozer.
  • The Des Moines Lobe: In the latter stages of the Ice Age, the Des Moines Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier made its last advances into the northern half of Iowa, bringing everything in its path along for the ride. The site of the campus of the future lies on the edge of this massive advancement.
  • The Bemis Advance: As the lobe receded, this southernmost advance, (named for the town in South Dakota from which its soil deposits originate), left behind huge hills of debris known as terminal moraine. These moraines, often filled with glacial boulders known as “erratics,” make up the hills on the northern half of the Des Moines University campus.

Much of the land is flat but gives rise to a hill to the north. That hillside is what is known to geologists as the “edge of advancement” of what was the Wisconsin Glacier. More than 10,000 years ago it moved south across North America shaping the land as it inched forward. Specifically, this parcel of land is the product of the Des Moines Lobe of the glacier. It came to rest at the center of this property and created the definition of the hill over the flat expanse of land. 

Building upon “From the Ground Up,” the new site offers inspiration for features of the new campus: its location marks the tip of the Wisconsin Glacier, and rich soil deposits create a distinct change within the terrain. This site element serves as a strong organizational feature of the new campus, creating the concept, “The Edge of Advancement,” an idea that represents the rich history of DMU and also looks to the university’s future as an innovative, collaborative and forward-thinking campus. RDG’s design for the campus takes direction from the site’s natural beauty and diverse physical characteristics to imagine an innovative, iconic campus that reflects DMU’s values, respects the land, connects to the community and offers an inclusive, intuitive environment.

Driving Forces that Define the Campus of the Future

Having gained a comprehensive understanding of DMU’s mission, vision and story, and armed with knowledge of the site’s rich and unique history, RDG’s team of design professionals, alongside university and community stakeholders began the work of defining the plan and programming of the new campus. The planning process was organized around three groups: The Steering Committee, an Executive Leadership Team and Subject Matter Expert Teams. Groups were specifically designed to allow for comprehensive stakeholder participation, with engagement and representation from university faculty, staff and students.

Native landscape element are incorporated into large expanses of pavement to creates a more park-like environment. Rendering by RDG.

Through this process of stakeholder engagement and continual refinement, key strategies emerged as driving forces that define the campus of the future. Organized around site and program, these strategies serve as the foundation by which the campus and facilities will be designed and include:

  • A main street space where campus life and opportunities for interaction can occur, both within campus facilities and along major exterior circulation routes.
  • Multiple green spaces that provide important health services as well as environmental services and encourage passive and active group activity to promote mental health and well-being.
  • Gathering places that provide the opportunity to socialize in groups, small or large, and which are positioned in key locations across the campus.
  • Touchpoints such as trails, interpretive signage, native plants, water features, wildlife blinds and overlooks, that are purposely sprinkled throughout the campus to offer connections to nature that are never far away.
  • Native landscape such as trees, bioretention cells and low maintenance plants incorporated into areas of large expanses of pavement creates a more park-like environment.
  • Opportunities to take advantage of the site’s inherent location and beauty are thoughtfully crafted into this master plan, offering panoramic views to the Raccoon River valley from the buildings and points on the site as well as views to the hills beyond the buildings.
  • Framing views with art, structure and landscape that create a feeling of compression and expansion provide moments of high importance and focus.

These campus strategies provide the framework for the physical manifestation of the campus, guiding the development of important spaces and flexibility for future, as yet unknown campus needs.

As the university looks to the future, the campus master plan reflects a fully developed site that allows the institute to strategically grow over years into the future. The organization of the new campus is crafted around the “DMU Story,” building upon the university’s mission, vision and values as well as thoughtfully responding to the institute’s new location. The opportunity to build a new campus is spurring DMU to explore new ways to enhance curriculum, consider new teaching methods and expand research activity and clinical services. It’s a moment of advancement and a vision to be innovative in a way that benefits students, faculty, staff and the community at large.

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Mike Houston is an RDG Partner and Designer focused on work for the firm’s Academic Health Science and College & University Markets. Mike uses his visionary, innovative and collaborative passion in the planning and design of higher education facilities that incorporate cutting-edge simulation and technology solutions to help prepare the next generation of healthcare professionals.

Jonathan Martin, PLA, ASLA is an RDG Partner and Landscape Architect focused on integrating urban design and transportation principles with sustainable practices in campus planning. His wide range of experience in facility site design, campus open spaces, transportation enhancement and streetscape development enable Jonathan to balance technical approaches and design aesthetics with the human experience.

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