Category Archives: Earth

Virginia Hospital Center

Several months ago I began discussing with The Virginia Hospital Center the possibility of designing several planting areas scattered around the hospital grounds, difficult, high traffic or neglected areas of opportunity. During the course of those conversations we were offered a fabulous opportunity: Develop & design a new outdoor space at the confluence of three major structures: Between the main hospital building & the Women & Infants health center and above the subterranean Radiation Oncology suites.

click images to embiggen

It is the Oncology Department which is the driving factor in this project;  a new,  state-of-the-art Linear Accelerator (pdf file) and its encompassing support suites are to be built below the space, resulting in a seven million dollar major engineering and architectural change to the facility.

To date, the space seen above has over time become a bit of a catchall in terms of engineering solutions– by that I mean, the outdoor environment has been utilized primarily as a repository and support system for the existing radiation suites below.

Here we see the cooling units for the Cyberknife® suite and supporting equipment. Obviously maintaining optimal temperatures is critical with multimillion dollar equipment, and this space represented the nearest, most cost-effective location.

The raised planter in the foreground is an integral part of the radiation shielding assembly, which consists of several feet of reinforced concrete, lead lining, brick, and of course the several feet of earth inside the planter. The planter’s shape reflects the radiation oncology suite below ground.

A space was opened up at ground level in order to crane in various pieces of heavy, precious medical equipment, and a skylight was seen as a beneficial solution in case repairs or replacements ever had to be made in the future. Unfortunately, it’s been plagued with leaks and has been quite a liability overall.

This much taller planter is part of another suite’s shielding assembly, and again the brick and earth are absolutely critical in terms of radiation abatement. Removing this planter would result in hundreds of thousands of dollars being incurred in additional lead shielding and the structural support required to bear the additional load (around forty additional tons on this small footprint).

Stowmwater runoff is dealt with inefficiently, as a problem to be moved as quickly as possible away from the space.

It strains credulity, but a stairwell (over on the left) pops up into the space as well, a mandatory fire safety element the need for which thankfully will be eliminated with the new construction.

An abandoned door into the space will be removed with the construction, but what of this narrow ‘hallway’? A recent awning removal reveals stained brick which adds to the feeling of disjointed uneasiness.

As patients/visitors drive in, this is what they see from curbside.

Conclusions: This is a fabulous area, rich with the patina of age and full of unique design challenges. In my next post, I will start to lay out our design process, our goals, and how we will achieve them.


Today is Water Day– It’s All About The Water

I sell stuff on eBay. It’s been a nice little revenue stream for me over the years. For quite some time now I’ve been donating 10% of what I earn through my auctions there to one of the finest charities I know of:

charity: water

charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. 100% of public donations directly fund water projects. Learn more or donate.

I hope you will consider learning more about this serious problem and wonderful, worthwhile charity. Thanks for your time!

Stick Artist Patrick Dougherty Coming to Dumbarton Oaks– Volunteer!

Back at the beginning of April I had me some scoop: Stick artist Patrick Dougherty would be coming to Dumbarton Oaks to create one of his famous art installations sometime in September of 2010. I spoke with the wonderful Assistant to the Director at Dumbarton, Jane Padelford, who promised to let me know when the call for volunteers went out. Well brothers & sisters, it’s happening:

Dear David, I know you called a while back asking to be put on the list to volunteer on the Patrick Dougherty garden installation at Dumbarton Oaks, so I wanted to give you first dibs. Please see attached the call for volunteers for the Patrick Dougherty garden installation which shall take place September 1 to 21. Mr. Dougherty is a renowned sculptor who creates artworks out of sticks. Please forward to anyone you think may be interested in volunteering. The application form is attached as both a pdf and word .doc format. Many thanks.


Jane Padelford
Assistant to the Director
Garden and Landscape Studies
Dumbarton Oaks
1703 32nd Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007
P: 202-339-6464
F: 202-625-0432
padelfordj [at]

I’m trying to figure out a way to host the application form on my site here so you can download them yourselves, in the meantime feel free to drop Jane an email and get the form sent to you. Hope to see you there! EDIT: Here is the PDF Form

Na Hale ‘o waiawi (Roughly translated from the Hawaiian language to mean: Wild Dwellings Built from Strawberry Guava). The Contemporary Art Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2003. Photographer: Paul Kodama.

Nine Lives

Call of The Wind

Around The Corner

Sittin’ Pretty

Cell Division

The Carver School Memorial Park

Several years ago I was approached by a representative of a large Multinational Oil Corporation with the idea of designing a particularly challenging space in Baytown, TX.

The green pushpin area, enlarged:

I say “challenging” while many other words are certainly applicable, as I’m sure you’ll agree when you read more about the history of this particular area.

A little background: For well over a hundred years Baytown has been the site of vast  petrochemical complexes and refineries. Believe it or not, for many years in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, oil companies stored their crude oil in enormous earthen pits, usually at least 600 x 600 feet, and sometimes covered with shade cloth and/or wood type structures to keep out debris, birds, and the occasional wayward person from wandering in.  Such was certainly the case in Baytown Texas, where on this particular 11 acre site, one of these pits existed.  At some point in the growth and development of the oil industry, executives became aware that so much oil was lost through evaporation and absorption into the earth and the aquifer below, that it actually makes economic sense to build above-ground metal containers–the birth of the modern oil tank farm.

But what to do with this space?  In approximately 1940 it pumped out as much crude oil as possible, caved in the side walls with bulldozers, leveled the space, and then sold the land to the city of Baytown Texas for one dollar. Baytown built a segregated middle school on the property… the George Washington Carver Middle School.

Skip ahead to the 1990s, when decades of production of nearby oil pumps as well as the taxing demands of water consumption began causing subsidence, at which point  black tar and various hydrocarbons began oozing up to the surface— as bad luck would have it right in the middle of the playground facilities at the school. The furor which ensued  closed the school and fenced the entire 11 acre space.

At some point, the city of Baytown gave the land back to the petrochemical company, and the land has sat vacant ever since, except for a school bus park, which sits on the northern end of the property. The legal wrangling is just ridiculously sad, and the end result is that my design has been in stasis for some time now. And what is that design?

Among the design objectives were such diverse elements as:

  • A permanent memorial to the children, parents, and faculty of George Washington Carver Elementary
  • A destination park
  • Native trees, shrubs, and grasses creating a certified wildlife habitat
  • Phytoremediation to alleviate existing problematic soil conditions (tarsands)
  • Migratory feeding station for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) as well as the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Engineers and legal folks fought tooth and nail for a clay cap over the contaminated area. ‘Clay caps’ are in my opinion ridiculous,  short term solutions to alleviating the problems which arise when humans interact near toxic or contaminated soils: Lay 3-4 feet of clay on top, and it’s a job well done. It’s primitive. (Obviously there is more to it than that, however not much more.)

Among many other solutions, one I suggested was a dense stand of tall prairie grasses such as Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi).

The tall prairie grasses have enormous, deep rootsystems that easily plunge 12-15′ in depth. Over time, these grasses break up and accumulate via nutritional uptake methods, a wide variety of heavy metals and other materials, which are ‘vacuumed’ up and stored in the plant’s tissue. Such plants are called hyperaccumulators, and there’s ample evidence supporting the efficacy of using phytoremediation in this space.

Here is the original rendering, a 3 foot by 5 foot color sketch on vellum which outlines the proposed solutions as well as ways in which the history of the space could be memorialized (please click the image for greater detail).

To date the space sits as it did when I first saw it. A complex and baffling layercake of fireblankets weigh it all down from moving forward.