Category Archives: sustainable practices

Arlington Renovation

Within the same neighborhood as our ongoing improvements  at The Old Lacey House (click the link for detailed history of this Civil War Era home), green•eye•design recently completed a landscape improvement project for a lovely 21st Century-constructed home.

The owners approached for improvements over the ‘pre-installed’ tree & shrub choices the building contractor installed as the home was being finished. I have observed quite often that a builder will become comfortable with a small palette of trees and shrubs and then never waver from those selections, often to the detriment of both the home’s lines as well as site conditions, sun exposure, etc. Another move is to simply find whatever is on sale at the local big box chain store and use that.

Certainly this landscape was no exception, with trees planted near the foundation that– when mature– would have completely eaten the facade. Boxwoods were planted in southern exposure and were baking in the all-day sun. (indeed, several were already dead). Plants which need even moisture were planted in raised rain gardens in which their roots would be periodically inundated with the stormwater runoff from the roof’s downspouts. So, I whipped up this design:

front raised rain gardens, click for humongous version

For this:

An existing Crape Myrtle was transplanted down to the small front lawn area where a flowering Cherry had expired over the winter, and a small specimen of Amelanchier canadensis ‘Autumn Brilliance’ (Serviceberry, Shadblow, Saskatoon) was planted at an appropriate distance from the foundation.

A few soil issues were addressed also. Now all the plants are both floriferous and attractive, and have the benefit of enjoying ‘wet feet’ during times of periodic root inundation. Many of the choices also produce attractive berries for wildlife or for cutting. This came together very well, next we’ll talk about the backyard’s improvements.

A to-do list and plant materials list:

  • Pop out grasses & nandina for replanting after grading
  • Remove Boxwoods and save best for rear yard transplanting (4-5 total for both sides)
  • Remove Crape Myrtle for replanting where dead Prunus is on front lawn
  • Remove and discard dead Prunus
  • Add approximately 4″ high quality, largely organic screened topsoil, regrade so front of bed elevation matches front right raised bed. Regrade to take out 2″ or so of the depth of the catchment shape to the bed.
  • Plant in new plants as per drawing
  • Top dress with double shredded hardwood or pinestraw

Front right:

  • (Boxwoods)
  • Transplant existing Japanese Maple to rear yard corner garden focal point
  • Plant in new plants as per drawing
  • Top dress with double shredded hardwood or pinestraw

Myrica cerifera ‘Fairfax’, Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’, Chionanthus virginicus, Camassia quamash, Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’, Clethra alnifolia ‘Hummingbird’


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!

The Settlement Group

Recently the owner of The Settlement Group approached me to address a– how should I describe this charitably– woefully neglected exterior for one of their branch locations in McLean, VA.

Around the backside is even worse, with two enormous cracking Bradford Pears leaning out precariously over the old drive-through roof, broken and pruned branches from older hack jobs laying in parking spaces, and ivy slowly strangling everything. The general mood or feel of the surrounds is depressing and invites crime, littering (note throw-away pizza box above), and vandalism. I would hate to think of the liability connected to some sort of car damage or personal injury associated with a failing tree. The bare mulched beds have heaved up over time because of root growth of whatever shrubs grew there previously, as well as many years of shredded hardwood mulch being piled in layer upon  layer until the soil level is now considerably above the height of the curb. Stormwater runoff sheets across the surface, carrying with it mulch & debris into the parking area, clogging stormdrains and making a mess. Without vegetation near the foundation, water has a much smaller chance of staying onsite and percoating into the soil below, further loading the storm sewers and carrying surface pollutants (pollen, exhaust fumes, petroleum, etc.) directly into the Chesapeake. Without crucial foundation plantings, the building bakes in full sun, the walls and roof have no respite of shade nor do they benefit from any mitigation of the heatsink effect from the surrounding black asphalt– meaning cooling costs are substantially higher.

click for humongous version

With such a limited grounplain in which to work, tree & shrub selection is critically important. Drought tolerance, heat tolerance, and mature sizes which will never overwhelm the planting area nor the building itself are all key factors in plant choices. The blackline drawing above shows the entire space treated as a harmonious whole, while still respecting the surrounding region. The idea is to stand out as brilliant, not glaringly different. The groundplain is covered in low growing, drought-tolerant Sedums, which will not mind being occassionally trampled by passersby

Should the client care to further layer the groundplain later, there are a myriad of flowering bulbs and annuals which can be rotated in seasonally.

It’s important that shade be created as soon as possible to help counter the asphalt heat island effect, create shadowlines across the building, cool the interior, and as an added bonus in this case create a small haven for local wildlife and songbirds. For this, I’m selecting Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’, aka Apple Serviceberry, and outstanding cultivar of our native Serviceberry. Considerations such as handicapped vehicle ingress & egress (no lower limbs hitting vans, for example) and year round variety  are important in such a small palette.


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.