“Hopefully through the university and what we’re doing we are capable of showing how that newness is a good thing, not a scary thing.”
Summer thunderstorms don’t often cause serious alarm, but when a strong storm came through in August 2010, Andy Fox was nervous. An assistant professor at NC State University, Andy had spent the summer teaching NCSU’s first landscape architecture design-build studio class. In 10 labor-intensive weeks, a group of graduate-level students transformed an ignored and flood-prone patch of land behind Syme Hall into a functional—and beautiful—water filtration system.
“We were really thrilled with how it turned out. It’s a rain garden—it takes [water] out of the pipe and puts it back over land and lets it soak in and plants uptake it.
“That’s an anxious-ridden moment, the first time it rains and you wonder, is this thing going to fall apart? Is it going to work? … Three days after we finished we basically got a 100-year storm, and the system handled it and it didn’t even have time to get its legs underneath it.”
Since then, the garden has flourished, garnering such praise as a 2011 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Community Appearance and a City of Raleigh Environmental Award for Institutional Innovation. “We’re making infrastructure so appealing it’s winning appearance awards—and this is a storm water facility. It was previously a pipe,” Andy says.
It also spurred a five-year partnership between University Housing and the Department of Landscape Architecture to improve other abandoned spaces on campus. The first phase of that project, the Artists’ Backyard, was completed in 2011.
“It’s really amazing what we were able to pull off. We built everything—we built our forms, we poured the concrete, we built our own furniture, we fabricated all the metals—in five weeks.
“All the flagstone in the plaza area came from the Talley demolition. We kept tons and tons of rock from going in the landfill and we reused it … it’s the idea of low-impact development; we’re trying to take that beyond the traditional definition.
“[Students] are serving a project that’s much bigger than their own idea, which is very rare in a design curriculum. Usually it’s about the author and pushing their ideas as far as they can. We don’t want to delete that, we want to take these ideas conceptually as far as we can, but then also make them real.”
For all of its benefits, the design-build model isn’t common in landscape architecture. Among similar programs that do exist, few have such solid partnerships as Andy has forged with University Housing. The approach offers unique opportunities for students to build a legacy while getting an education.
“Design-build allows you to actually take the environment and see it evolve and be lived in, and see if it’s being used the way it was intended … It betters our department, provides the university with a real benefit, and students get practical knowledge and see these things go in—and how difficult they can be. They look very simple but they are very complex.
“The hope is to initiate more of a vigorous research component as it grows and we get more projects on-line. We want to understand how it’s impacting the general student who may have no interest in taking the time to learn about environmental issues. The big question is, ‘through occupying the spaces, are they gaining an understanding, and thereby value?’”
Andy also hopes to help people understand that landscape architecture is more than ‘roses and rhododendrons.’
“Certainly there are landscape architects who do garden design, but I would argue that the future of landscape architecture is really rectifying the terrible state we’ve built ourselves into. To start rethinking and taking an active lead in getting toward a state of balance with American development patterns and their environmental implications.”
Andy’s regard for land and the environment is palpable and comes, in strong part, from his childhood in rural Michigan.
“We had kind of an open-door policy: I’d just go outside and get lost and get hurt and do those things that involved natural learning. I was able to do things at my own pace and speed and I pursued my own interests that way.
“It was kind of a no-regrets kind of childhood, and at a slower pace. I think a lot of that has been lost. My daughter certainly has no idea what I’m talking about—the age of a corded phone in the house and not everyone having their digital device.”
After getting a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University, Andy worked for a Seattle design firm where he designed parks and school playgrounds intended to foster the kind of natural learning he thrived on as a child.
“As we get older, we become pretty rigid and jaded sometimes—environments are so sterile … You go to some of these playgrounds and some of these schools and think, “Would I want my kid there? Would I want to be there?”
“What I love about design is … seeing [things] used the way you’d hoped and also seeing the many ways you had never imagined it being used. You learn from it and you try to run with it and the next project is another experiment.”
In 2007, with hopes of influencing others to take a sustainable approach to design, Andy started teaching. After two years at the University of Georgia, he joined NC State’s faculty, moving his wife and daughter to Raleigh. Though still something of a newcomer, Andy loves the city, and sees potential for growth.
“When people say, ‘Give me the greenest city in the Southeast,’ it’s a blank stare. The first one to the finish line will always be ‘that place.’ Raleigh has a really fantastic opportunity to race for that line.
“We’re only going to grow—what are we going to do about it? If we grow by 20 percent, which is forecasted, where does the water come from? Where does the energy come from?”
For his part, Andy is trying to answer those questions through sustainable practices, including those used by the design-build studio.
“We focused on storm water to begin with. That’s in the forefront of everyone’s mind these days—water quality, regulations, and scarcity … We aren’t always looking at it from the scientific lens of, ‘How much nitrogen or phosphorus is in it,’ we’re taking the known best management practices and turning them into really beautiful environments.
“Once people see it and live in it and say, ‘Look how well it works,’ it becomes much more appetizing and appealing … Our job at the university is to try to push innovation that way.”
Through The Lens
What three words would you use to describe Raleigh?
Emerging, conflicted (due to its sprawling history and current desire to modernize) and, hopefully, relevant
Where is your favorite place to spend an afternoon?
Raleigh is pretty spectacular for its linear park system. It has never buried those streams and put them in a pipe. There are those pieces around the city that make neighborhoods fantastic.
We live very near Fallon Park, so I like to go and walk through it. It’s one of those linear parks with a stream in it and it cuts through the neighborhood.
And the greenways, we spend a lot of time on the greenways as well. When you’re near them, there’s a huge quality of life factor; they are so connected.
What is your favorite recent addition to Raleigh?
It’s all new to me … The new Pullen Park, I’d probably say that. We’re very invested in that; we loved it before.
What would you like to see in the city in five years?
I would love to see light rail or some kind of higher speed public transit so I can go to work that way – bike to the train station, take that to work, come back, get out, pick my daughter up on the way home from school and not have to be in the car all day and not be on the roads. Having vehicles is not what it used to be … it’s so stressful.
What would you like your lasting, personal contribution to the city to be?
I would say the standard of the outdoor built environment—be it downtown, or parks, or schools—to change the expectation that great public landscapes are the exception, rather than the expectation, in our everyday lives.
We tend to diminish the landscape even though it is such a huge part of how we live and who we are. It would be to change perceptions that the landscape can function in certain ways that deal with both social and environmental issues.
And, understanding that the environment is critical to the way we live, people should value it and invest in it. For example, if you don’t have sidewalks, where do you walk? How do you feel when you are walking out in the street? It’s not just the environmental side, there’s a quality of the environment that leads to great quality of life.
Watch a video about the Artists’ Backyard construction.