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Grassroots Education

When Andrew Fox surveyed the grounds behind Syme Residence Hall this spring, he saw a landscape in distress.

“It was basically denuded of plants,” he says. “When it rained, it got squishy nasty.”

But he was concerned by more than just the threat of muddy footwear. As an assistant professor of landscape architecture, Fox recognized an even more serious problem caused by poor landscaping. Rainwater was carrying sediment – along with pollutants – down a brick walkway and directly into the storm water system that connects to the newly restored Rocky Branch Creek.

Assistant Professor Andrew Fox
Assistant Professor Andrew Fox gets his hands dirty cleaning up the landscaping behind Syme Hall.

Not good.

So Fox applied for and received a grant from the Provost’s Office to harness the design power – and muscle – of his grad students to find a sustainable solution to the problem. The result, which will be officially unveiled at a ribbon cutting ceremony Aug. 17, is both functional and enjoyable.

After weeks of digging up dirt, pouring concrete, tilling soil and laying bricks, the students have essentially created a natural filtering system in the form of a garden. Plants with deep roots are used to absorb some rainwater. The rest is channeled into a cistern and into filtration zones, where it flows through layers of mulch, sand, soil and glass beads called cullet to remove pollutants and sediment.

New Versus Old

“The goal of the rain garden is to slow the water down and filter it, then return it to the water table,” says grad student Melissa Miklus, who participated in the project. “It’s the new way versus the old way.”

The project was new in another sense. It was the first design-build studio in landscape architecture ever offered by the College of Design. But Fox says it won’t be the last.

“A typical studio project only goes as far as a presentation on paper,” he says. “What design-build allows you to do is actually come to terms with how difficult it is to implement a project because you’re really out there doing it in real time. It also forces creative problem solving on the spot, which is what design is all about.”

The ribbon cutting ceremony begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17, in Burns Auditorium in Kamphoefner Hall, followed by a tour of the site.

Watch a Video of the Work on the Ground