Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Arkansas Design Center Tackles Problems Omnipresent and Invisible
The University of Arkansas Community Design Center puts the suburban fringe in the spotlight
By Sara Fernández Cendón
A relatively sparsely populated corner of Arkansas might seem an unlikely base for cutting-edge research on contemporary urban issues. Yet academics at the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC) in Fayetteville routinely push the state of the art in smart growth, public transit, low-impact development, urban forestry, and watershed urbanism. Teams there have found a particular forte in formulating development and design strategies unique to the omnipresent suburban and exurban places that have become architectural no man’s lands.
"We look for the role of design in conditions where design could have a lot to contribute but up to that point has been completely absent," says Steve Luoni, Assoc. AIA, director of the UACDC.
The UACDC has become a leader in the conversation of how their region will evolve and grow. But the center has proven itself outside of Arkansas as well. Since 2005, it has garnered eight AIA Honor Awards in the Regional and Urban Design category, an unparalleled record of success for academic programs in the history of the award. The center’s approach to design tackles the under-scrutinized problems of suburban and exurban community-scale environments in a pragmatic and ecologically remediative way, but their record of success and influence is based on their ability to insert this set of concerns into the public dialogue.
The UACDC is an outreach center of the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Approximately half of the center’s projects involve students, with about 10 fourth- and fifth-year architecture students enrolling every semester.
Over time, the center has taken on larger and larger complex urban-scale projects, and has developed a sharper environmental focus and practice method.
Bruce Lindsey, AIA, dean of the architecture program at Washington University in St. Louis, chaired the jury for the 2012 Honor Awards for Regional and Urban Design. Among the qualities he admires in the center’s work is its timeliness, which the jury rewarded this year for a UACDC streetcar transit proposal. The UACDC’s approach resonates with a profession that is beginning to understand that the future of sustainability lies in a holistic urban design philosophy. “You can’t tackle these problems on a building-by-building basis,” Lindsey says.
Luoni has been director of the UACDC since 2003, when he succeeded David Glasser, FAIA, the center’s first director. Early on, Luoni struck a strategic partnership with Marty Matlock, associate professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, who is now one of the center’s most frequent collaborators. As an ecological engineer, Matlock adheres to the premise that ecosystems are designed by human activity. “It’s just time we do it more explicitly rather than implicitly, more intentionally rather than chaotically,” he says. Thanks to the influence of engineers like Matlock, the UACDC challenges urban infrastructure to deliver the ecological services (pollution remediation, water management, etc.) that built interventions typically deter.
The UACDC is as open to different professions’ expertise as it is to different urban contexts. Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Arkansas, says the center’s designers are “not content to be planners or environmentalists [alone]. They coalesce all this expertise, but they’re committed to architectural form and construction.”
Arkansas as context
A key difference between the UACDC’s design philosophy and other community design centers is a focus on developing place-based models that are still transferable and have national currency. To begin with, the suburban and exurban communities the UACDC considers are places where architects seldom venture. The issues they investigate are rooted in the middle landscapes so prevalent in Arkansas, somewhere between dense urbanism and pastoral fields–probably the most common built condition in the nation (and the world). They have developed place-building models for urban forestry, watershed urbanism, and transit-oriented development. A model for agricultural urbanism is currently in development. These models address complex conditions that are omnipresent yet completely under-investigated.
Typical projects include examining ways to green a local Target’s parking lot, or creating a comprehensive index of the elements found along a typical arterial highway in order to reconfigure them. Parking lots and gas stations? Most designers won’t tackle these kinds of projects. Why? Because “they’re not sexy,” says Matlock. “But what they are is absolutely real. I’m an engineer. I’m an ecologist. I have dirty fingernails and mud on my boots. That’s where I work, and they do the same thing. There aren’t many design firms that do that.”
This approachably nuts-and-bolts approach, as well as the plain-spoken and succinct graphic aesthetic they’ve developed, has helped the design center lead important public conversations about the future of their region.
Luoni teaches students that while design demands a commitment to political and social activism, this doesn’t only mean rushing to disaster sites or doing pro bono work. Instead, it means working with the difficult everyday problems of the built environment that most people ignore. This conviction is at the heart of the center’s deeply pragmatic disposition. For instance, in its study of Walmart, (based in nearby Bentonville, Ark.), the UACDC starts by recognizing that, for good or ill, the big box is the dominant economic system of retailing. With a few frankly astounding facts (e.g., Walmart’s computer system surpasses the Pentagon’s), the center shows that Walmart wields incredible power. Rather than railing at the negative effects of its business and design practices on the built environment, Luoni argues for an alignment of interests. “We think there are unique resources and services that design has to offer that presently do not inform policy or conversations,” he says. “So it’s about showing people how design can advance their existing interests.”
For Walmart, the UACDC identified key transition points (e.g., from public street to store parking, from store parking to building frontage) and analyzed each of them in light of traditional community-building forms (e.g., the promenade, arcade, porch, courtyard, atrium, etc.) This resulted in 40 proposals—called “big-box urbanism”—for viable context-sensitive civic expressions within the generic protocols of big-box development. One proposal was to transform the parking lot into a series of archipelagos and groves—small parks within the parking lot—to handle stormwater and host civic functions.
The results of these kinds of investigations explain why the UACDC has yet to build many projects: “It’s important to note that most of the work that we do on the books is illegal, even though everyone likes it,” says Luoni.
Most of the center’s projects are “illegal” because their implementation would require modifications to existing zoning laws. The center’s streetcar proposal for Fayetteville called for transformation the oversized parking lots along the streetcar line into mixed-use squares—areas that would become employment centers and serve adjacent neighborhoods. The problem? Prevailing zoning codes subdivide cities into single land uses. Low-impact development (LID), while generally understood as desirable, is illegal in most U.S. cities, because building codes don’t consider its landscape-based stormwater-management system that replaces curbs, gutters, and pipes an adequate means of stormwater control.
Certainly the UACDC could build far more prolifically at the single-building scale, but by fundamentally challenging the way communities are organized and function, they find themselves hemmed in by the regulatory climate. They keep fighting, though, and have scored a few definitive victories. LID might be the perfect example of the center’s impact to date. Habitat Trails, an affordable neighborhood consisting of 17 Habitat for Humanity homes, includes a network of bioswales, infiltration trenches, stormwater gardens, and other measures to substitute for hard engineering. To be built, however, the project required 30 zoning variances from the city of Rogers, Ark. The neighborhood, part of which has been built, received a 2008 AIA Honor Award in Regional and Urban Design.
After Habitat Trails, the UACDC set out to design its second LID neighborhood in Fayetteville. This time, however, the center worked with the city council for two years to change the building codes. Though the project is as yet unbuilt, in April 2010 the council passed an ordinance making LID legal without zoning variances. With the regulatory battle out of the way, these changes clear the way for people to imagine their local community differently, which will have a far more powerful impact than any single new building or development.
Visit the Committee on the Environment Knowledge Community Website on AIA KnowledgeNet.
Visit the AIA’s Sustainable Design Assistance Team website.
Visit the AIA’s Communities by Design website.