Eco-Friendly Picnic Area Expands Runk Dining Hall

June 01, 2009

May 29, 2009 — A new installation designed by University of Virginia landscape architecture students is transforming a sun-baked and largely unused patio outside Runk Dining Hall into an intimate al fresco dining area that should be a gathering spot for generations of students to come.

Nancy Takahashi, a landscape architecture lecturer in the School of Architecture and principal of Hereford Residential College, which the dining hall serves, said she was excited about the change to a large paved terrace on the north side of the building.

"The area was so overexposed," she said. "The intervention transformed the whole space through the simple removal of pavement, allowing trees to be planted."

The project began as an independent study by graduate landscape architecture students Nathan Foley and Kate Goodman.

"We looked at different design opportunities at Hereford College through a lens of sustainability since it is 20 years since it was built," Foley said. "The terrace stood out as stark and called out for shade and privacy for those who live here."

Goodman said, "Before it was just a space to pass through. We wanted to create a place to gather and hang out."

Takahashi added that the transformed space is about "more than socializing and gathering. It is about building community and a sense of place."

To help build community and create a sense of identity, the designers chose to include native and edible plants found on Observatory Hill.

The first phase of the project is already in place. Newly planted black gum and sweet bay magnolia trees will provide a canopy of shade as they mature.

Blueberry and chokeberry bushes and persimmon and sassafras trees – all edible for humans and animals – will be planted on an adjacent hillside.

Foley said that the choice of native species is a way for the residents to become familiar with their natural surroundings and "identify the vegetation of the community."

He added that a lot of community-building at the residential college centers around food. A recent end-of-year sustainable barbecue was held on the new terrace.

"It was exciting to see people use the space," he said.

Graduate architecture students Katie Clinton, Sarah Collins and Alex Garrison designed and built prototype tables for the picnic area.

They developed their table designs during a weeklong charrette in March with visiting critic Bryan Bell, opting to create tables that would expand the use of the three benches that were part of the original terrace design. The prototypes incorporate cast concrete bases with tabletops made from cast-off metal tree grates from the grounds at Hereford. Colorful folding French bistro chairs were purchased to provide additional, flexible seating.

Some of the plantings and two tables are already in place. Work will continue over the summer to add tables and plantings in the area.

Foley and Goodman, working with Takahashi as adviser, took the project from concept through detail design and also shepherded it through approval from the Office of the Architect and the University's Arboretum Committee, which allocated the funds for a major part of the work. Hereford College, the Housing Division and Dining Services also supported the project. The construction and planting was performed by the Facilities Management Landscape department's project crew, consisting of Todd Romanac, supervisor, and members Mike Dillard, Phillip Saunders, Kassim Hassan, Deborah Tyler and Wes Franklin.

When Foley and Goodman began exploring the project, they never expected anything to be built. Both agreed that it was one of the most satisfying things they did this year — to make a plan and see it happen.

Takahashi said she is eager to find other sustainable projects at Hereford College. Nestled on the side of O-Hill with its lush natural vegetation, "I view our grounds as one of the college's greatest assets," she said.

— By Jane Ford