A Thoughtful Pond at Duke University

People / Places / June 3, 2016

This morning, I had an opportunity to tour Duke Pond in Durham with Mark Hough, Duke University’s landscape architect, Evan Grimm, landscape architect from Nelson Byrd Woltz, and Jim Caldwell, assistant director for water resources and infrastructure at McAdams. They are three of the key players on the team that made this 13-acre project, with its six-acre pond on the Duke campus, possible. It’s about a year old today – and already a blue heron is making its home there, along with purple martins and scarlet ¬†tanagers. So today, we’re re-running our post from January of this year, featuring Duke Pond:

A thoughtful landscape intervention at Duke University has turned a drought-inspired engineering project into a functional, sustainable and educational environment.

Duke Pond got its start right after the 2008 drought. The university had built a huge chiller plant that was taking potable water from the City of Durham to air condition dorms and a hospital on campus. Engineers wanted to build a huge basin in the nearby woods to capture water from Sandy Creek instead.

But the university’s landscape architect, Mark Hough, had other ideas.

“I was the one who was adamant about hiring Warren Byrd (of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, or NBWLA),” Hough says. “It had been seen as an engineering project.”

“Hough said it could be an amenity for the campus,” says Evan Grimm, senior associate at NBWLA.

The 12-acre pond now sits at the bottom of one-half of the campus watershed, adjacent to the chiller plant. All water from the campus storm water system flows into the pond. The landscape design has made it a practical and beautiful piece of campus infrastructure.

“It’s an educational solution too,” says Grimm. “We worked with the Nicholson School of Environment professors to develop plantings that are entirely native species, so it can be used as an outdoor classroom.”

It features a four-foot water flux, or average water height that can rise up two feet or draw down two feet as needed. It’ll continue to draw until it’s two feet down – that’s when pumps automatically shut down and begin to draw from Durham’s potable city water.

“It’s said to save us 100 million gallons a year,” Hough says. ¬†“We’re tracking that now.”

Its ecological impact is equally efficient. A forebay is contained by a bridge with an underwater weir so that any sediment coming into it is deposited there before it travels downstream. Perimeter wetlands species were selected to absorb phosphorous from fertilizer upstream – and it’s turned into food for the plants. “The water leaves the pond and goes downstream, eventually into the Neuse River and the Cape Fear watershed,” Grimm says.

It’s a win-win-win all the way around. The chiller plant gets non-potable water, the Neuse gets clean water, and Duke students can now listen to lectures in an adjacent amphitheater – and take water samples back to the lab.

“It was a question of how to turn infrastructure into place-making,” Hough says. “Then it was about smart engineering and smart design – and how they can work together.”

In this case, the answer would be: Refreshingly well.


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Mike Welton

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on June 3, 2016

The appearance of the human presence within an ecosystem causes disturbance in the preexisting balance. The architect along with his intervention faces the challenge of altering the space in such a way that a new state of balance will appear.

This is why architects must always be present…

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