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Artfully Functional: Form Follows Function at the University of Florida

Jonathan Martin, RDG Planning & Design, Des Moines, Iowa






Stacked Tennessee Orchard Crab stone planks form the sides of the runnel in the rain garden. The runnel bed is lined with attractive Mexican blue pebbles. The public art installations ("Thirst")-sculptural columns that suggest the root structure of the palmetto palm-anchor the main pedestrian way.


Deep in the heart of the swamps of central Florida lies the University of Florida, Gainesville. As one of the premier institutions of higher education in the nation, the U of F has an image to project to its students, faculty, staff, community, the state and the world. Striving to provide the best for their students, the university looked to create a highly sustainable gateway statement at the prominent southwest campus entrance. In 2008, the U of F's Department of Recreation Sports (Rec Sports) proposed a building expansion of the campus' primary recreation facility, the Southwest Recreation Center. This addition was intended to alleviate overcrowding.

The required additional space left little room on site to artfully integrate site elements like vehicular and bicycle parking, improved vehicular and pedestrian circulation, and manage stormwater and utilities. As the building footprint evolved, it became clear a unique solution was necessary to accommodate the many program elements within such a tight space.

RDG Planning & Design of Des Moines, Iowa, was selected to design and document the building addition and site improvements. As an integrated design firm, the landscape architects and architects collaborated to ensure the entire project conveyed the vision of the university.




The Southwest Recreation Center Building addition at the University of Florida, Gainesville left little room to artfully integrate vehicular and bicycle parking, improved vehicular and pedestrian circulation, and to manage stormwater and utilities.


A Fresh New Image

The Southwest Recreation Center Building expansion quickly established a fresh look for the southwest campus entrance. The transparent, curved facade opens to welcome visitors. A primary challenge was to create a site layout that would work in harmony with the building, creating a flowing extension from building to site. The site layout is structured around the vertical reliefs of the building, extending out and through the site, linking the building with the street. The use of stone runnels and weirs for the roof rainwater to flow became a unifying element, and providing a rich, natural material in the landscape.

Crossing Hull Road from the parking lots to the south one is greeted by a wide entrance plaza, designed as an extension of the building lobby. The pattern of the plaza pavers (Wausau Tile) complements the terrazzo floor of the lobby, the pattern outside extending inside, giving a sense of arrival. To increase safety for pedestrians and the building, stone architectural markers were installed in lieu of standard bollards. Acrylic panels (LightBlocks) were applied to the markers and edge lit to render a calming blue beacon at night, complementing the color of the site artwork.




Water from the roof drains into a cast stone pedestal planter filled with Mexican blue pebbles. As the planter fills up, the water cascades over the edge and into the runnel.


"The use of landscape, rain gardens and the artwork in front of the Southwest Recreation Center demonstrates the ability to use conservation in an aesthetically pleasing way," says David Bowles, the director of the Department of Recreational Sports. "This new landscape allows the building to be close to the road, while connecting the building in a natural way to those driving, walking or biking.

Beautifully Functional

A key issue the design team faced was managing the site's stringent stormwater requirements. The building addition and hardscape added nearly 25,000 square feet of impervious surface. The regulations required the release of rainwater not to exceed the preconstruction rates, and that the project treat the water quality and volume prior to release. The purely functional approach would have been to create a large detention basin to store runoff, prior to releasing it downstream. The problem with that solution was the site had very limited open space, all of which was located in the front yard of the recreation center. A large, open pond that would rise and fall with the rains, and be dry most of the year, did not align with the university's goals. Early on the design team developed options that blended the functional needs of the stormwater requirements with the desired aesthetics of the Rec Sports and the university.




The wide entrance plaza is an extension of the lobby. The Wausau Tile 'Terra' paving creates a pattern that complements the terrazzo flooring of the lobby. Stately Washingtonia palms make for a welcoming experience.


Project Team
Client: University of Florida. David Bowles, Director of Department of Recreational Sports
Landscape Architect: RDG Planning & Design
Architect: RDG Planning & Design
Lighting Design: RDG Planning & Design
Artist: RDG Art Studio
Civil Engineer: Brown & Cullen, Inc.
Structural Engineer: Structural Engineering Group, Inc.
Mechanical & Electrical Engineer: TLC
Construction Manager: Charles Perry Partners, Inc.
Unit Paving: All Seasons Planning
Stone Mason: All Seasons Planning
Landscaping: Oasis Landscape Services
Electrician: Midstate Electric of Gainesville
Earthwork: Watson Construction




The rain gardens offer a variety of native plants: Butterfly milkweed; Crinum lily; Blue Flag iris; Oblong Leaf Snake herb; Swamp sunflower; Blue-Eyed grass; Lily-of-the-Nile; Blanket flower; wild sage; black-eyed Susans; plus a mix of grasses-wiregrass, Elliot's Lovegrass, Muhly grass, switchgrass and Fakahatchee grass.


Vendors / Materials
Cold Springs Granite: Limestone Art Base
Gardco Lighting: Radiant LED
Ironsmith, Inc.: Phoenician bollard
LightBlocks: Acrylic Panels
Max-R: Trash & Recycling Receptacle
McNichols Company: Trench Grates
Tennessee Crab Orchard Quarry Stone: Landscape Stone
Wausau Tile, Inc.: Terra Paving Products, Metal Form Bench, Pedestal Planter




The landscape architects worked with the design team and the university to save the site's "Legacy" live oaks. The oaks anchor the main building entrance, rendering a human scale to the large building and offering highly coveted shade.


Creating one large basin to manage site stormwater had other problems. There was five feet of grade change across the site, a series of utilities and live oaks. The solution would have work with and around these constraints. When these challenges were viewed as opportunities, a solution emerged. By focusing the site design around stormwater management, instead of marginalizing it, the site had a framework for the rest of the design.

This led to the creation of an ephemeral water feature that brings runoff from the building's roof through a series of runnels that eventually cascade into rain gardens filled with native plants and boulders.




The four custom decorative seat blocks spaced along the gateway to the main entrance to the Southwest Recreation Center are constructed of Tennessee Crab Orchard stone and topped with cast stone caps. Acrylic panels (LightBlocks) with stainless steel border edging slice into the markers. The black ribbon-style benches, the campus standard, were supplied by Wausau Tile.


The system is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also works to clean, cool and slow the stormwater passing through the site. This allows infiltration of some of the water before it moves into the regional stormwater system.




The blue light tubes centered within the sculptural columns are an artistic representation for water being drawn up from the earth to the cellular structure of a palmetto palm.


Landscape As Laboratory

With the creation of the rain gardens, the university saw the opportunity to use the landscape as a teaching experience. The use of native plant species not commonly found on campus, and the unique treatment of rainwater, provides science, horticulture and landscape architecture classes the opportunity to see firsthand a landscape approach to stormwater treatment. University classes regularly meet in front of the Southwest Recreation Center to see and discuss how runoff flows from the building to irrigate the native plants, and how the artwork serves as a symbol for the system.




The acrylic panels in the architectural markers are edge lit via LEDs secreted within them. These blue lights match the lights in the sculptural columns and the LED light tubes in the building lobby.


A Thirst for Art

Florida's Art-in-State Buildings programs required a portion of the budget be dedicated to incorporating art into the project, as the Rec Center is a state-funded building. David Dahlquist, artist with the RDG Dahlquist Art Studio, was selected from a national search to create the art installation. Working closely with the landscape architect, David developed an installation he simply calls "Thirst," a site-specific installation that interprets stormwater pulled up from the rain gardens, drawing nutrients into the organic forms on site. The sculptural columns suggest a root structure of the palmetto palm, almost like human tissue. Water is represented by the blue lighting.

"The site design uses creative sustainable design to create a dynamic front door experience by visually connecting the rainwater runnels and rain gardens to architectural and art elements," says Al Oberlander, principal architect for RDG.




The site is well lit at night, but not overly so. Light from the building aids the Gardco Radiant LED pedestrian lights to ensure safe lighting levels, while allowing the artwork and architectural markers to be the focus of the landscape.


What used to be a nondescript stretch along the campus' south entrance is now an engaging, vibrant, high-profile facility and landscape.







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August 18, 2019, 12:47 am PDT

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