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Creating a Home for Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Landscape Architecture/Civil Engineering by Stantec


The upper courtyard at Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst features an oval lawn and path lined with tapered hexagonal light poles (StressCrete) and posttops. LED bollards further accent the lawn and planting beds of ornamental grasses. The bollards and posttops are from King Luminaire. The new trees are red oaks. Steps from this courtyard lead down to the central courtyard.

After years of operating in scattered locations across its vast campus, the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wanted to bring its students together with a stronger sense of community. The Commonwealth Honors College now has a new home base, complete with housing, classrooms and its own identity, shaped in part by its many outdoor spaces and an enhanced entry and arrival experience.

But designing those spaces came with a big challenge. The proposed location for the complex was a parking lot and tennis courts on the southern edge of the campus core, with a problematic 35-foot grade change. Using that potential problem as an asset, Stantec's landscape architects worked collaboratively with the project architect, William Rawn Associates, to take advantage of the topography, siting seven new buildings that stepped up the hillside and created a series of courtyard terraces and plaza spaces.


Hicks Way Plaza is the western gateway to the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, home to Commonwealth Honors College classrooms and the first new student housing in decades. The site's many outdoor spaces are designed to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. Custom granite bollards on the walkway protect pedestrians from any wayward vehicles.

Representing a gateway to the campus from the west, Commonwealth Honors College has become the new face of the campus. It is the first new student housing development on campus in several decades. The new Honors College community merges the experience of residential campus living with classrooms and student advisors to help students in the Honors program feel at home while still maintaining easy access to resources within the larger campus.

To make that connection the team designed a new central plaza and connector "spine" that brings students to the campus core, as well as directly to the popular campus recreation center and Mullins Center athletic arena. The Honors College is organized around the central courtyard, a linear space that runs north-south through the center of the campus and acts as the "Main Street" of the development. The various public uses of this campus open onto this space, as do many of the residential buildings' main entrances.



The central courtyard is the campus hub. This linear north-south busy student throughway has a hardscape of permeable 'Eco-Priora' pavers (Unilock), and a landscape of tulip poplars, honey locusts and ornamental grasses. Amenities for the campus "Main Street" include benches with backs (DuMor 95 series), 'Ribbon 130' series bike racks and embedded cafe tables and chairs.

The central courtyard bears a direct physical relationship to all of the other courtyard spaces and extends beyond the project's limits, providing important pedestrian and visual links to the rest of the campus. The majority of the courtyard is paved with permeable 'Eco-Priora' pavers (Unilock) to support heavy pedestrian traffic. Permeable unit pavers mitigate runoff, while paver banding alignment and planters sprinkled throughout the courtyard play off of the building geometries. A seating area with thornless honey locust trees adjacent to the café is integrated into the larger courtyard, made distinct by a swath of pavers with a single color.

The remaining plazas and courtyards that step down the site connect this main plaza and the seven new buildings, but also create a sense of place and character for the Honors community. Each of the four courtyards was designed to offer varied recreational opportunities and a distinct personality, but with enough similarities to give the sense of a unified campus. A universal plant palate of ornamental grasses and perennials provides that unity. Infusions of unique features, such as specific tree species in each courtyard, and programming elements, differentiate each courtyard.


The central courtyard steps down 12 feet to the lower courtyard via terraced granite seat walls, integrated planters and flanking concrete staircases. Honey locust trees give some respite to the dominant yet functional hardscape transition.

Hicks Way Plaza, located at the highest elevation, was designed to accommodate the student drop-off area, and to provide a place for students to meet. The plaza takes advantage of the breathtaking views afforded by the landscape of the Berkshire Mountains to the west through strategically placed view corridors. The plaza then steps down 12 feet into the upper courtyard, transitioning via a grand staircase with an integrated planter and seat wall adjacent to a sloped lawn. The design of the upper courtyard is a playful take on the classic campus quad. An oval path around the perimeter provides access to the classrooms in the surrounding buildings.


The planting beds bordering the central courtyard walkway have Bega uplights with metal halide lamps to accent the tulip poplars to good effect. Nighttime security on campuses these days is a greater concern than it was in the past. The combination of the LED pole lighting, the bollard lights, landscape accent lighting, along with the light projecting from the windows of the dorm rooms, bathes the campus in light.

A minor plaza adjacent to the main classroom entrance on the east end of the courtyard is planted with columnar maple trees. Several benches are provided in this small plaza, and the pavers and tree grates visually link the upper courtyard with the central courtyard. The 12-foot grade change down to the central courtyard uses two granite staircases that flank an integrated planting area, intimately linked with an interior staircase through a glass curtain wall.


Small lawns and planting beds soften the hardscape at lower courtyard number two. Backless benches (DuMor 164 series) are placed close to the Armstrong red maples, which are protected by tree grates ('Paver Grate', Ironsmith).

A series of stepped granite seat walls with stairs on either end transition the central courtyard down into lower courtyard number one. The stepped walls serve a variety of functions, both academic and otherwise--from outdoor classroom seating, to performance space, to art display walls. The transition between the central courtyard and lower courtyard number two includes a more informal terraced lawn between granite steps at either end. In both lower courtyards specimen trees provide shade; the majority of the lawn is left open for informally gatherings on the grass, soaking in the sun, or tossing a Frisbee.


The spine that connects Commonwealth College to the main campus core is lined with katsura trees and ornamental grasses.

A large rain garden lined by forsythia and red oak trees treats roof runoff and encourages groundwater recharge. Native plantings were specified, as there is no irrigation on site. The rain garden and the 24,000 sq. ft. of permeable pavers for the plazas has allowed the university to reach its goal of decreasing surface runoff by 25 percent. Such sustainable design garnered the Commonwealth Honors College project LEED Silver certification.


The rain garden of forsythia and red oak trees filters the roof runoff. The rain garden and permeable pavers for the plazas decreased surface runoff by 25 percent. Such sustainable design elements helped the project attain LEED Silver certification.

Project Team
Owner: University of Massachusetts Building Authority
Architect: William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc.
Landscape architect/civil engineer: Stantec
Structural engineer: LeMessurier Consultants
MEP & fire protection engineer: Rist Frost Shumway Engineering, P.C.
Geotechnical engineer: McPhail Associates, Inc.
Sustainability consultant: The Green Engineer
Survey consultant: Precision Land Surveying, Inc
• General: Dimeo Construction Company
• Landscape Contractor: Valley Crest (now BrightView)

Bega US: metal halide uplights; LED recessed step lights
DuMor Site Furnishings
-bicycle racks (Ribbon 130 Series);
-benches with backs: 95 Series
-benches, backless: 164 Series
-café tables (67-196, embedded)/chairs (65-115)
-litter/recycling receptacles: 65 Series
Hanover Architectural Products: roof deck pedestal pavers and detectable warning pavers: 'Prest Brick'
Ironsmith: tree grates: 'Paver-Grate'
King Luminaire: luminaires; LED bollards
Reliance Foundry: stainless steel removable bollards
StressCrete: tapered hexagonal light poles, bollard lights
Unilock: 'Eco-Priora' permeable pavers

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2016.

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October 15, 2019, 4:58 am PDT

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