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Sustainable Principles on Display at Virginia Library

Gregory Harris, assistant editor

An early concept sketch for the rills suggested they be made of copper. Ultimately, in order to meet budget requirements, they were made of galvanized steel, instead.
Photos Courtesy of Rhodeside-Harwell, Inc.

Barbara Mandrell once sang "I was country when country wasn't cool." If Mandrell was to write a song about the Charles E. Beatley, Jr. Central Library in Alexandria, Va., she could say the library did sustainability when sustainable design wasn't widespread.

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The landscape plan for the library was designed by Faye Harwell, FASLA, of the firm Rhodeside-Harwell Inc. The conceptual design was completed in 1995 and detailed in 1996-97. The plan utilizes many of the design concepts Harwell learned as a student of renowned landscape architect Ian McHarg.

"I felt strongly that ecological design was important," Harwell said. "The library was a beginning point to expand on that theory."

The Beatley Central Library, designed by Michael Graves, features a lush, green setting and is a prominent feature of Alexandria's rapidly growing West End.
Photo Courtesy of Ron BLOUNT

Site Transformation

Prior to the construction of the central library, Alexandria had several smaller branches located in neighborhoods throughout the city. Library officials recognized a need for a central library that would have more meeting rooms that could house public outreach programs and increased office space for library officials.

Water from the building roof is carried to the rain gardens in a series of rills - covered in pedestrian and vehicular areas, and uncovered in planted areas.
Photo Courtesy of Ron BLOUNT

The site of Beatley Central Library had been home to a car wash and a trailer rental business. Cameron Station Army Base was across the street. The base was closed in the mid-1990s and as part revitalizing the area, the library and residential construction were planned for the area.

One consideration for the landscape design of the library was its proximity to Holmes Run, a stream that flows into the Potomac River. Harwell implemented a sustainable design for the library to manage the site's stormwater without adversely affected the nearby stream.

Double rills in the Reading Garden lead to small river cobble revetments which protect the edges of the rain garden from roof runoff.

State of the art bioengineering methods manage the site's stormwater and roof runoff before it enters the stream. The low impact methods of bio-infiltration Harwell designed to manage storm water quality and quantity, were considered relatively new when the project was completed in 1999.

"These concepts were talked about in the 1970s, but it was difficult to get them into practice," she said.

Rainwater runoff is directed toward garden areas using the rill system, which is unobtrusive to library patrons. During periods of heavy rain, patrons can hear the water rushing through the system.
Photos Courtesy of Rhodeside-Harwell, Inc.

Harwell said reading the landscape and understanding stormwater's impact were key to designing a successful project. Architects Michael Graves and Pierce Goodwin Alexander and Linville designed the library buildings. These are large buildings with steep roofs.

"We wanted to capture all of the roof runoff as opposed to piping the runoff into the stream," Harwell said.

Virginia Tech students participated in an outdoor class session to study the details of the system and the design. One of the open rills from the building face can just be seen at the lower left, leading toward the parking lot. Since the library project has been completed, it has become a popular site for learning about sustainable stormwater management.

New Ideas Implemented

Harwell's plan called for the use of surface expressions to direct water to wide vegetated bands between parking lanes. The plan also includes comfortably wide, shaded walkways that make the parking of cars an integrated and pleasant part of using the library. A primarily native plant palette serves as the planting theme for the site's infiltration basins and also for more formal entrance and reading garden areas.

Plantings at the library entrance are more formal, using a Virginia vocabulary of boxwoods and Rugosa rose, but with a softened attitude.

Ron Kagawa, ASLA, Acting Division Chief / Landscape Architect & Planner for the city of Alexandria, said the city was open to seeing Harwell's landscape design implemented.

The site plan indicates rills leading from the front of the building to the rain gardens in the parking lot. During detailed design, additional rills were added to the Reading Court, to carry water from the rear roof areas to an additional rain garden above the Holmes Run slopes.
Photos Courtesy of Rhodeside-Harwell, Inc.

"This was certainly a new idea that had not been fully tested," he said. "Using parking lots and islands as retention areas had never been done here, but then again, Alexandria never had a building done by Michael Graves."

Small openings were left in the curbs throughout the parking lot to allow runoff to enter the rain gardens.

Harwell said the Alexandria-Washington D.C. area occasionally experiences long periods of drought and this design allows for green areas to be maintained without irrigation.

The rain gardens, featuring Red maple, Amelanchier, River birch, Viburnums, Clethra, and Witch hazel have become lush and self sustaining, with minor maintenance required.
Photo Courtesy of Rhodeside-Harwell, Inc.

"Water from the roofs enter downspouts and splash into the rill system," she said. "During periods of heavy rain, you can see and hear the water flowing through the system."

Parking lot curb cuts also enable stormwater to be retained, Harwell noting that 2/3 of rainwater is typically captured in the garden.

"Sensitivity to the watershed was key to this project and this design was very careful about not disturbing the watershed," Kagawa noted.

The double rills are an accent at the edges of the Reading Garden, where they are away from pedestrian access. The Reading Garden features Oakleaf hydrangea, waldenstenia ternate, Tiarella, Heucheella and ferns.
Photos Courtesy of Rhodeside-Harwell, Inc.

A Job Well Done

In addition to the new (for the late 1990s) design aspects, Kagawa said he was extremely impressed with the craftsmanship of Harwell and her team.

Ample room was available to allow the 15'-20' wide planted rain gardens. Benches and lighting provide amenity for library users.
Photo Courtesy of Rhodeside-Harwell, Inc.

"The project was well conceived with a thoughtful level of refinement in detail design," he said. "The project is pretty unique in the city as an example - now 10 years old - of innovative techniques. Most importantly, it has been the catalyst for additional innovative thinking on urban projects in the city and region."

Kawaga noted that many landscape architecture and land planning students have visited the library site to tour a real-world sustainable project.

A central spine walkway comprised of a precast concrete 18"x18" paving unit, leads to the main entrance of the library. Overhead lines for site lighting were replaced with underground lines that are covered by this walkway.
Photo Courtesy of Ron BLOUNT

"The success of this project is seeing the up and coming landscape architects look at projects like this and learn from them," he said.

In addition to serving as a learning lab for students, this project has helped spur the growth of ecologically-friendly design projects throughout the Alexandria area.

"Because the city lies within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, all projects are required to comply with requirements of the watershed and really work toward innovation and design," he said. "The city is presently engaged in a large-scale restoration of Four Mile Run, one of the major tidal tributaries of the Potomac River, which feeds the Chesapeake Bay. All commercial projects that are a part of the restoration will use innovative techniques for stormwater management that are based on similar principals as the library."

The loose and lush naturalistic planting was selected as the theme for this site. Plants and trees selected for the project include: Red Maple, River Birch, Virginia Red Cedar, Virginia Sweetspire, Korean boxwood Virginia Creper and Yellow daffodi mix. Rain gardens can, however, be designed to function well with more architectural planting schemes, as long as storage and infiltration requirements are met.
Photo Courtesy of Rhodeside-Harwell, Inc.

Harwell said if the project had been commissioned in 2008 rather than 1996, it would undoubtedly been even more "green" than its current incarnation.

"If we were presented with this project today, I would go much farther than the storm water and native planting to encourage sustainability," she said. "Porous paving, powering the parking lot lights with solar energy, encouraging the use of the roof structure (which has many south facing, sloped panels) to be solar-collecting; recycle interior gray water in the building for cooling and toilet use, and use of more recycled materials throughout the project."

"I felt strongly that ecological design was important. The library was a beginning point to expand on that theory."--Faye Harwell, FASLA

Harwell added, "But, as I say, in 1996, when we were designing this, I was pushing the envelope already, getting people to understand that these methods are feasible, and cost-effective. And, there were very few products on the market to fit these concepts at that time. I'm so happy to see that using ecology as the infrastructure of design, which is a base line of all of my firm's work, has become part of the standard language of landscape architecture today, and grows in sophistication with every new project."

Project Team

  • Landscape Architect: Rhodeside & Harwell, Alexandria, Va.: Faye Harwell, FASLA; Elliot Rhodeside, FASLA; Mark Mastalerz, Amy Ransom ArnoldDesign Architect: Michael GravesArchitect of Record: Pierce Goodwin Alexander and Linville, Alexandria, Va.Civil Engineer: Patton Harris Rust Associates
  • City of Alexandria Office of Planning: Ron Kagawa, ASLA; Al Cox, FAIA; John C. Noelle

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November 18, 2019, 10:55 am PDT

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