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Sustaining and Enriching our Urban Environment: Nature Conservancy Headquarters, Indianapolis, Ind.

by Rundell Ernstberger Associates, LLC

This is the view from the east alley and north parking lot of the new Nature Conservancy headquarters (Efroymson Conservation Center Building) in Indianapolis, Ind. The bioswale garden, which includes plantings of great blue lobelia, blue flag iris, a variety of sedges and winterberry, receives all the site's excess stormwater runoff, including overflow from a basement cistern. On the other side of the bioswale is a stone path around a prairie landscape. The alley was re-asphalted.
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The Efroymson Conservation Center (ECC), the new state headquarters for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in downtown Indianapolis, Ind., is the latest award-winning sustainable site design by project landscape architect and site design team leader, Rundell Ernstberger Associates, LLC (REA). The ECC is situated on a former industrial and commercial site. It has been transformed into a model for sustainable urban infill development, featuring an innovative site and building design.

The former NEMEC building and site comprise three masonry and timber buildings, impermeable pavements, virtually no green space, plus an unfriendly street frontage. The $4.5 million building and site project (total is $9 million with land acquisition, endowment, and furnishings) was completed in April 2010. It includes the 20,000 square foot ECC, native gardens, flexible outdoor spaces, parking and one of the most progressive stormwater systems, all contained on a one-acre site. The site design achieves a balance between showcasing native Indiana landscapes and providing functional outdoor spaces for employees and visitors. The site and building promote and facilitate the conservation of energy resources and strive to be truly sustainable.

From the north parking lot the path to the Efroymson Conservation Center Building passes through native gardens and bioswales, which infiltrate runoff from site pavements and any cistern overflow. The site's naturally sandy soil allows high infiltration rates through the perforated pipe detention system below. An oak savanna and mesic forest will evolve over time. The savanna delights visitors with species such as black oak, New Jersey tea, western sunflower, false dragonhead and prairie dropseed.

The development of a sustainable site like the ECC is not surprising from TNC, an organization that has been active in conservation for decades. The conservation organization has protected nearly 700,000 acres of forest, wetlands, caves and prairie throughout the state since 1959.

After leasing facilities in Indianapolis for 34 years, the TNC Board decided in 2006 it made long-term financial sense to build a new headquarters in the economically emerging, highly urban Cole-Noble District, located on the near East side of downtown Indianapolis. The district, known for its Georgian, Federal and Art Deco architecture, is home to a large variety of small businesses, condo and apartment buildings and landmarks like Easley Winery and Harrison College. The Cole-Noble district is named after the Cole Motor Car Co. (1909-1925) and Noah Noble, Indiana governor, 1831-1839.

Locating TNC on Ohio Street in Cole-Noble contributes economically to the city, and most importantly, situates the Nature Conservancy staff and leadership close to government and business partners. The Efroymson Conservation Center location provides an opportunity to showcase their statewide work through highly visible native gardens, promotes sustainability by providing easily accessible building tours and gives local board members the opportunity to share TNC's mission with current and potential donors.

The west side parking area features highly-reflective permeable pavers, a stone pathway, brick site walls constructed of salvaged bricks from the old site and a perennial garden separated from a stone surfaced meeting space with no-mow turf. These nonirrigated gardens of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials cover roughly 14,000 sq. ft. of the site, screening parking, softening edges, providing seasonal color and displaying species not normally seen in urban environments.

The Efroymson family's philanthropic commitment to the city, TNC and conservation inspired high expectations for the development. Designing and building the ECC with a completely "green" approach became the vision for TNC's building committee, who sought a creative design team to fulfill their vision and provide services from conceptual design through construction administration.

From the project's inception, the primary site design goal was to share TNC's mission of protecting ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. In addition to expanded office space, outdoor gathering spaces, field operation staging areas and sufficient parking, TNC's highly sustainable design program called for eliminating runoff to the combined sewer overflow system, gardens of native plant communities, cutting edge green building and site systems, plus achieving Platinum certification, the highest level in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system.

The former NEMEC building vs. the new Efroymson Conservation Center. The old site comprised three masonry and timber buildings, impermeable pavements, virtually no green space, plus an unfriendly street frontage.

Landscape Architect's Role
REA's ability to manage all the various design parameters and lead the site design team was critical in meeting these goals.

"Early charrette-style meetings with the whole design team and TNC enabled REA to define clear sustainability and LEED goals for the project," explained REA's Brian McNerney, the project manager. "The vision for the employee and visitor experiences on the site was clearly dependent upon our ability to create a highly functional site design, along with a planting plan that takes your imagination to rural Indiana landscapes."

REA was privileged to provide landscape architectural design services to a visionary client, a talented and innovative design team, and a unique and trend-setting project. REA's role as the landscape architectural consultant included leading three site design subconsultants, site programming, schematic design, design development, construction documents and construction administration. In addition, the coordination of site design elements with all design team consultants, and coordination of native planting design with TNC's in-house experts, was critical for REA. The design team worked with TNC to develop multiple conceptual site design schemes, which were refined during schematic design, design development and construction documentation. Throughout the design work, REA was guided by the LEED Platinum goal, TNC's mission, a fixed site budget, and the desire to find creative and unconventional solutions.

The front of the building parallels Ohio Street. The landscape here represents limestone glade and prairie landscapes. Native plants not often seen along Indianapolis sidewalks include red cedar, pale purple coneflower, woodland sunflower and little bluestem.

Sustainable Design Solutions
The following site design features highlight the success of the ECC site design. The parking and field operation staging areas are minimal in size and quantity to meet employee needs and help to maximize green space. Roughly half of the site is covered by pervious surface treatments, allowing potentially harmful runoff contaminants like phosphorus and nitrogen to be filtered at the source. These areas also double as special event space for various TNC fundraising and community events. Highly-reflective permeable pavers and concrete pavement allow sheet-flow drainage to enter one main bioswale.

A 16-foot high green modular retaining wall (Hercules LiveWall) represents the cliffs of southern Indiana. The sloping and spacing of the wall to the building allows natural light to the basement level rooms and saves space on the site for more native gardens, creating cost savings by reducing the need for more upper level building square footage. From these basement rooms, the staff now looks out on plantings of columbine, maidenhair fern, wild geranium and wintergreen.

Stormwater Management
The bioswale is a distinct native garden receiving all of the site's excess runoff, including overflow from a basement cistern. Native plant species within the bioswale include great blue lobelia, blue flag iris, a variety of sedges and winterberry. TNC hopes the bioswale will spark conversation about properly controlling erosion across the state. In addition to the bioswale, the comprehensive stormwater management system capitalizes on the site's highly permeable soils: gravel and sand below five feet of soil, which results in zero site runoff. The achievement of the design team to allow no excess runoff to leave the site helped eliminate the need for stormwater infrastructure connections to the city's combined sewer overflow system (CSO), which resulted in significant savings for TNC and will save the city in the long-term an estimated $700,000 in CSO system savings over 30 years.

The ECC's stormwater strategy is a model for helping to alleviate city-wide problems with the CSO system. During a heavy rain, Indianapolis' CSO does not have the capacity to hold large quantities of water, often resulting in the discharge of pollutants into waterways. In the past, the ECC site might have contributed 20,000 gallons to this problem during a one-inch storm event. For years the city has grappled with how to replace, improve and expand its capacity to move high volumes of stormwaters and sewage without dumping them into local creeks, streams and the White River. There are no easy, quick, or cheap solutions, but trendsetting efforts like those of the ECC earned TNC the Indianapolis' first Sustainability Award in 2009 in the "water" category ( Green roofs, the bioswale, permeable pavements, a cistern and vast green space combine to achieve these stormwater management goals.

The lower-level green roof is 500 sq. ft. and incorporates a 24-inch depth planted system: Litetop "intensive growing media" and a drainage and water retention element (Gardendrain GR50, Hydrotech). The recycled polyethylene molded panels have retention cups on the top side, drainage channels on top and bottom and holes in the tops of the "domes" for ventilation and evaporation. The retention cups are filled with lightweight aggregate.

Retaining all of the site's runoff onsite presented an opportunity to construct vast native gardens, representing Indiana's natural regions and TNC's conservation work throughout the state. These nonirrigated gardens of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials cover roughly 14,000 sq. ft. of the site, serving to screen parking, soften edges, provide seasonal color, and display unique species not normally seen in urban environments. The south landscape welcomes visitors into a limestone glade and prairie. Natives not often seen along Indianapolis sidewalks include red cedar, pale purple coneflower, woodland sunflower and little bluestem. Employees entering the ECC from the northern parking lot are greeted in the morning with an oak savanna and mesic forest that will evolve over time as the tree canopy develops and TNC introduces a variety of species representative of current and future state properties. The savanna will delight visitors with species such as black oak, New Jersey tea, western sunflower, false dragonhead and prairie dropseed. TNC staff can see native plants, including tulip poplar, black walnut, dogwood, redbud, Virginia bluebells, wild ginger, Jacob's ladder and maidenhair fern in the mesic forest just outside their windows. The vast palette of nearly 80 native species creates a seamless transition from exterior to interior spaces and vice versa. All the while, native gardens are planted over the geothermal energy field, which includes wells as deep as 38,000 feet. The inclusion of this "green" energy feature in a highly functional area and heavily planted landscape illustrates the close coordination between the landscape architect and the work of the entire design team.

The extensive second level green roof (7,500 sq. ft.) employs a 4-inch tray system (LiveRoof). The tray modules are made of 100 percent post-consumer polypropylene. In this system, "soil elevators" are placed in the trays, then filled with engineered growing medium. Plants, nonnative sedum species in this case, are grown to about one-inch above the modules. The trays keep the soil intact and act as sponges when it rains (bottom photo).

Green Wall
Another planted feature is the 16-foot high green wall, which represents the cliff sides of southern Indiana. The green wall brings natural light to the basement-level Meyer board rooms and saves space on the site for more native gardens, creating cost savings by reducing the need for more upper level building square footage. Visitors in these spaces will not feel like they have descended into a dreary basement, but will be exposed to a backdrop of columbine, maidenhair fern, wild geranium and wintergreen.

Green Roofs
There are two green roofs: an intensive, 24-inch depth planted system (500 sq. ft.), and one extensive 4-inch tray system (7,500 sq. ft.). The green roofs reduce the heat island effect, absorb water and carbon, while emitting precious oxygen. The green roofs are functional in a variety of ways, but perhaps most importantly, they provide visual interest. The extensive roof features nonnative sedum species, but they are adequately contained and pose little threat of spreading undesirably. A component of the building's "gray water" system is supplemental irrigation water for the green roofs and native gardens, which is sourced from a basement cistern. Stormwater overflow from the green roofs feeds the cistern for several nonconsumptive uses.

Bluestone paving from the back parking lot leads to the center's north entrance. The native gardens become an extension of naturally-lighted interior offices and common areas. Just outside their windows TNC staff can look out on native plants in the mesic forest of tulip poplar, black walnut, dogwood, redbud, Virginia bluebells, wild ginger, Jacob's ladder and maidenhair fern.

While the native gardens and stormwater system are the ECC's key features, numerous others contribute. An outdoor gathering space for staff meetings and informal gatherings lies amongst the native gardens. Natural stone boulders, crushed aggregates, and site walls constructed from NEMEC building salvaged brick (4,000 sq. ft. total) are examples of local and recycled materials that contributed to the LEED goal. The LEED goal was also helped by renewable energy features, such as two future wind turbines in the limestone glade, and space for future solar panels on the upper extensive green roof. Minimal site lighting contributes to the sustainability of the site also. Two strategically placed light poles provide safety in parking areas and eliminate light pollution offsite, while small LED pavement markers guide visitors on main pathways.

Project Attributes

  • Unrelenting pursuit of sustainability goals, from concept to construction to post-occupancy.
  • No additional site runoff directed to the combined sewer overflow system.
  • Native gardens, accessible to the public, illustrate the conservation work of TNC.
  • Site's evolution as an environmental education center and native plant laboratory.
  • Site design that responds to TNC's outreach strategy, a sustainable urban infill development model.
  • Signature project for Indianapolis that demonstrates the landscape architect's role in innovative, sustainable urban design.


Owner / Project Team

  • The Nature Conservancy, Indianapolis (owner)
  • Rundell Ernstberger Associates (landscape architecture, site design leader)
  • Axis Architecture + Interiors (architecture)
  • EMH&T (civil engineering)
  • Elements Engineering (civil engineering / LEED)
  • LandTech Irrigation Consultants (irrigation consultation)
  • Circle Design Group (mechanical, electrical, plumbing engineering)
  • Lynch, Harrison & Brumleve (structural engineering)
  • Wilhem Construction (general contractor)
  • Kreager Brothers (site / utility contractor)
  • Becker Landscape Contractors (landscape / pavement contractor)

Featured Site Design Materials

  • Permeable Pavers - Aqua-Loc - Hanover Architectural Products
  • Recycled Parking Stops - BA 133-1017 - Parking Stop Source
  • In-Grade Light Fixtures (LED) - Centaur Series, C2X - Design Plan
  • Pole Light Fixtures (LED) - Eclipse - Lumec
  • Green Wall - Hercules Standard - LiveWall
  • Bench - Arcadia - Landscape Forms
  • Green Roof, Extensive (2nd level) - LiveRoof, Standard ('Modern Mix') - LiveRoof
  • Green Roof, Intensive (1st level) - Litetop Intensive Growing Media / Gardendrain GR50 - Hydrotech

Firm Profile
Rundell Ernstberger Associates (REA), established in 1979, provides land planning, urban design, and landscape architectural services. The staff of 18 includes six registered landscape architects and 10 graduate landscape architects in three offices in Indianapolis and Muncie, Ind., and Louisville, Ky. REA has participated as prime consultants to municipalities, governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, private institutions and universities in more than 20 states. Creative approaches to master planning and site design, a career-long focus on sustainable site design and its ability to organize and manage multidisciplinary design teams have allowed REA to work on a wide variety of projects. Rundell Ernstberger Associates has been recognized by its peers in landscape architecture as a leading firm in the Midwest, and has received more than 50 local, national and international design awards.

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June 26, 2019, 12:01 pm PDT

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