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Hands-On Systems for Sustainable Learning
Wisconsin's Western Technical College

by Ryan Peterson, PLA, ASLA; Bruce Niedermyer, PLA, ASLA; Jen Cross, PLA, ASLA, RDG Planning & Design


The Western Technical College courtyard in La Crosse, Wis., comes to life at night with rounded LED 'MTR' light columns, LED 'Notch' bollards and compact 7682 LED spot lights that accent the campus trees. The new trees include white and river birch.

As one of Wisconsin's premier technical colleges, Western Technical College provides relevant, high-quality education in a collaborative and sustainable environment that changes the lives of students and grows the community. Their mission has been carefully articulated through the built environment in a space near the center of their Downtown La Crosse campus known as the Integrated Technology Courtyard.

Located just blocks from the Mississippi River, the college has spent the last 10 years renovating a significant portion of the facilities and grounds. These improvements have helped create the college's trademark -- "Essential Experience" -- which helps attract and retain students by providing real-world learning opportunities within a modern campus environment.


Looking east from the courtyard to the sunset, the courtyard terminates with a stormwater retention area with Tamarck trees, a design that mimics the bog adjacent to the campus.

Working with this mission in mind, the college set out to create a place where students could connect with the outdoors, embrace their campus as a living laboratory and find respite from their hectic schedules. The idea that this urban campus can serve the students as an outdoor oasis, while also educating them about the natural processes of sustainable site design is a powerful story--a story that has earned the campus recognition as a valued part of the La Crosse community and has supported recruitment of students, faculty and staff to the college. RDG Planning & Design, working out of its Dubuque, Iowa office, was selected to complete the second phase of the pedestrian mall that extends an east-west corridor through the campus (June 2012 LASN article #16569). This project was master planned in 2008 and was part of a larger site development project around Western's newly renovated Integrated Technology Center, a campus building celebrated for bringing different disciplines together into one collaborative environment.

The site was largely turf grass and concrete and lacked any meaningful gathering space. However, the space contained many mature trees--a critical design feature that was seamlessly integrated into the new improvements. Western is a proud member of Tree Campus USA, so this project presented a prime opportunity to preserve and protect these trees for generations to come.


A 50 kWh photovoltaic array in the parking lot offsets 5% of the Integrated Technology Center's energy consumption. The array's design includes a real-time monitoring system that lets students and educators understand its performance, track energy trends and see how the harvested energy offsets building demand.

The design team included landscape architects, water resource engineers, architects, electrical engineers, lighting designers, artists and structural engineers.

Using Nature As a Guide
The overarching design motif takes cues from a rare indigenous ecotype of the Driftless biome in southwest Wisconsin known as the "tamarack bog." Editor's note: The "Driftless" is a region of deciduous hardwood forests and limestone bluffs. The tamarack bogs comprise a canopy of tamarack and black spruce, with scattered paper birch and white pine. The bog is dominated by rosemary, Labrador tea, bog laurel and early low blueberry. These tamarack bogs are naturally found within the college's school district and in areas that have remained relatively undisturbed from development or agricultural practices. The courtyard has elements that relate to the tamarack bog and its significance. Whether it's the bold paving patterns and arching precast concrete walls drawn from fallen tamarack needles, or the bioretention cells that are literally depressions in which tamarack trees reside, the design engulfs users without being overbearing.


The colorful and railed suspended walk over the bioretention area integrates with the adjacent paving pattern through steel bar grating and native black locust planks. Stainless steel 'Bola' bike racks run along the building's planting bed, which is edged in limestone.

The generous pedestrian circulation pathways are constructed from a mix of standard and permeable unit pavers that visually connect with the adjacent campus amenities, providing meaningful access through the site. The paths were designed with ease of snow removal and maintenance in mind. The prescribed native plant palette offers diverse seasonal interest, filters stormwater and eliminates the need for lawn care.

One of the signature design elements is the suspended boardwalk above the central bioretention cell. The boardwalk is a mixture of steel bar grating and native black locust lumber that smoothly integrates with the paving patterns. The boardwalk provides the necessary site circulation, while allowing users to connect within the stormwater best management practices occurring in the middle of campus.



The courtyard hardscape (Unilock) combines charcoal colored Eco-Priora permeable pavers designed with spacer bars that created a 7mm gap, flanked by 'Promenade' plank pavers in a variety of custom colors--chamois, sandstone and medium and dark brown. The seat wall has surface mounted 'Skate Stops'.

More than Meets the Eye . . .
As a LEED Platinum project, the landscape architects led the site design and coordinated several significant efforts:

• A 50KWh photovoltaic array offsets 5% of the Integrated Technology Center's energy consumption. The array's design includes a real-time monitoring system that lets students and educators understand the current performance, track energy trends and see how the harvested energy offsets building demand.

• A 15,000-gallon water reclamation system near the courtyard's eastern border collects rainwater and discharges waste water. The cistern helps offset 100% of the irrigation demands for the campus' six block length, and also keeps over 3 million gallons of water from the city's storm sewer system on an annual basis.

• A 350-ton geothermal network of stormwater best management practices helps the building operate 50% more efficiently than similar facilities.


• A series of stormwater best management practices, including permeable pavement, soil quality restoration, rain gardens and native plantings, remove over 640 pounds of sediment a year. This yields a 25% reduction in runoff for the 10-year storm and over 1,600,000 gallons of water infiltrated per year.

Concluding Thoughts . . .
Whether it's a young student reading a book between classes, an instructor teaching a horticulture class about native plant life or a local business owner out for a stroll during lunch, this courtyard is a space that allows users to feel at one with nature and with themselves. Embracing this unique urban landscape allows users an opportunity for passive learning and often provides a visual cue to the rural areas where many locals spent most of their adolescence. What was once a passive pass-through space is now an interactive courtyard with purpose.

Jen Cross, PLA, ASLA, judges the project a "context-driven design that engages users' experiences, offers opportunities for greater biodiversity, integrates sustainable practices and creates a distinct space with purpose."


Locally sourced native limestone distinguishes the campus monuments and seat walls.

The Team
Civil/Electrical Engineering, Landscape Architecture, Lighting Design: RDG Planning & Design
General Contractor: Fowler & Hammer, La Crosse, Wis.
Irrigation Design: FRS Design Group, Spring Green, Wis.
Structural Engineer: JPSE, LLC, Des Moines
General Excavation/Site Prep: Strupp, Inc.
Site Electrical & Lighting: Poellinger Electric
Landscape/Hardscape/Irrigation Contractor: Winona Nursery, Winona, Minn.

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2017.

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February 26, 2020, 9:17 am PDT

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