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TIAA-CREF: North Carolina's Beauty Showcased

By Veronica Diaz






The water retention of the graded man-made lake is via mono-layer membranes of a very flexible linear, low-density polyethylene liner (Raven Industries RUFCO 4000B) manufactured from "virgin" resins. The 41.5 mm thick geomembrane (weighs 210 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.) has a minimum carbon black content of 2%, which provides excellent protection from UV rays and harsh weather, and it does not contain plasticizers, which can migrate to the surface and cause premature aging. The granite boulders are native to the site. The landscape architect firm Hughes, Good O'Leary and Ryan selected and placed them from those collected on site and from excavation. Fescue turf fronts the lake, as do 'Urbanite' ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and maple trees--'October Glory' red (Acer rubrum) and Southern sugar (Acer barbatrm). Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum), swamp candleberry (Myrica heterophyllia) and lead plant, aka prairie shoestring (Amorpha canescen), complete the tableau.


When TIAA-CREF Financial Services investors initially scouted locations for a new regional service center, New York City was an early consideration. But after realizing that a fraction of a block in Manhattan would cost the same as the 137 acres of prime real estate near Charlotte the company had an eye on, the equivalent of 30 city blocks, the decision to build in North Carolina came easy. The secondary consideration was that in Charlotte they would build from scratch and construct the facilities to their needs, versus upgrading a New York building.

The new site for the TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund) employees encompassed a planned two million square feet of office and support facilities alongside Interstate 85 just north of Charlotte. The corporate office project was to accommodate a 1,400-employee operation.






TIAA-CREF commissioned the "Glass Forest" for the Charlotte campus. The artist is Gordon Huether of Napa, Calif. The stream wells up among boulders, one of three sources in the garden.The fountain consultant, Hydro Dramatics, provided a pumping system to allow water to well up in the sculptural elements of the Mountain Garden and flow down to the Coastal Garden. Some 350,000 gallons of water flow through the gardens via interconnected, winding streams. Underground vaults accommodate a system that pumps 1,000 gpm minute through 2,200 linear feet of pipe--a self-sufficient, re-circulating system for the gardens. Jenkins Leucothoe (foreground left) goldstrum coneflower (mid-ground) and sourwood (Oxydendrom arboreum)--background right--supply shades of green and gold.


Atlanta-based landscape architecture firm Hughes, Good O'Leary and Ryan (HGOR) was chosen to provide TIAA-CREF with a master plan and design to meet the needs of the fast-expanding Fortune 500 company. Challenged by the CEO at the time, John H. Biggs, HGOR was to master plan and design a place to have lasting value, to be capable of displaying a corporate art program, to have educational value and to remind those utilizing the space that they were in North Carolina.

"HGOR responded to this challenge by using our SEE philosophy, balancing the social, economic, and environmental elements allowed us to please our client as well as hold to what is important to us," said Rob Ryan, HGOR's principal in charge of the project. "By transforming this depleted farmland, we created a beautiful place in which people can work and enjoy as well as produced an environmental learning tool that is sustainable and will educate generations to come.






When the TEKA light fixtures illuminate the main fountain, it's time to go home, at least for most of the employees.


"We were able to come up with a master plan that included western North Carolina's mountains, the Piedmont region in the middle part of the state, and coastal plain to the east," Ryan explained. "That led to the creation of three gardens of different styles, yet connected to each other along the eight-acre ridge."

The palette used for the design integrated nearly 400 different species including 1,000 trees and 20,000 shrubs, perennials and groundcovers. "All three distinct regions are made up of various wetland and dry environments," said Steve Sanchez, a principal at HGOR.






The 1,200 sq. ft. centerpiece fountain has dimensions of 55' x 30' plus 6' wide water gardens on each side. A 3 hp pump handles the waterworks. The fountain and planter walls are composed of limestone veneers. The steps and coping are precast concrete and the caps have a sandstone finish. Natural fieldstone paving surrounds the fountain. The fescue lawn stretches toward the building's entrance.


In the Mountain Garden, five different plant communities were used as inspiration for the various segments of the gardens. The challenge was selecting the material which could survive the hotter Piedmont since most of these plants were adapted to a cooler climate, high moisture and deep shades of the mountains, according to Sanchez. Some of these native species included heath balds, laurel slicks and spruce/fir forests.

"We surrounded employees with Canadian hemlock and tulip poplar trees, rosebay rhododendron and sweet azalea shrubs, and various vines and grasses soft enough on which to sit while also giving them the option of walking on the various fieldstone steps, lined decorative quilt flooring or wooden bridges found in the garden," Sanchez said. "Glass trees were placed in the midst of native granite boulders and shrubs as a part of the corporate art program as well."






Ah, break time. A stroll across the Coastal Boardwalk (atop a pier) gets a person off his posterior and a few moments away from the computer to reinvigorate the senses. The air is redolent of redbag (Persea barbonia) (l), American snowbell (r), autumn blaze maple and common alder (l-r back) and longleaf pine further back.


The Piedmont Garden offers employees a chance to learn more about the plants and ecosystems that surround their daily lives. These plants range from drought tolerant flora, such as post oak and water ash, to wet-loving species like silky dogwood and sweetbay magnolia. An abundant forest lines the edges of man-made lakes and waterfalls to provide employees with a quiet, serene place to rest.

"The Coastal Garden, including a beach area, provides an opportunity to bring in plenty of native species better adapted to sandy and dryer conditions," Sanchez noted. "In this area, one follows the seashell-embedded walkways lined with evergreens while learning how plants survive acidic soils. Consequently, we were able to bring in the Venus fly trap, which is endemic to the Carolinas."






A closer view of the main fountain. The foregrounds has plantings of 'Gateway' Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) with a background of evergreen trees (Cryptomeria japonica 'Yoshino'), maiden grass and swamp hibiscus. HGOR produced an educational handbook describing the plant communities that inspire some TIAA-CREF employees with ideas for their home gardens.


HGOR used a series of bodies of water to connect the garden areas, emulating the region's water flow from mountain streams to the central lakes and finally to the Atlantic Coast, said project manager Matthew Hoffman.

The Fountain and Gardens

"The fountain consultant, Hydro Dramatics, facilitated this by providing us with a pumping system that allows water to well up in the sculptural elements of the Mountain Garden and flow down to the Coastal Garden with the help of gravity," Hoffman said.



"Using our SEE philosophy, balancing the social, economic, and environmental elements allowed us to please our client as well as hold to what is important to us."--Rob Ryan, HGOR's Principal



"This enables 350,000 gallons of water to flow through the gardens by means of interconnected winding streams. Vaults buried underground accommodate a system that pumps 1,000 gallons per minute through 2,200 linear feet of pipe allowing the gardens to be a self-sufficient, re-circulating system."

Waterfalls were also created in the Piedmont Garden, using natural stone surrounded by bountiful switch grass, sensitive fern and red maple trees.






Waterfalls were constructed in the Piedmont Garden of granite collected and excavated on site. The landscape architect worked with the contractor to place the stones. The top of the falls has large slabs to create a shelf effect, with multiple steps and irregular horizontal surfaces to direct water from the shotcrete stream channel over the falls. A large, flat fieldstone boulder veneer creates the rock ourcrop and waterfall. The outcrop appears to be horizontally-laid rock strata with an irregular face. All joints are abutted tightly to appear as fissures, cracks and layers of strata. The falls are surrounded by bountiful switch grass, sensitive fern, and red maple trees.


Surrounded by water and exotic water plant species, a sand dollar plaza in the Coastal Garden was strategically placed in front of a bridge lined with loblolly pines to give employees more scenery and privacy.

The courtyard is the natural focal point connecting all the gardens. An arching row of water jets is surrounded by an abundance of native plants and flowers, flanking a carpet of soft grasses to accommodate large gatherings. Outdoor terraces also provide an opportunity to have lunch and relax among the native gardens.






he Quilt Terrace, designed by HGOR, is the second source for water in the garden. It is constructed with Cold Spring granite (rainbow, black, academy black), with Texas pink spheres sitting atop the quilt. Little bluestem (foreground), lamb's ear and Dianthus (in quilt), and, in back, sugar maple, northern red oak, Canadian hemlock and Sioux blue Indian grass complete the scene.


The aesthetic garden area is a sanctuary for employees who make use of an educational handbook produced by HGOR describing the various plant communities. One worker drew inspiration from TIAA-CREF's gardens for his home. He emailed Hoffman, "I am in the stages of planning my home garden and would love to plant primarily native species. That is why I'm interested in getting the [TIAA-CREF] handbook...."

Hearing that TIAA-CREF employees are using the handbook pleases Hoffman.

"We designed this project to give employees a place to enjoy while also gaining some education benefits," he said.






Vetterstone northern pink buff limestone 30" x 36" (foreground) and Hanover Concrete unit pavers around the Shantung maple comprise the hardscape. Employees can sit and contemplate the garden from the Ipe (Brazilian hardwood) wood benches (Colby and Glenham styles from Country Casual) and view (from left) maiden grass (Miscansus sinensic) 'Gracillimus', giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima), creeping raspberry (Rubus calycinoides) Patriot Hosta and Dwarf Mondo Grass around the center maple, and Oregon sunset Japanese maple.


Ryan concluded, "We were able to accomplish this by working with the natural elements we already had and by weaving in native plant species that we knew could survive.

In the end, we were able to stay true to North Carolina's environment, provide TIAA-CREF with an economically sustainable design, and provide employees with a social environment for them to enjoy yet also learn from."


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November 22, 2019, 2:39 pm PDT

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