In the late 1870s, Frederick Law Olmsted expanded the
purview of the profession by taking on the Muddy River’s chronic
sanitation problems. Defying conventional engineering practices,
Olmsted made the hydrologic system visible, redirecting the
flow of the river and restoring the area’s original
salt marshes. The success of this project demonstrated that
landscape architects could take control of crucial aspects
of site engineering, and in so doing, assume the ecological,
economic, and political power needed to effect lasting environmental
and cultural change.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., approached the
project with a simple strategy: They graded the entire 22-acre
building site at five percent to place the factory on a level
base, so that water would sheet drain from impervious areas
into wetlands they constructed for the purpose, thereby eliminating
the need for curbs, pipes, and manholes. The parking lot was
divided into three bays that drain into wetlands planted with
grasses, forbs, and sedges. When dry, these areas become meadows.
The edges of these wetland trays transition to 10 to 15-foot-wide
thickets of floodplain trees.
Using hydrologic management as an engine of this project’s
design, the landscape architects extend Olmsted’s lineage
with hydrologic systems to a new project type: the rural factory.
We showed the client how to redirect money from the engineer’s
budget and use grading, planting, environmental stewardship,
and site organization to integrate stormwater management into
a vast factory system. In our scheme, parking became part
of a thriving ecological system that neutralizes the impacts
of runoff, provides habitat for wildlife, and offers a compelling
arrival and departure experience to the three-shift factory’s
The Herman Miller furniture manufacturing
and assembly plant is situated on a 70-acre site in rural
Georgia. The project’s
modest building and site budget included no provision for
landscape architecture before the architects invited Michael
Van Valkenburgh, Inc. to join the design team. The client
required parking for 550 cars and 120 semi-trailers—a
total area of 10 acres. Runoff from the parking surfaces,
the roadway, and the roof of the 330,000 square-foot facility
would have had a devastating impact on the surrounding fragile
creek ecosystems. The landscape architects determined that
treating and slowly releasing the massive runoff in the landscape
must become an essential priority for the project.
By integrating ecology into acres of hardscape in an honest,
elegant manner, this project creates a new model for low-cost,
low-maintenance, environmentally sound factory landscapes.
This model could be applied with equal success in suburban
and urban areas and demonstrates how landscape architects
can take a lead in linking effective hydrological management
with good design.