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American Society of Landscape Architects


May 2006 Issue

News from a Suburban Watershed
“Site repair” drives the design of the Gannett company campus.

By Vernon Mays

News from a Suburban Watershed Tim Hursley

 In planning its move from the reflective glass towers of downtown Arlington, Virginia, to a more suburban site in nearby McLean, media giant Gannett Company, publishers of USA Today, fixed its gaze on a boomerang-shaped parcel of land in a corporate office park. The 30-acre site, wedged into the intersection of the Capital Beltway and the busy Dulles Airport Access Road, was a mixed bag of parts: a sloped meadow made of fill dirt, an unsightly stormwater management pond, and a wooded hill that offered a prospect over the entire site. By the time Michael Vergason, FASLA, got involved in the discussions, Gannett’s representatives and their architects already were working under the assumption that the best location for the new corporate headquarters was on the highest elevation, which boasted a stand of mature oaks.

It was prominent. It was relatively unspoiled. And, says Vergason, it was exactly the wrong place to build.

At any rate, that was the controversial opinion offered at a design team meeting by Doug Hays, ASLA, a senior designer at Michael Vergason Landscape Architects of Alexandria, Virginia. Instead, Hays offered this alternative: Why not build on the less desirable part of the site, replant and restore the spoiled portions, and preserve the prime real estate as a kind of park and recreation zone?

With a little prodding, the direction of the project took a radical turn, resulting in a world-class corporate campus that embraces environmental stewardship with a design that seamlessly blends building and landscape. Through an intense collaborative process with Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects (KPF) of New York, the design team accommodated the integration of the Gannett Company headquarters with the news operation for USA Today in a natural setting that has been reconstituted, rather than preserved. But it took some doing to get there.

From the beginning, Vergason recognized it was a complicated site, particularly from a regulatory standpoint. Key among the hurdles to overcome was the stormwater management pond, a 5-acre outholding that is a catchment for a 270-acre watershed. Owned by WestPark Development Corporation, the office park’s developers, the pond acts as the stormwater management facility for the headwaters of Scott’s Run, whose watershed encompasses a large portion of Tysons Corner, a mammoth “edge city” development north of Route 123 and east of Route 7. The pond’s outfall is at the intersection of the Dulles Access Road and the outer loop of the Capital Beltway. The Fairfax County Department of Environmental Management performs yearly inspections of the outfall structure, dam, and emergency spillway because of their role and location.

In addition, the county monitors a series of natural resource corridors that are generally organized along the stream valleys. Improvements within these corridors receive a higher level of scrutiny, Vergason says. Stringent height limitations and setback requirements on the site were part of the development proffers and design restrictions that came into play because of the proximity of McLean Hamlets, a residential community immediately across the Dulles Access Road—not to mention that the WestPark development has its own restrictive covenants. “Every move we made had to be approved by two other entities that were very, very restrictive,” Vergason recalls.

Despite the tangled regulatory web, Vergason was encouraged by the fact that the site’s natural systems offered a sense of order. Its three fundamental components—the lowland, meadow, and hilltop—suggested a way to approach the landscape design. “These components of land form, vegetation, and water actually reinforced one another,” Vergason says. “And this realization was the precursor to the discussions that you leave the high portions alone, develop the spoiled low portions, and take the stormwater management pond and improve it and make it presentable.”

Vergason’s site design had to account for USA Today’s requirement for large square footage on a single floor for the news operation. As the designers began to think about the need for oversized floor plates and parking for 2,000 cars, they realized much of the hilltop would have to be cut away to accommodate the building program. “In the end, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, they would have ended up losing what it is that is attractive about the site to begin with,” Vergason says. “The scale, and the particular character of the big floor plates, meant that the alternative site and the program were more compatible.”

Vergason advocated an ecological approach to the site design. He used the broad principle of “site repair” as a kind of conceptual basis for the entire project. Simply stated, it means to improve portions of the site that are in poor condition, and leave the beautiful or healthy parts alone. “The idea behind this principle is very simple,” Vergason adds, “but it is often the exact opposite of what usually occurs.”

Although the concept of “site repair” is as much philosophical as it is prescriptive, Vergason was pragmatic in the way he channeled the energy and resources of the client to reclaim the spoiled site as a by-product of the building’s construction. Today a walking path meanders through a grassy lawn and past a healthy, riparian environment that replaces what was essentially a dump for poor-quality waste soil. The lower portion of the site now includes a new wetland that incorporates lush, natural herbaceous and aquatic plantings where none had existed before. Even the existing woodlands were restored following a detailed tree survey and development of a comprehensive plan that called for control of exotic species, removal of dead, diseased, and declining trees, and selective planting of new indigenous trees and understory plantings.

An important part of the process was the architect’s exploration of design alternatives that first studied the possibility of a building tower, then a series of buildings, and finally a series of buildings that define an outdoor space. The scheme incorporating buildings that shape a space gained momentum when Vergason’s office produced a series of analytical sun/shade diagrams. Those diagrams demonstrated the merits of a building with a southeast-facing opening that would catch sunlight in a sheltered microclimate. In addition, that building orientation—the final choice—shielded the outdoor space from much of the highway noise.

Getting the building in the ideal location allowed the other pieces of the landscape design to fall into place. Ultimately, KPF’s fragmented scheme for two office buildings linked by shared spaces yielded a U-shaped plan. With its angled surfaces and glass fins, the building has a crystalline quality. The individual identities of Gannett and USA Today are maintained with two low-scale office blocks that extend into the landscape and embrace an open courtyard. In that void, Vergason created the landscape’s centerpiece—a terraced green space organized by rusticated stone walls that define the lawn and planting areas along with runnels, pools, niches, and slot stair passages.

As inspiration for the asymmetrical arrangement of the angled stone walls, Vergason recalled the pattern of felled trees that randomly collect on the floor of wooded hillsides and naturally slow and direct groundwater, facilitating its cleansing. “This is seen often in a mid-Atlantic deciduous woodland when the trees that fall parallel to the slopes are caught by standing trees and remain in place,” he says.

Today a tranquil stream of water meanders down the slope, collecting against the fieldstone walls, falling over edges, and slithering through bluestone runnels and weirs to the next collection point. Generated from a combination of recirculated water and surface runoff, the stream originates in a pool created next to a large boulder. Pickerelweed grows thick in the water, along with duckweed that puzzles some of the company’s employees with its algae-like green clusters.

Trees and understory plants associated with moist soils and riparian conditions—such as tulip poplars, black gums, willow oaks, and sweetbay magnolias—sweep up into the courtyard, providing shade and shelter. The occasional London plane tree, or sycamore, provides a change of scale. Large beds of ferns and Siberian iris flow along the runnels and the pools, while climbing plants such as Boston ivy and Virginia creeper soften and green the stone wall facades.

The building’s spacious lobby overlooks the courtyard and a lotus pool that abuts the glass facade. The idea behind the pool was “aesthetic in part, maybe in total,” says Vergason. “It was intended to be reflective in mood—a beautiful juxtaposition of vertical reflective surfaces and horizontal ones.” On a sunny day, with the water level in the pool matched exactly to the finished floor inside, the space seems to rush from inside to out.

Shiny metal tubes rising from the pool release sprays of water that resemble umbrellas. Others simply gurgle forth a stream of water that splashes into the pool. “We always imagined this as a field of lotus with the droplets of water beading up and bouncing across the leaves,” Vergason explains. The lotus plants were added in the fall of 2004, so this part of the design is still coming to maturity.

More than two acres of landscape cover the building exterior in a series of planters on the second- and fourth-floor terraces. On these floors, occupants can step directly outside into a landscaped environment. The landscape “delivers all the benefits of a green roof—of thermal control, of stormwater reduction, and access to green,” Vergason points out. Semishrub trees such as sumac, embellished with daylilies, coreopsis, and ground cover, occupy the shallow, two-foot soil beds. Honey locusts are planted in beds that are 36 inches deep.

The fourth-floor terrace also features thriving honey locusts, with a simple palette of a variety of evergreen and deciduous perennial ground covers such as liriope and hosta. On the back side of the building, facing the highway, a narrow strip of tall grass occupies a small terrace outside the executive offices. “The effect and the intent were to look out from those interiors across a little patch of meadow to woods beyond, with minimal maintenance.”

The largest and most complicated aspect of the project was the stormwater management pond, because so many entities had to be satisfied. Vergason’s appeal to WestPark and Fairfax County was based on three factors: “One, that we were not altering the main pond shape, dam, spillway, and engineered hydraulic capacities of the pond. Two, that the alterations proposed for the overflow structure would not change the original design function and would provide access for periodic maintenance. And three, that we would maintain or enhance the wildlife habitat of the pond.”

Once he got the buy-in from all the key parties, however, Vergason was able to make major improvements to the pond. First, to increase the pond’s ability to function as a collector, he altered the portion closest to the building by raising the elevation a foot and a half and replanting it heavily in riparian vegetation to create a forebay and wildlife habitat zone. In addition to what was planted, more than one-fourth of the landscape surrounding the pond consists of native willows, cattails, and sycamores that have volunteered in the five years since the building opened. “But the casual quality of that is good,” Vergason adds.

Held back by a new weir wall, the upper portion of the pond settles out sediment by stilling the initial outflow of water from the site, and the plants take up nutrients before the water falls into the lower pool. The introduction of the weir wall also created areas of gradual deepening and shallow areas for submergent and emergent plantings to complete the environmental components of the pond, Vergason explains. “We could not change the precise configuration of the 100-year flood line of the main pond, as it was part of the legal description of property exchange between Gannett and WestPark,” he adds.

The lower half of the pond is regulated by control–release weirs concealed beneath a deck that was built on the far edge of the pond. The weirs govern the flow of water from the pond into an existing streambed. Behind the deck structure is an emergency overflow that, during unusually heavy rainfalls, releases water through a small woodland stand into a drainage swale, then through a culvert under the Dulles Access Road into Scott’s Run on the opposite side of the highway.

Water is pumped up from the stormwater pond and runs back through the stepped vegetative pools in the courtyard, where it is aerated and cleansed. Vergason expresses a hint of frustration that the roof leaders from the building go directly into the stormwater pond, but he says it was one of the concessions to the fast pace of the project. “Due to time constraints, we did not want to tie the approval of the building—and thus the roof downspouts—to the design of the stormwater management pond. As it stands now, the roof drains flow directly into the pond, where ideally they should have been part of the runnel and pool system that retains and slows the water prior to it entering the pond.” The good news, he allows, is that the runnels collect everything except for the roof water, and they do it in a manner that structures the site. Stormwater also is used for the landscape’s irrigation.

Rising high beyond the pond is the wooded hill that once was the prime development target. Now this section of the site is a recreation zone, housing a ball field that’s actively used by the company’s softball league. In addition, a walking trail weaves up to the hilltop and back along the edge of the pond, and a space is carved out for a volleyball court.

Considering the gains made here as a result of Vergason’s touting an environmental agenda, the landscape at Gannett/USA Today is a model for other corporations to follow. “But it certainly is not groundbreaking,” says Vergason. “It is the kind of thinking you’d like to think most corporations adopt. There are two important things about it: First is the emphasis on the relationship between the inside and the outside, both visually and physically. Second is an environmental ethic, some effort to deal with environmental issues in a positive fashion. Neither one of those ideas is novel, but I think this project is a good illustration of the application of principles that are not new, but are not always applied.”

And, as Vergason is quick to add, the project benefited greatly from an integrated design approach, so that all the central spaces of the building wrap around the central outdoor space and all of the public circulation faces the space as well. The outcome is that people on the outside see activity within the building and people on the office floors have constant visual contact with the outside. So, in the final analysis, the greatest strength of the Gannett/USA Today complex may well be its process, a high-level collaboration between two closely related professions—architecture and landscape architecture—that don’t always connect.

And in this business, that’s news.

Vernon Mays is Curator of Architecture + Design at the Virginia Center for Architecture and editor of Inform, the magazine of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects.

Project Credits Client:
Gannett Inc., McLean, Virginia. Development manager: Hines, Washington, D.C. General contractor: Clark Construction Group Inc., Bethesda, Maryland. Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox, New York. Landscape architect and land planning: Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, Alexandria, Virginia. Civil engineer: Huntley, Nyce & Associates, Annandale, Virginia. Fountain mechanical consultant: Aqua Engineering Inc., Fort Collins, Colorado. Irrigation consultant: Lynch & Associates, Annapolis, Maryland. Environmental and horticultural review: Biohabitats Inc., Timonium, Maryland. Arboriculture consultants for woodland restoration: The Care of Trees, Gaithersburg, Maryland. Landscape and irrigation contractor: The Davey Tree Experts, Chantilly, Virginia.

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