Amphitheater High School’s Outdoor Classroom: a study in the Application of Design

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Design Theory

There are many ideas of where the design process begins, and how it should develop. Something which seems to be universally identified is that the process has many interpretations. No one methodology typically addresses all the needs or specificities of any project. Some design methods may be overly involved, or not involved enough. I have selected an authority on the topic of site design for Landscape Architecture. Norman Booth, author of the “Basic elements of Landscape Architectural design”. Though the book is older, it offers a solid structure for the process. He provides that each of the facets of the design process will be expanded upon through other readings. Booth posits that success of design is dependent on thought combination of all design elements, only when they work together do they have the ability to meet the objectives set forth by a project. He further states that there are four uses for the design process; it provides a logical framework, it ensures the appropriateness of a design, that it helps to determine the best use of land, and it serves as a way to justify a design to a client. The steps for the problem-solving process include, project acceptance, research and analysis, design, construction drawings, implementation, and post construction evaluation.

The research and analysis phase requires the creation of a base plan, site inventory, client interview, and program development. The base plan should show property lines, topography, vegetation, water, buildings and associated infrastructure and utilities, walls, roads, and any other immediate off site conditions. Inventory provides a comprehensive list of details, including neighborhood character, site conditions, Hydrology, Soil, vegetation, microclimate, views, spaces and sense of spaces, and site function. Booth provides an example client interview for a residential home, while the interview contains questions that are not pertinent to the site of this project it does show the need importance of gathering the input of the client, which in this case is the teachers, faculty, students, and community of AHS. Some relevant questions that are mentioned in the client interview, revolve around maintenance of the site, and budget for the project. The development of a program requires three parts; a list of goals and objectives, a list of elements to be included in the design, and a list of any other special requirements. Goals are defined to be statements of intent, where objectives are statements which define how those intentions will be carried out.

The Design stage of the design process is organized into the ideal functional diagram, site related functional diagram, concept plan, form composition studies, preliminary designs, schematic designs, master plans, and final design development. The ideal functional diagram identifies the most appropriate relationships between functions and their spaces; how functions relate to each other and, whether they should be near or apart, closed or open. Site related functional diagrams establish the same relationships, but are created with acknowledgement of the scale, and physical context of the site. Concept plans are the product of the previous diagram mated with the site analysis portion of the design process. Concept plans, are built in layers, and begin show property lines, structures, major functions, relevant changes in topographic form, view sheds, and points of conveyance. At this stage major functions are defined as entrances, paths, vegetation (grouped by their height, or composition), or where different activities take place. Form composition study precedents, and preliminary designs work with those to develop themes based on the context of the site. By the time the preliminary master plan is reached, all design elements are considered down to the materials of elements, surfaces; plants are defined by their general size, form, color, and described by terms like “ornamental tree”, or “Screen hedge”. Master plans are then created after reception of feedback from the client concerning the preliminary plan. (Booth, 1983) Though schematic drawings, construction plans, and eventual implementation are key components of professional practice, however the process described, are beyond the limited scope of this project.

Two components of the design process require more in depth exploration than the discussion provided by the Booth text include site analysis, and conceptual diagramming. Many of the texts provided for site analysis should be appreciated for their face value as an annotated checklist of items which must be accounted for when trying to piece together elements found on a site. One document created by created by Floyd Zimmerman, FASLA, is considered essential reading by the American Institute of Architects. In an Excerpt from the Architects handbook of Professional Practice, Zimmerman contends that the importance of site analysis lies within its ability to help us understand the value of a piece of land, by determining its capability to perform in a specific way given the context of politics, environment, and regulation. Zimmerman states there are four services provided by professionals in site analysis; they may help with the selection of a site; with the definition of the programming for that site, understanding the opportunities and limitations of a site with respect to the previously determined programming; and to address any special issues or concerns on the site. Zimmerman goes onto to state that the task of good site analysis, is too much for an individual to take on, and that it should usually be delegated to a team of people, from differing backgrounds, who can account for all aspects. Beyond these insights, Zimmerman provides a comprehensive checklist of physical, cultural, and regulatory factors which should all be considered in the analysis of a site. (Zimmerman, 2000) While Zimmerman does say that it is important for there to be a set of interdisciplinary team members, much of what he is discussing is for assessment at a much broader scale, than the rough acre of land that is being looked at for this project. In the Site Planning and Design handbook by Thomas Russ, we are offered a similar checklist, with different insights, but with the addition of recommendations of where to acquire information. Russ argues that site analysis is the most important phase of the design process because the more complete the analysis is, the less revision that will be necessary later in a project. Surprisingly, Russ concedes that most of the work done in the analysis phase is not based on the generation of new data, but instead collects data which is already present. The value is not in the amount of data, but in how it is synthesized, and made relevant. Russ continues by providing information on where to acquire that information; soil maps are available for free from USGS, and plant hardiness zoning maps are available through the USDA. Russ recognizes the need to account for sun orientation across seasons, and acknowledgement of the changes in the climate for lasting performance of designs. According to Russ, observation of existing vegetation is an indicator of the character of a site. Additional consideration is given to vegetation where Russ places value on mature trees, and the importance of acknowledging local regulatory practices with respect to protected plant species. In this same section Russ provides a table to be used for evaluating the condition of a tree which may be used later on. Consideration should also be offered to historic developments, and local ordinances for projects, which are typically available as free information to the public. Finally, Russ stresses the importance of what is now known as universal design, by making accommodations to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the guidelines for which can be found on the website for ADAAG. (Russ, 2009) This consideration is of particular interest to the design of this project; one of the major benefits of garden based learning, is that it providing learning opportunities which are relatable to people of all different backgrounds. Russ also offers a check list of items for site analysis. By combining, and removing unnecessary elements from both of Zimmerman, and Russ checklists, an appropriate benchmark can be created for the project at AHS.

The other facet of the design process in need of expansion is the process of conceptual site design. This intermediary is important for the development of multiple ideas. Becoming anchored to a single concept for a site has the potential negative consequence of hampering the ability of a site to meet the needs of a program developed from a well-informed analysis. The conceptual design phase prevents stagnation. Landscape architect, James A. LaGro jr. authored “Site Analysis Informing Context-Sensitive and Sustainable Site Planning and Design” a textbook which offers many standards to follow for the design process, including conceptual designs. LaGro begins his section on conceptual design by offering the advice of “Design with nature; design with culture; design for people”. This references meshes well with the principles that are meant to guide the Outdoor Learning Classroom for AHS. LaGro acutely notes that in the early stages of design restrictions for a site can actually be the least difficult to design; sites with little to no restrictions are able to be programed any of a multitude of ways, and are thusly more difficult to determine a design efficiently and effectively. To place conceptual design into context Site Inventory is explained to be the process of fact finding, Site analysis to be the assessment of suitability of a site, while conceptual design focuses on the creation of solutions. The creation of good design solutions is dependent on what LaGro terms the creators “design vocabulary”, which is best expanded through study of the environment, images, note keeping, and most importantly, sketching. Expansion of the design vocabulary advances the creators understanding of design theory, which LaGro posits should be comprehensive in knowledge of both natural and built and environment. All the best theory has little value without application during conceptual development. LaGro states that “this investment can pay substantial dividends by improving the quality of the final site plan, which—ultimately—impacts the character, livability, and sustainability of the built environment.”, from this foundational statement of import, LaGro suggests that the reader make use of four steps of conceptual development, as written by Ian McHarg’s design with nature. The first step is to identify primary and secondary areas of conservation, conserve the most sensitive natural areas, to minimize their fragmentation to link those spaces where possible. The second step is to identify areas most suitable for development, and to separate them into “pods and envelopes” which are defined as programing and functions. The Third step is to identify the hierarchy of circulation in the space. The final step is to add information to the concept plan, which develop the “character of pods”. LaGro adds that at all stages of the conceptual design, that the detail of concepts is largely determined the scale of the site, where multi-acre sites might specify a “seating area” a small backyard would show approximate seating placement. LaGro suggests that different phases of conceptual diagrams should be layered over one another, and also specifies graphical conventions, like the use of polygons sometimes referred to as bubbles to signify programming or activities, lines use for showing pathways, and edges, points to show landmarks, nodes, and entrances, and the use of precedent photos which show design intent. In addition to instruction for the instruction of creating diagrams, LaGro makes the suggestion to examine patterns of circulation, and categorizes them into linear, grid, loop, radial, and spiral. Finally, LaGro asks that designers consider the impact of any development, whether it maintains existing zoning, addresses natural hazards, maintains natural features and views, and minimizes any negative impact (Jr., 2013). While some of the considerations asked of by LaGro may not be appropriate for the scale of the site, it provides a strong consideration of how to begin the conceptualization process.

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