July 17, 2012  4:45 PM

Shattuck Hall Ecological Learning Plaza brings nature and research to an urban setting

Plaza under construction

Shattuck Hall Ecological Learning Plaza during construction at Southwest Broadway and College Street. The completed plaza officially opened July 10. (PSU Department of Architecture photo)

If public spaces are the region's living rooms, the Shattuck Hall Ecological Learning Plaza on the campus of Portland State University is living room plus outdoor research laboratory.

Built on the former site of the campus public safety office at Portland State University, the plaza's striking free-standing vertical living walls, native and exotic gardens and eco-roof display draw in passers-by to take a closer look at the lush, plant-heavy walls or sit a spell on the hand-crafted wood furniture.

But it doesn't take long for a visitor to sense something more is going on at the open-air plaza next to busy Southwest Broadway at College Street than casual conversation.

The ecological learning plaza is a new venue on the PSU campus created to display and test innovative low-impact urban development practices, design ideas and building prototypes.

Three living wall systems

The living wall project is a temporary installation that will change every two years to feature innovative technology and answer new research questions.

Encouraging the use of low-impact development practices

The goal of the hands-on research conducted on the site is to help developers, builders, architects and other professionals in the development community better understand the benefits versus costs of green walls, eco-roofs and other systems to encourage their use on future projects.

Three different green wall systems are installed side-by-side in each vertical wall to provide comparisons in water use and performance over time.

"The plaza has two personalities," says Jeff Schnabel, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture of Portland State's School of Fine & Performing Arts and the project's coordinator.

"First, as a research laboratory, we'll be conducting our green wall studies, collecting data on how much water they use, the rate at which water moves through the systems and monitoring the temperature for two full growing seasons."

"But regardless of what else we do at the plaza, it will always be a public space that is fully accessible," says Schnabel. "People can reach out and touch the plants and see what we're doing here."

A sloped ecoroof

The slope of the eco-roof is a factor in the research to test water use and different growing mediums.

Making water use and temperature data available online

As research progresses, data gathered from monitoring water use and temperature will be available online to developers, builders and the public.

Other researchers will be tracking the aesthetic and ecological performance and operational costs of the living wall systems.

"To understand urban ecology, we need to be allowed to do research and make mistakes," says Taryn Mudge, architectural staff at SRG Partnership Inc. and former volunteer coordinator for the plaza project. "The learning plaza is the place to do that."

The information will be posted on the project website at www.pdx.edu/eco-learning-plaza.

Access to the data provides developers a first hand understanding of how the living wall systems and eco-roof use water and perform in different seasons, factors that can drive the decision to incorporate the systems into their next development project.

Water use is also being measured for a garden bed of native species plants and one of exotic species. "This is the most diverse planting on the PSU campus," says Keith Nevison, student garden liaison at the Portland State Institute for Sustainable Solutions. "There are over 100 species of plants here – all drought tolerant."

Addressing questions about low-impact development

Metro helped formulate the ideas for the living wall project and, with Portland State, held a workshop for the development community to determine what kind of research questions developers were interested in having answered.

The living wall research installations were funded through a $65,000 grant from Metro for installation and design work in addition to an allocation of $90,000 from Portland State University.

Two living wall systems were designed by local firms, Nevue Ngan Associates and SolTerra Systems. The third system is manufactured by a national firm, Tournesol Siteworks.

"This is the kind of catalytic investment Metro likes to make," says Metro President Tom Hughes. "These are home-grown specialists who understand how to make these designs successful. This is a key economic development tool for us."

"Green building and green structures are one of the exports of the Portland metro area that can be replicated in Shanghai, Dubai, and all over the world," Hughes added.

Students lay cobblestones on the plaza

Cobblestone pavers salvaged from historic Portland streets were hand laid by students. (PSU Department of Architecture photo)

Partnering with students and local businesses

The Coalition of Students Interested in Ecodistricts provided green infrastructure for the site including a state of the art irrigation system and a photovoltaic powered monitoring system.

Much of the labor was provided by students, donating thousands of volunteer hours throughout the last four years to everything from implementing the plaza design, planting the gardens, building the outdoor furniture and hand laying the historic cobblestones on the plaza.

The pavers were individually positioned in a bed of permeable material, creating a stormwater management system that provides a walkable surface and rich design element to the plaza.

The overall design concept of the plaza was developed by a team consisting of Nevue Ngan Associates, Metro and Portland State University's Green Building Research Lab, Jennifer Sharp of facilities and planning, and the Department of Architecture.

"This is going to be a required stop on all campus tours from now on," said Portland State President Wim Wiewel at the July 10 grand opening ceremony. "Given the university's motto – Let knowledge serve the city – what better way than to bring a research laboratory out where the people can enjoy it."

Peggy Morell can be reached at 503-797-1542 or peggy.morell@oregonmetro.gov. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.

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