Adjacent to the campus’ new pedestrian mall, between the gymnasium and the Student Activity Center, this 25,000 SF courtyard is a mecca for student activity. The existing site suffered from a number of problems: tree canopy conflicts, drainage issues, inoperable fountains, a clogged cistern, highly compacted soils, monoculture plantings, and a lack of usable or inviting spaces for students. To address the multitude of problems and create a vibrant new courtyard, we established three primary goals to guide us in our design process:
Each goal was identified by gathering information regarding the existing conditions, discerning the clients’ objectives, and then developing a solution while staying true to our firm’s commitment to supporting local biodiversity, sustainability and resiliency.
To create a distinct landscape character, we created a unique planting palette with lots of color and seasonal interest, distinct from the formal, evergreen plantings of the adjacent pedestrian mall. The native planting palette includes species for rain garden plantings that remediated the site drainage issues, and can respond to varied conditions. To foster social interaction, we created a variety of spaces for students: the Tree Deck, the Entry Court, the Fountain Promenade, and the Fire Lounge. To increase ecological function, younger trees whose canopy conflicted with the heritage trees were removed, soils were decompacted, the cistern was restored and tied to the new water feature, and biodiversity was bolstered.
Trees as Design Catalyst
The University views its historic heritage Live Oaks as a key part of the student experience and an identifiable feature of the campus. The Courtyard hosts a number of heritage Live Oak and Pecan trees, ranging from 25 to 50 caliper inches. Originally, these trees were exposed to high foot traffic volume resulting in compaction, buried root flares, and heavy canopies, all of which were detrimental to their health and longevity. When the root flare of the 50-inch Pecan was exposed, it created a bowl shape around the tree, dangerous for students. A wrap-around deck spans across this obstacle, protects these historic landmarks and encourages students to enjoy the generous space and shade that the trees create. The deck is designed to minimize footings and also includes removable panels so that the University arborist can easily care for the tree. Underneath the heritage trees to the south, the Fountain Promenade deck has been sited to cut off a social path, and create a rain garden around the storm drain.
Student Oriented Gathering Spaces & Connections
A series of outdoor rooms within the courtyard respond to existing social paths, security concerns, and building entrances. We created a range of spaces for student use by readapting a number of existing site elements, reconfiguring the site circulation, and adding creative plantings and materials.
At the Entry Court, the large, stone cistern was restored and planted with bunch grasses, adding movement to this sunny space. Nearby, concrete fountains were repurposed as benches and raised steel planters that add color and provide areas to gather or wait for friends.
The Tree Deck provides an accessible walkway up and over the root zone, and seating areas beneath the tree canopy encourage more passive forms of engagement near the root zones. Moveable furniture allows students to adapt the space to their needs, and a loose sense of enclosure is provided by the new raised steel planters with perennial plantings.
The Fire Lounge area invites students to relax and unwind. Below the Live Oak canopy, a student-engineered, geometric steel structure supports up to eight students in colorful hammocks. Rain gardens surround the “hammock island,” limiting visitors from venturing too far off-path and into sensitive tree root zones.
Throughout the project, we worked to emphasize campus identity while providing students with a full sensory experience that encourages them to stop and linger outdoors. We achieved this through thoughtful planting and material plans that come together to create a diversity of spaces. In accordance with the Landscape Master Plan, we created a drought-tolerant understory with year-round interest. By preserving the on-site stone cistern and planting it with tall native grasses, we created a seasonal focal point and a screen for nearby seating. The stone and native grasses are juxtaposed by steel planters, which bring structure to the site and host more formal plantings. Permeable pavers create a firm surface that is better for the heritage trees and allow infiltration. These materials reflect and enhance the character of the campus, while further grounding students with a sense of place.
The University of Texas Student Activity Center Courtyard design provides students with a unique respite from the classroom and the bustling campus. Its success comes from protecting heritage trees and better utilizing the space their canopy creates, diversifying the planting and juxtaposing materials, and creating more direct circulation routes for students. Through these design techniques we have created a range of spaces – social gathering areas, active space for recreation and quiet nooks for study – all of which give students the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the campus environment throughout the year.
Architecture: McKinney York
Project location: Austin, Texas
Design year: 2018
Year Built: 2019