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Leading design firm shows how to take the parking out of the parking lot. Interview with Walter Schacht.

Walter_schacht_RGB  EDITOR: Walter, we are working with you on two campus parking lot projects that have been accepted as pilots for the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) – the nation’s first rating system for green landscape design, construction and maintenance. With the pilot officially launching today (May 25, 2010), can you share with our readers why you are investing time and energy in this process? WALTER: As a design firm, we feel we have a responsibility to take the lead in shaping sustainable standards that will result in better, more environmentally sound designs. With the SITES pilot, we have the opportunity to field test the guidelines on two college campuses in Washington State – Olympic College in Bremerton, and Peninsula College in Port Angeles. In addition to believing this process should help these campuses directly in future planning, we anticipate the lessons we learn will benefit the larger community.

When people think “parking lot” they think cars and carbon emissions, they don’t necessarily think green; what qualifies these particular parking lots for the SITES project? I appreciate that people might wonder how an infrastructure project focused on vehicles could possibly be sustainable. But by piloting two separate parking lot projects, we’re addressing two permutations of a very common infrastructure typology. The Olympic College project is a new parking lot to accommodate growth. The Peninsula College project is a renovation – they’ll actually have less parking in the end. We believe applying SITES to these projects is going to be very useful, and it seems the Pilot Selection Committee agrees with us.

Shouldn’t we just be looking at getting rid of parking lots? Not every campus is well-served by mass transit or safe non-motorized routes, and that’s the case with both these colleges. Given that, the challenge is how to design a parking lot that encourages the use of these alternatives to single occupant vehicle (SOV) use. In both projects, priority parking will be provided for carpools, and the Peninsula College design includes a multi-modal station in the lot as well as a central drop-off for people traveling in vans. We also want to encourage alternatives to fossil fuel consumption. With the new parking lot at Olympic College, we’ve designed in conduit to accommodate electric vehicle parking stations. We’re currently looking at a few experimental stations, but the conduit should allow for larger capacity in the future.

Aerial photoPC So you’re talking about using parking lot design to change the SOV culture? Yes. That’s certainly part of it. With the Peninsula project, we’re renovating a parking lot that is the “front door” to the campus. Reducing the parking surface dramatically (roughly 15%), and introducing landscaped natural drainage areas, will convey a very different message from the car-oriented message given now. Also, the campus has a significant presence where it’s located; improving its natural aesthetic will have a huge improvement on its relationship with the surrounding neighborhood. 

PC color plans all plans (1)

 What should we be looking for on a sustainable parking lot? Aesthetically, surface lots should look like landscaped areas with some space for parking within them. Functionally, these projects should address stormwater runoff quality and quantity issues as well as the heat island effect often associated with parking surfaces. With the Peninsula College project, we’ll be treating on site 100% of the water that used to flow directly – and untreated — into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. With the Olympic College parking lot project, we may end up with a lot that provides greater infiltration capacity than actually required – so it will be able to serve a larger area in the future. The plan calls for using porous pavement (asphalt or concrete), more rain gardens than technically needed for the newly paved area, and taking advantage of a natural sloping toward one corner of the lot. On both projects, generous amount of vegetation will mitigate the potential heat island effect.

What would you tell the owner who is contemplating a sustainable parking lot? First of all, step back. Look at the entire property and determine how the infrastructure project fits into the larger scheme of things. You don’t want to invest in a complicated, expensive project that down the road upends your overall site utilization. Second, take advantage of the existing topography. We have a strong impetus towards natural solutions rather than structural ones. They add value, and frankly, they end up being less expensive.

Walter Schacht is Principal and Project Architect of Schacht Aslani Architects, founded in 1996, and providing planning and design services for a wide range of projects, from community buildings to academic facilities, religious facilities, museums, and private residences. Elizabeth Powers of O’Brien & Company is providing SITES Management services for the pilots. Photo Credit/Peninsula College: Wayne Parslow, Skytech Aerial Photo, LLC.

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