The Great Outdoors – Projects provide new ways to work, learn, play outside
There’s nothing quite like a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns, shutdowns, social distancing guidelines and many, many days of hunkering at home to heighten desires to get outside and among people. That situation is fueling pre-existing trends in outdoor design and inspiring new ideas about how we can play, learn, work and socialize outside.
At the west end of the historic Cross Street Market, a project team from F.M. Harvey Construction Company is currently building Watershed, a new seafood restaurant by the Atlas Restaurant Group. Plans for the new restaurant include an expansive and elaborate rooftop deck.
“Simply to have bar seating outside is not enough anymore,” said Kristyn Harvey, New Business Development Manager at F.M. Harvey. “Outdoor spaces are being designed with activities in mind.”
Watershed’s deck will include a gaming area for foosball, ping pong and cornhole as well as multiple television screens and a large trellis with live plants to generate shade. To accommodate the design, crews completely removed the roof, poured a new concrete slab and added support columns to support up to 167 rooftop patrons.
Watershed is not alone in its quest to provide more elaborate outdoor hospitality space. Increasingly, restaurants and bars are developing outdoor spaces for dining, socializing and games, and often outfitting those spaces with fire pits, water features, natural products and polished concrete, Harvey said.
Meanwhile, more office property owners are envisioning workspace extending to the outdoors. Mid-pandemic, Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) enhanced redevelopment plans for its WAYLINE project in Columbia to include more functional outdoor space. The repositioned property – which was built by Plano-Coudon Construction and opened early this year – includes expansive green space and terrace, beds of native plants, moveable tables and chairs, outdoor wifi service, a yoga lawn, basketball court and food truck ally.
“The space is designed so that someone can unplug from their desk, go outside, connect with wifi and arrange the tables and chairs to either work alone or have a meeting,” said Mark Wendell, Senior Manager of Design + Development for COPT. “They could also go outside to just relax or do a yoga class, enjoy lunch or have a happy hour.”
Increasingly, design trends are providing children with expanded opportunities to play, learn, develop and relax outside. Playgrounds are evolving to include unscripted play opportunities, nature-inspired play, adventure courses and splash parks, and they are being designed to serve all kids and even kids at heart.
“If I can design a site for people who are under seven and over 70, probably anyone can use that site,” said Kristen Gedeon, Senior Landscape Architect at MK Consulting Engineers.
Universal design standards enable a playground to comfortably serve children of all ages and abilities, grandparents with mobility issues, parents who need to check their e-mail or charge a device, and children with particular sensitivities or needs.
For example, children on the autism spectrum “tend to have touch sensitivities or light sensitivities” so playground equipment can be selected to meet those needs, Gedeon said. Those children also “really like to have enclosures so we create these cool little den areas where they can hang out and feel secure. But their friends also like to come in and hang out because it’s a cool, little fort.”
Designers and engineers are not only including gardens and other opportunities for nature play on the edge of playgrounds, they are using a site’s natural features and stormwater management systems to create recreation and learning spaces. At Northeast Elementary School #2 in Baltimore County, MK Consulting Engineers added native plants to enhance existing wetlands and “designed a bridge crossing over a swale,” said Kristen Kearby, Business Executive. “Now it is a place where kids can go and learn about the water cycle.”
Meanwhile, schools are seizing on opportunities to move educational and social activities outdoors by creating more grassy amphitheaters and outdoor courtyards on school sites, and locating outdoor spaces next to music rooms, art rooms, libraries and other facilities “so that kids can go outside to do an art project, make music or read,” Gedeon said.
Just because an amenity is located outside, however, doesn’t mean that it is easy to build.
On the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the project team for Health Sciences Facility III created an expansive plaza on an ultra-urban site. Bounded by West Fayette and West Baltimore streets and surrounded by three health sciences schools, the multi-level plaza includes outdoor café space, gathering spaces, green space, tree canopy and a monumental piece of public art – a kinetic sculpture by Eric Peltzer. But creating that space took highly innovative design and engineering.
“Unbeknownst to most people, they are walking above occupied research laboratories or a massive mechanical room when they walk across that plaza,” said Bob Morelock, Principal with Site Resources.
The design team located those facilities underground partly to create the opportunity for the plaza and partly to serve research operations that needed to be shielded from vibrations. Designers and engineers also had to address the challenge of stormwater management. The large building and underground structure left only a quarter acre of available space on a 1.5-acre site with shallow depth underground that needed to manage more than 4,200 cubic feet of stormwater runoff. The multi-faceted solution involved three separate green roofs and a 71,000-gallon cistern to collect and filter stormwater for reuse onsite as cooling tower makeup water.
That plan ultimately created “an amazing civic space and outdoor amenity for the university,” Morelock said. Recently, it also earned Site Resources, Design Collective and other project partners a BUBBA (Best Urban BMP in the Bay) award, ultra-urban category for outstanding contributions to stormwater management in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.