2022 Platinum Awards for Design and Major Renovation

Atrium Design and Major Renovation

In 1969, the University of Illinois, Urbana - Champaign completed the construction of their Psychology Building. The design of the building included an 11-story open atrium surrounded by classrooms. The original building design did not include any plans for the use of the large ground floor open area, which had been finished with terracotta-colored tiles. After construction was completed, the University requested that their landscape architect design a large planter for the center of the space.

In 1970, a 40-foot-long retaining wall that measured about 2 feet deep was constructed on top of the existing tile floor. One drainage opening was added to the planting area. The original design included a water feature and several feather rock boulders. The 1970 installation also included an exterior-grade irrigation system with spray emitters. In 2020, the planter began to leak onto the tile as well as into the lower-level classrooms. The University mostly shut off the irrigation system, only leaving it on for a few minutes every week.

Many of the decades-old plants had become overgrown and weak from a lack of professional care and inconsistent watering. Without proper care, the integrity of the original design was lost; the planting had become unhealthy and unattractive. The University explored the possibility of removing the planter altogether, but determined that plan to be cost-prohibitive.

The existing irrigation system consisted of exterior-grade emitters.  Unfortunately, the soil had become so compacted that the water rolled off the surface outside the planter and onto the tile floor.

The planter was completely excavated, and the liner was replaced with a waterproof sealant. Upon inspection of the single drain, it was discovered that the drain pipe was cracked and needed to be replaced.

The poured concrete water feature was demolished and the University requested that it not be replaced. The feather rock boulders were, for the most part, still in good condition. Roughly 30-40 boulders ranging in size from 10” to 36” in diameter were repurposed during the renovation. The boulders were crucial to the new design; they allowed us to create various elevations inside a very shallow planting area.

With the assistance of the University engineering team, an A-frame gantry was set up on a wooden track to assist with the boulder placement. Our installation manager directed the team to create the boulder pattern as designed.

We selected 2 themes for the design presentation. One design was inspired by the plant material found in a Pacific Northwest forest. The other design was a Tropical Island theme. The psychology department committee selected the Pacific Northwest design.  The boulder placement, feature plants, understory plants, and ground cover plants were all highlighted to the client prior to installation.

After more than 50 years of the same design, the renovated plantscape was a breathtaking upgrade. The asbestos liner was safely removed, the fractured drain pipe was replaced, and a fresh waterproof liner was installed. The repurposed feather rock boulders were not only an important structural component of the renovation, but also provided a major design element to the renovated planter. The exterior irrigation system was replaced with drip irrigation with timer-controlled zones. Now, accent lighting enhances the specimen plants throughout the planter. Students and faculty now have a refreshed interior focal point that should give them a renewed sense of the psychological benefits of plants in an interior environment.

The end result is a stunning new interior plantscape design which fills the center of the atrium, improving a space which visitors, faculty, and students can enjoy. In addition to the aesthetic advantages provided by the fresh greenery, the psychological benefits have the opportunity to impact the flow of the space, making this atrium a possible destination for casual lunches, research meetings, and even some respite from the stresses of the surrounding classrooms.

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