The Grand Opening of the EcoCommons
By Cathy Brim APRIL 19, 2021
At the corner of Hemphill Avenue and Ferst Drive sits a lush, green, 8-acre treasure — a study in ecological sustainability, innovative pedagogy, and individual contemplation.
Known as the EcoCommons, the space is a far cry from the dated Beringause Building and surface parking lots that once occupied the area. It is an extension of 80 acres of greenspace throughout Georgia Tech’s campus that follow the original naturally occurring stream paths of this region before urbanization. These revitalized greenspaces are designed and engineered to reduce stormwater runoff while also supporting increased biodiversity and living-learning laboratories on campus. Within the most recently completed 8 acres of the EcoCommons are three distinct programmed areas — an area to engage, an area to learn, and an area to reflect.
Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera is already a frequent visitor. “In the Institute’s new strategic plan, we pledge to lead and inspire by example — to become a model of efficiency, sustainability, ethics, equity, and inclusion through deliberate innovation in all our practices,” he said. “The EcoCommons beautifully showcases each of these values.”
In recreating the original Piedmont woodland that previously existed on the site, the first step after demolition of Beringause and parking lots was extensive soil amendment. Several tons of compost and biochar, a charcoal substance, were added to adjust the soil pH to a level that would allow plants to thrive. Significant grading of the area preceded the planting of more than 600 new trees, 68 transplanted trees, tens of thousands of new perennials and shrubs, and an abundance of ferns and grasses. Several specimen trees (those with high historic or ecological value) were preserved and anchor the eight diverse planting zones: forest, woodland, wetland, meadow, grove, prairie, lawn, and granite outcropping. As this complex landscape matures, the EcoCommons will delight in every season.
The Stickworks art installation, by renowned nature artist Patrick Dougherty, beckons visitors to enter and investigate the woven sapling fortress perched atop the granite outcropping near The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design. The sculpture, constructed with the help of over 100 volunteers from the campus community, will remain in place with minimal maintenance for at least two years. A flat, grassy area adjacent to the sculpture is an ideal spot for a picnic and a panoramic view of the landscape. The most anticipated element of the EcoCommons design, three stainless steel play slides, were recently installed among the granite boulders. The design encourages purposeful engagement with the landscape, supporting Georgia Tech’s commitment to fostering well-being for all community members.
Adjacent to the contemplative grove is a raised circular meadow of prairie grasses surrounded by hammocks, bistro tables, and chairs. Two small yellow flags rise above the grass next to what looks like a small solar panel. While students may choose to relax in this area, the landscape itself is working —constantly studying the environment and transmitting data via sensors and meters placed throughout the entire EcoCommons. More than 20 devices are installed either in the ground or attached to light poles and all are connected to the LORA-WAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) Internet of Things (IoT), a networking protocol wirelessly connecting battery-operated “things” to the internet. These sensors will measure air temperature and humidity, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, carbon dioxide levels, soil moisture, and water depth/pressure.
An aerial rendering of the EcoCommons design.
To determine these data categories, a project planning committee invited individuals from the Georgia Tech research and academic communities to participate in a stakeholder focus group. Through online surveys and personal interviews, the project parameters were established, and facilities business analysts monitor the data. Information is collected every 30 minutes from each sensor and the data is stored on a server managed by the Georgia Tech Research Network Operations Center. This ecological data will be available to students, researchers, and campus operators beginning in May.
The EcoCommons is the result of years of planning and design, a collaborative effort between Capital Planning and Space Management and Facilities Design and Construction. It supports Georgia Tech’s commitment to the health and well-being of its campus inhabitants, serves as a performance landscape in support of responsible stewardship, and honors its history while pointing the way to a sustainable future.