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Form Meets Function: Students Pair with Industry to Create Beauty and Conserve Water

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Horticultural Technology students lay the bricks for the permeable pavement patio at Barton Hall.

Close your eyes and envision this: You enter a leafy courtyard between towering arborvitae and follow a meandering path that leads you to a spacious brick patio. Here there is a remarkable sight. Clear torrents of water from a grand waterfall flow through the ground at its base and disappear. People gather around, seated on the dry stone wall capped by smooth bluestone, and talk while they wait for their food to be cooked on the inset grill. There is a plaque on which you can read the names of students who conceptualized and completed this project from its inception as well as a list of companies that generously donated their time and materials.

Known as the Barton Hall project, this is not simply a vision, but a reality. The sustainability-inspired outdoor function space was the brainchild of Professor Rene Gingras and his students from multiple classes across the Horticultural Technology curriculum and beyond. Inspiration and expertise has been required from students in Pond Design, Lighting, Ground Maintenance, Construction, Irrigation, and Garden Design and Culture since the beginning of the project. “The students said to me, wouldn’t it be great to do something that incorporates everything we learn here?” says Gingras. That got the ball rolling for this permeable pavement concept that has everyone excited about the project, including the Thompson School of Applied Science’s Director, Dr. Regina Smick-Attisano, who enthusiastically supports the endeavor. Ultimately, while students gain practical hands-on knowledge of the project in its entirety, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) gains a gorgeous function space with multiple uses, from an outdoor classroom to a twilight meeting space for industries.

The project’s landscape designer, Jaime Dusseault, is a graduate of the Horticultural Technology program and now a senior at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture majoring in Sustainable Agriculture with a focus on Sustainable Landscape Design. Like a green alchemist, she combined everyone’s vision into a design that promotes water conservation, sustainable materials, and regional flora. “My biggest focus was the patio. I really wanted to make the space useable for everyone,” says Jaime about the functional multi-use area that will be a boon to the Business Restaurant Management program and the Culinary Arts and Nutrition program, as well as the horticultural students who will gain first-hand knowledge of the native plantings.

The project has advanced in three distinct phases. The first was to excavate the clay-rich soil with the help of the Grounds and Roads department at UNH that dug a 31’ X 31’ area, a foot deep, for the rain water retention system, a grid of forty-eight interconnecting Aquablox, which holds 1,500 gallons of water. “I would have loved to collect rain water from the roofs of Barton and Cole Hall, but the pipes that carry the run-off are inside the walls of the buildings and redoing that would have just been too costly,” says Gingras, a sought-after expert in the field of irrigation with more than 30 years’ experience teaching at UNH.

The unpredictable nature of New England weather has afforded additional educational opportunities to the students. “We’ve been set back quite a bit due to the rain,” says Gingras. “We had to pump out the site five times before we could finally set the Aquablox in place . . . pumping . . . re-leveling with a laser level . . . and we had to dig out an additional twenty inches in order to place the liner and blocks.”

The second phase of the project was the installation of the permeable brick patio. Groups of students hauled bricks and tapped them into place with rubber mallets, bringing new meaning to one of John Heywood’s most often repeated quotes, “Many hands make light work.” The aforementioned English playwright and poet was also famous for saying “Rome wasn’t built in one day” and, while the cross-hatched brick design of the 1,000 square foot surface came together rather quickly, the entire Barton Hall project will likely be completed next spring.

This project would not be possible without the generous support of local companies in the industry. Daniel Gordon ’86, Thompson School graduate and founder of Landcare Associates, has sent his team to contribute labor and equipment to work with the materials that the Horticultural Technology department purchased from his company. Scott Walker ‘00, also a graduate of the Horticultural Technology program and an employee of Landcare Associates, instructed students on best practices for installing the permeable pavement patio. Gingras recalls that when Scott learned of the Barton Hall project, his response was “How come we didn’t do this when I was here?”

Another graduate of the Thompson School, Scot Flewelling ‘10, studied Horticultural Technology and then went on to complete another year in Applied Business Management. He started Stepping Stone Landscaping and is now working directly with Gingras’ students to install the two-foot tall dry stone wall perimeter, with its secure smooth blue stone cap, which provides ample seating around the patio. “I’m excited about being able to pass on what I know to others,” says Flewelling about his transition from student to teacher. As a former president of the Horticultural Club at the Thompson School, his ambition to skillfully create a work of landscape art and impart his knowledge in the process is satisfied by this endeavor.

In addition to Landcare Associates and Stepping Stone Landscaping, Aquascapes, FX Luminaire, Boston Irrigation Supply Co. Inc. (BISCO), and Hunter Industries have all made significant contributions of time and materials to the project, reducing the overall costs to UNH. “The Horticultural Technology department has contributed roughly $18,000 to this project that ordinarily would have cost in excess of $60,000,” says Gingras. In addition to the financial offset, the collaboration has helped students make valuable connections that may lead to potential job opportunities in the future.

While the water feature will be in place and lighted this November, the pump will be removed during the winter months to avoid damage and replaced again after the spring thaw. A project of this magnitude naturally takes time. The Garden Design and Culture students will install the native plantings that need a period of initial growth and, next year, the whole area will be lighted with energy efficient LED bulbs in a system designed by the Landscape Lighting class. Gingras is in the process of writing a grant for the stone wall’s grill unit, soliciting funds from the Parents’ Association that he gratefully acknowledges has been instrumental in helping to start up the Lighting and Pond classes.

This project is one of true water conservation since all the water used to supply the water feature and irrigation system, which feeds the native plantings, comes from collected rain. “I get students to start thinking about sustainability,” says Gingras. “Water has to be used correctly. The usage needs to be controlled. People need to know how much water a plant actually needs.” As increasing governmental restriction on municipality water protects the environment, it is also our responsibility to make good use of storm water. Gingras hopes that the students’ exemplary work on the Barton Hall project will lead to increased opportunities for other Horticultural Technology endeavors around campus that not only conserve and beautify the environment, but also inform the people who enjoy the space about sustainability and ecology.

Ultimately, Gingras would love to see students involved in the development and execution of a sustainable irrigation system at Kingman Farm. It has always been his objective that his students truly learn, and not just memorize, the information that he imparts in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Gingras, who is on sabbatical next year, is considering obtaining more certifications in irrigation, and mulling over the development of a sustainable irrigation class. For his students, Gingras’ message is one of following the hunger of the heart and a thirst for knowledge. “The most important thing I can tell you is to enjoy what you do,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to try something new and learn all you can about everything.”