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FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. — The University of Arkansas Community Design Center received two 2011 Honor Awards for Regional and Urban Design from the American Institute of Architects. The awards were for two projects that address pressing issues in sustainable design: the center’s Low Impact Development design manual and a townscaping plan for Farmington, Ark. The Community Design Center is an outreach program of the Fay Jones School of Architecture.

The AIA awards are the highest national professional honors granted to design projects in architecture, urban design, and interior design. The 30 winning projects will be exhibited at the AIA convention in New Orleans in May and will be published in Architect magazine, the official magazine of the AIA.

These are the seventh and eighth AIA Honor Awards for Regional and Urban Design awarded to the Community Design Center since 2005. The center received three awards in 2008.

Steve Luoni, design center director, said both of this year’s award-winning projects address “problems of the built environment that have no prevailing sets of solutions.” Though nonprofit community design centers aren’t generally known for quality or visionary design work, Luoni said, “we’ve shown the profession that the nonprofit sphere can do compelling design work.”

In addition, these projects involve many disciplines — moving beyond just architecture to involve urban design and planning, landscape architecture, engineering, and ecology. “They’re all fertile multidisciplinary projects, which the profession recognizes is the future,” Luoni said.

The book “Low Impact Development: A Design Manual for Urban Areas” makes complex water management concepts accessible through the visual explanations used so well by architects and designers. An abundance of photographs and drawings illustrates the issues covered in this cleanly designed, 230-page manual. Concepts include harvesting rainwater, design of neighborhood blocks and parking lots as natural stormwater utilities, prototypes for green streets, and low-impact development of open space at municipal and regional scales.

“It packages a complex set of water management technologies and allows the public outside of design and engineering to effectively implement best practices in urban development,” Luoni said of the manual. This publication is the first to devise a menu of the low-impact development facilities available, organized from mechanical to biological functioning, and based on increasing levels of treatment service (quality) and levels of volume reduction service (quantity) — akin to the periodic table of elements. The AIA jury called it “a very clear manual that should become the primer for creating beautiful and sustainable public streets and spaces.”

To produce this manual, the Community Design Center partnered with the University of Arkansas Ecological Engineering Group, under a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. Its publication was sponsored by regional nonprofits, including the Arkansas Forestry Commission, Beaver Water District, Community Foundation of the Ozarks, Stewardship Ozarks Initiative, Ozarks Water Watch with Upper White River Basin Foundation, National Center for Appropriate Technology, U.S. Green Building Council, and the Illinois River Watershed Partnership.

Marty Matlock, area director for the Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability in the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said he and his colleagues in the Ecological Engineering Group have worked on more than a dozen projects with the Community Design Center, including Habitat Trails in Rogers and Porchscapes in Fayetteville, both past recipients of AIA Honor Awards for Regional and Urban Design. Matlock, who also is a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the university, said the students, faculty, and staff in the group are honored to have served as the design center’s “ecological engineering support team.” The group has shared in some of the more than 60 awards won by the design center. “We’re winning awards because of them. I think that we make their work better, and they certainly make our work better,” Matlock said.

Matlock said the issues with which researchers are dealing are too complex for one discipline to solve. “Everything is connected, and the connections are so tight. Comprehensive design means you have to understand those connections,” he said.

Managing and restoring watersheds, issues raised in the manual, require that people understand their impact on the watershed and reduce that impact, Matlock said. “The way we design our urban landscapes affects the way the watershed functions. The way the watershed functions determines how effectively we can use the watershed for other things — for supplying water for swimming, canoeing, and drinking,” he said.

Conflicts over complex issues such as low-impact development often arise from misunderstandings, Matlock said. He called this manual one of the most “translatable” explanations of low-impact development he’s ever seen — one easily understood by a layperson, but that also informs the expert. “It doesn’t just inform them. It gives them a way to understand each other,” he said.

The other AIA award-winning project involved restoring pedestrian use to Farmington, an automobile-focused town, through transformation of its five-lane commercial highway into a multiway boulevard. The boulevard’s right-of-way would feature “urban agricultural” components or edible landscapes, combining a demand for food security with traditions of civic street design to “retrofit suburbia,” Luoni said. The townscape plan proposes a new town green with a year-round farmers market, tree-lined sidewalks that promote outdoor dining, traffic circles, and large-scale public art projects that recall Farmington’s agricultural legacy— all delivering more urban and ecological services along U.S. 62, he said.

In the last 80 years, streets have been engineered exclusively to serve motorists, Luoni said, “when, historically, streets sponsored so many other non-traffic functions.” The goal was to transform this “traffic sewer” — where the only level of service is defined by the number of cars moved per lane per hour — and return important measures of livability through great public space and a sense of place. Roads are the largest category of public space, though most people consider them a mere utility, he said. “It’s the public space that determines the health of a community, and precisely what we aimed to restore in this context-sensitive highway design.”

The AIA jury called this plan “an urban design approach that is both design driven and community oriented simultaneously. This plan proves that a place laid out originally for cars can be adapted to a future where people are connected in other ways.”

Melissa McCarville, business manager for Farmington, said hurdles to pursuing this townscaping project would be the cost and coordinating with the state highway department. Once funding was secured, work would likely progress gradually in phases.

McCarville said the plan would slow down drivers who come through and give them a reason to stop or at least realize they were in the center of Farmington. “That’s really what’s been missing is any kind of a downtown atmosphere,” she said. “We’re more of a pass-through on the way to Fayetteville.”

Those who attended public planning meetings supported the plan. “They were really impressed with the ideas and excited about the concepts,” McCarville said.

The mission of the Community Design Center is to provide design and planning solutions that manifest a “triple bottom line” — economic development, combined with social and environmental aspects, Luoni said. “I think that’s really on the AIA’s agenda,” he said, which might explain why the projects were noticed.

Though issues of the built environment are pressing, they also are rather ordinary and not very glamorous subjects. “Nonetheless, we bring robust design thinking to the project,” Luoni said. “We’re trying to make something special out of the ordinary.”

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