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Finding inspiration in the trenches

Architects have embraced experimental fabrication and construction techniques, such as using computer numerically controlled machines, to dramatically expand the creative expression and functional performance of standard materials. But the same can’t be said for landscape architects, according to Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys of PEG office of landscape+architecture in Philadelphia.

The two practitioners hope to see that soon change, with a little help from a $10,000 BSA Research in Architecture grant.

M’Closkey and VanDerSys are using the BSA funding to explore how digital-manufacturing technologies can be coupled with ubiquitous landscape materials—in particular, the polymer products used for engineered ground stabilization, separation and structuring—to artfully manage stormwater runoff on small urban sites.

“We’re not making new materials but rather using common materials in new ways,” says M’Closkey, who (like VanDerSys) teaches in the departments of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. “Geosynthetics are readily available and very pervasive in landscape applications, from increasing water infiltration to retaining soil for site stabilization. We want to see how we can change their composition so that the materials, which are normally below grade, can be not only visible but expressed on the ground’s surface. It’s time we learn how to tap into these very functional materials as design opportunities.”

Available in sheet or cellular form, geosynthetics are currently limited, design-wise, by their uniform geometry. M’Closkey and VanDerSys plan to vary the materials’ cellular shape, density and profile using digital manufacturing equipment and then test the customized materials’ effectiveness through the installation of a temporary prototype on a vacant lot in Philadelphia.

Working with the Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Philadelphia’s Office of Watersheds and APM (a local community development corporation), the designers will install observation well pipes at precise points to measure and document how much stormwater is collected and absorbed. These figures will be compared with conventional infiltration trenches to ascertain the installation’s performance.

When they complete their research this fall, M’Closkey and VanDerSys plan to spread the word about their methodology and results through professional organizations for architects, landscape architects, civil engineers and public agencies, as well as through trade publications and design journals.

If the project ultimately proves successful, the designers’ new techniques may find a permanent home on another lot in north Philadelphia, as part of the city’s Green Infrastructure Initiative.

“The city is looking for innovative ways to alleviate some of the burdens on the hard stormwater infrastructure by turning vacant lots and residual spaces into active, functional infrastructure,” says VanDerSys. Given this—and with funds increasingly being directed toward infrastructure rather than toward recreational or public space—he notes that it’s more important than ever for designers to explore creative ways to use infrastructural improvements as open-space amenities. 

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, and the Boston Globe. Her website is

Top image: Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys configured geosynthetic material to manage stormwater runoff in urban areas using digital-manufacturing technologies. Photograph by Keith VanDerSys.