Nearly every community in the Houston region will include a water plant, wastewater plant, lift stations and detention ponds. So why is it that these necessary components are so negatively visible in some communities — and almost invisible in others? In rare instances, some of these components actually work to beautify and enhance communities!
So what’s the difference? We think there are three.
- Creative Engineering
Ponds are square with a 30’ maintenance berm, right? And plant facilities require a 6’ tall chain link fence with barbed wire on top – the TCEQ says so, right? Bolted, galvanized tanks are best since they require the least maintenance, right? No, no and no! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these ideas, but they are just the starting place. There is so much creative license in engineering that is so rarely exercised.
There are two main arguments many engineers will give – maintenance is concern number one and anything else adds cost (covered below). There is validity to both arguments. As engineers, it is important that we consider the end operator (City, Utility District, etc.) and how effective the design will be. We also have to keep the end user in mind which is often Joe Public. He drinks water from the water plant, flushes his toilet and hopes not to flood during large rain events – all things that require sound engineering. But Joe also has to drive past all those public facilities on his way to work every day and he has to walk his dog around the neighborhood every night. Don’t you think he might enjoy his life a bit more if he was able to have a detention pond disguised as an open space? Or drive past a water plant that is barely noticeable because of the quality wall and landscaping surrounding the plant? ****He might even pay a little more for his house and HOA fees to be able to enjoy those added features!****
In the end, nothing can or should replace sound engineering, but the expectations of developers and homebuyers now demands that the box that engineers used to work inside of get shelved and replaced with creative thought processes.
- Thoughtful Planning and Landscaping
As planners and landscape architects we are to take opportunities and constraints into consideration at the beginning of the process. The goal is to try and turn all the constraints into opportunities but this will not always be possible. During the design process of a community which is anticipated to have some, or all, of these utility elements the planners need to coordinate with the civil engineers to determine sizing and all optional locations for the water plants, wastewater plants and any lift stations. They also need a firm grasp from the developer and civil engineer on budgets, cost anticipations and cost/design implications of the alternative sites. Once the planner has this information he or she can take the utility puzzle pieces into account, along with the other site given opportunities and constraints and begin laying out the community.
Though something must be adjacent to these utility sites the goal is to not have it within views along, or from, the marketing trail (the path which people travel to and into the site to get to the model homes and amenities). Though you can hide with walls and landscape the better located from heavily viewed areas the less wall and landscape cost there will be to hide them.
Sometime the site constraints won’t allow the location of these utilities to be out of view. That is when walls and landscape become the best option. The landscaping needs to be designed for year-round screening and interest. The amount of landscape and wall aesthetics depend on budget limitations and distance from which they will be viewed.
Detention ponds have another possibility the others do not. They themselves can be an amenity if located and designed as such. Typically, with equal or slightly more cost than a square concrete box, these can be organic and landscaped if the projects goals, visions and budgets align to allow this. The catch phrase these days is Low Impact Development, but we have been conveying water through surface channels for a long time. Now, it’s good marketing to meander and landscape these then put them on display.
- Insightful Development and Investment
The last piece of the puzzle in creating communities that look at necessary infrastructure as opportunities to enhance the lifestyle of the residents is a developer with insight, creativity and – sometimes – the willingness to open the pocketbook to make early investments with hopes that the investment will pay off in the long run through higher lot and home prices. Don’t get me wrong, there are times with efficiency is key to making a project work and we’re scraping every teaspoonful of dirt to balance a site. On those projects square pond and galvanized tanks are the way to go – and we’re thrilled to be a part of those projects. But there is certainly something special about being a part of the team that creates memorable communities. I’d love to name a few, but I’d hate to leave anyone off of that list! As engineers, planner and landscape architects, we can have the greatest ideas in the world, but it’s not our money that we’re spending. Our designs have to match our clients’ pocketbooks, and we should adapt to meet those challenges, or exceed those expectations depending on our clients’ needs and funding.
I hope that this short post will encourage engineers to stretch their comfort zone, planners and landscape architects to bring creativity to the real world — and for developers to push their consultants to do just that! At Costello and 7gen, we’ve seen those things first hand and we are excited to meet the challenges that our developers bring to us. If we can help do that on your next project, don’t hesitate to give us a call. If you are a consultant that has had a chance to make a difference by creative engineering or thoughtful planning, please feel free to leave a comment below for everyone to see.