The University of Utah
College of Architecture + Planning
Landscape Lab: Williams Building Landscape

Landscape Lab: Collaborative Re-Design of the Williams Building Landscape

The Williams Building property in the University of Utah’s Research Park offers a unique opportunity to host a demonstration project for the Red Butte Creek Strategic Vision. In partnership with the Office of Sustainability, the Global Change and Sustainability Center, campus facilities and planning, and the Real Estate Administration, the CEPD has convened a collaborative design process to re-create the landscape of the Williams Building property. Led by a landscape architecture consultant, the research design team has worked to weave ecological and social-impact research questions into the new landscaping process so that the University can benefit from an ongoing investigative and learning relationship with this piece of land. The project will restore native ecological diversity and function to this portion of the Red Butte Creek watershed; increase access to recreational space for occupants of the building, the campus community, and the public; and test research questions about urban stream restoration, urban runoff management, hydrology, use of public space, and more.

This project is funded with support from the Real Estate Administration for the University of Utah Research Park.

Project Investigators:

Sarah Hinners, Ph.D.              Diane Pataki, Ph.D.               Brenda Bowen, Ph.D.             Rose Smith, Ph.D.

Landscape Lab Master Plan

Landscape Lab Master Set

Background and Research Questions

The Landscape Lab is an ecological revitalization project next to Red Butte Creek, a tributary of the Jordan River, in northern Utah. Located on the campus of the University of Utah, it serves as a research, education, and demonstration facility for both the university and the broader community. The Landscape Lab is designed to explore and embrace relationships at the intersection of ecological, social, and engineered systems. It also serves as a reference project for the University of Utah’s Red Butte Creek Strategic Vision, allowing researchers, planners, and facilities managers to test out sustainable and regenerative strategies for broader implementation. Scientific experiments (“designed experiments”) are embedded in the design of the landscape; in this way, it represents “Campus as a Living Lab” in practice.

At the core of the Landscape Lab is the idea of urban stormwater as a valuable resource. Stormwater green infrastructure (SGI) is an approach to managing stormwater in urbanized landscapes that attempts to mimic pre-development hydrologic processes, thereby mitigating some of the negative impacts of development such as urban stream syndrome. In general, SGI applies a variety of engineering and design strategies to slow runoff, infiltrate and recharge groundwater, and filter stormwater through soil media and living ecological communities. As such, SGI lies in the domains of civil engineering (stormwater infrastructure functions), landscape architecture (the shaping and design of living landscapes), and urban ecology (ecological systems integrated into the urban fabric). The Landscape Lab is designed to employ bioretention  – depressions in the landscape that hold water, give it time to infiltrate into the ground, and allow for uptake of water and nutrients by plant and microbial communities.

The Landscape Lab has the potential to test many different research questions. In fact, we invite researchers to come and do research here! The basic research questions we’re addressing cover multiple disciplines and include the following:

Ecological Research: 
-Do native plant communities outperform horticultural and/or non-native plants in bioretention systems? Performance metrics include water balance, nutrient uptake, irrigation requirements, establishment, and reproduction.
-Does the new landscape attract and support greater biodiversity? The main performance metric is pollinator abundance and diversity.

Social Research: How do people value the new landscape in terms of aesthetics, sustainability or ecological function, and do they use it more/differently?

Maintenance: How does the landscape alter irrigation needs compared to the turfgrass it replaced? What are the maintenance needs of the new landscape versus turf grass in terms of labor, equipment, and materials?

Monitoring (Engineering Performance): What is the impact of the Landscape Lab on storm drain flows to Red Butte Creek? What pollutant reductions, if any, are observed?

This figure shows flows in the storm drain below the Landscape Lab for a storm in April 2018 (pre-construction) compared with the storm in late April of 2021 (post construction). Note that the 2021 storm was a larger storm, and that there was increased impervious area in the drainage area because of new construction, yet the discharge was significantly reduced. (The Connor Road storm drain also receives runoff from other areas of Research Park in addition to the Williams Building property.)

Experimental Design and Methods

The Landscape Lab consists of 9 stormwater bioretention basins and surrounding landscaping.

Basins 1-8 capture stormwater runoff from the Williams Building and the Myriad Building, their associated parking structures, and landscaping. Basin 9 captures stormwater runoff from about .21 acres of paved roadway via a curb cut.The main 8 basins are paired such that an upper basin receives the stormwater first, then the second basin serves to capture any overflow if the capacity of the upper basin is exceeded. There is a final overflow to the storm drain system at the bottom of the second basin in each pair.

The pairs of bioretention basins were designed with two replicated planting treatments, “native” and “optimized”. The native treatment was selected based on the idea that native ecosystems will perform best in local conditions. Thus the plants chosen are all native to the Wasatch Front (as referenced in Arnow 1977 Flora of the Central Wasatch Front). In contrast, the optimized treatment removed the restriction on locally native plants and permitted designers to use plants that may be horticultural varieties or non-native but are generally thought by local professionals to be high-performing in a water conservation landscape.

“Native” plant mix
Scientific Name Common Name
Artemisia tridentata Big sagebrush
Mahonia repens Creeping Oregon grape
Rosa woodsii Wood rose
Rhus typhina Tiger eyes sumac
Fescue idahoensis Idaho fescue grass
Chrysothamnus nauseosus Rabbitbrush
Deschampsia cespitosa Tufted hair grass
Sphaeralcea coccinea Scarlet globemallow
Penstemon stricta Rocky Mountain Penstemon
Arctostaphylos uva ursi Kinnikinnick
“Optimized” plant mix
Scientific Name Common Name
Schizachyrium scoparium “Blaze” Little bluestem grass
Prunus besseyi “Pawnee Buttes” Western sand cherry
Helianthemum nummularium Rockrose
Rhus typhina “Bailtiger” TIGER Tiger eyes sumac
Geranium sanguineum Bloody cranesbill
Bouteloua gracilis Blue grama grass
Mahonia aquifolium “compacta” Dwarf Oregon grape
Echinacia purpurea “sunset” Sunset coneflower
Aquilegia caerulea “Rocky Mountain” Rocky Mountain blue columbine
Philadelphus microphyllus Littleleaf mock orange

All bioswales were unlined. The bottom of the swale consisted of exposed native soil and rock, with a 12” layer of planting soil in the bottom of the swale. The planting soils consisted of the native soil from the site with amendments. Three composite samples (three subsamples each) were taken from three large piles of soil on-site during the excavation phase and sent to the soils testing lab at Brigham Young University for texture, contaminant, and nutrient analysis.

Based on the initial lab tests, the soils were amended with compost to bring the organic matter content to 5% in the native treatment and to 10% in the optimized treatment. Both treatments were also amended with equal proportions of wood chips generated by tree thinning on-site during the project. For the optimized treatment only, additional NPK fertilizer was added as per the lab recommendations for drought-tolerant shrubs and trees.

The sides of the bioretention swales and the areas between swales are covered with weed control fabric and were planted in 6” of native topsoil plus 2” of compost mixed in. The entire site was covered with 3” of rock mulch. Boulders came from Mountain Valley Stone (Peoa, UT).

The sides of the bioretention swales and the areas between swales are covered with weed control fabric and were planted in 6” of native topsoil plus 2” of compost mixed in. The entire site is covered with 3” of rock mulch. Drip irrigation is installed throughout the landscape, with individually-controlled zones.

Instrumentation and Data Collection

Each basin contains one soil moisture sensor pit near the inflow to the swale. Additionally, swales that receive direct storm water input (the first swale in each pair) have a second soil moisture sensor pit near the outflow of the swale. Each pit contains soil moisture sensors at three depths: 20cm, 50cm, and 80cm. Soil moisture sensors are METER Teros 11.

Flow sensors (not installed yet): stormwater flow into each basin will be calculated by measuring water depth in each storm drain with Flowline DX10 Echopod sensors coupled with Manning’s equation to calculate flow.

Data Streams

The Landscape Lab is part of the Wasatch Environmental Observatory (WEO), and it takes advantage of existing instrumentation and data collection along Red Butte Creek. Data streams from the Landscape Lab will be part of the WEO data collection available on Hydroshare.

Automated, in-situ measurements:

  • Weather station data at the Green Infrastructure Research Facility (GIRF)
  • Cottam’s Grove (upstream of LL) WEO site: RBC stream flow & chemistry
  • Foothill Drive (downstream of LL) WEO site: RBC stream flow & chemistry
  • Connor Road WEO site storm drain flow- receives input from LL overflow pipes as well as other locations in Research Park

Data for each of these sites is updated daily and available on Hydroshare.

Locations: see map below. We measure flow/water quality of RBC upstream and downstream of the LL.

Parameters measured: Storm drain sites measure flow. Aquatic sites measure flow and water quality parameters/chemistry, including temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, and pH. Additionally fluorescent dissolved organic matter (fDOM), Blue-green algae, and chlorophyll at Foothill Dr. aquatic site only (downstream of LL).

More info on data streams to come as we get them set up!

Location of automated sensors in the Landscape Lap's vicinity