Grace Plaza at Davis Hall, SUNY Buffalo School of Engineering

“The greatest accomplishments and experiences of your life will be better if you have someone to share them with.”

– Norman McComb, Donor/Alumnus

The project is located at SUNY University at Buffalo, North Campus, Amherst, NY. The plaza uses green infrastructure practices to manage its stormwater onsite through the use of a constructed wetland, a planted sand-filter, a bioretention garden, areas of permeable concrete and the use of structural soils. The project was completed in the Fall of 2014 and construction is presently underway to redevelop the student quad opposite the site to be an extension of Grace’s Plaza, connecting the two sides by creating a plateau across the existing campus road that presently bisects the two spaces.

Grace Plaza, or as Norm says Grace’s Plaza, is a rare site on the University at Buffalo’s North Campus. It is a lush and colorful oasis nestled in front of the new Davis Hall, home to the electrical engineering department.

The original green infrastructure stormwater demonstration areas were not performing well and offered little in regards to student experience. Norman McCombs, who was presented the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama, wanted to honor his wife and their enduring relationship as a gesture to the engineering students at UB. He wanted to recreate the stormwater demonstration areas to not only be functional but to be beautiful, providing a respite for students as well as a place for them to engage and interact socially. In his dedication speech, he reminded students that “The greatest accomplishments and experiences of your life will be better if you have someone to share them with”, encouraging students to create lasting and caring relationships throughout their student years. Norm and Grace wanted gardens filled with hydrangea, iris and other plants that provided color and texture throughout the year. They wanted a space where students felt compelled to linger.  Grace’s Plaza is now filled with students throughout the day and into the evening as they lounge on the bermed lawn, meet friends under the Elm tree, or enjoy lunch amongst the lush gardens.

Once deconstructed, the conditions below the surface told the story of why the original plantings at Grace Plaza were performing poorly.  Construction techniques and the materials used did not follow the original specifications causing water to pond below the surface rather than move through the plant roots and soils.  Soils that should have been very sandy were in fact mostly clay, and the gradation of the sand filter maintained standing water for weeks at a time.  The monoculture planting design ensured those passing-by would notice every individual plant’s struggle.  Additionally, the original sidewalks and planting layout provided barriers for busy students, who often read while walking, to easily move from building to building.  The entire plaza offered little seating and gathering spaces, let alone spaces for individuals to just linger as one would expect on a campus plaza.

The only solution was to pull apart the original design, remove the incorrect soils and drainage aggregates and re-build the gardens in keeping with Norm and Grace’s vision.  The stormwater demonstration gardens would now be highly functional as well as lush, by combining many of Grace’s favorite plant species that were well suited to the conditions with high performing plants that complemented her favorites in color, texture and seasonality.  The circulation patterns were adjusted to facilitate movement between buildings and allowed greater opportunities for planting beds, public art, group style seating under a new large elm tree and a reconstructed bermed lawn with added seating boulders and hundreds of spring bulbs.