OU professor leads team in land-development research project
In an unassuming residential development in north Norman, 17 homes are being used in research to combat ecological problems in a major local water source.
Chelsea Lott, The Oklahoma Daily
The houses look no different than those on surrounding streets. They are colored in varying shades of neutral tans, each with a two-car garage and a carefully manicured front lawn. What makes them distinct is the subtle placement of a redirected down spout on the house and a flower bed on the edge of the house’s lot and the street.
These small differences are components of a rain garden and are part of research being done by OU landscape architecture professor Reid Coffman in conjunction with The Little River Best Management Practices Project, Coffman said.
The goal of the project is to clean up Lake Thunderbird and reduce or eliminate the hazards of developing land for residential use, Coffman said.
Rain gardens look like flower beds but are placed at the end of the front lawn, right by the street.
These gardens are filled with plants containing little moisture and surrounded by a bed of rock-like, clay-based engineered substrates made to absorb half their volume with water, Coffman said.
Right now, water flows from homes in developing areas through bulldozed areas, collecting sediment before it runs off into lakes, landscape architecture graduate student Leslie Novotny said.
The purpose of the gardens is to slow the water flow, thereby cleansing it at the source, Coffman said.
Regardless of how simple the changes are and how small the effect on the landscape, the team’s research is working to prove that the practices are worth implementing.
“It’s code, and the way they’ve always been doing things,” Novotny said. “Builders usually don’t change the ways they do things unless there’s a really good reason [to change it].”
Despite conflicting with building codes, Coffman said the research is worth undertaking.
“We’ve actually broken a bunch of codes and laws having to do this, and it doesn’t look crazy at all,” he said.
In addition to the rain-garden research, Coffman is researching an ecological landscape known as green roofs, which he has been working on since the early 2000s.
A green roof is composed of plants placed on a structure’s roof. This addition can reduce energy consumption because the plants help keep the building cool. They also can store and clean rain water or be designed for food production, Coffman said.
“All roofs can benefit from green roofs … Flat roofs of suburban sprawl benefit the most,” Coffman said.
Both rain-garden and green-roof research focus on hydrology, which Coffman addresses when teaching a green-roofs class at OU, architecture senior Diane Cocchiara said.
“[Hydrology] is a very easy, simple way to fix things. It’s nice to educate people about it,” she said.
Coffman’s work centers on the idea that some of societies’ issues can be solved with sustainability or environmental responsibility if the design problem is framed in ecological theory, he said.