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Tulane Precast Studio Tackles Water Management in Public Space

The PCI Foundation provides schools of architecture, engineering and construction management an opportunity to use precast concrete design and construction as a jumping board to educational topics that will not only address the needs of the students in hitting all their educational goals, but also will expand general knowledge about and exploration within the precast industry. At Tulane, professors addressed resilience as a key topic needed in students education. The title of the studio was Resilience Reinforced: Architectural precast concrete systems addressing the regional water infrastructure challenges.

The professors at Tulane took a unique approach to their precast studio to tackle a problem that may look unique to the New Orleans today, but will most likely be an issue that will arise for populations around the US in coming years. In 2010, 123.3 million people, or 39 percent of the nation's population lived in counties directly on the shoreline. This population is expected to increase by 8% from 2010 to 2020. So, when professors Kentaro Tsubaki Associate Dean for Academics, Favrot Associate Professor of Architecture and Charles Jones, lecturer, were looking for an issue to tackle using precast concrete that would not only use the material to its best advantage but also be socially impactful, water management in public spaces was key.

Along with the pedagogical development, primary goal of the semester was to understand the concerns and constraints specific to the urban-scale water infrastructure and to identify worthy opportunities for full-scale mock-ups and testing (in collaboration with our precast industry partners) in future studios. The professors built their expertise step by step through multiple workshops with local experts, professionals and industry partners.

Team Identifies Opportunities

“The first semester was really about scoping and identifying specific opportunities that then we can really dig in. It happened in two scales. The first one, in a kind of a smaller, micro scale, we tackled the design of a sidewalk paving and rain garden. That primarily was led by Charles' digital fabrication seminar, and then kind of merged into the studio. All the students have to take the seminar and the studio. On the macro scale, we looked at the design of a linear park,” says Tsubaki. The program includes 10 students, primarily undergraduate, fourth and fifth year students, and one graduate student. Two of the students are continuing their work from the studio as an independent study during the summer of 2019. The program also has a graduate assistant.

The intent of the program was to develop and deliver infrastructure projects that focus on the relationship between precast systems, architecture infrastructure, and our most valuable resource, water. The professors used the greater New Orleans urban water management plan as the framework in part because a lot of research had already been done. So now the students and professors will develop the projects in more detail.

The studio and the co-requisite seminar examined the potential of precast concrete systems and advanced fabrication technology to address the regional water infrastructure challenges at two distinct urban scales:

1. Street scale: A design of hypothetical pre-cast sidewalk paving and rain-garden system to address the water management issues.

2. Neighborhood scale: A design of a liner park (portion of Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans, LA.) to address the complex water management challenges with precast components.

The paving and rain-garden system design introduced students to consider urban water management infrastructure at human scale and introduced CNC-milling technology in fabricating formwork for the paving system. The liner-park design introduced students to large scale, complex urban water management challenges and to speculate the use of various precast components and systems to address the issues.

Linear Lafitte Greenway Park

The team settled on the Lafitte Greenaway, a linear park now that reconnects, or hopes to reconnect, the French Quarter to the bayou. It was a shipping canal that there was displaced and turned into a railway, and then it was abandoned and became a linear park. They felt it had lots of opportunities from a pedestrian bridge, permeable paving systems, to retention walls. The students worked on solutions that would aid in flooding events that would happen multiple times each year (5-10). It only has to rain about 10 minutes before the park will flood. The end goal: Using the park as retention, but also as usable public space.

The park is about 2 feet above sea level and takes just about 10 minutes to flood in a heavy rain. Student projects required them to look at the overall project and think about how the park might be a terraced system - such as an amphitheater - to be productive, but also hold water as well as be an event space.

“We cast a wide net, just looking at anything and everything that was precast,” says Jones. “Any scale, not just precast, but also just concrete related to infrastructure and architectural applications. So bridges, foundations, shorelines or erosion control systems I think we're a vital part of this research. Then we looked at all of the example projects within that water management plan and tried to identify different opportunities.”

Local Industry Plays Big Role

The teamwork in this project was slightly different than in some other programs sponsored by the PCI Foundation. Of course, local precasters were involved, but because Tulane does not have an engineering program, they looked at industry professional from civil and structural engineering, landscape architects, planners, and others familiar with this work.

The work on this project will continue over several years, allowing new solutions and research to develop through the precast concrete curriculum provided by the professors at Tulane and their local industry partners. At the outcome of the program, the professors, with the help of their graduate research assistants, are currently analyzing each student project. The outcome serves as a catalogue of design approaches to address the complex water management challenges at these scales. The professors look forward to design, construct and demonstrate an efficient, effective, aesthetically robust and low maintenance precast sidewalk paving and rain garden system though their design-build initiatives with students in the near future.

The Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan will be our vehicle and guide for the design investigation and the context for future implementation. The architectural and infrastructural solutions developed through the studio are nationally relevant, as the water‐related issues are no longer unique only to our region. Two of the fifth-year undergraduate students decided to carry-on with the investigation during the spring semester, folding precast system into their design thesis projects in the final semester of their professional education.

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