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Courtyard Design Is in the Details  November 28, 2005

Post Properties, Inc., the developer of the Post Biltmore apartment complex in Atlanta, adjacent to the historic Biltmore Hotel, terms the project a “prime example of (its) long-term strategy to build mixed-use neighborhoods in growing cities.” Post Biltmore comprises 276 units (studio and one and two-bedroom loft and garden-style apartments), offering a beautifully landscaped fountain courtyard, a rooftop terrace with great views of the downtown skyline, and such creature comforts as a cardio-fitness center and PostSmart® technology in each unit, a high-tech package of high-speed, always-on, internet access and computer networking capabilities.

Atlanta’s midtown neighborhood is in the midst of a major revival and is something of a local hotbed for high-tech offices. Post Biltmore is within walking distance of the recently completed Georgia Tech Business School campus, the new BellSouth high-rise office building, and the midtown MARTA station, and, of course, numerous eateries and retail outlets.

The American Concrete Institute recognized the Post Biltmore with a first place prize in 2002 in the hardscape category.

Enter the Landscape Architect

In 2001, Sean Murphy was employed with Post Landscape Operations, an internal division of Post Properties, as a project landscape architect. At the time, Post used an in-house development division, Post Apartment Development (PAD), to manage the construction of most of its new apartment communities. PAD came to Mr. Murphy to design the amenities for Post Biltmore, which had just undergone a major renovation. The site is located within the Midtown Alliance Improvement District, which has specific streetscape requirements regarding widths of pavement, parallel parking, lighting selection, and paving materials along certain streets that had to be met.

The project had three major components: The streetscape, a large interior courtyard and a rooftop terrace. The courtyard was to be built entirely on top of a concrete detention vault capable of holding thousands of gallons of water, with only three feet of soil separating the top of the detention vault and the finished grade of the courtyard.

Post's challenge to Mr. Murphy was to design an interesting space and keep within budget constraints.

“Immediate challenges were the site’s lack of lighting, soil conditions, and flood events requirements,” says Mr. Murphy. To address these challenge, he went through several charettes* with the staff and came up with a design that entailed a large metal sculpture as a focal point in the middle of a sunken terrace.

Sculptors at Blood Sweat and Steel of Atlanta build a scale mock-up of the design. The model and scale mock up were presented to Post Development and Management late in 2001. This first model and design were rejected by the developer as too commercial. The developers wanted the design to have a unique feel but retain a “residential character,” a certain je ne sais quoi that makes people feel at home. The developers did not want a “slick” commercial look that, while perhaps being visually interesting, would not be as functional and inviting as envisioned.

“Taking this to heart, I went back to the drawing board and came up with the current design,” explains Mr. Murphy, a “Zen-style garden with a focal point far more functional and yet still very visually stimulating. The courtyard is 100' by 60' and built entirely on top of a large concrete retention vault. The grades of the surrounding access points had to be designed so that if the drains in the courtyard ever where to fail, the water could escape through passageways before ever attaining the elevation of unit floors. For that reason, the slabs in the breezeways are depressed three inches below finished floors and the courtyard is at a minimum 12 inches below finished floors. We had learned from other projects that in larger courtyards changing the elevations by a minimum of 18-30 inches provided a much more visually interesting space. Therefore, we planned to design at least part of the space to be depressed.”

NDS products were used throughout the project to provide drainage for the courtyard. Other details were atrium grates covered with Mexican beach pebbles. These grates were used with 12-inch drain boxes and connected to the vault below with corrugated four-inch pipe.

A dry streambed, generally the area’s lowest elevation, bisects the courtyard in a diagonal line. This stream has a visual element (decorative boulders, river rock and detailed plantings), hides the drainage fixtures (large manhole lids, drains), and provides easy access to those utilities.

The focal points of the courtyard include a large metal pergola/pagoda and a water feature.

“To be cost effective,” explains Mr. Murphy, “I designed the pagoda structure to be built completely out of stock steel pieces, such as welded wire fabric, angle iron, flat iron and steel tube.” Builder's Steel of Atlanta did the metal fabrication, part of which was done on site. “The element had to be specially designed and delivered in pieces to fit through the breezeway. The element was painted bright red as a play on the Asian or Zen influences. Red also is a complementary color to the green courtyard plantings.

“The pagoda was sited against the building parking garage and heavily planted in vines that will eventually cover the structure. Bench seating, a gas grill, several chairs and a teak table were provided beneath and adjacent to this structure to make it functional as a dining area or small gathering space within the context of the larger area.

“The second focal point is the splashing fountain in the lower terrace, designed to provide white noise to drown out the highway and vehicular noise of the city. The fountain is a simple submersible pump pushing water through a bronze nozzle to create a surging stream of water that jumps from 18 to 30 inches high and runs full time. The water falls back to a layer of large black Mexican beach pebbles that cover the grate and water reservoir below. The pump is accessible by moving a few rocks and opening a valve box.”

The fountain equipment was provided by Hobbs Architectural Fountains.

The upper dining terrace, site of two adjacent tables covered by red umbrellas, overlooks a lower terrace and the fountain. The lower terrace has a number of lounge chairs for sunning, as this is the only area that receives enough sunlight for such pursuits.

The hardscape for the lower terrace is tumbled pavers in a concentric pattern with a header course border.

“The pattern spins off of manholes that access the vault below,” the landscape architect specifies. “The pattern is unique and pulls your eye to the center of the repeating circles.”

The design idea for the manholes was to center them on the breezeways and conceal them with large decorative pots, but the budget and construction changes nixed that idea.

The result is manholes as focal points.

“Accordingly, these manholes were painted to match the pavers,” says Mr. Murphy.

A ramp leads from the lower terrace to the upper terrace and is walled on both sides with Keystone’s new Country Manor stone. Mr. Murphy notes the manufactured concrete wall allowed a freestanding wall to be built that was finished on both sides and economical to build. The paving of the ramp is stone with a colored grout to match the colored concrete of the upper dinning terrace. The dinning terrace was surfaced with integrally colored concrete (color by Scofield). The entire lower terrace is surrounded by a low wall of Country Manor stone.

“This wall provided two unique functions,” says the landscape architect. “It is the perfect height to provide built-in seating for large parties, and it places the finished floor elevation of the courtyard several feet lower than the surrounding planting areas, which puts plants at eye level. This then, in turn, helps to provide privacy to the apartment units which have windows at the courtyard level.”

Lighting for the courtyard was done with the new Gardco fluorescent Designer Spotlights (DSP7s), selected, says the LA, for “their classy look, durability, and life expectancy.” Hadco lights were also specified.

Post Properties likes to use fluorescent lights whenever possible. Their management experience is that fluorescent lights are the least expensive to maintain.

Mr. Murphy explains other special features: a solid stone slab bridge over the dry stream bed, 3-4 inches thick, about six-feet wide and over eight-feet long. It weighs in at over 4,000 lbs. and was specially delivered from Waldos' stone in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“All the key pieces of stone were specified by size and rough shape rather than by cribs or palettes by the ton,” he explains.

“The details are what make a space,” says Sean Murphy, the landscape architect. A wedge-shaped Country Manor wall (Keystone) adds interest, as does the bleeding of the ramp to the terrace. The same effect was used where stone meets pavers near the Pagoda structure. From previous large courtyard projects, Mr. Murphy learned that changing the elevations by a minimum of 18-30" provided a much more visually interesting space. Here, he planned to design at least part of the space to be “depressed.”
Amenities include Kingsley Bate teak furnishings, a gas grill from Iron Works, and trash receptacles from Fairweather.

The site development included streetscapes on West Peachtree, Sixth, and Cypress Street. West Peachtree is a major artery and required provisions for parallel parking, special paving, planting beds, and street lighting. The intersection of 6th and West Peachtree is a highly visible location for a storefront-style leasing office.

“The design includes large, highly-detailed planting areas bordering these storefront windows,” Mr. Murphy explains.

A key to the success of these spaces is the scale of the plantings and the details of the hardscape. “As these spaces would be viewed from cars traveling in excess of 35 mph and by pedestrians walking less then a few feet away, the plantings had to be uniquely appealing to both. We used large and rare species of specimen trees and large shrubs with unique colors and character to draw the eyes of passing motorists. A perfect example is the weeping blue atlas cedar. At the base of these trees where the landscape is not really visible to passing cars we used detailed plantings of creeping perennials that would be more interesting to pedestrians, including creeping jenny, creeping sedum species, and hardy ice plant.”

The size of the planting spaces was also key.

“I designed the planters to be wide enough to establish a layering of plants from small to large, small being in front. This necessitated a planter width of at least six feet. To keep mulch from washing onto the sidewalks, I designed a raised mortarless brick edge. The brick retains the mulch while the small spaces between the bricks provide enough room for water to weep through so that the mulch does not puddle and overflow the edging. In addition to the streetside planters, I designed a cluster of potted plants to provide an interesting focal point at the corner of the building while hiding utilities.”

Pots were designed for the entrances to the leasing office. Post's floral division was responsible for planting these with effective color and texture to complement the surroundings.

Lastly, the areas immediately adjacent to the building entrances needed to make an impact, as it is the first and last landscape element seen by potential residents entering and exiting the building.

“At each entrance are interesting and rare specimen plants (including Hinoki cypress and weeping blue atlas cedar) heavily planted annual beds, and sometimes garden ornaments or sculptures. Under the pedestrian's feet, intricate patterns of concrete pavers, score lines, and imprinted concrete were designed. The score lines were designed in direct correlation to columns, window mullions, and various architectural elements rather than in a random or typically pattern of repeating squares.”

Where the sidewalk crosses vehicular entrances, the landscape architect employed stamped concrete to create texture and color differences that draws the attention of drivers.

Lighting of the streetscape included use of customized poles and lighting fixtures from Holophane, the lighting standard used by Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games.

“Where we could not effectively use these fixtures, we used small lighted bollards or step lights to provide adequate safety lighting,” Mr. Murphy specifies.

Sean Murphy, formally of Post Properties is now the owner of Amenity Architects, LLC based in Atlanta, GA.




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