Behind The Scenes at Columbia University


Every project that our team collaborates on has different opportunities and challenges that demand innovative solutions. The unique landscape, coupled with common budget and site constraints drive innovation and approaches that are best suited for each project. 

Columbia University was a project that presented us opportunities to be creative with design and innovation, which is where we feel we do our best collaborative work. Working alongside Columbia University, Fountain Technologies and Kelco Construction, this interactive feature was a project that James Corner Field Operations brought to Rob Mikula, our Director of Creative Design in 2018. Fast forward to today, this 225 square feet interactive water feature (pictured above) is still in the works, but this behind the scenes look at a small but mighty water feature, will show you how our team is solving issues that this, and many other features face. 

We don’t shy away from the challenges but have the experience and expertise to work through each one. Not all projects and sites pose the same constraints. Sharing some of our challenges could help you with your next project. 

In this video from our team’s site visit, with Rob, Hanna and Roger, Rob explains the design and custom solution that solved these issues, and made this feature a success. 

Site Constraints:

  1. Cross-Slope: The first challenge Rob and his team faced during the design phase, was the cross-slope of the area where the water feature site was planned to go. We are familiar with cross-slopes because they are a common site constraint, however, a reasonable cross-slope sits in the 2% range. The cross-slope on this site was in the order of 4%. This more aggressive profile along with the localized concentration of water created something we call a “wash-over” where increased water depths over jets can have a negative impact on how they operate and what they look like.
  2. Capturing & Separating Storm Run-Off & Water Feature Water: One of the important “best practice”  principles in designing an interactive water feature is to ensure that only water from the feature flows back to the dedicated reservoir. Water from beyond—from storm or wash-down, should be captured and disposed of separately, if possible. As such, we incorporated a custom-made, stainless steel double closed-loop slot drain around the feature. 
  3. Limited Vertical Space: This site also included over-slab construction with a very limited working depth between the lower roof slab and the finished level of the plaza. In other words, the available space to route pipe and conduit and insert other infrastructure was very limited. To make things worse,  the available depth is shallower at one end of the feature to the other. We had to come up with a unique routing and drainage solution.
  4. Infrastructure Routing: The interface with so much other unrelated infrastructure made for some interesting pipe and conduit routing

Budget Constraints: 

Budget constraints play a big role in driving the design for any project. For Columbia, budget constraints only allowed for two feature pumps to drive sixteen simple bronze nozzles. Each pump supplied water to half of the nozzles.

The two pumps were enough to adopt a solution that relied on the timing and the use of Variable Frequency Drives or VFD. We used VFD to regulate the pumping of water, ramping the jets for each pump up and down, and as a result, enhancing the feature’s visual impact.

Much of this feature has custom parts; a drain system and stainless steel jet coverings to enhance the function and look of this feature. Creating custom design solutions is also where we thrive as well as bringing to life our clients’ ideas by pushing boundaries to find solutions to site and budget constraints.

Creative collaboration is at the foundation of how we innovate, and working with teams from James Corner Field Operations, Columbia University, Fountain Technologies, and Kelco Construction, makes our challenge solutions more impactful as we bring this feature to life. 

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