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Landscape Architect Creates Thoughtful Outdoor Spaces

Posted by Cindy Atoji Keene  October 23, 2012 10:26 AM

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The smallest details count in landscape design, from storm water drainage systems to paving materials and seasonal plant color. It is not unusual, for example, for landscape architects to spend an entire day just planning the placement of trash receptacles and making sure a garbage truck can back up into the site to remove waste, said Michael D'Angelo, 27, a landscape architect at Copley Wolff Design Group in Boston.

"When designing spaces and the elements within the spaces, it is vital to ensure that all of the details have been given a thorough review. For instance, do we have enough seating? Will it accommodate those with disabilities? Are the materials suitable? And even: how will we prevent skateboarders from 'grinding' on the seat walls and benches and destroying the surfaces? Of course most changes can be made all the way up to construction, but there is surely a cost associated with that."

D'Angelo's experience spans from green roof decks to college campuses. A LEED professional in building design and construction, he is currently working on the penthouse terrace at The Clarendon, a 33-story luxury residential tower located in the Back Bay. He is also working on the headquarters expansion for an insurance company, which includes nearly a city block of streetscape revitalization, and the addition of two public parks. "I strive to make landscaping memorable by including a unique feature that draws people there, whether itís a quiet corner to sit and read, or a beautiful garden terrace," said D'Angelo.

Q: You're currently designing a fountain for a park -- what's the thought process behind it?
A: This is a 36-foot long, 18-foot-high water feature that will be an iconic focal point. Large buildings surround it, so from a design aspect, the fountain needs to be scaled correctly or it will look 'off.' We develop actual physical models as well as computer models and look at it from all vantage points to make sure itís the right axis and size. In addition, there are safety concerns, such as worries about people slipping and falling, so mechanical devices need to be built-in to shut the water off if it's too cold or windy.

Q: Urban architects such as yourself are often creating 'streetscapes.' What is a streetscape?
A: This is a phrase we use in the industry to talk about an area adjacent to a building, whether it's a concrete sidewalk or a seating area. The site-planning looks at adjacent use, whether retail or a restaurant, and whether pedestrian access is needed. If trees will be planted in a sidewalk, there is a lot of science involved, such as using soils developed by different universities that provide both structural support for sidewalks as well as nourishments for the trees to grow.

Q: What some of your favorite plants?
A: I really like working with a really simple color palette. I prefer using a handful of plants, versus 50 to 60. This gives a strong vivid impact when looking at the landscape from afar.

Q: Why the increasing popularity of green roofs?
A: Green roofs create insulation for buildings, which lowers heating and cooling costs and absorbs run-off from the rain. When designing a green roof, it's important to consider the roof's weight limitations, so only a minimum amount of soil can be used. For example, if only four inches of soil is used, then succulent plant material such as sedums are one of the few options.

Q: What do you think is an example of excellent urban landscape design?
A: Chicago has a lot of really cool public spaces, such as Millennium Park. I love to travel around the country and study what other people are doing. Thatís what inspires me.

Q: Who is your architectural role model or hero?
A: Frederick Law Olmsted, who is widely considered the father of American landscape architecture. It's amazing how many thousands of projects he did, including park design and public spaces. He had a very simple and natural style that I try to reference in my work.

Q: What does your own backyard look like?
A: I have a 10x12 backyard in South Boston. I have four very nice planters, a grill, and a table squeezed in there -- but I really enjoyed planting those four planters!

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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