Lessons Learned (lookin' out my front door)

Well kids, C.Rushing has been (in the parlance of our time) all up in the sauce these days. A number of remarkable things are afoot. I have nothing to share, however, for fear of the jinx. Suffice it to say that this should be a kick ass summer. Don't worry, I'll keep you posted, you won't miss a thing. The problem I am faced with is that the topics I want to write about aren't yet ripe, and a fresh new topic has not presented itself. For that reason, I have resolved to look outside and write about the first thing I see…

In the Spring of 2009, a local green building advocacy group sponsored a competition for the design and construction of a pavilion for Jefferson Heights Park. The park just happens to be 10 yards away from my house, so clearly this competition got my attention. As I have noted before, our neighborhood has experienced a rebirth with dozens of new homes and hundreds of new residents over the past decade or so. At the heart of our neighborhood is a 2-acre park. The current park is the former site of the Davenport Elementary School that was razed the year before my birth. The design competition was to be the final piece of a larger park renovation that included a new playground, seating areas, walking trails, and community gardens. (From a critical standpoint, the park design is indolent. It is an assemblage of elements rather than an integrated whole. It also lacks any reference or acknowledgement of the surrounding context. From a practical standpoint, 99% of park patrons are happy to have a new playground with green grass and could give a flip about consonance and dissonance in public space design. I am the 1%, but I digress.)

One interesting thing about the competition process was that it followed the Chattanooga model of cooperation and collaboration. Several departments of City and County, and a local green building advocacy group partnered to fund and facilitate the project. I am grateful to each of those entities for their effort and the investment they made in our neighborhood. I was also excited about the prospect of people working together, just like the old days. The competition provided for an $80,000 construction budget, and set forth a number of prerequisites such as a stage, a plaza, and some “green” building elements including composting toilets. The competition sponsor served as the client during construction, they then gifted the building over to the City after construction was complete. Construction started in October of ’09 and was complete in February of ’10.

From the standpoint of getting something built, the project was a success. While there is much to be said for that, every time I look at the pavilion I see wasted opportunity. It is true that many hands make light work, and partnerships allow a broad range of expertise, experience and resource to be brought to bear. The potential pitfall of partnership, however, is that each entity has a range of needs, desires and expectations that have to be accommodated. The partnerships that Chattanooga became famous for were successful because work was done on the front end to ensure that the process and product would meet the needs of each partner. In the pavilion project, it appears that some of that front end work was not thoroughly conducted. This fault manifest itself in a series of mandates in the construction process that were never discussed during design. While this happened on more than one occasion, I will revert to potty-talk for the prime example.

The competition organizers required that composting toilets be included in all designs. Of course, composting toilets require bathrooms in which to be located, and due to the size and nature of this facility the City required that there be two such rooms of there were to be any. The consequence of that requirement was that roughly 45% of the total project budget was driven by the requirement for composting toilets. That wouldn’t necessarily be an awful thing if we saw some benefit from the investment (i.e. people making use of the facility, compost being used in the community gardens, or an example for education). Composting toilets require almost daily maintenance, and no provision was made within the partnership to perform that maintenance. After the pavilion was opened, the City locked the bathrooms and I wager that nary a single person ever copped a squat on those kick-ass Envirolet FlushSmart VF350s. Some time later, the City returned, removed the composting units, and installed standard toilets. Note that the difference between composting and standard toilets is not the issue. The issue is that if the partners did a better job on the front end, the thousands of dollars that were wasted on unused composting toilets could have been put to more productive use in the rest of the project.

Turns out, this shit was not needed (pun intended).

In hindsight, it is clear that some early meetings between the parties commissioning the construction of the building and the parties responsible for its maintenance would have resulted in a more efficient program, more focused design responses, and less waste. (Of course, as handsome as he is, the designer is not faultless either- he could have done a better job of trying to bridge the communication chasm on the front end.) Despite my whinging about lost opportunities, I am truly grateful to all of the people who dedicated their time, effort and resources to make my neighborhood a better place.

To be fair: From a practical standpoint the pavilion is an adequate piece of work that the neighborhood will (hopefully) enjoy for years to come.  From a critical standpoint the pavilion is another example of "good enough" beating out "excellent" as a standard, and I never hang out there. 

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