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Peter Butler

Peter Butler

"Do not wait until the conditions are perfect to being. Beginning makes the conditions perfect." -Alan Cohen;

For Rachel Dapper and Zack Grossl, the motto above is more than just a proverbial affirmation, it’s now an application in their approach to design.

Dapper and Grossl, both juniors in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, have recently learned to embrace this concept thanks to a collaborative, service-learning experience and an opportunity to reshape the landscape for one of West Virginia’s most widely visited events, the State Fair of West Virginia.

Inviting a fresh perspective

During the spring 2016 semester, the WVU Davis College landscape architecture program was invited to assist with the design process of a newly established main entrance for the State Fair, located in Greenbrier County, West Virginia.

“It’s great to have fresh ideas,” said Kelly Collins, chief executive officer of the State Fair of West Virginia. “Those of us who work for the State Fair see the grounds all the time, and, although we sometimes joke about it, it really is tough to come up with creative ideas when you’re staring at the same area day after day.”

The specific area Collins references is a 1.3-acre site alongside U.S. 219 South that serves as the State Fair’s main entryway. Just last year, the State Fair celebrated the grand opening of the space – an area that became more defined with the completion of a much-needed pedestrian tunnel that now leads visitors under the highway. The new entryway was dedicated as the future site of “Tomblin Plaza,” honoring West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, who was instrumental in advancing the project.

As the Board of Directors for the State Fair of West Virginia tried to envision how the space could be best used, they knew it ultimately needed to epitomize the unique spirit of West Virginia.

“Given that this is the site of our annual State Fair, we wanted to ensure this space reflects the state’s values, traditions and character,” Collins said. “And equally important was creating an area that would be functional, yet a comfortable and welcoming place for our fairgoers.”

Taking a participatory approach

To answer the challenge of designing a space that would meaningfully characterize the state and address practical issues such as circulation, event choreography and service areas, Peter Butler, associate professor of landscape architecture, organized an on-campus, student-alumni charrette.

“Our goal was to enable the State Fair Board to think more broadly about the potential uses of that space,” Butler said. “When you have a community group that’s working to create the best possible plan for a space, they may not have the skills to illustrate their ideas.”

“So that’s one of the goals of the charrette,” continued Butler, “for us, as landscape architects – both practitioners and students – to bring our ideas together, resulting in various design concepts that can then be used to inspire the overall plan.”

In addition to contributing to the overall master design, the charrette gave student participants the opportunity to engage in a real-world experience.

“In a studio setting, we’ll spend up to six weeks on a project, rigorously going through the different elements of the process and various iterations,” said Butler. “So getting our students — especially the sophomores, who have never experienced this before — working on a team alongside a practitioner, who is also an alum of the program, is an invaluable part of the process. It forces them to draw a design quickly, just as they might have to for a client.”

Dapper and Grossl wholeheartedly agree.

“The project was especially interesting because of the input of our alumni,” said Dapper. “We divided into four teams, then each team was paired with an alum. We all just sat down and got to work immediately. Our group’s sketch only took about an hour – no upfront work, we just came in with our ideas and started putting them on paper.”

Grossl, who was on a separate team from Dapper, experienced a similar outcome.

“It was really eye-opening to see how professionals worked,” he said. “They weren’t trying to hardline anything. They would just get all the ideas on paper first, and then work on refining them.”

This new approach to the design process has enhanced Grossl’s skills and strengthened his ability to more fully develop his design concepts.

“I could always come up with a basic idea, but I could never push it to the next level very quickly,” he said. “I loved the way we just put every little idea out on the table, too – no holding back.”

Embracing the "sharpie concept"

In addition to not holding back, the process also trained student participants not to worry about making mistakes during the process.

“When I used to come up with ideas, I’d carefully sketch them out using a pencil and piece of paper,” said Grossl.

The professionals took a much different approach.

“They would take a sharpie, a piece of trace paper, and just start putting their ideas out there,” Grossl said. “The alum we worked with, Rob – he would take his Sharpie and, sometimes, draw a line, then look at it and say, ‘nope!’ and would just draw another one right over top.”

The uninhibited feeling that comes from working with an inerasable tool is inexplicable, but effective.

“It’s hard to explain, but it really helped the ideas flow better using a Sharpie,” said Grossl.

Focusing on one centralized thought

WVU alumnus Rob Dinsmore, landscape architect at Chapman Technical Group in St. Albans, West Virginia, could readily see the shift in the students’ approach to the design process as the charrette progressed. Contributing to that shift was his inquisitive approach that encouraged them to stay focused on the client’s needs.

“When we first started looking at their design concepts, I would point out good ideas right away, and then ask, ‘what component from the project scope drove this design decision?’” said Dinsmore.

“Once we started evaluating their design concepts based on that centralized thought, the students really started rolling and came up with some great ideas,” he said. “From my end, that was pretty cool to see their thought process evolve.”

Dapper is confident the charrette brought forth her best ideas.

“Normally, when I spend a long time thinking about a design, the idea just gets more muddled in my head,” she said. “I know we couldn’t have done this project as well or as quickly without that experience.”

Enhancing the state through service-learning

After the teams submitted the design concepts to the State Fair Board of Directors, it was evident that the work put into the charrette was a worthwhile investment of time and talent.

“The four different designs actually opened our eyes to new ways of accomplishing some very specific objectives we have for this area,” said Jerry Cook, chairman of the State Fair Board.

A customized seating area, which made use of a previously underutilized space; a unique water feature; a pedestrian walkway with pavers; and an overall state park theme are among the student design concepts that have been incorporated into Tomblin Plaza.

“The function of our student designs was to help the State Fair Board think more broadly about the potential uses of this unique space,” said Butler. “I feel like our students and alumni successfully fulfilled their role, and we are excited to see the State Fair move forward so quickly in developing – what we hope will be – a really great space for the State of Fair of West Virginia and the many other events hosted on that site.”