Brian Ott, Nudge Design
Episode 24 | October 30, 2018
Protecting our health and our water supply through urban landscape architecture.
Landscape architect Brian Ott, cofounder of Nudge Design, explains how our perspective on landscape architecture is evolving in urban environments, the connection between our health and the outdoors, and the importance of water management in modern landscape design. He also shares details about two of his commercial landscape architecture firm's projects in downtown Austin: The Grove at Shoal Creek, a mixed-use development, and 600 Guadalupe, a high-rise with 40,000 square feet of rooftop gardens.
Interview edited for clarity and length.
Sherren Harter: Tell us about yourself and how you got here.
Brian Ott: I’m a landscape architect. I came to Austin back in ’91 and worked with TBG Partners for about 25 years. A couple of years ago I decided I was ready for the next chapter in my life. I spent nine months as the Executive Director for The Trail Foundation, which is another group here in town that I’m absolutely passionate about.
I knew I was going to get back into the field of commercial landscape architecture and was able to hook up with an old colleague by the name of Philip Koske. With Nudge Design, we like to say we’ve created a firm that is intentionally small and intentionally focused – and intentionally local. We want to harness this energy around us, this great vibe that Austin has, and deliver great world-class landscape architecture projects.
Kyle Frazier: Where did the name Nudge come from?
BO: It was inherently about change. We wanted a name that was very action oriented, and the “nudge” signifies a positive change. When you get busy sometimes, the reality is you just tend to do things the same way over and over, even if they don’t’ make sense. We really wanted to call attention to some different ways to look at this practice. “What should we really focus on?” just became part of our dialogue and soon the name that we live by.
KF: How would you define landscape architecture?
BO: Landscape architecture is a very diverse practice. Whether it’s at a small intimate garden scale to massive planning efforts, you can really find your home anywhere along that spectrum. What’s always been comfortable to me is what I call the site scale, projects from a 2-acre to a 100-acre multiphase project. I want to be able to design spaces for people to be able to inhabit, whether it’s in healthcare, corporate America, or part of our park systems. It’s really about places where people engage with the outdoors and the landscape.
To me, landscape architecture is the integration of people and outdoors. As we build around us and as we densify our urban areas across the country and across the world, these landscapes provide immense value to us – joy and happiness, solitude, health and wellness. We have to approach them the right way and value them.
KF: Who was doing this work before landscape architects?
BO: The practice of landscape architecture has been around a long time, hundreds of years going back to Central Park and Olmstead, but it’s gained a lot of momentum and popularity over the past 20 years.
Prior to that it would not have been uncommon to find architects and even engineers who would design and develop parks. As we develop and build our urban environments, I think there’s much more focus on the practice of landscape architecture, and the profession of it, and the art.
We have incredibly gifted landscape architects from all parts of the country that are now seeking projects here. Austin has put itself on the map.
SH: What are a couple of projects that you are working on?
BO: One of the projects that got us started was The Grove at Shoal Creek, a mixed-use community at Bull Creek and 45th St with office, residential, commercial, and retail. Being able to work on these really complex systems is one of the other maturations of this profession as we went from building single-identify or single-purpose buildings to mixed-use environments where people live, work, and shop together. Trying to understand the psychology about the decisions people make in their daily lives and what inspires them to go to a particular place to have dinner or to work or even live, is very special.
Another one is 6th and Guadalupe, or 600 Guadalupe, a tower being constructed downtown. This project has nearly 40,000 square feet of green roofs. To be able to invest in that level of landscape 20 years ago, you would have had to have a 40-acre or 50-acre project.
Much of our work seems to be focused in the urban core of Austin because we’re in a moment in time where we’re spending a lot of effort to densify. As we’ve gone downtown, we have smaller green spaces but they’re more important. They provide so much more opportunity to engage in the outdoors and grab some fresh air or respite during the day.
KF: If your clients are holding these green spaces in such high import, it’s coming from the users of the space who change the paradigm. Downtown used to be a concrete jungle in any city, and there’s this attempt to pull people back into this urban core. It reduces traffic, it reduces carbon emissions. Giving people an incentive to come back has been a big push and so it’s really fascinating to see how you guys are approaching that problem.
BO: You know, life is busy. Whether it’s at work or school or wherever you are, you need to find those moments where you can rest and relax. I spent a lot of my career working in healthcare fields with children’s hospitals and other medical facilities. So much of the research and the data say that you heal faster and require less medication when in nature.
For the first 10 or 15 years I was doing that, it was always post-diagnosis. Now we can apply that to a pre-health condition to say that it doesn’t just have to happen in the healthcare setting. It needs to happen at work. It needs to happen where you live. Landscape is really part of our wellness structure. That’s probably another reason you’re starting to know of the landscape architecture profession more.
KF: Where do you and your partner draw on for inspiration?
BO: We’re so fortunate to live in Austin with the ecology and the environment right around us – the types of plants, the types of rocks, the levels of wildlife that we have. There are many things that you can draw from to tell your story, whatever that story is going to be.
There are so many people moving here on a daily basis who are coming from other places like the west and east coasts. For them to experience and understand what Austin truly is, we just pull from nature. Sometimes what we draw inspiration from is very abstract. Sometimes it might be the forms and shape of just one plant that gives us energy when we start to think about different ways to express ideas and design.
The natural system is always going to be a big part of that focus too – what is the existing vegetation and the existing soils? We don’t want to fabricate something that didn’t belong there before.
SH: Austin has gone from a multi-year drought to record flooding this fall. How does water factor into your designs?
BO: It’ll always change. One month you have too much, and then three months you don’t have enough. Part of what we have to be thoughtful about when we’re designing and planning spaces is how it will look over a three to five year period, understanding that these cycles last a long time.
A big trend that changed in landscape architecture was rainwater harvesting. Fifteen years ago, not many places invested in harvesting rainwater. When you go through a drought like we did starting at the end of 2010, you start to realize the precious resource that we have. I would say about 90 percent of projects today harvest rainwater or use reclaimed water. How do you create these wonderful landscape environments that are going to go through periods of really tough, rugged summers? So much of that comes from our ecology. We have to choose plants well, and we have to choose soil well. Another thing we often don’t talk about is the capacity for our soil to hold that water and allow those plants to thrive.
One of the first things we look at on a project is where we are getting water. Can we harvest it from rooftops? Can we pull it from the tops of parking garages? Can we get it from the A/C condensate that is generated inside of these buildings? We have a lot of different levers to pull to see how we can pull water, keep water, use it effectively, use it wisely and in a sustainable manner. That way we are not affecting the domestic water supply for the city of Austin. One of our top goals is to reduce as much as possible the need for any municipally provided water in our landscapes.
As a culture we’ve come a long way to accept what that native environment looks like. Prior to the drought, everybody saw landscape architecture as a very cultivated landscape. We are much more focused on native plant supplies and making sure that the stock that’s grown in the nurseries is contextually appropriate for this region, so I think we’ve set ourselves up for the future very well to be mindful of water use.
KF: You mentioned rainwater systems collecting air conditioning condensate, and that’s the first time I’d heard that was actually being done. I didn’t realize people were making the investment to do that. Condensate is generated in volume in the summer when it’s the hottest and it’s humid but there’s no rain falling from the sky, so you’ve got this source of water at the perfect time. It’s almost shocking the volume of water that’s just pulled from the air.
BO: In corporate environments you can be collecting thousands of gallons of A/C condensate in a day.
KF: So how is that water being stored and what’s it being used for?
BO: Underground cisterns, above grade cisterns, you see them in different areas. A lot of times we’ll build this big old vault that will hold 600,000 gallons of water in the bottom floor of a parking garage. Oftentimes it’s not something you even know is there. We capture and hold that water as long as we can and just disperse it a little bit of it at a time when we don’t have the rainfall, when we need it on the plants and the ground.
I’ve also seen it used for cooling tower makeup water.
I think we’ve become a lot wiser with water. The key is to balance it out so that we’re taking as little off the domestic system as we can. You work with what you’re given, the rainfall that you have.
KF: For Nudge Design, as you continue to evolve as architects and as a company, what does the future look like for you guys?
BO: One of the reasons we built the practice the way we did was to have a very strong focus on gardens and the landscape. We want to create these beautiful environments, in a corporate or a residential setting. Wherever we find people needing to connect, we want to create beauty and art. We really focus on the plants, the soil, the rocks, the ecology of it.
As we look at sustainability, not only is it the concrete process of how we build and develop things, but it’s also human nature. How do we as a species sustain? And again, it goes back to that healthcare aspect. Being able to access sunlight, clean air, fresh air – that’s born in us and we need it. We’re really focused on creating environments where we can bring people outside to interact with nature. That’s something we want to bring to every one of our projects.
KF: Do you see this trend of people desiring more sustainable and native places continuing in Austin and outside of Austin?
BO: I do. We live in a very transparent age where the information that we gather on how to build in a sustainable way is at our fingertips, and every generation that comes behind us is going to have more of a focus on the planet. We hear this every day. It’s not just here, it’s across the globe.
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