Students aim to make campus landscaping more sustainable

Winners of Olin sustainability case competition awarded $5,000 for innovative idea

A proposal by two Washington University in St. Louis students to introduce turf reduction, large bio-swales, more cisterns and even sheep “lawnmowers” to campus as part of a plan to make landscaping more sustainable at the university won the $5,000 first prize in the annual Olin Sustainability Case Competition.

Three teams of finalists orally presented their recommendations on sustainable landscape strategies Feb. 10 to a panel of judges.

The winning team — Maria Elena Morales, a doctoral student in neurosciences, and Michael Naucas, a dual masters degree student in landscape architecture and architecture — will have the opportunity to present their case study to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and several senior administrators.

“The judges had a tough decision because there were a lot of good ideas presented,” Morales says. “I think they recognized that we took a holistic approach to sustainable landscape design. The recommendations we proposed had a lot of complimentary components that could address our three main goals in multiple ways.”

Morales and Naucas focused their plan on water, walkways, and turf and trees.

They propose a 10-percent reduction in turf area by converting grassy areas that lack an occupational function to bio-swales to detain rain water and runoff, to areas of perennial planting and mulch and to a highly visible expansion of the student-run organic Burning Kumquat garden.

They also propose the creation of a cooperative partnership with Forest Park Forever to manage a small flock of sheep, “nature’s lawn mowers,” to maintain selected turf areas on campus, leading to a drastic reduction in carbon emissions.

“Winning the competition is some validation that interdisciplinary collaboration really works,” Naucas says. “On a project like this, I’m encouraged that there is clearly room for people from many different disciplines to contribute valued ideas to larger goals of environmental quality.

“For the university, the competition itself is really important and I applaud Olin for being a leader within the university, generating new ideas by getting students at all levels involved in thinking about how we live in the world.”

Previous competition winners have included Morales — who won by herself last year with a proposal for an incentive system that reduces electricity use in WUSTL science laboratories — and a group of Olin students in 2010 who proposed a parking reduction plan on campus by targeting graduate students in university housing as the most likely to use public transportation and bicycles if services and pathways were improved.

Many aspects of both winning proposals already have been implemented.

Eighteen teams entered this year’s contest. A group of 10 judges narrowed that to seven and a video presentation narrowed the finalists to three.

Two other teams each won $1,000 for their proposals.

A team made up of second-year MBA students Caitlin Jones, Nalin Katta, Adam Loomans and Michael Offerman focused their proposal on native plantings, green roofs and strategic tree planting.

The other team, consisting of four sophomores — Alexandar Francisci, engineering and computer science in the School of Engineering & Applied Science; Jenny Fung, environmental biology in Arts & Sciences; Anthony Tyrpin, environmental biology; and Andrew Scheinman, architecture — focused on native plants, composting, more cisterns and a renovated smart sprinkler system.

“This competition helps the sustainability efforts on campus because it generates several realistic solutions that can decrease the university’s impact on our environment,” Morales says. “Phil Valko (director of sustainability at WUSTL and contest judge) is clearly interested in taking actions that will make our campus more sustainable, so there is a real possibility that our plan can become a reality. He implemented components of last year’s winning proposal and is already seeing benefits.”

The competition is sponsored by Novus International Inc.; Tarlton; Olin Business School; Schlafly Brewery; WUSTL’s Whittemore House; AT Kearney; Mackey Mitchell Architects; Net Impact; and the Olin Strategy and Consulting Association.