New Arb benches result of unique collaboration

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

While the grassy slopes of Nichols Arboretum will always be a favorite public flopping place, many Arboretum visitors prefer a drier, firmer surface on which to rest, study, eat lunch or just relax and enjoy nature.

The answer to their need is a prototype bench, now under construction and soon to be installed near the Arb’s first overlook area. Custom-designed by two School of Art students, the wood and concrete bench has an earthy, contemporary style that complements its natural surroundings. It is comfortable—“but not too comfortable”—and vandal-proof, as well, according to designers David Sugar and Howard Cohen.

The modular and expandable bench is the product of a unique collaboration between the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) and the art school. Sugar’s and Cohen’s work on the project began more than a year ago when Harrison L. Morton, Arboretum director and SNRE associate dean, commissioned them to design a bench that would meet criteria specific to the Arb.

With the help of project facilitator Jon N. Rush, professor of art, and financial assistance from SNRE, the students, now seniors, spent two terms of Rush’s sculpture class and independent study working on the project.

“We learned that it is difficult to find simple solutions to architectural problems like this,” Sugar says. “But we enjoyed the project because it has provided feedback in ways that more isolated projects, done only for art classes, don’t.”

Through consultation with SNRE faculty and Arboretum staff, the students developed proposals for meeting all design criteria for the project. Their final proposal included suggested solutions to design problems, estimated cost of all materials, a blueprint and a small-scale model.

The students and Arb staff realized that no structure—no matter how perfect—is worth much if it disappears. One of the top criteria, therefore, was resistance to vandalism and theft, says Cohen.

Although very heavy materials would deter thieves, he and Sugar didn’t think a bench made entirely of concrete would be appropriate for the student-oriented Arb.

“We had to figure a way to incorporate wood planks into a bench that would be too heavy to move without a fork lift, Cohen says. “It seemed like a complex problem—then we stepped back and everything fell into place.”

Concrete did turn out to be the solution. While the seat part of each bench is made of pressure-treated pine lumber, the wood planks lock into circular concrete columns weighing nearly a ton each. The columns, now hardening in molds, must be installed with a forklift, and certainly could not be removed without one.

The top section of each column is removable for replacement or turning of damaged wood. “All you need for repairs is the forklift,” Cohen says. “There are no screws or small parts to worry about.” The weather-tolerant wood also is low-maintenance, he adds.

Another advantage of the column design is that the benches are easily expandable and lend themselves to a variety of configurations. Wood planks may extend on either side of each column, at any angle. “The modules almost fit together like a puzzle,” Sugar says.

Estimated cost for the first bench is $173, then $100 for each additional bench extension. The low cost of the project meets still another of the Arb’s requirements.

The project posed an aesthetic as well as technical challenge in that “the bench must be easy on the eye, compatible with the landscape, yet clearly visible,” Sugar says. “Pea stone could be added to the concrete for a more earthy tone, but we didn’t recommend embellishments like tree bark that would totally camouflage the bench.”

The benches will be installed in the Arb later this spring, as soon as the concrete columns have completely hardened. Meanwhile, students, faculty and staff can view models of the bench in a display on the first floor of the SNRE building.

Feedback on the model has so far been mostly positive, Morton says. “The project demonstrates that more than natural resources students and faculty are involved in the Arb’s ongoing improvement.”


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