From November 6-8, 2013, Urban and Regional Planning second-year student Katie Gieszler participated in the Design Residency program at RDG Planning and Design, located in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. Over the intense three-day program, Katie and eight other graduate students from a variety of fields and universities collaborated to create a progressive vision for their client’s site and business.
Their client owns multiple companies in the agriculture industry in the Des Moines metropolitan area. His business had grown and he needed to move his office space away from its home to a bigger site. He found a new site nearly one mile from the original in Pleasant Hill, Iowa. He wanted a site design paying homage to its prairie roots and reaping full ecological and social benefits. Their challenge was to understand his personal and professional values and design a vision for the new site that had an emphasis on holistic sustainability.
To begin this process, the residents spent the first day of the program meeting with prominent local business leaders to discuss corporate stewardship, and learning how to recognize firms that put the “triple bottom line” theory into practice. They discussed challenges to sustainability in the corporate world, and how to be better stewards of the environment in a formal business setting. Later that day, the group visited the site and met the employees of the company. They interacted with many City employees to better understand their role in Pleasant Hill as leaders, the history of the city itself, and where they expect the city to be in the future. Doing so gave them better insight into the unique attributes of the site and an understanding of the corporate culture the business owner created within the walls of the office building.
The most challenging part of the residency was Day 2, the group's day to design the site. They were given minimal expectations of a framework for their final product, which was to be presented to their client and RDG staff at the end of the residency. The group struggled with whether it was most appropriate to deliver conceptual designs versus practical designs and since the client told them to “think big” they did just that. Working through their various multi-disciplinary lenses, they each envisioned design attributes of the site that furthered his clear dedication to environmental conservation. Using the Capital Crossroads Plan and the Tomorrow Plan as their guiding principles, they presented their vision for the site within the community in the greater context of the plan’s various “capitals”: built and natural environment, economic, political, human, and cultural. Each of their graduate education’s matched closely with one of the “capitals”, and as a result, they each contributed in their respective disciplines.
They put together a presentation that provided their client with a way to move forward with his site, an idea of how to change the site to better fit his needs, but also to fulfill and exceed the needs of the community at large. While the presentation was the end product (which included a short film, three short stories, 3-D site renderings, and various other works of art in addition to their discussion of the “capitals”), what Katie says she gained from the experience was something much greater. She found working with such unique and talented students with very different specialties inspiring. They, along with RDG staff, were able to push each other to think not only “outside the box”, but further outside the box than they had ever known. Considering so many attributes of the site and their client’s unique perspective was challenging, but everyone’s dedication to the project and passion about sustainability allowed them to find common ground for the greater good. According to Katie, "The experience taught me to have an even greater appreciation for collaboration, to be patient with the design process, and to always listen first. The experience impacted me personally and professionally, and I’m thankful I had the opportunity to participate."