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Thomas Jefferson’s legacy goes water permeable. Rain gardens, too.

January 17, 2012

Sited on Shockoe Hill, which overlooks the falls of the James River in downtown Richmond, the Virginia State Capitol, looks very similar today to the way its designer, Thomas Jefferson, envisioned it. Modeled after an ancient Roman temple in southern France, the stark white building has played many roles.

Since 1792, it’s been the seat of government in Virginia, served for a short time as the Capitol of the Confederacy during the Civil War and is even sometimes used as a stand-in for the White House for exterior shots for television and movie productions.

Today, the capitol’s grounds and adjacent streets and alleys are in the midst of a project that are using a mix of environmental design changes, including permeable StormPave® pavers from Pine Hall Brick, in an effort to protect the river that Jefferson admired from that hilltop more than two centuries ago.

The “Greening Virginia’s Capitol” project has brought together the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Department of General Services, the City of Richmond and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to implement this project, which is being funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The overall goal is to both use and improve water wisely, by conserving clean water and cleaning pollutants from runoff.  To lessen the demand on clean water, an existing underground tank that was originally installed to collect stormwater runoff is being modified to redirect stormwater into the irrigation system on the capitol grounds, thus reducing the demand on the public water supply during the spring and summer.

The second is to cut back on runoff being treated off site, by reducing the area of impervious surface within Capitol Square, to include a rain garden, green streets, rainwater harvesting and StormPave® permeable brick pavers by Pine Hall Brick.

StormPave® is being used for walkways and notably, for a 150-foot staircase that leads to a monument on the grounds.

Planners say the changes are intended to reduce the amount of polluted stormwater flowing into Richmond’s sewer system by 64 percent and to reduce the amount of phosphorus in that stormwater by 69 percent and nitrogen by 70 percent. Nitrogen and phosphorus are two of the biggest sources of pollution in area rivers and within the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

Chris Hale, ASLA, LEED AP, is principal of Bioform Landscape Architecture & Environmental Design, which is providing design services for the project, said that the state had an interest in cutting down on the amount of pollution on the site, because it is so close to the nearby James River.

He explained that rain runoff is mixed with sewer outflow in downtown Richmond. Cleaning up the runoff means less sewage treatment and cleaner water being discharged downstream into the James River. Using permeable pavers means that stormwater is filtered naturally by flowing into the ground, instead of washing pollutants like fertilizer across a solid surface to a storm drain.

“The proximity to the river was really a driving factor in improving the water quality,” said Hale.

Ironically, within the walks and plazas on the capitol grounds, some of the new StormPave® clay brick pavers replaced older clay brick pavers that had been mortared into place. The older bricks were salvaged and taken to a recycling plant, where they will be turned into a brick aggregate.

“The new brick matched pretty well  with what was out there,” said Hale. “We worked with the historic character of the brick that was there, which allowed us to do the permeable system. We’re getting ready to do a few more walkways and when they replace these older walks, they want to use the permeable pavers.”

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