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University of Minnesota

A HERC-ulean task

April 26, 2010

Ben Beery, Ashley Sommer, and Cassandra Meyer stand between HERC and Target Field.

U graduate research assistants Ben Beery, Ashley Sommer, and Cassandra Meyer stand next to some trees between Target Field and the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC). The landscaping efforts were part of a broad design proposal by the students to make HERC more sustainable and visually appealing.

Photo: Rick Moore

U students offer design improvements for Minneapolis garbage burner

By Rick Moore

When a new Twins ballpark was proposed for the west end of downtown Minneapolis, people were quick to point out that the location was marred by one particular (ahem) landmark.

The stadium site was next to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC), colloquially known as the garbage burner, where trash from one-third of the county (including every Minneapolis residence) is burned to generate electricity to power an equivalent of 25,000 homes.

How appealing could a ballpark be next to a place like that?

After an opening nine-game homestand for the Twins that has been nothing short of a public and media love fest, the answer is quite appealing. Some University of Minnesota students can take credit for assisting with a host of sustainable design ideas to make the HERC more ecologically sound and visually appealing.

For now, at least, most of the trash talking has stopped.

Designing a makeover for HERC

The University of Minnesota became involved with HERC through the Hennepin-University Partnership, an organization that supports academic/practitioner collaboration between the county and the U.
First, the student group Greenlight held a design charrette in February 2008 to brainstorm ideas. Then four graduate research assistants—Ashley Sommer, Ben Beery, Cassandra Meyer, and Matt Sand—were enlisted to develop a plan under the tutelage of Virajita Singh, a senior research fellow at the College of Design's Center for Sustainable Building Research.
The students, whose expertise spanned architecture, landscape architecture, sustainable design, and civil engineering, worked with staff at Hennepin County Environmental Services and their partners (including representatives from the Twins and neighborhood groups) to envision a makeover for HERC’s exterior that would focus on sustainability.

The group submitted its final report, playfully titled “HERC in my Backyard” (a takeoff on the common citizen cry “Not in my Backyard”) in August 2008.

The report offered two design proposals to re-envision HERC's exterior, considering architectural, social, economic, and environmental implications on the following topics:
• sustainable landscape (for example, terraced slopes to manage stormwater run-off)
• sustainable messaging using the "architectural skin" (for example, text and images on the side of the building to convey the waste-to-energy process inside)
• green roofs (vegetation atop the facility that addressed stormwater and urban heat island issues)

While only some of the design team’s recommendations were ultimately used, they were all well received by the county, Singh says. Following the U's proposal, the county hired the local firm HGA to implement a final design.

In early April, Singh, Sommer, Meyer, and Beery received a tour of HERC from Dave McNary of the Hennepin County Department of Environmental Services. He pointed out some of the sustainable design ideas that were implemented, from stormwater mitigation features to the scores of trees—birch, oak, and red cedar—that were preparing to bloom.

“Even though the final design is not exactly the way you guys had planned, the concepts are there to green it up and to manage the stormwater on site,” says McNary. “It was your ideas that ultimately led to what you see now.”

A model for future collaborations

Singh says the U students’ work for HERC is a good template for generating design ideas in a time of constrained resources.

“This was a real prototype on how to do this kind of work for organizations, counties, nonprofits,” she says.
For the U students, it was a chance to contribute to a tangible issue in the community.

"Getting this opportunity as a student is a huge benefit, for any number of reasons," says Beery. "One, just working on a real project is kind of nice. But also, being involved with a county, a large corporation, and a neighborhood is an invaluable experience for a student. We were involved in that process throughout our project.”

Tags: College of Design

videoDesigning a makeover for HERC 

Designing a makeover for HERC

The report "HERC in my Backyard" was the result of an extensive, three-month research process. The 61-page report can be downloaded here.