04.04.12Kelly Duke

Drylands Design Conference – The Challenge of Adaptive Design

Dry Lands Design Conference Cover Art

The Dry Lands Design Conference: Image courtesy of the Arid Lands Institute, Woodbury University. Graphic design by Anne Swett of Swett Shop

On March 22 I attended the Dry Lands Design Conference.  The event was co-hosted by the California Architectural Foundation and the Arid Lands Institute, the brainchild of Co-Directors Hadley and Peter Arnold, faculty in the Architecture program at Woodbury University in Burbank,California.  The Conference was held on the Woodbury campus where it brought together noted experts from academia, architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, infrastructure, and public policy to consider the topic of “Adaptive Design”.

The goal of the gathering was to discuss collaborative strategies can be used toward adaptive design for a changing climate.  Speakers and panelists provided a program that was intense and detail-rich and which attempted to strike a balance between dark predictions and forward-thinking optimism.  In the end optimism won out.  Making the program possible was an impressive list of sponsors and contributors.

 A key element of the conference was the Dry Lands Design Competition.  Commencing in April of 2011, the competition received over three hundred professional and student entries from around the world.  The adaptive design concepts crossed diverse technical, aesthetic, cultural, and policy disciplines with a focus on water, energy, sociology, and climate.  Follow these links for a complete list of all entries, including the winning student and professional award winners.

Of particular interest were the five entries that warranted special recognition as Research Merit Winners; projects so compelling in their scope or applicability that they each received a $10,000.00 grant and paring with policy mentors and technical advisors to assist in their further development.  These five are described in very brief terms below:

Drylands Design:  The Commonwealth Approach

Lauren McSherry and Rob Holmes presented a radical rethinking of the historical geo-political boundaries of the United States.  In their concept, “Commonwealths” are defined by the limits of their individual watershed areas.  The commonwealths would be clustered into regional territories.  The idea is to create a more equitable and efficient  distribution of water.  The concept may not gain traction given that each of our state’s have strong have territorial imperatives but it could find an acceptance in a post-apocalyptic do-over.

Off The Reservation:  A Seed for Change

The Quechan people of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation live in southern Arizona.  Author Mehgan Storm allowed the indigenous Quechan cultural practices to inform her design of a low-tech, sustainable agrarian infrastructure based on the natural water seeps from the Colorado and Yuma Rivers and the various unlined canals in that cross the historic Quechan tribal lands.  This adaptive design concept gives the Quechan food security and a return to a healthier, traditional diet.  Combing an improved diet with Mehgan’s modern interpretation of traditional shelter and her goal of trail access to culturally significant sites promises a reaffirmation of Quechan cultural identity, health, and pride.

Retrofitting Silver Lake Reservoir:

Silver Lake and Ivanhoe reservoirs are being decommissioned as potable water reservoirs.  The bodies of water will remain as park water features.  Architect Robert Lamb, AIA  adaptive design envisions re-creating the lakes as an active element in an urban watershed program.  In his design, Lamb would pump surplus reclaimed water (currently allowed to flow to the sea) through existing but repurposed water lines into littoral bio-filtration beds in the lake.  Thus scrubbed, the water would be diverted to recharge the local aquifer.  The Lake could ultimately serve a role in the larger effort to revive the now concrete-linedLos AngelesRiver.

A Colorful Walk:  Salt Pool Exploration:

Owens Lake has suffered mightily as ever since William Mulholland engineered the California Aqueduct to divert upstream water to Los Angeles.  The resulting desiccation has created an area of both horrendous dust storms and almost extraterrestrial beauty.  The locale  is also a popular stopping point for migratory waterfowl.  Dust control is currently managed through shallow flooding.  The flooding uses fresh water.  Students Ye Hua, Janet Yank Kiyoi, and Jessica Kostosky of the USC Landscape Architecture Program envision a series of walking trails and holding ponds.  Their adaptive design proposes to reduce the water flow to encourage the formation of salt crusts that would deter dust.  Their manipulation of land forms create pond areas that naturally segregate into different colored pools based on their concentrations of salts and microorganism.  The end result would be reduced dust and dust mitigation costs and the creation of a unique environmental art installation.

Re-Investing the Line:  Small Infrastructures, Micro-Communities, and Communication Ecologies for the American West

Australians are no strangers to arid land.  Gini Lee, PhD and Brooke Madill from the University of Melbourne focused on the attraction of water and how, in arid lands, it becomes the centerpiece of micro infrastructures that have historically defined lines of transit and communication connected by dots of water.  Their proposal is to reinvest and recover both the historical and cultural significance of these wayposts and oases.   Each unique site has potential lessons in sustainability that can inform art, adaptive design, engineering, and culture.

I will have more on this conference in future posts.

 K. F. Duke

Posts you may also like

Kelly Duke

Not many people can say that they have dedicated their life to the landscape industry. Kelly Duke can. His diverse background ranging from maintenance to estimating, to design, along with a passionate commitment to his trade has given Kelly a lifecycle perspective to landscaping. As the leader of the ValleyCrest’s Pre-Construction Services team, he analyzes early conceptual designs to determine whether or not and how they can be built within budget while meeting long-term design and maintenance goals. Many of the projects that come across Kelly’s desk require he examine the cost and savings of baseline water use in comparison to high efficiency alternatives.


Refresh Image


  1. Wednesday, 12:19 Linda Forde

    Some great stuff here K.F. Duke. Thanks. I found the piece on the Owens Lake student study especially interesting. NUVIS has spent the last year and a half developing alternative dust control measures fpr a 700 acre portion of the lake which would protect and encourage habitat, provide limited public access, and require less water. Plans are now in final CD phase with CDM and LADWP.

  2. Friday, 5:55 Kelly Duke

    Ms. Forde,
    Thanks for the comment. In all honesty my very brief synopses of the research grant winners does not do justice to the depth of their anaysis or the quality of their presentation imagery. All were clearly in tune with their subject matter and each offered a compelling thesis and solution.

    But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. The winning entries and others are on display as part of the Drylands Design exhibition March 22nd through May 15th at the Architecture and Design Museum located at 6032 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Open Tuesday through Friday 11am to 5pm and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6pm.


© 2014 ValleyCrest Landscape Companies