When Mariana Qubein was traveling with her husband in Paris, a raised flower bed skirting the perimeter of a Champs-Elysees roundabout caught her eye. She wanted to install something similar at High Point University, an 89-year-old institution in North Carolina where her husband is the university president. Today, an adapted version of the Parisian garden, with conifers, hellebores, and winter flowering irises, greets prospective students at the university’s main entrance.
Since Nido Qubein, a successful businessman and speaker, became the head of the university in 2005, he has focused on raising the school’s profile, and the Mariana H. Qubein Arboretum & Botanical Gardens is just one of his many projects. Although many liberal arts universities boast attractive campus gardens, few are as expansive—or ecologically minded—as the welcoming garden at High Point. Opened in 2006, the 24-garden collection sits among stately red brick buildings and forms the bucolic backdrop for a 330-acre campus designated as a “Tree Campus USA” for the past four years by the Arbor Day Foundation. The garden’s plant collection is young, but it features more than 2,000 different species and cultivars and serves as an innovative example of how constructed wetland environments can limit storm-water runoff and improve water quality.
But High Point University’s commitment to sustainability and energy conservation extends beyond its gardens to the built environment. The 31,000-square-foot School of Education building, designed by Mercer Architecture and opened in August 2012, is targeting LEED Silver certification. The building houses the education and psychology departments in a brick-faced Georgian architectural style with a grand, colonnaded entry, prominent bay windows, and technologically sophisticated classrooms, computer labs, and offices. With intelligent lighting, plumbing, and irrigation systems, water use is cut by 30 percent inside the building and by 50 percent outdoors, while energy use is reduced by 24 percent.
As a learning tool and sanctuary for students, the campus gardens are an impressive achievement. Statues of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Galileo, and Martin Luther King Jr. rise from brick pathways that wind past meticulously trimmed boxwood hedges, walls of espaliered plants, and numerous residence halls. Students can take refuge under palm boughs and banana trees in the tropical garden, a microclimate that takes advantage of radiant heat and northerly wind protection from the nearby Slane Student Center to grow showcase plants that are typically 1 to 1.5 zones warmer than the city of High Point. There is an azalea path, a wisteria arbor, a dogwood grove, a rose garden, a butterfly garden, a culinary herb garden—all neatly labeled with botanical and common plant names and routinely used by students in the school’s biology and environmental science programs as a living laboratory for plant and ecology study.
For a growing school with newfound cache—High Point University was recently ranked No. 1 in the South twice in the regional rankings of U.S. News and World Report’s 2013 edition of America’s Best Colleges—the gardens also serve a more pragmatic function: providing a sufficient amount of green space to offset the ecological impact of new construction. Since Qubein’s arrival nine years ago, the school has added 47 new buildings, increased its size from 92 to 330 acres, and expanded its building footprint from 675,000 to 3 million square feet. As building development has created new impervious surfaces and altered the campus’s hydrologic cycle, the school has sought the counsel of landscape architects from Stimmel and Associates and engineers from Jamestown Engineering to put its plants to work on an innovative watershed plan.
Four bioretention sites at High Point, including one at the university’s Greek Village, use constructed pond systems to mimic the organic filtration processes of natural wetlands. Three-foot-deep depressions are planted with leafy, water-tolerant species, such as sedges, inkberry hollies, and viburnums, to slow runoff and improve water quality by temporarily storing rainwater in shallow ponds. Leafy vegetation and accumulated plant litter help decompose organic compounds and cleanse the water of suspended solids, heavy metals, nitrogen, petroleum, and other pollutants before the water drains into a piping system connected to the local water supply.
“As you add impervious surface, you don’t want that rolling off into your storm water,” says Jon Roethling, the university’s curator of grounds. “This slows it down and filters out impurities. We are in an area with some of the most innovative nurseries, plant breeders, and horticulturists and can draw from that in creating the gardens. Many of these nurseries are very open to sharing plant material that is hard to find, just coming on the market, or simply a great plant that is often overlooked. It is these relationships with the industry that are such a great asset.”