Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center at Monticello
Landscape Performance Benefits
- Captures and treats 90% of average annual rainfall of building site. The vegetated swales, green roofs, underground stormwater storage, vegetated bioretention gardens, and retention pond are designed to manage up to a 10-year storm.
- Estimated to remove 80% of total suspended solids from the captured runoff.
- Reduces potable water consumption for irrigation by 292,700 gallons or 63% compared to a baseline case by utilizing water-efficient plantings. This saves $1,770 annually.
- Reduces average summer air temperatures by 1.4°F and surface temperature by 26.5ºF on the gift shop green roof as compared to the adjacent hardscape. In the central courtyard, air and surface temperatures are 1.4ºF and 29.7ºF lower under the shade structure and trees.
- Contributed to an increase in visitors attending special events from 3,300 in 2009 when the Visitor Center opened to 12,500 in 2013. Since 2010, 68 events hosting 9,525 people have included the outdoor spaces as their venue.
- Contributed to a one-hour increase in length-of-stay for the average annual 440,000 visitors since the completion of the Visitor Center and its landscape.
- Creates a welcoming experience to Monticello for 97% of visitors surveyed. 76% had a very positive impression of the Visitor Center landscape.
- Contributed to a 19% increase in retail sales and a 250% increase in revenue from special events between 2009 and 2013.
At a Glance
Michael Vergason Landscape Architects
Former Land Use
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
$5.4 million for all site work
The Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center landscape design exemplifies sustainable site development while creating a new landscape that is a quiet foil to Jefferson’s exquisite 18th century mountaintop home and gardens. The design reorganizes the sequence of the visitor’s experience to create a more complete and coherent understanding of this historic site. By limiting new site disturbance, the project protects critical views, preserves an historic African American Cemetery, and creates habitat, sculpting an educational and inspiring gateway to this UNESCO World Heritage site. The central Visitor Center courtyard and series of gardens create a composition where boundaries between the new structure and terraced gardens blur into the surrounding woodland.
- Use of the existing infrastructure, parking, and vehicular circulation resulted in limited site disturbance. 140,458 sf of asphalt (82% of the existing parking lot) was incorporated into the new lot design so that only 30,517 sf of new asphalt was added to create 104 additional spaces.
- Two green roofs, totaling 4,839 sf, reduce stormwater runoff from the site. The extensive meadow roof above the Gift/Museum shop helps visually incorporate the building into the slope as it is highly visible from the shuttle stop. The intensive green roof in the central courtyard of the Visitor Center serves as the primary planting bed, providing a gathering space and shade for visitors while allowing the Smith Education Center, Discovery Room and staff offices to be buried below grade.
- A new greensward leading to the main courtyard at the Visitor Center enhanced the presentation of the African American Graveyard by eliminating the existing parking and vehicular activity in close proximity to the graveyard and providing it a more dignified setting.
- The exclusively native planting comprises 146 trees and 1,712 shrubs, which knit the project site back into the surrounding woodland, maintaining the wildness of the Piedmont forest.
- Building layout, position, and utility routing were carefully planned to minimize impact to significant existing trees and forest stands, as well as to avoid sensitive archeological areas. There are 10 dedicated Tree Preservation Areas, and 415 trees were saved, representing 78.5% of the trees within the project area.
- Runoff flows from the Visitor Center and parking lot into biofiltration gardens and through a river rock outflow into a vegetated swale along the greensward, then into either a 3,676 cu ft underground stormwater storage facility or a 6,000 cu ft bioretention pond.
- On-site felled timber was repurposed as five log check dams along the step pools in the greensward between the Visitor Center and the African American Graveyard.
- Redistribution of some Monticello functions, such as administrative offices and gift shop space, to the new Visitor Center helps reduce car traffic to the historic hilltop house and gardens and allowed some of the hilltop spaces to be returned to their historic use.
The site challenged the design team to fit a much larger program into a tight existing space constrained by woodlands and archaeological resources, while maintaining a form and organization that would belie the program’s scale. The design needed to incorporate additional parking while also reducing the visual intrusion of vehicles and protecting the African-American graveyard. It needed to provide new facilities for the Smith Education Center, gift shop, museum exhibition space, café, and ticket sales, in addition to well-organized pedestrian circulation and stormwater management. With the decision to reuse the existing site in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of the project, a key challenge would be continuing operations of the site as the visitor gateway to Monticello throughout the construction process. In order to integrate the site into its woodland surroundings, the designers wanted to use native plantings; however this would make it more difficult to create a full, mature look on opening day than using a more conventional turf and tree landscape.
The solution was in the close collaboration of the design team: architects, landscape architects, engineers and client. This allowed for the integration of the building, landscape and site functions into a cohesive visitor experience. Grouping some program features, putting some facilities underground, and breaking some elements into several smaller units that could fit seamlessly into the existing landscape gave the landscape architect a unique level of involvement. This also meant that the landscape architect was heavily involved in the construction administration, helping to implement the cohesive design. Two parking trays were constructed in Phase 1 of the project to act as the construction headquarters and allow for use of the existing parking for visitors during construction. To address concerns about native plants and the site’s appearance on opening day, additional funding was aquired late in the design with support from the client and donor. This allowed for an increase in the size of plants from a seed mix to plugs, from quart size shrubs to gallons, and from 3-in caliper trees to 5-in. This would make the plants appear more full in the landscape and result in a more successful first growing season when the plants become established.
- A palette of native plants greatly reduced the need for regular irrigation. According to the LEED documentation, the design requires 292,700 gallons less per year than a baseline case. At a cost of $6.04 per 1,000 gallons, the saving adds up to $1,770 per year.
- Given the historical and cultural significance of this site, there were many stakeholders involved in the decision-making process: Thomas Jefferson Foundation staff, the extensive design team, and donors. Decision-makers bought into the effort to fit the project into the native landscape early on in the design process; therefore when new stakeholders were introduced to the project, the design team was able to maintain a unified vision for the project by supplying extra renderings and by never relaxing on issues of ecological and sustainable principles that had been agreed upon early in the project.
- Extra effort is required during the construction administration stage to implement unconventional practices and innovative features. To protect the archeological resources of the site, communicating with and educating construction workers about the unique challenges and features of the site were essential, such as providing signage and creating reporting procedures about the archeological remnants. Challenges occurred when expectations were not clearly communicated to contractors about reuse of demolition materials for landscape features, such as the felled White Oak timber used for the check dams in the bioswales. The landscape architects ensured the contractors rummaged through the demolition pile to find logs appropriate for the check dams instead of resorting to new materials. Additionally, creating a more nuanced stormwater outflow versus a conventional engineered outflow required on-site arrangement of stones together with landscape architect and contractors.
- Achieving LEED certification was a key goal for the project, however the designers struggled because some of the landscape features that intuitively should count as stormwater mitigation features did not qualify. For example, to achieve LEED points for water efficiency, the entire site must require 50% less irrigation than a baseline case or only require irrigation during the establishment of the vegetation. This project does both, however each technique was not applied singularly to the site, therefore failing to qualify for additional LEED points. Yet this was a benefit in the end because it became an opportunity for more freedom in the design, achieving innovation in implementing the bioswale.
- Use of the geothermal well technology introduced unforeseen consequences within the landscape. Construction of the wells resulted in degradation of surrounding soils from erosion and sedimentation from construction byproducts. Had the landscape architects been involved earlier in the process, land mitigation efforts could have been integrated in the construction. Clean up and site preparation procedures would have resulted in better stewardship of the site and surrounding forest.
Hardscape: Espina Stone Company
Client: Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Landscape Architect: Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, LTD.
Architect: Ayers Saint Gross Architects
Civil Engineer: RK&K Engineers
Structural Engineer: CVM Engineers
MEP Engineer: Mueller Associates
Irrigation Design: Lynch & Associates
Water Feature Mechanical Design: Aqua Engineerings
Arboriculture: Zimar Associates; Arboristry Associates CM/GCBarton Malow Company
Landscape Contractor: Ivy Nurseries
Irrigation: Foothill Irrigation
Hardscape: Espina Stone Company
Stonemason: Shelton Sprouse
Retail Design: Eileen Ritter and Associates
Exhibit Design: Staple & Charles
Role of the Landscape Architect
Michael Vergason Landscape Architects worked closely with the architect and Thomas Jefferson Foundation staff to develop an innovative design to introduce the proposed building and landscape onto the existing site. The landscape architects carefully planned the building layout, position, and utility routing to minimize impact to significant existing trees and forest stands, as well as to avoid sensitive archeological areas. Additionally, they were heavily involved in construction administration, enforcing sensitivity to the site, archeological remnants and the sustainability goals of the project.
Case Study Prepared By
Research Fellow: Leena Cho, Lecturer in Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia
Research Assistant: Margaret Graham, MLA Candidate, University of Virginia
Firm Liaison: Rob Holmes, Michael Vergason Landscape Architects
Cho, Leena, and Margaret Graham. “Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center at Monticello.” Landscape Performance Series. Landscape Architecture Foundation, 2014. https://doi.org/10.31353/cs0700