2008 Fircrest Therapeutic Garden

Fircrest School is the only state Residential Habilitation Center located in the Puget Sound urban corridor and provides housing and services for two hundred of the most severely disabled residents of Washington State*. The eighty six acre facility is located in Shoreline WA, just north of Seattle. The existing campus was built upon the infrastructure of a WW II military barracks and was used as a tuberculosis quarantine center following the end of the war until acquisition by the state in the 1960’s.

Fircrest served primarily adult and aging residents until a 2007 mandate to enroll twenty four youth. The younger residents have a range of conditions poor to no mobility, frequent seizures, lack of physical coordination and nervous disorders. The mental disabilities include inability to focus, low IQ, difficulties with social engagement, compulsive and/or violent behaviors. Washington State requires that facilities housing youth provide appropriate recreational facilities, which initiated the idea for a therapeutic play garden. The Friends of Fircrest raised $30,000 to fund the garden and approached the University of Washington Design/Build program and the project was undertaken for the 2008 undergraduate capstone studio.

Over the course of the twelve week quarter the students toured Fircrest, met with therapists, staff and administrators to understand the programs and services. Teams of three students developed five master plans which were presented in a public venue to staff, administrators and residents and reviewed. Responding to the comments, a team of five students synthesized the plans into a preferred option and the remaining eight weeks were devoted to its construction.

The quarter acre garden site abuts the residential housing for youth, with a parking lot to the north and an access road to the west. Although the scale and context differ from the Pete Gross House, the student designers at Fircrest had a similar challenge to mitigate the displacement that residents undergo and provide a reconnection to a familiar “home” landscape. The therapeutic program and the characteristics of the site suggested the idea of a “backyard” combined with a “village green” would be the working narrative. The site is the physical heart of the building cluster and a natural gathering place where community events, planned activities and celebrations are held. Access to the garden is through the residents’ back patios, and both typologies are applicable to the garden.

The garden is used by the some residents on their own though most are accompanied by one or more staff. After discussions with the faculty it was agreed that the intent of the studio was to design a place where the youth could garden, increase their therapeutic engagements with nature, play, recreate and increase time spent outside.

The student’s designed a six foot wide concrete path connecting the northeast corner of the site to the southwest and linking to an existing path and a sidewalk. The path accesses the garden from the back patios and through the garden to the greater campus. Two secondary looping paths link the four zones of production, play, exploration and observation. The main zone of production is a work space for horticultural therapy activities. It consists of four 8’ X 4’ rectilinear gardening beds, a tool shed and a potting/work table with a shade arbor overhead and a patch of sunflowers. The zones of play and observation are interwoven around a plaza and open lawn. The first activity is the parallel bars that serve as a gateway into the garden. One passes under a shade/arbor structure with seating and a glider that faces a circular raised seat/retaining wall. Planted in the center of the circle is a specimen dawn redwood that will be the tallest tree in the garden and will provide from shade for those using the lawn that surrounds it.. On the opposite side of the plaza are the swings sets and rubber surfaced play ground which is surrounded by aromatic and sensory plantings. A 4’ wide path loops through native plantings to the zone of exploration, a series of sensory and herb gardens and finally to a edible plant garden with berry bushes, seasonal vegetables and to a pumpkin patch. In the second phase, a tree house is planned, actually a house in a grove of trees so it is accessible to all.

The Fircrest play garden was designed for a menu of activities which can be chosen by individuals or groups and their caregivers. For those users with very low social skills, severe autism for example, parallel play or gardening may represent the highest level of social interaction they can manage. For others swinging side by side may inspire social interactions not stimulated by more passive activities. Many of the residents are virtually non social, while others are very engaging. For the minimally social, observation is an important part of their daily routine. Many were attracted to the construction of the gardens and continue to spend significant parts of their days sitting and observing the garden and the activities there.

Careful attention was made to provide safe and accessible activities, gardens beds at wheelchair height, rubber surfacing so residents can fall without fear of being hurt, parallel bars that allow a care giver to support the residents as they use them, an accessible water pump, and water play and plantings at varying levels so that a wide range of users can smell and touch them.

The garden provides an important and accessible means of escape for both the residents and significantly for the care providers. Many of the residents are prone to stay in their rooms, watching TV or sleeping and the boredom and narrowness of opportunities to engage the residents is an issue among care providers. The garden provides an escape from the repetitiveness of their jobs. Simply walking through the garden with a resident is an enjoyable experience and is a reliable calming option when residents show signs of anxiety. For the residents the garden is a place of stimulation, entertainment, play and diversion. Many residents have classes or low level work assignments during the day which are repetitive. The garden is a counterpoint to the monotony of their routine and living environments. The circular paths contrast with the rectilinear layout of the main campus. The water runnel provides fascination and engagement as it courses down the channel changing texture and encouraging manipulation. The motion of the glider and swings is soothing in its repetitive motion. The gardening allows residents to have ownership of a bed, to plant a seed, watch it grow and harvest its produce. It’s an immersive experience for some residents just to touch the soil, dig and water. For those who become serious gardeners it is one of their primary daily focuses and it helps them build a work ethic, sense of responsibility and discipline. The brightly colored concrete walls, the flowering vines and herbs, the natural wood, the sculpted rain tree that conveys the water into the runnel are dynamically tactile and expressive and provide a place of contrast and enticement that allows residents for a brief while to be in a special place that provides a seasonally changing aesthetic, opportunities for play and constructive physical and mental engagements within a safe environment.

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*Note: an earlier version of this article listed the residential population at 1997 instead of 2000. It was corrected on Feb 9, 2010