David Hill

Assistant professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture
College of Architecture, Design and Construction

David Hill is a landscape architect. He started working at D.I.R.T. studio in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2005 where he helped unearth post-industrial landscapes such as the Urban Outfitters' headquarters in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. David moved with his wife Elizabeth and their three children to Auburn in 2009 where he became a professor and opened his own design practice called HILLworks. His award-winning renovation, turning a historic industrial building on Bragg Avenue into his family's home, has been featured in Birmingham Home and Garden magazine and Residential Architect's project gallery . In 2012, he got the opportunity to collaborate again with D.I.R.T. studio, which eventually led him to becoming a principal of D.I.R.T. and opening an office on Sanders Street in Auburn, affectionately christened D.I.R.T. studio [south].

1. What is D.I.R.T. studio?

Originally, D.I.R.T. was an acronym that stood for "Design Investigations of Reclaimed Terrain," but now we like to say it stands for "Dump It Right There." The studio started in 1992 as a research adventure by Julie Bargmann, who's a cherished mentor of mine. She got this great travel grant to visit mining operations throughout the U.S. to look closely at acid mine drainage, or AMD. AMD occurs when contaminants from the mining process aggregate into the watershed, causing all kinds of ecological problems. One of D.I.R.T.'s early projects was called AMD & ART where Julie worked with the artist Stacey Levy to create this network of wetlands that remediated the water as it flows from one pool to another. The color of the plants in each wetland corresponds to the color of the PH levels of the water from a standard PH test. There are also ball fields and walking trails within the park, but that's the kind of revelatory and regenerative process that D.I.R.T.'s known for.

The first project I worked on was the Urban Outfitters' headquarters in the Philadelphia Navy Yard in Pennsylvania. It was a great project where we jackhammered all this existing concrete pavement and then reused the chunks as new pavers for the terraces. We called the reclaimed chunks of concrete "Barney Rubble." Any chunks of concrete too small to use as pavers were mixed with pieces of asphalt and brick and used as mulch throughout the landscape. Of course, this was the "Betty Rubble."

2. What appeals to you about landscape architecture?

What's really amazing about the discipline of landscape architecture is that it can shift dramatically in scales and complexities. On a global level, landscape architecture is actively engaging difficult issues like climate change and sea level rise, but the discipline is also engaged in intimate experiences such as how one moves through small spaces within the landscape or how plants change through the seasons. In the program at Auburn, we focus on critical thinking skills and exploring the expansive possibilities through design. Although we love to design beautiful gardens, we also get excited about working with messy ecological processes that shift, move and change, and we try to figure out how to engage those processes in a meaningful way.

3. Tell me about the pool hall that you renovated into your home.

I live with my family half a mile north of Auburn University, which is fantastic. We live in the heart of the city on Bragg Avenue, which has this rich mixture of industrial and residential uses. At the time, we simply thought we were renovating an old brick warehouse, but as we got deeper into the project, we realized the building had a much more interesting past than we anticipated. After a bit of careful research, we discovered that this structure was built in 1920 by the same man who built Toomer's corner: J.M. Thomas. Prior to integration, this building was one of the major mercantile spaces for the African American community of Auburn. Through the years it's been a pool hall, a church, a fish shop, cab station, several restaurants and King's Kongo Klub, which was a dance club. This is another project that reveals how diving into the history of a place can help the design of that place. A lot of designers approach a project thinking, "What am I going to create here?" I like to come to a place and say, "What stories can we uncover? What can we reveal?" That's our design methodology for any project. It's more about uncovering, unearthing, and working with historic traces rather than applying something of our own with a heavy hand. This approach is challenging, but worth it. We finished the renovation in 2011, and our little munchkins love living there. I have three wonderful children, Breyton (10), Wade (8) and Luke (5). The house is a bit like a big playground for all of us. We set up a huge screen on the side of the building and love having outdoor movie nights.

4. What kind of career can someone have with a Master of Landscape Architecture?

Landscape architecture is tremendously diverse. Most people think it's about physically digging ditches or pushing dirt around, but once you get into it, you realize that more than anything else we're a bunch of pencil pushers. Although landscape architects can have a design build practice where they offer installation services, the majority of the discipline is primarily engaged in the process of design. Landscape architects design a diversity of spaces from backyard gardens to public parks, from wetlands to urban streets. Anyone with an undergraduate degree can enter the master's program. We've had students from history, horticulture, environmental design, psychology, math and architecture. It's great to watch how each student's background informs how they approach design.

5. What is your favorite place on campus?

That's a great question. I'm constantly on plant walks (which I love) and there are several places on campus I'm drawn to. They're a bit strange, but here goes. First, there's a great pond behind Auburn's Research Park, generally between the Forest Products Lab and the Soccer/Track Complex. This overall area is full of mid-successional forests, but there is a nice gaggle of bald cypress along the water's edge. Another amazing spot is this strange mini-grove of pecan trees located in the expansive horticulture fields. These pecans were planted about 12 feet apart in a 4 x 4 grid. I haven't heard why it was planted quite like this, but it creates this great room with nice proportions. Lastly, behind the Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Building, there's a tremendous cluster of American Beeches and Tulip Poplars along a trickle of water. They're huge trees that have shaded out most of the shrub and understory layers, so you've got this cathedral like space beneath their high canopies. The dappled light dances through the deep shade. That one might be my favorite.

Last Updated: Sept. 15, 2014

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