NORMAN — In a quiet cul-de-sac in Norman's Trail Woods addition, research is under way, though most people won't notice.
Sets of monitoring equipment tucked in at ground level will sample stormwater runoff for the next two years, comparing the pollutant levels from one side of the cul-de-sac to levels from the other side. A team from the University of Oklahoma oversees the sampling.
The main difference between the two sides? One features standard front yards with grass extending to the curb while the other has rain gardens installed by the street — or, as most casual passers-by might see it, “Oh, what a pretty garden.”
That's fine with Ideal Homes' Richard and Vernon McKown, who are leveraging their family's 42-year reputation in homebuilding to explore and perfect low-impact building methods — those that limit the effect on the environment. Their father, Gene McKown, is a longtime fixture in Norman's land development scene.
A drive through Carrington Place, where Ideal installed test rain gardens six years ago, proves the point, Richard McKown said.
“The thing is, when you drive through there, they just look like beautiful, landscaped areas,” he said. “They don't look like anything. So from a commercial standpoint, they're a nice amenity. They look nice like a well-planted front flower bed in a front entry.”
But the landscaping at the entrance serves double duty: Its strategic combination of plants and soil materials is supposed to soak up rainfall as it rolls off rooftops and across concrete and herbicide-laced lawns. The aim is to reduce the amount of chemicals flowing into sewer systems and ultimately into watersheds that drain into streams, lakes or aquifers.
“By the time (rainwater) gets to your gutter and through your yard, it's already not the cleanest water,” Richard McKown said.
Ideal Homes joined with the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency on the Trail Woods project. The condition of Lake Thunderbird, Norman's source of drinking water, adds a sense of urgency to the work.
“Lake Thunderbird is very impaired with nutrients, and we're starting to tackle that,” said Judith Wilkins, environmental projects coordinator in the conservation commission's water quality division. Phosphorus in fertilizer is the biggest culprit, she said.
The Trail Woods site is “a demonstration project to show what we can do,” she said.
Wilkins said she has watched Ideal Homes experiment in other neighborhoods, including the rain gardens in Norman's Carrington Place addition and several thousand dollars' worth of carefully chosen plants along the edges on the main pond there.
“And the maintenance crew came through and mowed them all down,” she said. “So it's an education process.”
Ideal worked with Reid Coffman, a former assistant professor with OU's Division of Landscape Architecture, in setting up the Trail Woods project. Though he is now at Kent State University in Ohio, Coffman is still involved.
“In fact, this project would never have been possible without him,” Richard McKown said.
Not all rain gardens, though, are created equal.
“Some of the early rain gardens we saw, like pictures in other marketplaces, looked like detention ponds,” Vernon McKown said.
“The water was flooded into an area, and it was kind of quasi-rain garden, but it wasn't an asset to the community.”
Richard McKown added: “We had friends in Chicago who had to put out signs saying, ‘It's supposed to look weedy.'”
Ideal is striving to provide both form and function, Vernon McKown said. And it's working. “Every rain garden that we currently have on the ground is aesthetically pleasing and in harmony with the residence.”
But is it affordable?
“I'm not going to tell you we've cracked the code on that,” he said with a laugh. “We're in the early stages of the learning.”
There are plenty of challenges. What works in the porous soils around Chesapeake Bay isn't going to work in Oklahoma's denser clay soil. Plus, most of the work falls outside city code, forcing the McKowns to visit with city officials on a regular basis.
“The city of Norman has been very gracious to work with us,” Richard McKown said.
And the underground elements have to be woven around sewer pipes, cable lines and other utility conduits already in place. Zac Roach, Ideal's vice president of development, has probably gained a few gray hairs in the course of the Trail Woods project, Richard McKown said.
“Zac's the one who's actually boots on the ground, making sure everybody talks to everybody, makes sure no sewer lines, phone lines, Cox Communication lines get cut, and that it all gets done as close to on budget as possible.”
So the challenge has been to create a rain garden that will work with Oklahoma's soil and extremes in weather but won't radically increase the home's price.
“That's been a very important piece of our puzzle,” Richard McKown said.
Once the OU team has completed its monitoring, the findings will be compiled into a report. The statistics will give the Ideal team something concrete to work from as they continue to refine their rain gardens.
“At the end of the day, it's all theoretical until you prove it,” Vernon McKown said.
Meanwhile, they get the word out about rain gardens, making presentations wherever they can. Richard McKown recalled one presentation he made with Reid Coffman in Tulsa, where a speaker said low-impact building wouldn't work in Oklahoma — the clay soil won't percolate water through into the aquifer, plus extreme drought and flash flooding play havoc with the plants.
When he and Coffman took the stage, they both admitted to the crowd that was all true; they'd seen it play out in various test projects, McKown said.
“And we just keep adapting and failing forward,” McKown recalled telling them. “We use that term a lot. We just keep failing forward.”