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.