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Rain gardens pass curb test

BY DYRINDA TYSON Modified: October 9, 2012 at 11:25 pm •  Published: October 13, 2012

“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.”

Meeting challenges

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.”