Just minutes from the cheers and chants of the University of Michigan’s “Big House” lies something much more tranquil and secluded: a private courtyard sanctuary situated on the second floor of the Hoover & Greene Apartments in Ann Arbor. Leading the design of this unexpected paradise was Daryl Toby, designer and owner of Sylvan Lake-based AguaFina Landscape Studio, a firm known for creating fusion-style gardens with unexpected stone, fire, and metal accents.
Opened in the summer of 2021, the complex is a stunning new residential development from REDICO. The 167-unit complex features a second-floor pool deck with views of the university’s iconic football stadium, as well as a slew of additional amenities, but by far its most surprising and impressive offering is a lush, open-air retreat on the second floor (the apartment complex is built on a parking garage) that initially was planned to be nothing more than a concrete pad with a water feature. Knowing the space had far more potential, Toby was able to quickly sketch up a new plan (on a napkin!) when meeting with the developers. “That was basically what we ended up building, pretty much what I sketched right there on the table,” Toby says. “It just didn’t make sense to have just a central water feature without any other feeling of what this space was going to be used for.”
With limited time before residents were due to move in, Toby and his team were tasked with creating a peaceful outdoor sculpture garden in just a few months. Speed and precision were necessary, but the true challenge was the logistics of how to get materials like trees, dirt, and concrete into the building. The answer? A 300-ton crane outfitted with a made-for-the-project hopper that featured bomb bay doors to allow all of the materials to be delivered above and onto the five-story site — including what equated to about 120 pickup trucks’ worth of soil. It was an extraordinary sight, Toby says. “I just kind of stopped and watched as this whole procession of trees was going over the buildings. It was one of the most rewarding projects we’ve had in a while.”
Waterproofing was also key to the project, as the courtyard sits above the complex’s parking structure. Corten steel was brought in to develop the space’s topography, which includes raw, organically shaped raised planters necessary to sustain the vegetation. Native sumac was one of the many perennials chosen for the space, and its gorgeous texture lines some of the aggregate concrete paths. “I was there last fall, and the sumac plants had this brilliant red-orange color to them. It was just stunning. I think once they mature even more, they’re just going to be better and better,” Toby says. “(The sumac is) one of the stronger elements, and it’s funny because that was the element that was a last-minute substitution.” Toby explains that bamboo had originally been selected for the space, but due to the environment, it wasn’t an ideal choice. “So, we just changed the design up — and you have to do that with projects. You can’t just force the idea. Designs are only a road map. You need to look at opportunities at the site and change with what the realities are. Fortunately we did that, and the outcome is so much better than if we just forced in (the bamboo).”
Russian sage, ornamental onions, weeping pine, and a mature wind-swept gingko tree are just a few of the other plants found in the natural escape. “What was really unique was that about a week after we finished up the details of the project, I was up there by myself and there were butterflies and bees up there,” Toby says. “It was just amazing that nature found its way into that courtyard so quickly.”
A rainfall water feature designed by Toby adds a calming sound to the space. The sculptural elements found along the paths, many of which were created from pieces collected during the designer’s travels to Asia, add to the feeling of serenity. There’s a tea table formed from a polished split boulder, a bench crafted from Indonesian basalt that rests on steel I-beams, a sculptural piece crafted of natural basalt stones heralding from Inner Mongolia, and a live-edge granite bar table with a steel base. Each is a functional and interactive piece of art that blends naturally with the organic form of the space. The addition of lighting helps highlight these elements come nightfall, enabling residents to enjoy the garden at any time of the day.
Whether from the rooftop, a balcony, or immersed within, the garden offers residents stunning views as well as a place to relax, unwind, walk a dog, study, and gather with friends. Says Toby: “It conveys a calmer feeling than if it were just all concrete. It really flows well.”