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Lana Idriss on Making a Lush Xeriscape for the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine

Lana Idriss, Landscape Designer

The Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine, also known as BCOM, is a new private medical school with a mission focused on healthcare in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. Located within New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM, BCOM is organized around a central courtyard that expresses the charm of the regional landscape and provides students a place of respite, outdoor study, and dining.

Landscape designer Lana Idriss explains how BCOM achieved a lush xeriscape with a vibrant plant and material palette.

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Tell us about BCOM’s central courtyard.

The courtyard is a mixture of everything. It’s the beginning of this new medical school, so the courtyard is a place to study, to eat lunch, to sit and hang out, and hopefully to take graduation photos in.

There are benches and moveable seating for people to sit between classes, and a porch area that would be a great place to read a book or study because it has comfy singular seating.

I see it as an oasis in the middle of the campus, where there’s comfortable, versatile spaces that people can choose to do different activities in.

What was the driving force behind BCOM’s lush xeriscape and courtyard design?

The main driver was to create an inviting, adaptable, and colorful courtyard that was relevant and appropriate to the Southwest. Katherine Jetter, of BCOM, was very interested in Mission Gardens, so there’s a lot of influence from southern California, the Mediterranean, and Spanish style courtyards.

I had to do a lot of different design renditions of materials, because Katherine and Dan [Burrell] wanted the courtyard to feel warm, so we changed the pavers from light stone to a red brick, and we ended up incorporating a lot of colorful tiles, furniture, and accents.

BCOM Site Plan

The project is really amazing and is such a great thing for Las Cruces – I’m from Las Cruces, and it’s right down the street from my parents’ house –and  it’s the gateway to the University, right next to NMSU’s stadium.

It’s very visible because it’s perched up on a hill and it’s big. I just think it’s such a beautiful, iconic building that you can see from the highway and around the university area.

It’s neat because all the people – my dad’s been a doctor for over 30 years in Las Cruces, and he knows a few of the faculty and one of the deans – and everyone really likes it from what I hear. So I have a very strong affinity for this project.

So BCOM is in your home town.

Yes. I’m from Las Cruces and I went to ASU and then to the University of Arizona for graduate school, and over that time and during my education, I developed a very strong love for the desert and desert plants.

This project was exciting because the owners wanted to incorporate a lot of desert adapted plants, colorful succulents and accent plants, so I’m very excited about the planting palette that’s going in.

BCOM Courtyard Plantings

I wish we had photos of it, because many of the plants are unique to the Southwest, but they still give a feeling of lushness with lots of flowers, fragrance, and texture. It’s going to be really pretty as it matures.

It sounds like it. What desert plants did you include to achieve a lush xeriscape?

There are Leucophyllums, and there’s a special variety called Lynn’s Legacy Texas Sage (it’s actually from the Chihuahuan desert). Lynn’s Legacy is this variety that was collected by plantsman Lynn Lowrey. What’s really beautiful about it is that it has prolific blooms after the rain, and it will just keep blooming. The Leucophyllums are used throughout the site. There are two varieties surrounding the perimeter of the courtyard to create a formal hedge with a desert plant that’s from the Chihuahuan desert.

Lynn's Legacy Texas Sage and Palo Verde

As you go further in, it’s a lot of layering of Palo Verdes surrounding the courtyard, which have these gorgeous yellow flowers. The word Palo Verde means "green pole" in Spanish because of their green bark, which is actually where photosynthesis occurs.

There are Texas Mountain Laurels which are very fragrant evergreens that have large purple flowers.

There’s a Pale Leaf Yucca, some Tacoma Stans which have these blooming, bright yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds. There’s Gaura. There’s a Purple Rock Rose from the Mediterranean. Some bunch grasses. And there’s going to be turf, and as you expand out into the grass areas there are Sycamores.

Texas Mountain Laurels and Pale Leaf Yucca

I’m really attached to the plants that went in. I wanted them to feel lush, but I also wanted them to feel regional, so you feel like you’re in a special place in southern New Mexico. Many of the plants are from that area and are unique to the Southwest.

Tacoma Stans, Gaura, and Purple Rock Rose

Find more drought-tolerant plants in our Native and Drought-Tolerant Plants Guide.

What about the furnishings you mentioned earlier? It looks like you’ve created a lot of shade with umbrellas and a covered dining area.

There are bright turquoise umbrellas and moveable seating, along with seat walls that have this red stone on them from Arizona. The seat walls are arranged in different areas to give people plenty of choices, so if you want to sit by somebody, or if you don’t, it’s easy to find a place that accommodates the activity.

Because it’s a harsh climate with the sun, we used a mix of metal and wood furnishings and kept the wood furnishings under the covered dining area. We used a hard teak wood that should stand up to the climate and turn sort of gray after the sun hits it for a while.

BCOM Furnishings

We also used big pillows in the dining area. Katherine chose these very colorful pillows and umbrellas, so it adds a bit of fun and variety for students, faculty, staff, and visitors.

There are even rocking chairs, believe it or not.

You also designed custom fountains for the courtyard and the front entrance, correct?

Yes, we designed the fountains with Dave from Natures Creations out of Santa Fe. There is a large fountain in the courtyard that incorporates these vibrant, handmade glass tiles. We actually designed the pattern based on a façade of a wall in Alhambra, and we basically replicated that pattern working with Fireclay Tile out of California.

BCOM Courtyard Stone, Tile, and Brick Materials

Fountain Tile Diagram

For that outer façade of the seat wall of the fountain, we used two different sized square tiles and turned them on their sides to create the diamond pattern we wanted. Then we added a white rectangular tile that creates the border.

The other fountain, the one in the front entrance, went through several renditions. Originally we wanted to put a sculpture in front, but it ended up being this other beautiful fountain that reminds me of a tiered cake.

That fountain has a light, almost white, porcelain tile from Italy. We incorporated stone walls that you see a lot in Las Cruces and used local materials for them. These walls created the fountain planter and seawalls at the roundabout.

BCOM Courtyard and Entrance Fountains

It was a good collaboration on those pieces. I designed the bases of the fountains and Dave designed the pedestals and bowls. It’s been exciting having Dave install them and getting to see the final result.

The fountains have a big presence, and they’re very visible throughout the campus.

Is the fountain the main feature of the entrance?

The entrance is really cool, because along with the fountain, it has these big stone walls that are six feet tall, and we basically graded up to them so the landscape will be visible behind them. There will be more Palo Verdes and Desert Willows in the front with Deer Grass, Ocotillos, Sotols, Penstemons, and Trailing Dalea that will hang over the wall.

It sounds like the landscape really adds to the overall atmosphere of the college.

You know I was working on the exterior a lot, but we were always coordinating with the architects, interiors, and the design team, so there’s a real unison between the exterior and interior. The building has huge windows where you're constantly getting views of the outdoor spaces and lots of natural light.

On the third floor, oh my gosh, there are panoramic views of everything – the University, the town, and on the other side the Oregon Mountains and “A” Mountain in front of them.

So yes, the building and the landscape work incredibly well together. It’s a new entrance to NMSU, and it’s the beginning of this whole new [Arrowhead] park for Las Cruces. It’s such a great asset for the City of Las Cruces.

Katherine Jetter and Dan Burrell and everyone put so much thought into the materials used and the outdoor spaces created. It has been a really rewarding project to work on, and I can't wait to see it filled with students in the fall.


BCOM Opening Fall 2016 Sign

For more information about BCOM, visit bcomnm.org, and be sure to check out Building BCOM for a timelapse of construction progress.