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We often hear from landscape architects about the cutting-edge sustainable design practices they are bringing to their latest Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES)-certified works, but we rarely hear from their clients. In a unique session at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston organized by Liz Guthrie, ASLA, professional practice manager at ASLA, landscape architects and their clients together discussed their motivation to become certified Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) projects, the challenges involved in working with this new 200-point rating system, and the lessons learned.

Why a Sustainable Landscape?

For Richard Piacentini, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, the goal was to apply “systems-thinking” to their new Center for Sustainable Landscapes, which received the first four-star rating from SITES (see image above). “We wanted to know how we could truly integrate the building and landscape.”

He said too many buildings are “completely isolated nature.” This is a real problem because humans now spend about 80 percent of their lives in buildings of some kind. With the new center designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates, “nature is now not that far away.”

In the Bronx, Hunts Point Landing, a two-star SITES-certified landscape developed by the New York City Development Corporation (NYCDC) and designed by Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, shows how a “dead-end” in isolated and unhealthy neighborhood can be turned into a park, said Kate Van Hassel, NYCDC. The park is meant to ameliorate some of the health problems in the community, which has some of the highest rates of asthma and obesity in New York City.

The new Hunts Point Landing took shape on the site of an old coal gasification plant. Van Tassel said this little bit of “green space amid industry is very important.” The waterfront park helped “transform the shoreline into a recreation area.” Old local materials were re-used within the park. Stones from a nearby bridge taken down were turned into blocks to sit on.

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In the case of Taylor Residence in Chester, Pennsylvania, Margot Taylor, ASLA, is both the client and landscape architect. Taylor wanted to create a public demonstration project for sustainable landscape practices on her own property. Her property includes wood systems and meadows. Ecological systems were re-established, with a focus made on soil and plant health. The landscape, which used to be a farm, now “directs, holds, absorbs, and cleans water.” She now has hundreds of people, including lots of school groups, touring the landscape each year.

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One goal in the move to a sustainable residential landscape was to reduce annual maintenance. Taylor wants to get maintenance down to 55 hours a year. She has also “completely gotten mowing out of the system.”

Representing both himself and his client, Hunter Beckham, ASLA, SWT Design, described the design of the Novus International campus in St. Charles, Missouri. He said a “huge number of stakeholders” were involved in creating the campus design, which yields many benefits. There’s an productive, edible landscape: a vegetable garden with bee-friendly plants. There are two bee blocks that provide home to seven different local species. In the first year, the landscape yielded 65 pounds of honey.

This vegetated garden terrace is accessible via a walking loop that circles the entire campus. The loop enables both employees and visitors to take a break from the office and get out in nature. Within the landscape, an old concrete-lined water detention pit was turned into a natural wetland that now attracts a wide range of wildlife, including snakes.

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What Were the Challenges?

For Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon and one of the guiding forces behind SITES, the benefits far outweighed the challenges. He said achieving 4-stars for the Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes was no small feat, but perhaps made possible by the fact that “we started with no site.” The design team then had “complete control over the materials used,” which helped them improve site performance and earn points under SITES.

Still, “procuring the sand-based soils was a challenge, given the firms involved in fracking are very interested in applying the same soils to sites where they are extracting gas.” Separately, he added that it was “hard to change the plant palette to accommodate the new soil pH.”

For Signe Nielsen, FASLA, SITES seemed to be an exercise in frustration. She said there were three categories of SITES credits that deeply-urban brownfield sites like Hunts Point Landing “couldn’t take advantage of,” so the project could only get two stars.

She said she couldn’t preserve existing soils and vegetation because “they were highly contaminated.” There was “no structure to adaptively reuse,” so points couldn’t be gotten there either. Lastly, there were no “cultural resources to reuse or enhance.”

She added that working with public authorities, in effect, means “limited opportunities for integrated site design teams,” as many local governments don’t incentivize such groups.

More broadly, she thought that achieving many of the credits related to “recycled content materials will be challenging given the landscape industry has very few competitive vendors in this field.”

Urban public projects may have a challenge earning maintenance points as well, as the landscape architecture firms creating these projects often have “no control over future maintenance.” A firm could create a detail maintenance manual for a park, but then that’s it.

Taylor said working with a historic farm was a challenge in itself. The native vegetation had been stripped and topsoil eroded or compacted. The solution was to “rebuild healthy soil and native plant communities appropriate for different micro-climates.” SITES, she said, “didn’t want to give credits for the landscape’s past use as pastureland.”

She certainly ended up getting credits, though, for the 27 tons of barn stone she cut up and re-purposed on site by hand. “I lost about 15 pounds shifting all that stone out of the dirt.” Still, she thinks she needs to find a “smarter way to manage materials that were unearthed.”

What Lessons Were Learned?

Alminana believes that “integrated design is really the key” to achieving a return on investment for your clients and site performance. “SITES really puts an emphasis on this.” He said, unfortunately, this approach is still not “happening among a majority of the profession or in the public sector.”

Directing himself to those who complain they haven’t earned enough points for their projects using SITES, he said “if you are only focused on points, you are missing the point.”

Nielsen believes SITES can have a potent impact, given “metrics are crucial” and SITES really forces landscape architects to collect data and measure themselves against benchmarks. She said putting all that time into collecting metrics was worth the effort because it helps “clients understand the value of our work.” Landscape architects can measure how well they’ve “reduced noise, saved water, and reused materials.” Beckham reiterated how valuable SITES is as a “framework for accountability.”

Taylor learned that it’s important to “integrate a long-term land management perspective from the beginning,” something that SITES promotes.

The landscape architects all hoped that governments — both local and national — will get moving on incorporating SITES guidelines into their request for proposals (RFPs), which can also help push the landscape materials industry to provide more sustainable options. It will be a back-and-forth process to make SITES as mainstream as LEED: clients, and their landscape architects, must push for change among providers of landscape materials, but the market must also provide opportunities to enable that change.

Image credits: (1) Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes / Denmarsh Photography, (2) Hunts Point Landing / Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architecture, (3) Taylor Residence / Mark Gormel, (4) Novus International / SWT Design