Land Matters: Is Sustainable Affordable?

More and more these days, I’m seeing residential landscapes with the tag “sustainable” attached. I sometimes wonder if designers don’t tack that on for marketing reasons, to position them for magazine publication, or to enter an awards competition. This month’s cover project, “La Casa Verde” in San Francisco’s Mission District, goes far beyond such tokenism. It features, among other things, a wind turbine to produce electricity for the house and two large cisterns under the patio that collect rainwater for use in the house and to be fed into a drip irrigation system for the garden and terraces. Other features include green roof panels for insulation, reused lumber, and solar panels to produce hot water—and all of this in a very dense urban neighborhood.

Not that all the sustainable details turned out exactly as planned. “Green” landscapes are very much in the trial-and-error phase, and the owner and the landscape architects admit that they learned some hard lessons in creating La Casa Verde. But even with such caveats, La Casa Verde pushes the envelope in terms of what is possible in a city.

But what about the cost of all those bells and whistles? “It’s not practical for everyone to put in a $35,000 wind turbine,” the landscape architect admits, “or expensive water catchment system with cisterns.” So is the sustainable home landscape just another privilege of the well to do?

Maybe not. The average home owner can do a lot on a shoestring to make his or her home grounds more environmentally friendly. He or she can build a compost pile, replace all or part of the lawn with drought-tolerant plants, even dig and plant a rain garden. How-to information is available from the friendly county extension service and other sources—no landscape professional required.

It’s clear what the landscape architect’s role is on high-dollar projects like La Casa Verde: integrating complicated systems such as cisterns and, of course, ensuring that the landscape aesthetics are ready for the photo shoot. But where the big budget is not available, is there a practice opportunity in making ordinary home landscapes more sustainable—or will the landscape designers beat the landscape architects to this market niche? Here in the nation’s capital, George Washington University’s program in landscape design now offers a Certificate in Sustainable Landscapes to teach landscape designers “best practices in landscape conservation and sustainability, adapted to the small-scale landscape at the neighborhood level.”

In today’s shrinking market, when high-dollar residential projects like La Casa Verde may be fewer and farther between, there may be a market for “greening” the average home landscape. Who’s going to corner it?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor /

One thought on “Land Matters: Is Sustainable Affordable?

  1. Charles McClure 09/24/2009 / 1:08 pm

    Hey Bill. Good article! Thanks for touching on that aspect of green and sustainable. I really believe that all of us Americans want to be sustainable and green. Everybody can move in that direction, for example all can eliminate turf if they have it residentially. Or all can produce food via vegetable gardens and fruit trees. However when I discuss the more substantial green elements they are almost always rejected based on economics. I suppose the people who hire me are educated.

    I will use myself as an example. I got a quote to install photo voltaic panels. The fee was $25,000. Sure there are some rebates, etc. But let’s just move forward for a minute. My electric bill runs about 90 bucks per month. Long story short, it would take 23 years to break even. Too long. That does not even touch on the fact that this 25k in a CD @ 2.5% (available now) well the interest alone would pay for 6.9 months of the year, just the interest, not touching the principal. So that does not really pencil out yet.

    Another example is rain water cisterns. Quite expensive to install in a meaningful way. They tend to fill up in the first 1-2 winter storms and then accept no more water. Little water is necessary during the rainy season. Then in spring the water is used up in just a few waterings. Again, great idea, but if my water bill is just $48. per month to begin with and I am already sans turf and high water use plants, I think I am better off financially without it. I unfortunately feel like it will only go over big when the economics make it valuable for people. Until that happens it will be for the hobbyist, or green and bucks up people.

    I certainly am not trying to poke holes in or create disinterest in any of these topics. I see them as vitally important for our future. The world is dying due to over consumption and the root of all problems, world population. I heard that 250,000 people are born every day. I hope a lot are dying too. Think about that for a minute. We should be shouting at the top of our collective lungs to get action going on population control. The Catholic church should be banned from deterring their members from using birth control.

    This country is just owned and run by corporate lobbyists and government employee labor unions. What I believe needs to happen is the government needs to offer big tax incentives for installing green equipment. Big incentives! The American people must vote for candidates that see the problem with lobbying and government employee unions. Dump the concept of lobbying and embrace the idea of helping the individual citizens obtain energy and land use efficiency.

    Funny thing about sustainability, we may become extremely sustainable not by choice when this country stops operating due to Federal, State and Local bankruptcy. A second revolution is coming, I hope it is a sustainable revolution not the other kind. Frankly both area necessary.

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