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
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