Applying the Sustainable Sites Initiative


At GreenBuild 2010, David Yocca, FASLA, Principal of Conservation Design Forum, explained how the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) is moving to the next step in its path towards becoming a functioning rating system: “receiving feedback from real projects.”

SITES, as Yocca explained, is an “interdisciplinary effort to create a voluntary national guideline and rating system that can encourage integrated, systems-based approaches to sustainable landscape” design and development. SITES will work at all landscape scales, with or without structures. “The goal is renew and restore places and move from just conservation to regeneration through performative landscapes.” Yocca also argued that SITES can be used to “restore degraded ecosystem services” found in brownfields and greyfields, creating new economic value in the process.

Sustainable landscapes can provide a range of ecosystem services:

  • Climate regulation
  • Clean air, soil, water
  • Water supply regulation
  • Soil erosion / sediment control
  • Habitat and pollination
  • Decomposed waste integration
  • Human health and wellbeing
  • Food and organic products
  • Culltural, educational, and aesthetic value
  • Flood impact mitigation, among others.

Status of the SITES Guidelines and Rating System

SITES will be in its pilot phase over the next two years. In November 2009, the guidelines and performance benchmarks were released, which include a set of 15 prerequisites and 51 credits. The documents released include “credit intent, requirements, submittal documentation, potential technologies or strategies, and links to other credits.”

The rating system is on a 250 point scale, with four certification levels from one star to four star. “The certification levels are based in performance criteria. We are asking people to demonstrate actual performance.” The 250 possible points that can be accrued are broken down into a few categories:

  • Site selection (21 points)
  • Pre-design assessment and planning (4 points)
  • Site Design: Water (44 points)
  • Site Design: Soils and Vegetation (51 points)
  • Site Design: Material Selection (36 points)
  • Site Design: Human Health and Wellbeing (32 points)
  • Construction (21 points)
  • Operations & Maintenance (23 points) “This is important for ensuring the site provides ecosystem services over the long-term.”
  • Monitoring & Evaluation (18 points).

Landscape projects can use SITES in three ways: They can certify with SITES, just use the guidelines without certification, or by 2012, certify their projects using LEED, which will integrate SITES.

SITES’ Pilot Projects

Some 163 projects were selected as pilots. “These will inform the development of the reference guide and also guide credit refinement.” Pilots are found in 34 U.S. states and Iceland, Spain, and Canada. Projects include mixed-use, commercial, residential, institutional / educational, industrial, government, transportation corridors, and open space parks and gardens. The parks category covers 25 percent of projects.

Some 65 percent of projects are greyfields, while 20 percent are greenfields and 15 percent are brownfields. Project scales range from less than one acre to more than 500 acres. There are also lots of project budgets: 59 percent are more than one million, but 15 percent cost less than $100,000.

Illustrating the Prerequisites and Credits Using Case Studies

A number of Conservation Design Forum projects are SITES pilots. The Tuthill Corporation Headquarters and Training Facility in Burr Ridge, Illinois, is “integrated sustainable site design in practice.”

Prerequisite 2.1, which asks projects to “conduct a pre-design site assessment,” was met. The project team found through an initial investigation that the Illinois site was a “high-quality remnant prarie.” To preserve the prarie as much as possible, the site designers convinced the client to move the planned parking lots under the building, which “also provides weather protection in the winter.”

Prerequisite 2.2, which asks project teams to “use an integrated site design process,” was also met and Yocca found that it helped forge a “close connection between the interior and exterior spaces.” In addition, this prerequisite “creates tangible efficiencies” in the form of streamlined schedules, costs and approval processes.

Another prerequisite, 3.3, which asks projects to “protect and restore riparian, wetland and shoreline ecosystems” where applicable, was achieved but took some finagling. Yocca said he “engaged in a dialogue” with local environmental regulatory bodies to convince them to “invest in systems health instead of just putting a ring around degraded areas.” Part of this involved ripping out invasive species so that native plants could take over. In another example, he also persuaded local officials to allow for controlled burnings, which help achieve 4.8, a credit that calls for “preserving and plant and soil communities native to the eco-region.”

One project mentioned is the well-known Kresge Foundation Headquarters in Troy, Michigan. Kresge, which reduces potable water use by 75 percent (earning SITES credit 3.2) and manages stormwater on site (credit 3.5) through green infrastructure systems, started with “a simple grass matrix but additional species were added in over time, resulting in increased biodiversity.” Michigan state government definitely agrees: it gave the project the highest rating in the Michigan Floristic Quality Index, which means the site has “exceptional biodiversity value.” (see a case study). The foundation staff also use the site to teach the public about sustainability, which earns more credits.

Lastly, in another pilot project, Shay’s Folly, in a Western Springs, Illinois housing community, Kevin Graham, ASLA, is using the SITES credits to create a “landscape retrofit,” which features a system of green infrastructure pavers and swales that diverts and captures low-quality water run-off from roofs and streets, and a central water retention basin that captures clean rainwater. This integrated approach only works because the green infrastructure restores the landscape’s natural water managment function: “This system would have failed if you had oil-slick run-off going into the detention basin.” This project is also focused on restoring soils, adding native plants, and integrated compost into the landscape.

Learn more at the Sustainable Sites Initiative Web site.

One thought on “Applying the Sustainable Sites Initiative

  1. Patrick Mason 12/09/2010 / 1:37 am

    As far as landscape architects/designers are concerned, these types of goals should be present in every project. Aren’t we trained to consider projects in such scope? Isn’t a “pre-design site assessment” (as described in prerequisite 2.1) an elementary practice?

    Maybe I’m too altruistic, but its disappointing to see the promotion of a system needed to hold people accountable for good design practices. – similar to rewarding a child for good behavior

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