The Race to SITES Certification

Instead of a lofty discussion on the merits of different prerequisites and credits, Jose Alminana, FASLA, Andropogon, Angela Dye, FASLA, A. DYE Design, Hunter Beckham, ASLA, SWT Design, and Sarah Weidner Astheimer, ASLA, james corner field operations, launched into the practical challenges and rewards involved in applying the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) to new and existing projects and steering the first pilot projects through the submittal and certification process. In fact, Beckham and Astheimer are now neck and neck, having moved past the first submittal process and now heading towards the final submittal and certification, meaning one will be the first SITES-certified project.

Alminana said that 157 pilot projects in 34 U.S. States, Iceland, Canada, and Spain are registered and moving through the submittal and certification process, with 9 projects already in the preliminary submittal process. Projects clearing the preliminary review move to final review and then are set at one of the four levels: 1-4 stars. He said landscape architects testing out SITES view the initiative as valuable because it “adds clarity and vigor to technical content.”

Now, the SITES team is also reviewing feedback from the pilot projects to determine the “accuracy and fairness of the credits weights, their applicability to diverse project types, and how challenging or rewarding certification levels are.”

A wide variety of projects are moving forward. Some 65 percent of projects are greyfield redevelopments, while another 15 percent are brownfields. There are lots of sizes, from less than one acre to up to 500 acres. Alminana said the guidelines will be available as a stand-alone rating system, or can simply be used as voluntary guidelines. SITES is being incorporated into LEED through updated credits, and the U.S. Green Building Council and SITES founding partners are also working out how SITES certified projects will be treated in the LEED systems. Pilot testing will continue through 2013. When that process ends, the reference guide will be revised and presented. “This is freeware for all.” (see earlier post on the progress of SITES).

A Few Projects Testing out SITES

The Novus International headquarters, a 9.5-acre site outside St. Louis, is part of a University of Missouri research park, and has already made its way through the preliminary submittal process. Beckham, the landscape architect on the project, said “they want everything in SITES in their project so I got lucky.” The building, which is LEED Platinum, is now surrounded by active design elements, including a running loop, biomimetic design features, and vegetable gardens. More importantly, Beckham mapped out the nine different habitats in the region and developed a plan and set of design proposals to incorporate those into the site. To accomplish SITES pre-requisite 2.1, the pre-design assessment, Beckham basically incorporated all these ideas into his client pitch, introducing all the concepts from the get-go. To match the LEED platinum building, Beckham is aiming for SITES 4-stars.

Shelby Farms Park, a massive 4,000-acre park less than 6 kilometers from Memphis, is one of the major projects of james corner field operations, and has already gone through the preliminary submittal process. Astheimer said the master plan’s goal is to create a “major public space and destination, along with a model of sustainable design.” One of the first projects, the 4.5-acre Woodland Discovery Center, is already done. Astheimer said Corner’s firm used this project because we “wanted to test ourselves” against the benchmarks and guidelines. The site include mature oaks surrounded by invasive Chinese species. An adjacent forest provides a frame for a series of “play rooms or nests.” There’s a “rich set of play experiences tailored to different children’s needs.”

Shoemaker Green, a yard and plaza on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, provides 3.85 acres of new open space, passive recreation as well as six tennis courts. It’s surrounded by buildings and has an innovative on-site water reuse program with zero runoff. There are “very intensive uses on the site” — some 57,000 participate in annual relays every spring. For Alminana at Andropogon, another key goal is zero-waste. “Every cubic inch of material on site was reused.”

The Tempe Transportation Center in Tempe, Arizona, was a 2-acre employee parking lot. Constructed between 2006 and 2008, the project is close to downtown, and across from Arizona State University dorms. Suited to SITES, it displaced parking, includes a vegetated green roof (one of the first in the desert), shaded areas for “respite,” a 3-story mixed-use building, and bike station with valet, repair, and lockers. The site is also of great historic significance to the local native American community: the city found that the location of the transportation center was a burial ground sacred to the Hohokam. Archeological investigations were blessed by tribal elders. Remains found by the city were removed and are being inventoried, with the goal of eventually returning them to the tribe.

Challenges with Using the Prerequisites and Credits

All speakers discussed in detail some of the challenges they had trying to get various prerequisites and credits.

Alminana noted how pre-requisite 2.1, the pre-design assessment, was “hard to get right. We had to look at existing soil conditions, look at reference soils.” With prerequisites 2.2 and 2.3, which relate to “integrated site development process” and engaging site users, Alminana had to take an early look at the entire design process and figure out “key site considerations” like the amount of sun that hits certain areas of the space in different seasons. These early prerequisites also forced him to “look at materials inventory in advance, to really look at every element of the site.” In the same way, prerequisite 8.1, which relates to a “plan for sustainable site maintenance,” meant that Alminana had to talk early-on with his client about all the different site maintenance plans (he listed around 10).

Beckham said the construction prerequisites, 7.1 and 7.2, make things harder for contractors in the midwest, “who are not familiar with SITES.” Astheimer at james corner field operations agreed, saying that contractors were not familiar with the materials requirements. “No one is familiar.” She said her firm worked with contractors in a collaborative way but it’s “not easy to achieve all points.” In many cases, both Beckham and Astheimer, who are neck and neck in the submittal process, also said they couldn’t find local manufacturers or fabricators for many materials. Astheimer: “We couldn’t identify those folks locally” so they used highly sustainable playscape products from Germany, far outside the 500 mile range recommended by SITES. Field operations did use local steel, iron workers though, but on some products, “we couldn’t trace back the source of the iron ore,” which is needed to gain points for SITES.

For Tempe city officials and the design team, local stormwater regulations were a challenge to achieving some water efficiency goals. Cisterns can only be used under certain conditions in the city. Historically, there was a concern with mosquito breeding, which limited the use of large on-site storage systems. So, to get around these regulatory obstacles, the city and Dye found a way to remove all water from the storage tanks in a few hours. Some of the water is also regularly used to water the landscape. In addition, the project couldn’t reuse the greywater from the building for landscape irrigation (although the city does allow it for other uses). Another challenge was finding the appropriate resources for landscape maintenance, so in one instance, Dye brought in some University of Arizona graduate students, who went with her up to the green roof to do weeding. Overall, though, the city has been very serious about implementing its maintenance program and providing enough maintenance.

Alminana said Shoemaker Green sits above a historic stream, so the site is at a large drainage point. “It’s one of the area’s most problematic sewer outfalls.” He has to take a total site strategy to deal with rainwater as well. An interesting system includes a rain garden, with “slat drains” that moves any excess rainwater through sands to an underground cistern. Alminana had to preserve all biomass on site, replacing all vegetation with native vegetation, and reusing salvaged materials and plants. An innovative material reuse program was developed that involves reusing all soils, breaking up cement for recycling, and separating metals from rebar so they could be reused. “To be more efficient, the contractors took the materials offsite to be recycled. We asked contractors for tickets for each load so we could track the path, cradle to cradle. Every material has a destination in the new site.”

Beckham zoomed in on maintenance, holding up the 300 page manual he created for Novus. His client wanted a comprehensive set of guidelines to cover how to maintain the solar power and pump systems, replace worn-out materials, basically explaining what any maintenance contractor had to do. “It’s a super-thorough document.”

The Rewards of SITES

Many panelists thought that engaging stakeholders, and getting points for this, was fantastic. Beckham worked with the local university, botanical garden, and other scientists to identify known invasives. Responding to the employees at Novus, he added beehives, which are now used to create honey for tea. The sustainability education credits were also useful: there were 17 locations for new signage explaining how sustainable site features work.

For Astheimer, there were “similarly rewarding experiences.” An invasive species management program, which is incentivized through SITES, will earn Field Operations lots of credits. Lots of native trees were planted and “there has not been a lot of understory growth.” Foresters are also actively involved in meeting the team’s forest restoration specifications. Health and wellbeing credits were easily picked up. The firm engaged with children and health professionals through on-site workshops to create a “unique outdoor play” space. There are areas that bolster self-direction skills and introduce challenges and risks. All the programming was the result of an intensive dive into play theory. There are “dizzy play, sensory play,” and a “tree home nest” segments that are “incredibly popular.”

The Tempe design team was able to reuse materials including the use of a glass-making byproduct, glass slag, into the artist-designed courtyard that provides a brief respite from the commute and uses native trees to offer shade. Covered bus stops have green walls with vines that also cool the air, providing relief. “We had to do this if we expect people to wait in 110 degree heat.”

Why Use SITES?

Dye wanted to “bring public transit to a car city and make it work.” She and the design team shared the technical assistance fee of $5,000. She believes it’s important to make a commitment at this stage to gain a deeper understanding of how SITES works. “This is on our shoulders to follow through.”

Alminana wanted to get into the process early-on because “we need to revise all our specifications.” Documention for the submittals is leading to a revamp of those. Also, he’s driven by the desire to “create places where people can really enjoy themselves.”

For Beckham, SITES can have enormous influence on contractors. Given many of the plants he wanted to use are not available near him, he reached out to a local contractor and explained all the SITES requirements. Persuaded that this where the future is, the contractor created a memorandum of understanding explaining how he would change his business.

James corner field operations wants to “create a healthy environment for kids.” Astheimer said her clients were “dedicated to sustainability.” However, she did say that the “documentation process was challenging and time consuming,” and client support and financing on this was crucial.

Getting to Stars

The final steps in the certification process involve reviewing the feedback from the SITES team on the first submittals. Beckham said each credit is marked as “anticipated,” meaning that SITES is expected to award that credit, “pending,” meaning more documentation is needed, or “denied.” Then, project teams have a call with SITES and go through all the issues in detail. Beckham “freaked out” at the number of pending items he had but thought they were largely due to the fact that he was missing a few signatures.

Astheimer said she knew “where we would get questions,” and “accidentally forgot to document some items.” She said the work is largely over with the project so retroactively getting the contractors, who “have already been paid and are off-site” to submit documentation is going to be a major headache.

All thought that client support for the SITES process was crucial, particularly in these economic times. Still, Alminana said the University of Pennsylvania told us “we won’t buy any points.” For him and the others, just going through the process revamped how they interact with their contractors and clients, design, specify, document, build, and maintain.

Image credit: Woodland Discovery Park, Shelby Farms Park / james corner field operations

Restoration Ecology in Agrarian Landscapes

The Conservation Agriculture Studio, established within Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, applies design sensibility along with conservation science to projects that are rooted in agrarian landscapes. At the ASLA 2011 annual meeting, Thomas Woltz, RLA, FASLA, principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz, said agrarian landscapes present an important opportunity for landscape architects to apply their broad skillset to landscapes and issues that are often considered beyond their realm. Agrarian landscapes account for an enormous portion of land use, and, as Woltz stated, are “the largest non-point source of pollution in the nation.” The strategy of the Conservation Agriculture Studio has been to approach private land owners with the question, “What if you re-engaged with your land?” They then work to create master plans that bring certain areas of the property back into cultivation, while restoring and conserving areas that “never should have been cultivated.”

Oakencroft, a 262-acre farm in central Virginia, was one example of the fertile ground to be found at the intersection of landscape architecture and conservation agriculture, and also of the fruitfulness of collaborating with scientists on projects of this nature. The baseline for this project was an agrarian landscape suffering from monoculture, lacking in biodiversity, with degraded riparian habitat due to stream channelization, and forests that were unable to regenerate due to the presence of non-native invasive plants. In order to better grasp these baseline conditions, SUNY-ESF professors and students were brought onboard to conduct full-blown biodiversity surveys of the site, measuring populations of fish, amphibians, insects, birds, and other species. Temperature sensors were also installed throughout the site to monitor microclimates. The master plan ultimately composed a diverse landscape that included meadow restoration, paddocks for cattle rotation, organic vineyards, and protected wildlife corridors. By continuing to collect ecological data from the site, including conducting additional biodiversity surveys, this project will  provide crucial data that can inform and support the future work of private land owners, scientists, landscape architects, governmental organizations and other land managers.

Another example, Orongo Station Conservation Master Plan in New Zealand, was described by Breck Gastinger, RLA, ASLA, a senior project manager at Nelson Byrd Woltz. Orongo Station is a 3,000-acre sheep farm located along a stretch of coastline that is both culturally and ecologically significant. A portion of the farm was set aside for conservation, with intensive efforts focused around creating sufficient habitat to re-introduce tuatara, an ancient endemic reptile. To achieve this end, a predator-proof enclosure was created by fencing off the end of a peninsula (fence shown above), and non-native mammalian predators were eliminated within the enclosure. Reforestation was also conducted in this area and other coastal areas of the property, and saltwater and freshwater wetlands were created in a historic wetland area that had been drained for livestock grazing. Agricultural components included aesthetically-designed citrus orchards and the maintenance of the station as a viable sheep farm.

Gastinger also described their work on the Monticello Landscape Stewardship Master Plan in Virginia, of which he said, “the visitor experience has one really glaring omission – and that’s the lack of agriculture.” The master plan for this site seeks to protect cultural resources, restore ecological function to woodlands impacted by invasive plants and deer over-browsing, and to reveal the historic patterns of agricultural land use to visitors by creating native meadows.

Other examples of the Conservation Agriculture Studio’s work included a wine tasting room landscape in Sonoma County, California, a rethinking of the botanic garden on Catalina Island, and work on the National Arboretum of New Zealand. 

For projects of this scope, it is important for landscape architects to get help from scientists. Landscape architecture inherently weaves together threads from many disciplines, but the knowledge base of landscape architects cannot encompass the depth of study undertaken by scientific specialists. Members of the Conservation Agriculture Studio have found that by collaborating with scientists, landscape projects can benefit from rich baseline data as well as goals and strategies for ecological improvements that target specific species. According to Woltz, “Never before have we needed more cross-disciplinary thinking,” and “it’s unbelievable what [scientists] can teach us that we weren’t trained to know.”

The exchange between landscape architects and scientists can be mutually beneficial. James Gibbs, PhD, Professor of Conservation Biology & Wildlife Management at SUNY ESF, said that there is room for “some balancing between what frogs need and what people want.” Landscape architects can improve ecological interventions that tend to be engineered purely for function and end up suffering aesthetically. “We (scientists) can define the biological limits and you (landscape architects) can define the possibilities of design.”

Gibbs offered several examples of projects conducted by scientist for the sake of protecting biodiversity that “could be done far more elegantly,” including the construction of a network of vernal pools in New York, the creation of clearings for endangered rattlesnakes to bask in sunlight, the closing of beaches for the protection of plover nesting areas, and roadkill prevention through the design of road edges that direct wildlife to culvert under-crossings. The latter, Gibbs noted, is a ripe area for landscape architects, given the amount of money that goes into road engineering. 

Restoration ecology in agrarian landscapes is an important frontier for landscape architects and scientists. On one hand, “the burgeoning human population needs to be fed,” noted Gibbs, and “most land is private.” On the other hand, as ecological collapse makes the need for solutions more desperate, “proactive conservation where everything isn’t pure is where things are heading.” Woltz called the threat to biodiversity from invasive plants and animals “the next holocaust that faces us.” From this perspective, collaboration on private lands has an advantage because, as Gibbs stated, “unlike on government lands, things can happen remarkably quickly on private lands.” Furthermore, the biodiversity crisis that faces us is larger than the focus on individual species or populations that scientists tend to have. “We’re only going to save biodiversity if we think at the landscape scale,” said Gibbs. “As designers and scientists together, we might be able to make a difference,” said Woltz.

This guest post is by Dakotah Bertsch, Associate ASLA, Design Associate, Design Ecology

Image credit: Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects