It’s Time to Measure the Performance of Landscapes

Coast Guard headquarters, Washington, D.C. / GSA

How can landscape architects ensure the spaces they design perform they way they were intended? Landscape architects need site commissioning to accurately determine the performance and impact of their designs.

Site commissioning is the process by which performance standards are established, then measured and verified overtime. The topic has been gaining traction within the field and was the focus of a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles put together by Jose Alminana, FASLA, principal at Andropogon Associates; Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA); Lauren Mandel, ASLA, landscape architect and integrated researcher at Andropogon; and Maureen Alonso, regional horticulturalist with the U.S. GSA National Capital.

The discussion comes on the heels of a comprehensive new report released this summer by the GSA with Andropogon that makes the case for site commissioning. 

“This is something long overdue — it’s a logical follow up to the kinds of values and capacity we expect to obtain from the work that we do — the impact our profession can really have on the systems on which we all depend,” Alminana said.

Currently, buildings are analyzed and commissioned to ensure the quality and function of a project. “Landscapes, if they are going to play that kind of role, also need to be commissioned,” Alminana said. “But it gets complicated, because its not about moving parts and on and off switches. It’s about life, and life that is always evolving and changing.”

Site commissioning pushes the integration of building systems and site systems and establishes a role for the landscape architect early on in the project. Alminana said designers need to first define the goals and objectives of the project and the standards they are trying to meet. The expected environmental and economic benefits of a landscape project need to be clear, and there needs to be metrics to measure performance in achieving those benefits.

“There has been, over the past few decades, an interest in developing site-responsive projects, but there is less definitive knowledge as to what we are actually achieving, how we set our goals, and how we factor processes into broader project delivery methods in design and construction,” Gabriel said.

“The time has come to reinvest in our own processes,” he said, adding that site commissioning could result in a paradigm shift in the field, “and a return to landscape as prime method for conceptualizing new opportunities.”

Mandel explained the process of developing the report, which included learning from case studies of commissioned projects or those with robust site monitoring. One example is the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts by Reed Hilderbrand, which commissioned a complex hydrological system.

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Clark Art Institute, Reed Hilderbrand / Tucker Bair

“Site commissioning offers strong triple bottom-line benefits,” she said, listing social benefits, like worker productivity; environmental benefits, like stormwater management; as well as financial benefits, like fewer construction errors.

“What we also learned in our research is these benefits are intertwined,” Mandel said. “So when you start to pull out these benefits, like efficient site management, what also gets pulled in is stormwater management and wildlife habitat.”

Alonso underscored a critical need for a continuous management within the site commissioning process to ensure performance and maintenance of the landscape. Project turnover is another instance where communication and management continuity are crucial.

Alonso said metrics the GSA gathers on projects “make the business case for landscapes we are building.”

One thought on “It’s Time to Measure the Performance of Landscapes

  1. Landscape Architecture Foundation 10/30/2017 / 11:55 am

    Very exciting to see GSA moving the concept of site commissioning forward. It could go a long way to help the development, construction, and management/maintenance industries understand the function and value of sustainably-designed landscapes so that they can work to ensure their long-term performance.

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