SITES Aims to Transform the Marketplace

ASLA 2017 Professional Communications Honor Award. Ecology as the Inspiration for a Presidential Library Park. Black Locust bridge. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / MVVA Inc

With the General Service Administration (GSA) and now the state of Rhode Island adopting the use of the Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®) certification system for landscape projects, SITES is gaining momentum. The system now has the potential to transform the marketplace for landscape products as well, explained Hunter Beckham, FASLA, a landscape architect; Meg Calkins, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at Ball State University; and April Phillips, FASLA, principal of April Phillips Design Works, in a session organized by ASLA professional practice manager Linette Straus, ASLA, at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston.

Given SITES v2, which covers landscapes, and LEED v4, which covers all types of buildings, now have a number of synergies designers and developers can take advantage of, the potential market impact of SITES is even greater, Beckham said.

Calkins argued that it’s critically important landscape architects and designers leverage SITES to reduce the harvesting of Amazonian hardwoods for seating, decks, and boardwalks. “Some 18 percent of the Amazon has been cut down in the past 20 years.” With SITES, “we can transform the market away from tropical hardwoods.” SITES incentivizes this transformation with its prerequisites that “eliminate the use of wood from threatened tree species.”

For example, Ipe, a rare hardwood that appears once every 7-30 acres and is a signature species in the Amazonian rainforest, has often been used in landscapes because of its durability. But SITES — which refers to plants on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)’s list of those threatened with extinction and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “red list of threatened species” — prevents the use of this endangered tree species in SITES-certified landscapes.

One big problem with the current approach, Calkins explained, is the “IUCN list is dreadfully behind.” Many tree species were last assessed more than a decade ago, so it allows many woods that are no longer plentiful, like Cumaru.

Another issue: In the Pará state of Brazil, some 28 percent of hardwoods are harvested illegally. Even some Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified woods’ documentation is forged, with “shady chains of custody.” And while the Lacey Act is designed to prevent American companies from purchasing illegally-harvested rare Amazonian hardwoods, “fraud still happens.”

Instead of trying to find the few sustainably-harvested rainforest hardwoods, Calkins called for using alternatives like fused bamboo lumber, which is rapidly renewable and outperforms Ipe in durability; American Black Locust lumber, a hardwood native to the Ozarks and Appalachian regions and can be harvested in one-third the time of Ipe; thermally-modified woods, which are heated so they are twice as hard as the original wood and are disease resistant; polymerized woods, which has been developed in the European Union; and acetylated woods.

Furthermore, “landscape architects need to see environmental product declarations and quantifiable data” for all the products they are considering specifying. The architecture field is “way ahead” of the landscape architecture field in this regard of measuring and verifying the life cycle of products, as there are already a number of independent 3rd party product verification systems.

For Calkins, who researches the sustainability of landscape products, just finding basic information on wood products for landscapes is a challenge. “Corporate sustainability reports are a source of information, as are marketing brochures.” But, again, she is looking for independent 3rd party verification of any sustainability claims, and those don’t seem to exist for landscape products.

To shift the marketplace, landscape architects need to “ask more questions of product manufacturers, demand they disclose information and be transparent, and use environmental product declarations when specifying.”

According to landscape architect April Phillips, who has designed and built SITES-certified projects, the key is to track the sourcing of all materials from the get-go. In a “living roof native landscape” she created for 38 Dolores in San Francisco, she used 44 percent recycled materials and 60 percent regional ones.

38 Dolores / April Phillips Design Works
38 Dolores / April Phillips Design Works

And for a new, 1,500-acre landscape on the site of a former airport in Alameda, California, Phillips is reusing found logs as benches.

Phillips also made the case for environmental product declarations, claiming that too often the only ones she can find are from products made in the Netherlands or New Zealand. And importing these products to the U.S. only adds to projects’ carbon emissions and is discouraged in SITES.

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