Julie Bargmann Is the Winner of the First Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize

Julie Bargmann / Photo by Barrett Doherty, courtesy of TCLF

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) announced Julie Bargmann has won the inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize for her innovative work that regenerates neglected, often polluted, communities. The biennial award of $100,000 will include two years of public engagement focused on Bargmann’s work and the state of contemporary landscape architecture. The prize is named after German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, who passed away from complications from Covid-19 earlier this year at age 99. TCLF states that the prize is bestowed on a recipient who is “exceptionally talented, creative, courageous, and visionary” and has “a significant body of built work that exemplifies the art of landscape architecture.”

The Oberlander Prize jury said Bargmann, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and founder of D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) Studio, has been “a provocateur, a critical practitioner, and a public intellectual. She embodies the kind of activism required of landscape architects in an era of severe environmental challenges and persistent social inequities.” She is known for her work regenerating “contaminated, neglected, and forgotten urban and post-industrial sites.”

In her own words: “unearthing the raw ingredients of design from waste and wastelands defines my life’s work.” And this passion has driven her to “seek a larger canvas, namely, post-industrial cities and regions. There exists massive potential and sublime beauty in places that may seem, at first blush, to be trashed. Sites, neighborhoods, entire cities—they are full of energy waiting to be recognized, released, and given new form.”

TCLF states that Bargmann’s aesthetic approach is “strongly influenced by the work and writings of Robert Smithson, the American artist known for his land art installations including Spiral Jetty, and the American artist Eva Hesse. Bargmann describes her approach as ‘rigorous intuition or intuitive rigor.'”

Bargmann and D.I.R.T. are known for leading conceptual landscape designs that guide multi-disciplinary collaborations with architects, historians, engineers, hydro-geologists, artists, and the communities with which she engages.

A few of Bargmann’s key projects:

For the Vintondale Reclamation Park in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, which was completed in 2002, Bargmann collaborated with historic preservationist T. Allan Comp, hydrologist Bob Deason, and sculptor Stacy Levy on a 35-acre site in coal country designed as a “natural filtration system” that addresses polluted mine runoff. Entitled Acid Mine Drainage and Art: Testing the Waters, this “model of bioremediation” helped Bargmann win the 2001 National Design Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Museum. She explains that “Vintondale is the project that I feel launched D.I.R.T. and still defines its trajectory.”

Acid mine drainage / Julie Bargmann
Vitondale excavated ponds / Julie Bargmann

Her work on the Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the U.S. Navy Yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania won Bargmann an ASLA Professional Award in 2014. According to TLCF, the project “became a model for the artistic and ecologically sound reuse of materials, including concrete chunks nicknamed ‘Barney and Betty Rubble,’ as well as brick, rusted metal, and other materials.” The project shows that reusing materials is not only beautiful but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Reusing concrete and buried train tracks saves the tons of embodied carbon emissions in these materials and avoids creating new materials that generate more emissions. A greater focus on reused and recycled landscapes is needed in the age of the climate crisis. The ASLA awards jury also noted that the “site perviousness was increased by about 800 percent.” For this project, Bargmann worked with architects at Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, engineers with Advanced GeoServices, Corp., and environmental engineers with Blue Wing Environmental.

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Philadelphia, PA. D.I.R.T. Studio / JJ Tiziou
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Philadelphia, PA. D.I.R.T. Studio / D.I.R.T. Studio

And in 2019, in Detroit, Michigan, Bargmann designed the 8,000-square-foot Core City Park in partnership with developer Philip Kafka of Prince Concepts, architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, and project manager Randy Pardy. The park is another ingenious model of artful reuse — almost all design elements were unearthed from the site, including “pieces of a demolished late-19th century fire station, the walls of a bank vault, and other excavated artifacts.” TCLF also calls the park an urban woodland, with tree groves that “allow visitors to break away from the city without leaving it.”

Core City Park, Detroit, MI / Photo courtesy of Prince Concepts and TCLF
Core City Park, Detroit, MI / Photo courtesy of Prince Concepts and TCLF

Bargmann’s projects will be added to TCLF’s What’s Out There® database, and she will be the focus of an upcoming Pioneers of American Landscape Design® video oral history.

Stay tuned for upcoming public programs organized by John Beardsley, Oberlander Prize curator at TCLF and former director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

ASLA Announces 2021 Professional Awards

ASLA 2021 Landmark Award. Portland Open Space Sequence, Portland, Oregon. PLACE.

ASLA announces the 2021 Professional Award winners. The 40 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement in the profession, and the professionals themselves will be honored at ASLA’s Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 40 winners were chosen from 486 submissions from around the world. Award categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research. In addition, one Landmark Award is also selected each year.

“This year’s winners demonstrate how landscape architects are increasingly leading the planning and design of healthy and resilient communities for all,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “Landscape architects are advancing communities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in significant ways.”

Professional Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Professional Award winners

ASLA Announces 2021 Student Awards

ASLA 2021 Student General Design Honor Award. The Interaction Between Masks And Desertification: A Paradigm of Family Sand Control by Mongolian Herdsmen. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Xi Zhao; Xue Li; Xinyu Yang; Qiong Wang, Student International ASLA, Beijing Forestry University

ASLA announces the 2021 Student Award winners. The 35 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement by future landscape architect professionals. The students themselves will be honored at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 35 winners were chosen from 440 submissions of projects from around the world. Awards categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Collaboration, and Community Service.

“This program not only honors the tremendous creativity and passion of these future landscape architect leaders, it also highlights the extraordinary contributions they will make to communities upon graduation,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA.

Student Award recipients will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Student Award winners

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 16-31)

Reading Forest in South Lake Tahoe, California by Todd Gilen / Todd Gilen

A Landscape Architect’s Outdoor ArtworkHarvard Magazine
“Decades later, that synthesis was part of what propelled him toward a master’s degree in landscape architecture, after 20 years as a curator, graphic-design artist, set designer, and furniture designer. ‘I got to a point in my work as an artist where I felt like I needed some traction in a way that I wasn’t quite finding in the arts,’ [Todd Gilen] says. ‘Landscape architecture has a kind of scientific rigor about it. It’s a discipline that has a basis in both science and the arts.'”

So Long, Traditional Lawn. The New Turf Trends—From Wildflowers to Fescue — 08/27/21, The Wall Street Journal
“‘I have an enormous moss garden just naturally because I don’t do anything to it,’ said Sandra Youssef Clinton, a landscape architect in Hyattsville, Md. Sixteen large oak trees provide constant shade, she said. Though fans of classic turf tell her, ‘Oh, you should get rid of that, it looks so terrible,’ Ms. Clinton finds it quite beautiful. Said Mr. Moore, ‘Even the word ‘moss’ conjures elves and fairies and deep forest.'”

Good News: The Most Popular Material on Earth Is Great for Storing CO2 — 08/27/20, Fast Company
“Our Earth is heating up because of all the carbon dioxide in the air. But even if we can suck that much CO2 out of the atmosphere, there’s still a problem: What do we do with all of it once it’s recaptured? The short answer is, put it into products. The longer answer is, put it into the right products. Specifically, concrete.”

Study Suggests Bike Lanes Do Not Lead to Displacement, Gentrification — 08/27/21, Bike Portland
“The installation of new bike infrastructure in neighborhoods does not lead to displacement of people of color, and low-income areas received more “hard” facilities like buffered or protected bike lanes than high income areas, according to a new study published in July by Elsevier.”

After Years of Failure, California Lawmakers Pave the Way for More Housing — 08/26/21, The New York Times
“Suddenly zoning reform has been thrust to the top of the urban agenda. Cities including Charlotte, N.C.; Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; and Sacramento have moved to allow multifamily buildings on lots previously limited to single-family houses. The issue is now starting to attract higher-level attention: In the past two years 10 states, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Montana and North Carolina, have considered bills to reform local zoning rules.”

In Fire Scorched California, Town Aims to Buy the Highest At-Risk Properties — 08/23/21, NPR
“The idea is to connect the burnt out lots to the town’s existing park land. That’s good for adding more recreation but it could also work as a fuel break. Efseaff’s department could strictly manage forests like this with the hopes that the next wildfire might slow down here and give firefighters a chance.”

In a Warming World, Consider the Mist Garden — 08/19/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Designed by landscape architects Quennell Rothschild & Partners, the new mist garden features 504 evenly spaced fog nozzles atop a new plaza that fills in the 310-foot pool end to end, even keeping the original 1964 stone coping. The new plaza’s edges are paved in a pattern of overlapping triangles, a nod to the Art Deco architecture of the park’s first World’s Fair in 1939, as well as Manhattan landmarks like the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center. Concrete lounges make it possible to simulate a spa day in the middle of Queens’ largest park.”

How a Pioneering Garden Designer Inspired Vogue’s Fall Fashion Fantasy — 08/17/21, Vogue
“‘Should it not be remembered that in setting a garden we are painting a picture?’ So asked Beatrix Farrand in her 1907 Scribner’s essay ‘The Garden as Picture.’ A pioneering American landscape architect whose career spanned the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and two world wars, Farrand wrote, ‘The two arts of painting and garden design are closely related, except that the landscape gardener paints with actual color, line, and perspective…while the painter has but a flat surface on which to create his illusion.'”

Brooklyn Bridge Competition: New Model for Sourcing Sustainable Hardwoods

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

In rare situations, some landscape architects and designers may specify Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified tropical hardwoods for outdoor spaces because there may be no good alternatives. But imagine if instead of just placing a hardwood order and hoping the wood was actually sustainably harvested, designers partnered with conservationists and scientists to preserve the forest from which the wood is cut.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest, the winner of the Re-imagining Brooklyn Bridge design competition organized by the Van Alen Institute and New York City Council, proposes sourcing Manchiche hardwood for new promenade planks on the bridge from the Uaxactú Community Rainforest in Guatemala. At the same time, they would preserve 200,000 acres of the nature preserve.

The multi-discplinary team behind Brooklyn Bridge Forest beat 200 competitors from 37 countries to win top prize. The team was led by Pilot Projects Design Collective, which includes landscape architect Christine Facella; along with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cities4Forests, The Nature Conservancy, Grimshaw Architects, and Silman, a structural engineering firm.

According to the team, one of the best experiences in NYC is to stroll the upper wood deck of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is why more than a million people do it each year. The genius of John Roebling, the bridge’s designer, was to “contrast iconic stone towers and graceful steel cables with the warmth and softness of a wooden boardwalk to create the ultimate setting for the pedestrian,” the team states.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and its partners propose making Brooklyn Bridge an even better walking and bicycling experience by expanding the upper wood deck of the bridge and creating new biodiverse green spaces at either end of the bridge and areas for pop-up markets.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team
Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

The bridge’s existing Greenheart (Ocotea rodiaei or Chlorocardium rodiei) wood promenade is a mile long and comprises 11,000 planks that are approximately 4-feet wide by 16-feet long. Tropical hardwoods like Greenheart used for boardwalks and promenades typically lasts around 30 years.

The team explored replacing the hardwood with plastic lumber, but found the planks to be too carbon intensive. They also looked at domestic hardwood, like Black Locust, which is always preferable to tropical hardwoods, but found that the lumber doesn’t come in sizes that are long enough. The team also looked at concrete and wood composites but found using those materials would require structural updates to the bridge. So they proposed replacing the existing planks, sourced from an unknown forest in South America 30 years ago, with sustainably harvested Manchiche (Lonchocarpus castilloi) from the Uaxactú Community Rainforest.

Instead of the city spending $2 million for the new wood, the public would sponsor individual wood planks at a cost ranging from $400 to $5,000 and in turn have their name laser- or fire-etched into a plank. With the funds raised, the community forest, which is found in the larger 6 million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve, would be protected and generate wood for the promenade in perpetuity.

The communities of Uaxactún have reached an agreement with the Guatemalan government: If resources are harvested sustainably, their land management rights are respected. Through a “community concession” system, the people of the forest can “harvest fruit, medicinal, and ornamental plants, chicle (a natural chewing gum), and a limited amount of timber,” said the Brooklyn Bridge Forest team. The communities coordinate with the Guatemalan government, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and FSC.

Under the terms of the land management plan, tropical hardwood trees can be harvested at the rate of 1 tree per 40 acres using small-scale equipment. After a large tropical hardwood tree has been removed, smaller trees would be planted in the area that has been disturbed.

The scientists with the conservation organizations involved argued that “the communities’ low-impact timber harvesting provides jobs as well as resources for health and education. These opportunities in turn have given the communities a long-term stake in protecting the forest. Community-patrols defend the forest from the numerous threats in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including wildfires, illegal logging and hunting, and in recent years, cattle ranching operations linked to international drug traffickers.” (Learn more).

Furthermore, the scientists believe that the low-impact logging practices undertaken in Uaxactún would have “very little effect on wildlife populations.” And funds from the sponsorship of planks would go to important research on the ecological impacts of controlled logging in these environments.

One of their central arguments: “Most timber harvesting in the tropics is not carried out with the level of care practiced in Uaxactún. In these other places there is often very little regulation, no long-term plan, and no research to assess impacts. Only a fully transparent model with ample opportunity for participation and investigation can guarantee that we are procuring wood in a way that supports forest protection.”

The team thinks this intentional approach could be used for other sustainable hardwood harvesting projects. They point to a few historic models: Every 20 years, the Ise Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, is rebuilt with the exact same dimensions using 10,000 cedar logs. The shrine, which has been rebuilt in this way for the past 1,300 years, has set aside a forest that will be harvested in 200 years for the ritual reconstruction. And in Sweden, in the 1800s, some 300,000 trees were planted to create wood for the Swedish navy. When they were ready to harvest in 1975, Sweden no longer built ships out of wood, but the 900-acre forest of oaks remains preserved.

NYC government is rightfully trying to eliminate the use of tropical hardwoods in its boardwalks, as the vast majority of these woods are illegally harvested, causing great damage to fragile rainforest ecosystems. So it’s unclear whether the Brooklyn Bridge Forest concept will move forward. But also worth noting: recent efforts to replace the tropical hardwood boardwalk in Coney Island with more resilient concrete mixed with recycled plastic resulted in some irate New Yorkers.

The winning submission in the young adult category may have found a solution that avoids the tropical hardwood issue altogether. Do Look Down, a proposal created by Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim, from Hong Kong, NYC, and Berkeley, California, aims to incorporate glass instead of wood for the promenade. There would be thrills galore while looking down, at least for those not afraid of heights.

Do Look Down / Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim

Interview with Meg Calkins: The Case for Sustainable Landscape Materials

Meg Calkins, FASLA

Meg Calkins, FASLA, is the department head and professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University. She is a contributing editor to Landscape Architecture Magazine, a founding member of the Sustainable SITES Initiative® (SITES®), and author of Materials for Sustainable Sites: A Complete Guide to the Selection, Evaluation and Use of Sustainable Construction Materials and The Sustainable Sites Handbook: A Complete Guide to the Principles, Strategies and Best Practices for Sustainable Landscapes.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

Over the past few decades, how much progress have we made towards achieving sustainable landscapes? What practices promoted through the Sustainable SITES Initiative® (SITES®) have landscape architects now widely adopted? What low-impact material alternatives do landscape architects now widely use?

In general, we have made strong progress toward sustainable landscapes in some areas. Green infrastructure — including bioretention, bioswales, rain gardens, even green roofs — are now pretty widely used, especially in urban environments. Their performance and cost benefits are well-documented.

Landscape architects are getting a handle on how to employ them in a functional and artful way. Landscape architects are also starting to speak the language of civil engineers and doing great collaborations in the area of stormwater management. This whole area of SITES and sustainable site design has been really successful.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, Bangkok, Thailand / LANDPROCESS

Landscape architects are also designing with native plants and plant communities in mind, and many are avoiding invasive plants. If only we could get the nursery industry to not stock invasive plants, we would be OK. But even in urban settings, landscape architects are conceiving of plant communities as habitat as well as having aesthetic value.

Where are the major gaps? Where does progress need to happen the most?

Use of materials with reduced environmental and health impacts are lagging behind. This is because clear and comparable information about the carbon footprint, resource use, manufacturing impacts, and toxicity of materials and products is not widely available.

Information transparency is perhaps the biggest challenge when trying to reduce the environmental and human health impacts of materials and products. LEED, SITES, and the Living Building Challenge offer credits encouraging information transparency, but these credits are still among the least achieved.

Product manufacturers do not provide information on embodied carbon, resource use and waste, energy and water use, and toxicity impacts. Human health impacts may be the most challenging to identify given many manufacturers claim the constituents of their products are proprietary and therefore will not release information on the types of chemicals used or produced and their quantities.

The habitat and cultural impacts of raw material extraction are often an out of sight out of mind issue. For example, we don’t see the impacts of harvesting tropical hardwood lumber from the Amazon, so it doesn’t seem so problematic to use it. We don’t see the ecosystem decline after the removal of the keystone species tree that is cut to make tropical hardwood lumber. We don’t hear about the murders of indigenous people to intimidate them to leave their protected land so tropical hardwoods can be harvested. And we don’t know that there is a 78 percent chance that the tropical hardwood we are using was harvested illegally (Greenpeace 2014).

Through Climate Positive Design, Pamela Conrad, ASLA, has devised a comprehensive approach for designing and constructing landscapes so they sequester more carbon than they emit over their lifespans, transforming them into net carbon sinks. Through her design toolkit, she recommends swapping carbon-intensive materials with lower-carbon options and planting more greenhouse gas-absorbing trees and shrubs. As you just mentioned, one of the issues you have identified is the lack of third party-verified environmental product declarations with publicly accessible data. How can we get full transparency around the environmental impact of landscape products?

First, I want to say that balancing carbon onsite is a critical aim, and Conrad’s design toolkit is wonderful. It’s going to have a transformative impact on site design and material and product specifications.

Embodied carbon of materials is a far more accurate indicator of the impact of producing a building material or product than embodied energy. Embodied energy is not as accurate because all energy sources do not have equal impact on the environment. Some will be almost carbon neutral, like wind power, and others, like coal, will have very high embodied carbon and a substantial environmental footprint.

But while carbon considerations are heavily prioritized in decision making in the building fields, they do not tell the whole story. The human health impacts of materials and products, which can be very substantial, tend to fly under the radar.

PVC, a plastic that is used in countless construction products, has lower embodied carbon than some other plastics, but it can be extremely toxic to humans in manufacture, use and disposal, particularly if it is burned or heated to very high temperatures. Designers need to consider these impacts, but the only way they’re going to know about them is for manufacturers to tell us exactly what is in the products and what by products are produced.

Information transparency by product manufacturers is an area that lags behind other sustainability considerations. I did a content analysis study back in 2012 of the websites of all exhibitors at the 2012 ASLA conference. We looked at what kind of information they’re providing on the impacts of their materials and products, and the steps they’re taking to make them more sustainable. Less than 1 percent provided either life cycle assessment (LCA) or environmental product declarations (EPD).

I’m replicating that study right now, seven years later. I don’t have the results yet, but I suspect it’s going to be closer to 10 percent providing that kind of information. There is progress being made, but we still not enough information for designers to use to compare similar products.

SITES and LEED have likely had a slight transformative impact on the information that product manufacturers provide. But the fields of architecture and interior design are ahead of us. If we did a content analysis of their product websites, we would probably find somewhere between 20 and 30 percent provide environmental product declarations.

The main way to address the lack of information is for landscape architects and designers specifying site construction products to talk to product manufacturers and ask for information about the environmental and human health impacts of their products. Telling manufacturers — “Well, I’m considering using your product but your competitor, Company X, has an environmental product declaration, so I’m going to go with them” — is only way to make it happen.

Of course, one can earn LEED and SITES credits for companies that offer some material transparency. But I don’t know if that’s making change as much as designers constantly asking for that information.

Concrete production accounts for around 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cement, which is a primary ingredient in traditional concrete, is the second-most used natural resource after water. You have written about the many low-carbon concrete options companies are developing, including carbon-sequestering concrete, concrete that requires lower amounts of energy to produce, and concrete primarily made up of fly ash and other waste products. What will it take to replace the conventional polluting concrete with these new alternatives?

These alternatives are so new that many are not widely available on the market yet. Some are still in development. But of those on the market, only the earliest adopters are specifying them. They’re better used in Europe, because many are European technologies.

In the U.S., landscape architects oftentimes don’t specify concrete mixes. Landscape architects need to convince the people who do — the engineers, the contractors and the Departments of Transportation — to do it.

Contractors are understandably nervous about using new concrete mixes and are not easily convinced to change. Durability is such a key consideration in the performance of concrete, and it is still a question with the new low carbon technologies and mixes. It’s just going to take time and experimental applications. If the applications are monitored and the data on performance published, adoption of these technologies will happen.

Solidia Technologies’ Solidia cement (low Portland Cement) and Solidia concrete (injected with carbon) was successfully tested in multiple applications by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in east coast locations. This is one way that these technologies can trickle down into the site construction market. If the FHWA or U.S. Department of Transportation believes in it and has it as either a standard or alternative specification, then the contractors in that area are much more likely to want to use that product.

D.I.R.T. Studio artfully integrated recycled concrete, bricks, and rusted metal found onsite at the Urban Outfitters headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, creating a rich, layered environment that demonstrates sustainable values. Do you see this recycled landscape aesthetic becoming more popular? What trends do you see in the use of recycled materials?

The answer is both yes and no. There’s a type of project that can use reclaimed material successfully. Not all clients want that aesthetic and not all project budgets can afford it.

Some projects will never be able to incorporate reclaimed materials because of the budget and bid structure. In a public bid project where the contractor is not onboard until after the bid set is complete, there may be insurmountable obstacles to use of reclaimed materials. It is best if one can design with reclaimed materials in hand, rather than setting out to find them after the bid documents are complete. If you set out to find a nine-by-nine reclaimed cypress post for the pergola that is fully detailed, you’re never going to find it. You need to find the material first and then design with it.

Cost can also be an issue. Once located, reclaimed materials sometimes need to be stored for several months until construction. And the material may need work such as removal of nails, cleaning, resurfacing and even regrading.

I don’t want to discourage this: if it’s a landscape architect can pay this kind of attention to the reclaimed materials, that’s great, but it’s just not feasible for every project.

Concrete was broken into pieces and reused as pavers in a garden. ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / D.I.R.T. Studio
Steel from the site was reused as low walls for planters. ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / D.I.R.T. Studio

There has been a growing movement to end the extraction of Ipe and other tropical hardwoods, which is highly destructive to rainforest ecosystems. Landscape architects like yourself and Michael van Valkenburgh, FASLA, have instead promoted the use of native hardwoods like black locust. There are also composite, thermally modified, polymerized, and acetylated wood products. Help us navigate the landscape of tropical hardwood alternatives. How should landscape architects make a decision?

There is absolutely NO reason to use tropical hardwood lumber anymore. There are good alternatives that exist that perform in some cases better than tropical hardwoods and have far lower impacts to ecosystems. Ipe, Cumaru, some of the other tropical hardwoods are keystone or umbrella species in their ecosystems.

Once that one tree is removed, studies show that the forest, plants, and animals for acres around it that depended on that one tree will decline. Within five years that land is usually turned over to grazing land for cattle. Because of this fact, even selective harvesting is not a good practice for rainforest trees.

Ipe trees bloom in yellow and pink in the Brazilian rainforest / iStockPhoto.com

There are also unseen social impacts to using tropical hardwood lumber. Tropical hardwood extraction has devastating social impacts to indigenous communities. Few designers know that since 1985 there have been 1,700 deaths in the Amazon over land disputes that primarily have to do with illegal logging. Also, tropical hardwoods are not a renewable material because it takes 90 to 200 years to grow a comparable tree, but the lumber from that tree is only going to be in use for about 30 years.

There are many alternatives to tropical hardwoods now on the market. Thermally modified wood, acetylated wood, polymerized wood– all three of those use heat and either steam or acetic anhydride or a polymer cross-linking agent, furfuryl alcohol, to modify the sugars of the wood, so that decay organisms no longer recognize them as food. All three of these lumber treatments are non-toxic. They make the wood more dimensionally stable, harder, and much more competitive with the durability of tropical hardwoods. And they are easier to build with than the extremely dense tropical hardwoods.

Another alternative to tropical hardwoods is fused bamboo, which has been on the market in China for close to ten years. It’s a really hard product similar to Ipe, so it needs carbide blades to cut and drill it. It’s a very durable product, and unlike, Ipe, uses a clip system that avoids the pre-drilling and screwing necessary for Ipe boards. It is a rapidly renewable product, with rapid growth of the bamboo every three to five years.

Fused bamboo is essentially stripped, carbonized, and impregnated with phenolic resin, which may or may not have some toxicity issues. It does contain formaldehyde, but the jury’s still out on that. Anyway, it performs and weathers really well. It’s easily oiled and rejuvenated, guaranteed for 10 years in commercial applications and 30 years in residential applications.

And then of course black locust is also a good alternative. It can be challenging to use because black locust trees do not grow straight, so when you cut it into lumber, it tends to want to return to its irregular form. But it is starting to be grown on plantations and should have a straighter habit when farmed. Also, use of shorter lengths can prevent its tendency to warp.

Black locust planks make up a walkway in an atrium garden. ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. Small is Beautiful, Millburn, New Jersey. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

Innovative new materials in development include concrete that can absorb air pollution and clean the air, bricks that can be grown, and plants that can be engineered to produce light. What emerging material technologies are you most excited about? Which have the greatest potential to improve our built environment?

I’m the most excited a process called electrically modified cement (EMC) activation. It’s essentially a process that modifies the surface of hydraulic waste materials like fly ash and blast furnace slag, or even some natural pozzolans like silica sands and metakaolin.

The process increases the surface area of these particles, creating micro-cracks and dislocations of structure at the nano scale, allowing for greater surface area and greater reactivity with respect to the processes of cement. It’s possible to achieve a concrete with 70 percent fly ash and just 30 percent cement. Once this finds its way into the market, it’s going to really transform concrete. That said, fly ash is only around as long as we’re burning coal. In Europe, for instance, they’re burning a whole lot less coal, so fly ash is not nearly as prevalent as it is in the U.S. anymore.

The other thing I’m excited about is recycled plastic aggregate concrete (RPAC), which is in the testing and case study application phase. There’s a whole lot of waste plastic in this world and if we can find a way to use it instead of non-renewable virgin aggregates, we should. The technology is still in the research phase, but preliminary results of RPAC as fine aggregate show an increased flexural strength, tensile strength, and density. There is so much on the horizon to improve the environmental and human health footprint of concrete.

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.

New Guide: Smart, Sustainable Materials at Home

The landscape architect mined elements from the cannery structure, including abandoned machinery, for repurposing in the new gardens. The recycled tumbled glass riverbed in the Dining Room Court, and stone columns in the Lew Hing Garden add to the historic character. Hand crafted site furnishings made from FSC-certified wood, concrete, steel, and glass were designed by the landscape architect and crafted by Miller Company Landscape Architects’ in-house installation team. ASLA 2010 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Pacific Cannery Lofts / Miller Company Landscape Architects.

New and non-recyclable materials used in homes and landscapes are often not designed to be recycled. These materials can consume enormous amounts of resources to produce and distribute and create additional waste when they are demolished. Waste materials create waste landscapes: landfills, massive incinerator systems, and multi-square-mile floating plastic garbage islands in the world’s oceans.

ASLA has created a new guide to using low-impact materials at home, which contains research, projects, and resources on how to better source materials for residential landscapes. Developed for homeowners and landscape architects and designers alike, the guide is designed to help spread more sustainable and resilient practices.

To avoid sending useful materials to landfills and cut down on materials that release toxic substances, The Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®) recommends reusing or recycling existing materials.

Homeowners can also specify local materials to support local economies and cut down on the energy use from the transportation of materials.

But beyond reused, recycled, or local materials, there are other important ways to reduce the impact of materials on our health and environments.

Sustainable residential landscape design can increase the health of environment through the use of innovative low-impact materials that are permeable and reflective (high albedo).

Permeable materials allow water to infiltrate and recharge aquifers, instead of being sent to combined stormwater and sewer systems.

Reflective, “cool,” or white materials help reduce air temperatures, particularly in cities dealing with the challenges of the urban heat island effect, and energy costs by minimizing the use of air conditioning to cool buildings.

There are also more sustainable wood and concrete options out there that minimize consumption of newer materials or extend the life of existing materials.

SITES recommends building with certified, sustainably-harvested woods; recycled woods; and recycled plastic or composite lumber to preserve forests, which are critical to sequestering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

To avoid sending useful materials to the landfill, conserve natural resources, and reduce a project’s carbon footprint, SITES also recommends landscape architects source sustainable concrete from manufacturers using supplementary cementing materials, like fly ash – a byproduct of coal-fired power plants. Landscape architects should reuse concrete from structures on the existing site, like crushed concrete as an aggregate base. Concrete that incorporates recycled materials, like crushed glass or wood chips, are a more sustainable and use less cement than traditional pavers.

Used in both landscapes and buildings, low-impact materials can reduce GHG emissions and create a healthier environment.

Local governments can partner with non-profit organizations and landscape architects and designers to increase public awareness about why it’s important to use low-impact materials.

Explore sections of the guide:

Permeable Surfaces
Reflective Materials
Sustainable Woods
Sustainable Concrete

Future Materials Here Today: Self-Healing Concrete, Biological Bricks, and More

Transmaterial Next / Princeton Architectural Press

While we have all experienced the effects of the information technology revolution now underway, we may be less aware of the impact of the new “materials revolution,” argues University of Minnesota professor Blaine Brownell in his excellent new book Transmaterial Next: A Catalog of Materials That Define Our Future. Building materials are being transformed to respond to our planetary environmental crisis, lower costs and boost efficiency, and provide new media for creative expression. Given the serious problems facing the Earth, the scale of the ambition is heartening.

Brownell has been documenting the evolution of building materials for some time. Over the past decade, he has written Material Strategies: Innovative Applications in Architecture; Hypernatural: Architecture’s New Relationship with Nature (read The Dirt review); and three books in the Transmaterial series.

Transmaterial Next is rich with interesting details and well-organized, with sections on concrete, mineral, metal, woods and biomaterials, plastic and rubber, glass, paint and coatings, fabric, light, and digital materials. More than 100 brief case studies on materials offer brief summaries, images, the state of commercial readiness, and future possible impacts. He also defines the materials in terms of the trends they represent.

For example, future materials may be ultra-performing, meaning they are “stronger, lighter, more durable, and flexible than their conventional counterparts;” multi-dimensional, “with greater depth and richness;” re-purposed, as they often “replace precious raw materials with less endangered, more plentiful ones, and divert products from the waste stream;” recombinant — because “two or more different materials act in harmony to create a product whose performance is greater than the sum of its parts;” intelligent, because they “take inspiration from biological systems and are therefore less wasteful;” transformational, because they “undergo a physical metamorphosis based on environmental stimuli;” and interfacial — as they can serve as a linkage between the “physical and virtual worlds.”

Brownell does a great job of explaining the environmental costs of our exploding resource use and how new, less wasteful materials will help. 

Concrete, which was used by the Romans before falling out of favor for centuries, is now the “most heavily used material on Earth after water.” Concrete production accounts for some 5-10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and its use is growing 2-4 percent year, given its relatively short life-span and difficulty to recycle.

Concrete production can be far less polluting. Brownell identifies how simply replacing some of the Portland cement portion of cement with “alternative cementitious materials, such as fly ash or slag” can reduce emissions by some 46 percent. He calls for replacing problematic steel, which is used as a reinforcement in some structural concrete, with fibers or other materials.

Concrete emissions can also be reduced by lengthening the useful life of concrete as well — through “self-maintaining” or “self-healing” technologies that reduce maintenance. For example, BacillaFilla is an “engineered microbial glue” that can repair cracks in concrete. The microbes are grown in a bioreactor. After they are applied with a spray, the microbes quickly bind and come with a kill switch so the “germination process may be terminated.”

BacillaFilla / Wonderful Engineering

And then there’s bendable concrete, which is “far less brittle than conventional concrete.” While bendable concrete does form micro-cracks if bent too far, it can “self heal in the presence of air and water.”

Bendable Concrete / The ACE-MRL, University of Michigan. From Transmaterial Next by Blaine Brownell, © 2017 Princeton Architectural Press, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In the minerals section, Brownell sees the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the brick industry, which spews out high amounts of black carbon. One way to do that is growing bricks via biochemical processes. Mason, a company out of North Carolina, seeks to do this with BioBrick, which uses bacteria to generate bricks out of sand or another aggregate.

BioBrick / bioMASON. From Transmaterial Next by Blaine Brownell, © 2017 Princeton Architectural Press, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Another fascinating application — Stone Spray, a sort of 3D printer that “collects direct and sand located on sites and mixes them with a binder ingredient.” The vision of nearly-instantaneously printing a structure using nearby materials is awe-inspiring. The technology is in very early stages, and there would be limitations — the load-bearing capabilities of nearby materials would determine the capacity of the structure.

Stone Spray / Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. From Transmaterial Next by Blaine Brownell, © 2017 Princeton Architectural Press, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Over the past 500 years, some 4.45 billion acres of forest have been cleared. If the planet keeps going at the rate it has been, we will lose the world’s rainforests in a century. “This resource crisis suggests that forests must be preserved as much as possible.” To slow or stop deforestation, Brownell offers up some novel technologies, such as NewsPaperWood, a Dutch product, that is made out of recycled newspaper and is gorgeous.

Newspaperwood / Raw Color. From Transmaterial Next by Blaine Brownell, © 2017 Princeton Architectural Press, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In the paints and coatings section, we learn about the potential of next-generation surfaces with coating technologies that enable “light harvesting, electricity production, and structural monitoring.” One brilliant example is the photo-luminescent paint found in the Dutch Smart Highway Project. A team from Studio Roosegaarde and Heijmans created a test bed with photo-luminescent strips that “absorb daylight and emit light during the evening for up to eight hours.” Think of the cost savings for lighting and the creative opportunities. 

Van Gogh Path / Pim Hendriksen. From Transmaterial Next by Blaine Brownell, © 2017 Princeton Architectural Press, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

A related idea in the lighting section: A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin harnessed genetically-modified E.coli bacteria, algae, and protists to create a biolumenescent light source that will run on sunlight and its own waste. Still in early development, the bulb designers face challenges in making it reliable, Brownell argues.

BioBulb / AnaElise Beckman, Alexandra Cohn, and Michael Zaiken. From Transmaterial Next by Blaine Brownell, © 2017 Princeton Architectural Press, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

And there’s also Starlight Avatar, a strange plant that gives off light. Its chloroplast gene has been genetically modified with elements of marine bacteria. Bioglow, the firm behind this new organism, wants to “create foilage that can double as low-energy light sources.” The plant, which Brownell thinks could be used alongside paths for nighttime navigation, is ready for the market and available in the U.S. Whether there is a future market for glow-in-the-dark plants is unknown.

Now these new materials need to be scaled up. In particular, the planet is way past due more efficient and longer-lasting concrete. 

New Case Studies on Sustainable Landscape Design

Sherbourne Commons /
Sherbourne Commons / ASLA 2013 General Design Honor Award. Sherbourne Common / Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

A newly expanded and now mobile-friendly version of ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition highlights real-world examples of sustainable landscape design and its positive effects on the environment and quality of life. These spaces use natural systems to provide ecosystem services, transform untapped assets into vital community spaces, and create new economic opportunities — they ultimately provide significant environmental, social, and economic value.

Ten new case studies that range from a coastal ecological restoration project to a volunteer-run urban farm illustrate just what sustainable landscapes are and how they provide important benefits on a variety of scales. In the process, the case studies, written in clear, understandable language, also introduce users to what exactly landscape architects do.

The new case studies were carefully selected to show a diversity of landscape types and scales and reflect geographical diversity. There are now a total of 40 case studies.

New case studies include:

Burbank Water & Power Eco-campus, Burbank, California, a sustainable landscape for employees and visitors in the midst of a working power plant.

Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments, San Francisco, California, a safe and welcoming apartment complex, with beautiful design elements, for the chronically homeless.

Lafayette Greens, Detroit, Michigan, a volunteer-run urban farm in downtown Detroit where 800 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables are grown every year.

Living Breakwaters, New York, New York, an innovative coastal ecological restoration project that won $60 million in the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Albuquerque, New Mexico, an underused plaza that has become a model of sustainable landscape design in the desert.

Quarry Garden, Shanghai, China, a derelict, polluted quarry that was transformed into a garden visited by more than 3 million people in its first year.

Sherbourne Common, Toronto, Cananda, a multi-functional park and wastewater treatment plant that includes an underground Ultraviolet (UV) water purification system.

The Steel Yard, Providence, Rhode Island, an abandoned steel manufacturing facility that has become a beloved community arts space.

Sunnylands Center and Gardens, Rancho Mirage, California, an extension to the Annenberg Estate that captures every drop of stormwater, with some collected in underground cisterns for later use.

Woodland Discovery Playground, Memphis, Tennessee, an immersion in nature play for children that features surfaces made of recycled athletic shoes.

The Web site also 30 other case studies; 10 animations created by Daniel Tal, ASLA, using Google Sketchup; and companion sustainability education resources that enable users to explore sustainable design concepts in greater depth.

Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes was originally made possible with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).