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).

Landscape Architects: Get Your PARK(ing) Day on

AUB Landscape Society celebrates Park(ing) Day / outlookaub.com
AUB Landscape Society celebrates Park(ing) Day / outlookaub.com

Founded in 2005 by landscape architect John Bela, ASLA, a founding principal of Rebar, PARK(ing) Day is September 18 this year. PARK(ing) Day is a global, open-source phenomenon in which landscape architects and other designers transform metered parking spaces into temporary mini-parks, or parklets. The event helps the public visualize just how much of our public realm is given over to cars and all the other potential ways these spaces could be used by communities.

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) encourages its professional and student members to lead the design and installation of parklets and show the public how surprising designed parklets can be.

Rebar's original PARK(ing) Day in San Francisco, 2005 / parkingday.org
Rebar’s original PARK(ing) Day in San Francisco, 2005 / parkingday.org

Whether it’s simply a new place to sit and relax, or play a game, parklets will draw a crowd.

HBB Landscape Architecture / Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce
HBB Landscape Architecture parklet / Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce
SWA Group Landscape Architecture teamed up with the Bentley Reserve to set up a pop-up bocce ball court
SWA Group Landscape Architecture teamed up with the Bentley Reserve to set up a pop-up bocce ball court

PARK(ing) Day is an excellent opportunity to teach the public about landscape architecture. Parklets offer a glimpse of what landscape architects or designers can do, and the value design adds to public spaces. People passing-by will stop to check out your parklet and learn about its designers.

Happy PARK(ing) Day / The Penn Stater
Happy PARK(ing) Day / The Penn Stater

PARK(ing) Day can earn you plenty of local attention, but ASLA wants to show you and your parklet to the world. On September 18, post a picture of your parklet with #ASLAPD on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and ASLA will share it. We’ll put our favorite student and professional-designed parklets in an ad in Landscape Architecture Magazine.

If you would like to participate in the event, visit ASLA’s PARK(ing) Day site to get started and learn about local permitting and insurance. For inspiration for your parklet, read our PARK(ing) Day 2014 recap or contact your local ASLA Chapter. Have questions? Send them to jtaylor@asla.org.

80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World

designed-cover
Designed for the Future / Princeton Architectural Press

“What gives you hope that a sustainable future is possible?” In Designed for the Future: 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World, Jared Green — the same Green who edits this blog, and, full disclosure, was my boss when I was a communications intern at ASLA — offers 80 thought-provoking and frequently inspiring answers to this question from landscape architects, urban planners, architects, journalists, artists, and environmental leaders in the U.S. and beyond. The book’s tone is highly conversational and reflects the voices of the book’s contributors. Each passage is the result of an interview with Green, who serves largely as curator for this reading experience.

To those in the field, the names are like a who’s who of respected leaders in these professions. But while professionals will certainly enjoy it, this book is aimed squarely at the public, as it’s as scrubbed-free of design jargon as possible and offered in bite-size pieces easy to pick up for a few minutes at a time or read entirely through on a weekend afternoon.

It’s largely successful in this aspect, capturing the essence of the ideas at the core of each real world example without losing the reader in technical terms and excess detail. However, in a few cases, the description is so sparse as to leave uncertain exactly what the project is about.

Some of the projects feature new technologies applied in innovative ways. Lighting designer Leni Schwendinger, now with Arup, is inspired by Illuminate, a three-year research program in six European countries showing the way to the future of light-emitting diode (LED) lighting in public spaces. The study examined not only at energy savings and carbon reductions, but also the quality of light in terms of brightness, color temperature, and color rendition (whether the object illuminated looks true to life). It’s the artificial nature of these latter qualities that tend to sway many designers away from LEDs, despite their energy savings, but this study shows they are being improved, and LEDs may soon be able to use “intelligent controls to create malleable lighting” in our parks, plazas, and museums.

luminance1luminance2luminance3

luminance4
Luminance Map, Belfast / Guilio Antonutto

Jonsara Ruth, a professor at The New School / Parsons, discusses Mushroom Board from the firm Ecovative, a product that uses mycelium, the “roots” of mushrooms, to literally grow an organic Styrofoam replacement. Styrofoam is an incredibly polluting material, but Mushroom Board, a cutting-edge use of bioengineered materials that can be grown to almost any shape and size, is completely biodegradable. Imagine appliances coming packed in Mushroom Board or homes insulated with mushroom in the walls instead of spray-in foam.

mushroom
Mushroom Board by Ecovative / Jonsara Ruth

Many projects feature materials and infrastructures from the past that have been given new life to serve contemporary needs. Landscape architect Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, describes how Braddock, Pennsylvania, is in the process of transforming much of its abandoned and toxic industrial lands, re-envisioning them as a place for urban farming and healthy community initiatives.

braddock
Braddock, Pennsylvania / Kristen Taylor, Creative Commons, Flickr

And Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director, Center for City Park Excellence, Trust for Public Land, describes how Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis is a railway that has been converted into one of the most successful trails for cyclists and pedestrians. Built in a trench to not interfere with auto traffic, it’s a delight for its users who can go for long stretches without having to negotiate intersections and vehicle conflicts.

midtown-greenway
Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis / Ed Kohler, Creative Commons, Flickr

One overarching theme is the need to further connect social, environmental, aesthetic, and economic benefits that have been considered for too long in isolation. For decades, we’ve known, in theory, that achieving quadruple-bottom line benefits is essential for sustainability. These existing projects show how multiple benefits can be achieved in the real world, and the positive impact they can have on communities and the environment.

Green offers a lovely quote in his introduction from science fiction writer William Gibson: “The future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed.” Environmental advocacy and action can so easily just focus on the negative or emphasize only the compromise and sacrifice necessary for “saving the planet.” The examples in Designed for the Future show that not only is our future not all doom and gloom, but there’s plenty to be excited about here and now. The future is here. Now let’s start spreading today’s successes around as widely as possible.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design.

Solve Humanity’s Toughest Problems

ecovative
Ecovative natural Styrofoam / Greener Package

The Buckminster Fuller Institute is looking for solutions to the world’s toughest problems. They just released the call for entries for their 2014 Fuller Challenge, “socially-responsible design’s highest award.” Landscape architects, architects, planners, artists, entrepreneurs, and students from everywhere are invited to go for the $100,000 prize for most outstanding strategy.

Buckminster Fuller, who died in 1983, was way ahead of his time. While he is famous for his geodesic dome, which took form in Disney’s “Spaceship Earth” Epcot Center and other buildings, as well as his innovative maps, Fuller’s deeper impact may be on our thinking. He was one of the first modern Western thinkers to connect architecture to ecology and the environment.

According to the institute that bears his name, Fuller called for a “design revolution to make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

This worthy goal is now being pursued through the Fuller challenge, which seeks to identify global change-makers. Winners haven’t just taken on a building or landscape but a whole broken system.

Last year, an amazing group of materials innovators at Ecovative took home the prize for their game-changing Styrofoam made of mycelium and agricultural waste. The year before, the Living Building Challenge won for showing the world how a green building could become a self-sustaining system.

Submit your concept by April 11, 2014.

Another competition is a bit of good news for Ukraine, which faces challenges on so many fronts at the moment. A new ideas competition from the Can-action 2014 festival will award 5,000 EU for the best user-generated public space concept. Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is one of the judges. Submit ideas by April 17.

 

The Humble Public Bench Becomes Comfortable, Inclusive, and Healthy

bench1
“People now want to be comfortable when they sit on a bench,” said Erik Prince, ASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, in a session on urban furniture at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. “It’s no longer about making benches uncomfortable for vagrants and the homeless.” In a tour of the humble public bench’s past — and its potential future — Prince, along with Jane Hutton, assistant professor of landscape architecture, Harvard University, and architect Robyne Kassen, Urban Movement Design, explained how a shift in public furniture design may reflect broader societal changes and could be leading us towards healthier, more inclusive public spaces.

Prince said some contemporary benches, like the one Stoss just hand-designed and fabricated for The Plaza at Harvard University, provide a “new organization of social space” (see image above). These “more ergonomic” benches allow for “multiple functions, like stretching, playing, and lounging.” These new functions are only made possible through a revolution in design practices, like 3D modeling and fabrication. Some of these new benches are designed to be inherently flexible, with “changeable forms” that can create a “new sense of community.”

bench4

The History of Public Furniture

Hutton said the many types of benches throughout history have offered unique ways of sitting and interacting with the surrounding environment. “Different materials and inclines generate different social realities.” Benches can either be “solitary or social, exclusive or inclusive.” While they are often “invisible in the landscape,” public benches are actually central to our appreciation of landscapes, as they “organize the scope and our scoping strategy.”

In the 14th century, Tuscan civic benches were built into plazas, enabling small public spaces to form for “theatrical or tribunal purposes.” These benches helped “convey the sense of civic action and stimulated popular use.” They were about half a meter wide, so you couldn’t sleep on them.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, communities started creating the “rustic twig bench,” which reflected a “transcendental, natural philosophy.” As an example, “crude” benches in Central Park, NYC, worked with a “pastoral ideology.”

woodenbench
In the 19th and 20th centuries, garden chairs started to be mass produced. Carved wood chairs, which were never comfortable, were now made out of iron, with “intricate plant and animal motifs.” Hutton said these were “very uncomfortable,” largely because they were meant to be “show seats when not occupied.”

In the 1860s, the first comfortable, mass-produced, iron garden chair was created, along with a low-cost folding chair, which was iconic in the military arena and also featured prominently among colonizers in Africa and Asia. These light-weight garden or foldable chairs were soon available for rent in public parks. In the gardens of Versailles, there was a garden chair with a fold-able back.

The Central Park settee, one of the first designed, stationary public benches, was made with a mix of iron handles with wood slats. “It was just under relaxing,” Hutton added. From then, there was a proliferation of “benches in street furniture.” None were particularly comfortable because then the thought was “you should hold your own posture, not rely on the chair.”

bench
In the 20th century, there were experiments about the human figure and ideal reclining positions. Furniture studios examined “free-form ergonomics,” exploring how a mix of “rigid and contoured” cement and fiberglass could be created to create an ideal form. This era led to some of the “iconic chaise lounges” that populated Garrett Eckbo’s “modern landscapes for living.” Marcel Breuer created his famous lounge recliner. Later, Panton explored the use of plastics. “These were for play and pleasure.”

panton
For a period of time, public benches were purposefully made uncomfortable in order to deter unwanted elements. “They were defensive or deterrent furnishings.” But today, Hutton said, the shift is towards more comfortable and relaxing public furniture, which even enable “splaying in public,” a posture once only allowed in the “medical or residential spheres.” There’s now a potential for “new positions in public spaces.”

Ergonomic Positions Made Possible by New Technology

With 3D modeling and fabrication, new possibilities like Stoss’ benches for Harvard are now possible. The bench, Prince said, has “numerable, inter-changeable seating positions,” which were mapped out using the software program Rhino, with a Grasshopper add-on. “We use parametric modeling tools.”

bench2
There are 17 benches, made up of 7 types, each with similar ergonomically-sound geometries. Some have high backs, some have low. Some are upright, while others are low-to-the ground. Prince said Stoss “applied rules to the types.”

bench3
Each bench type was created as a 1-to-1 prototype to “incredible precision” using advanced fabrication technologies. Getting all the joints to meet properly required an incredible attention to detail.

bench5
The wood used was found in one of Harvard’s depots. Leftover from a new Renzo Piano-designed building, the “temple-grade cedar wood” was Alaskan first-growth forest wood. While he said they would never usually use wood like this, it was local sourcing of reusable materials in this instance.

The Bench That Boosts Your Health

Robyne Kassen, an architect and yoga instructor, said a bench or chair changes your body as you sit in it. She said we are “constantly becoming our bodies,” so a chair or bench has significant impact.

Sitting at a computer all day long — and not getting up to move around — is the health equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Spending all that time in one position is particularly dangerous, given we are “always training our bodies and they are becoming. We are the filters through which we experience the world.”

Our nervous system — a key part of how our bodies experience the world — is also taxed all day long. Blinking, loud signage affects our nervous systems. Too much stress from the built environment can damage our sympathetic systems’ flight or fight response. Our para-sympathetic system, which enables relax and release, can then get out of balance, causing illnesses.

To maintain health and well-being, “we must nourish our para-sympathetic system,” which she said involves sitting at your “zero point” for a period of time during the day.

To enable the public to reach their zero point more often, Kassen and her team created Unire/Unite, an installation in a plaza near the new MAXXI Museum in Rome. The plaza’s benches are made of wood frames covered in “concrete canvas,” a special material that has concrete on the inside and canvas on the outside. The material was invented to help with water conveyance in infrastructure projects.

maxxi
The installation features an “infinity system,” which enables visitors to take on a variety of body positions and do yoga-inspired exercises meant to “activate, strengthen, cleanse, and balance the mind and body.” Here’s Kassen’s zero point:

zeropoint
The plaza was purposefully designed to be accessible to everyone, with pathways of recycled rubber and low access points that enable even visitors in a wheelchair to transfer to the edge of the benches. “This landscape, play, park, space enables 66 different positions,” said Kassen.

yoga
In contrast with the 14th-century Tuscan plaza-bench or the purposefully-uncomfortable iron garden chair, these zero-point-inducing benches clearly reflect today’s obsessions with comfort, technology, health and well-being.

Image credits: (1-2) The Plaza bench / Stoss Landscape Urbanism, (3) Park Bench by William Merritt Chase / Wikipaintings, (4) Central Park settee / Central Park Conservancy, (5) Panton Chair / Wikipedia, (6-8) The Plaza bench / Stoss Landscape Urbanism, (9) Unire/Unite / © Cecilia Fiorenza via Urban Daily, (10) Unire/Unite / Urban Movement Design, (11) Unire/Unite / © Cecilia Fiorenza via Urban Daily

Landscape Architects and Their Clients Tackle SITES

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We often hear from landscape architects about the cutting-edge sustainable design practices they are bringing to their latest Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®)-certified works, but we rarely hear from their clients. In a session at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston organized by Liz Guthrie, ASLA, professional practice manager at ASLA, landscape architects and their clients together discussed their motivation to become certified Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) projects, the challenges involved in working with this new 200-point rating system, and the lessons learned.

Why a Sustainable Landscape?

For Richard Piacentini, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, the goal was to apply “systems-thinking” to their new Center for Sustainable Landscapes, which received the first four-star rating from SITES (see image above). “We wanted to know how we could truly integrate the building and landscape.”

He said too many buildings are “completely isolated nature.” This is a real problem because humans now spend about 80 percent of their lives in buildings of some kind. With the new center designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates, “nature is now not that far away.”

In the Bronx, Hunts Point Landing, a two-star SITES-certified landscape developed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and designed by Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, shows how a “dead-end” in an isolated and unhealthy neighborhood can be turned into a park, said Kate Van Tassel, NYCEDC. The park is meant to ameliorate some of the health problems in the community, which has some of the highest rates of asthma and obesity in New York City.

The new Hunts Point Landing took shape on the site of an old coal gasification plant. Van Tassel said this little bit of “green space amid industry is very important.” To boost neighborhood health, NYDEC wanted a sustainable park. Old local materials were re-used within the park. Stones from a nearby bridge taken down were turned into blocks to sit on. The waterfront park helped “transform the shoreline into a recreation area.”

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In the case of Taylor Residence in Chester, Pennsylvania, Margot Taylor, ASLA, is both the client and landscape architect. Taylor wanted to create a public demonstration project for sustainable landscape best practices on her own property. Her property includes wood systems and meadows. Ecological systems were re-established, with a focus made on soil and plant health. The landscape, which used to be a farm, now “directs, holds, absorbs, and cleans water.” She now has hundreds of people, including lots of school groups, touring the landscape each year.

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One of Taylor’s goals in the move to a sustainable residential landscape was to reduce annual maintenance. She wants to get maintenance down to 55 hours a year. She has also “completely gotten mowing out of the system.”

Representing both himself and his client, Hunter Beckham, ASLA, SWT Design, described the design of the Novus International campus in St. Charles, Missouri. He said a “huge number of stakeholders” were involved in creating a sustainable campus, which was designed to yield many benefits for both employees and the environment. There’s a productive, edible landscape: a vegetable garden with bee-friendly plants. There are two bee blocks that provide home to seven different local species. In the first year, the landscape yielded 65 pounds of honey.

This vegetated garden terrace is accessible via a walking loop that circles the entire campus. The loop enables both employees and visitors to take a break from the office and get out in nature. Within the landscape, an old concrete-lined water detention pit was turned into a natural water habitat that manages stormwater and attracts a wide range of wildlife, including snakes.

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What Were the Challenges?

For Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon and one of the guiding forces behind SITES, the benefits far outweighed the challenges. He said achieving 4-stars for the Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes was no small feat, but perhaps made possible by the fact that “we started with no site.” The design team then had “complete control over the materials used,” which helped them improve site performance and earn points under SITES.

Still, “procuring the sand-based soils was a challenge, given the firms involved in fracking are very interested in applying the same soils to sites where they are extracting gas.” Separately, he added that it was “hard to change the plant palette to accommodate the new soil pH.”

For Signe Nielsen, FASLA, SITES seemed to be an exercise in frustration. She said there were three categories of SITES credits that deeply-urban brownfield sites like Hunts Point Landing “couldn’t take advantage of,” so the project could only get two stars.

She said she couldn’t preserve existing soils and vegetation because “they were highly contaminated.” There was “no structure to adaptively reuse,” so points couldn’t be gotten there either. Lastly, there were no “cultural resources to reuse or enhance.”

She added that working with public authorities, in effect, means “limited opportunities for integrated site design teams,” as many local governments don’t incentivize such groups.

More broadly, she thought that achieving many of the credits related to “recycled content materials will be challenging given the landscape industry has very few competitive vendors in this field.”

Urban public projects may have a challenge earning maintenance points as well, as the landscape architecture firms creating these projects often have “no control over future maintenance.” A firm could create a detail maintenance manual for a park, but then that’s it.

Taylor said working with a historic farm was a challenge in itself. The native vegetation had been stripped and topsoil eroded or compacted. The solution was to “rebuild healthy soil and native plant communities appropriate for different micro-climates.” SITES, she said, “didn’t want to give credits for the landscape’s past use as pastureland.”

She certainly ended up getting credits, though, for the 27 tons of barn stone she cut up and re-purposed on site by hand. “I lost about 15 pounds shifting all that stone out of the dirt.” Still, she thinks she needs to find a “smarter way to manage materials that were unearthed.”

What Lessons Were Learned?

Alminana believes that “integrated design is really the key” to achieving a return on investment for your clients and site performance. “SITES really puts an emphasis on this.” He said, unfortunately, this approach is still not “happening among a majority of the profession or in the public sector.”

Directing himself to those who complain they haven’t earned enough points for their projects using SITES, he said “if you are only focused on points, you are missing the point.”

Nielsen believes SITES can have a potent impact, given “metrics are crucial” and SITES really forces landscape architects to collect data and measure themselves against benchmarks. She said putting all that time into collecting metrics was worth the effort because it helps “clients understand the value of our work.” Landscape architects can measure how well they’ve “reduced noise, saved water, and reused materials.” Beckham reiterated how valuable SITES is as a “framework for accountability.”

Taylor learned that it’s important to “integrate a long-term land management perspective from the beginning,” something that SITES promotes.

The landscape architects all hoped that governments — both local and national — will get moving on incorporating SITES guidelines into their request for proposals (RFPs), which can also help push the landscape materials industry to provide more sustainable options. It will be a back-and-forth process to make SITES more mainstream: landscape architects, and their clients, must push for change among providers of landscape materials, but the market must also provide opportunities to enable that change.

Image credits: (1) Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes / Denmarsh Photography, (2) Hunts Point Landing / Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architecture, (3) Taylor Residence / Mark Gormel, (4) Novus International / SWT Design

Our Biophilia Can Lead Us to a New Design Ethic

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“Great presentation, but a little bit preaching to the choir,” said the woman sitting behind me at Sunday’s general session of the ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. Indeed, when Dr. Stephen Kellert, the Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, took the stage to give his talk on biophilic design, he mentioned he felt strange presenting to a room full of landscape architects, as they are on the front line of designing humans’ relationship to nature.

Biophilia is the “inherent human need to affiliate with nature.” This need, while instrumental to our health and physical and mental well-being, is a “weak biological tendency that benefits from and is strengthened by learning.” Biophilic design strengthens and enforces our affiliation with nature, which leads to, simply stated, happier and healthier people.

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If you read this blog with any regularity, there’s a good chance you’ve come across posts on biophilic design and the importance of nature in people’s everyday lives. You’ve seen posts that outline how nature is fundamentally good for us, providing benefits for our mental and physical well-being.

So why do we continuously preach to the choir? Dr. Kellert put it this way: while 99 percent of human evolution happened in the natural world, the modern “natural habitat of people is the built environment.” Consider these facts: 80 percent of the world’s people live in cities. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors. Children today spend just 40 minutes a week outside versus 52 hours a week in front of some sort of electronic media.

We continue to talk about because it’s not only critically important to our future, but because it’s not yet standard practice and needs to be. “We’re the only species in the world that needs to prove nature is important.” As he pointed out, it’s strange that the “exploitation of nature,” which accounts for 15 percent of the global economy, is accepted without question, while the aesthetics of the natural world is either seen as a luxury of the wealthy or something that’s really very nice, but not at all important.

The truth — a point that cannot be overstated and is also worth repeating — is that if we ignore the human need for contact with nature, one that is deeply rooted in human development, we do so at a risk to our mental and physical well-being. So a deeper understanding of the importance of the aesthetics of nature, and how they can be applied through biophilic design, needs to be explored.

The beauty of a place is actually very important. Beauty invites us in, and, through curiosity, which is the first step to engagement, promotes learning. Learning, in turn, enforces our biophilic needs. Beauty of place promotes a sense of stewardship for a natural setting, which leads to more time spent in nature, which in turn promotes our mental and physical well-being.

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Biophilic design of landscapes and buildings mimics the aesthetic coherence and organizational symmetry of nature through emulation and design. It’s also an ancient practice, some of our most revered buildings and landscapes have an essence of natural settings, but it’s one that has fallen away in recent time with sprawl and auto-centric design.

But the negative trends in both human health and unsustainable communities can be reversed. As Dr. Kellert put it, “we designed ourselves into this predicament; we can design ourselves out of it.” At its core, biophilic design is not just a buzz word, it’s simply good design, but one that requires a new design ethic. Until then, he’ll continue to preach.

Read Kellert’s most recent book, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, ASLA 2013 intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

Image credits: (1) ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. Small Is Beautiful. Eli Tahari courtyard. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella (2) ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award / Arizona State Polytechnic. Ten Eyck Landscape Architecture / Bill Timmerman, (3) ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Qian’an City, Hebei Province, China. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu, FASLA.