SITES Certifies 12 More Landscapes

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U.S. Federal Office Building, Two Stars, U.S. GSA with Atkins Global, Miramar, Florida / SITES

The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has certified a dozen sustainable landscapes across the country for meeting rigorous standards for environmental design and performance, bringing the total number of certified projects to 46. These 12 landscapes include a historic Maryland house, a pocket park in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, and a public children’s garden in Austin, Texas.

“Americans can directly address major environmental challenges we face today – diminishing water supplies, climate change, pollution and loss of wildlife habitat – by how they design and manage landscapes where they live, work and play,” said Susan Rieff, executive director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “The SITES program approach, now increasingly adopted by landscape architects, designers and others, provides a practical blueprint for creating healthy landscapes, and recognizes exemplary projects to inspire others.”

These 12 projects are the last to be certified using a 2009 pilot version of the SITES Rating System. They join 34 others that have achieved certification for voluntarily applying the SITES system to incorporate sustainability into their planning, design, construction and maintenance. Each project received a rating from one to four stars. SITES, which is a collaboration of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), The Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanic Garden, has now certified projects in 20 states.

The pilot program has informed the June 2014 release of the SITES v2 Rating System and Reference Guide. Negotiations are underway with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) to provide project certification to the requirements of the SITES v2 Rating System and a related professional credentialing program.

The 12 most recently certified projects include:

Anacostia Watershed Society Headquarters, Three Stars, Anacostia Watershed Society, Bladensburg, Maryland. This landscape on .35 acres surrounds the historic George Washington House (circa 1752). The building now serves as headquarters for the Anacostia Watershed Society, which developed a public demonstration of practical, aesthetic ways to address the flow, collection, and management of stormwater runoff from the site. Year of adjacent road realignments that raised the grades of surrounding land had created poor drainage patterns throughout the site. With the help of volunteers, interns, staff, and local business donations, the society was able to install permeable paving, a rainwater cistern, brick and dry-stream channels, and rain gardens. The project demonstrates how sustainable stormwater management can be successfully incorporated within historic sites challenged with a limited budget and very restrictive site constraints.

Evans Parkway Neighborhood Park, Three Stars, OCULUS – Landscape Architecture, Silver Spring, Maryland. The expansion of this neighborhood park with the addition of a vacant lot provided the impetus for developing a more natural treatment of park surfaces and restoring a 300 linear foot section of a concrete-lined stream channel. This rehabilitated stream is a model for future naturalization efforts within Montgomery County. The renovated park also includes an informal play field and lawn areas, playground, a picnic area and shade structure, loop walking trails, a pedestrian bridge with riparian overlook area, contemplative seating areas, interactive public artwork, interpretive displays, connections to regional bikeway and public transit systems, natural meadow areas, and shady woodland areas.

Boeddeker Park, Two Stars, The Trust for Public Land, San Francisco, California. This one-acre park developed by The Trust for Public Land and San Francisco Recreation and Parks provides the largest open space in San Francisco’s poorest, most dense and diverse neighborhood. What had been an undesirable, unsafe area for 50,000 nearby residents has become an inviting space that is open daily. The pocket park includes a state-of-the-art clubhouse, walking path, adult fitness equipment, children’s play area, lawn and plazas for community gatherings and a garden. Sustainable systems were prioritized from the start and are integrated throughout the site. Project partners conducted extensive community outreach at nearby senior and youth centers and elsewhere, and worked closely with local community partners to ensure a safe park that provides programs and activities for all ages. Key design and programming decisions were made through these community forums. The result is a model of civic engagement, inspiration, resource conservation, and adaptability.

Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center, Two Stars, RGR Landscape Architecture & Architecture PLLC, Garden City, New York. This is the only naturally occurring prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains. The design and development of HPIC – a low-impact building and site – in a heavily developed suburban area, secures the integrity of the parcel as a natural preserve and historic landmark. In addition, the Plains are located on the Nassau Community College campus and near several universities, providing classes with a learning lab about native prairie habitats and sustainable techniques and an experience for general visitors interested in experiencing prairie life. An entrance through native plantings leads to the new visitor’s center topped with a green roof; open and closed classrooms are provided. Handicapped-accessible and stabilized-soil trails lead to the natural paths in the native prairie. A cistern helps reduce the need for potable water. Solar energy provides power and the building is completely “off the grid.”

Luci and Ian Family Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Two Stars, W. G. Smith Design, Austin, Texas. This garden showcases Texas native plants and landscapes while offering a unique, beautiful space for children and families to appreciate nature through exploration and to learn about plants, wildlife and water, and sustainable landscape design elements. The 4.5-acre space features more than 180 native Texas plant species and interactive features such as a nectar garden, a wildlife blind and pond, a “stumpery” made for tree climbing, and an area for building structures from natural materials. Sustainable practices are part of the fabric of the garden, and include plants that were salvaged pre-construction and replanted, and a rainwater harvesting system and rain gardens to demonstrate water conservation. Locally-sourced pecan shells and crushed recycled glass are among the mulches. Stone harvested on site is used in features such as two caves, and non-potable water feeds a waterfall flowing into a recirculating creek with fish and tadpoles.

U.S. Federal Office Building, Two Stars, U.S. GSA with Atkins Global, Miramar, Florida. This new building houses a key federal agency on a secure campus that includes a parking garage with a green wall and solar panels, pond and other sustainable features on a site that minimizes impacts and harmonizes the landscape with the nearby Florida Everglades. The site design incorporates wetlands throughout the project and in interior and exterior courtyards. These wetlands are visible from within the building. A jogging path occurs around the reconstructed wetlands and there are locations for gathering and relaxation. Structures are made of locally sourced materials with high-recycled content and FSC-certified wood. Native and adaptive plant species occur site wide, creating a sustainable native plant community on aesthetically appealing grounds. The grounds also provide water-quality treatment for the project area.

Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education, One Star, Alrie Middlebrook, San Jose, California. This former concrete parking lot in downtown San Jose has become a shared garden space used for educational purposes. The tenants include a sustainable landscaping company, The California Native Garden Foundation and its nursery, and an on-site aquaponics farm. The Environmental Laboratory is used to teach schools how to build a sustainable garden education program and showcases a healthy land-use model. The site demonstrates urban food technologies such as vertical food towers, pallet gardens, composting, and gardening with perennial food plants. Drought-tolerant native plants reduce water use and provide wildlife habitat, restore soils and more. Drip irrigation is used for plantings, and water is reused through greywater systems. Many landscape components are made with recycled or reused material. The goal of ELSEE is to have this type of garden model adopted by 10,000 California schools by 2020.

HELIX Environmental Planning Inc. Headquarters, One Star, HELIX Environmental Planning Inc., La Mesa, California. Landscape conversion of the environmental planning firm’s headquarters entailed the conversion of the landscape to a more regionally appropriate one. The project reduced potable water use for irrigation through rainwater harvesting and the use of native plants, and created a more usable outdoor space for employees, which has increased social interaction and supported healthy activities. The project is unique because it used the expertise of HELIX’s own employees in designing and implementing water-conserving and low-maintenance landscapes.

New Orleans Festival and Recreation Complex, One Star, Torre Design Consortium, New Orleans, Louisiana. A 55-acre abandoned golf course in New Orleans City Park was re-purposed to provide a public space, in conjunction with a Community Development Block Grant. Community input led to opportunities for exercise and outdoor play, and gathering spaces for families, schools, and formal events. The project includes four multi-sport fields, a one-mile walking/biking path, a workout area with adult and child exercise equipment, a large constructed wetland area with meditation paths and a boardwalk, a playground, and a large “Reunion Pavilion” for seating, eating, and socializing. Many oak and cypress trees were retained for shade and enjoyment.

Perot Museum of Nature and Science, One Star, Talley Associates, Dallas, Texas. This 4.7-acre site on a former industrial brownfield is just north of downtown Dallas and west of the Arts District. An elevated freeway determines the site’s southern boundary and is among nearby constraints. The project dovetails with the museum’s primary mission of working to “Inspire minds through nature and science.” To achieve this, the site design was conceived as an abstraction of several native Texas landscape environments that are seamlessly integrated with the building’s architecture that covers much of the space. Starting at the southeast corner of the site, the podium structure of the building was planned to incorporate a vegetated roof system. The roof features plantings that depict different regions of Texas’ ecology: West Texas Caliche, Upland Prairie, Blackland Prairie and East Texas Forests/Wetlands.

Swaner EcoCenter, One Star, CRSA, Park City, Utah. The EcoCenter provides visitors a starting point to experience the 1,200-acre Swaner Preserve, both of which are overseen by Utah State University. The preserve and building serve as places for teaching environmental science. Visitors also hike, bird watch and pursue other nature activities on site. The EcoCenter building demonstrates sustainable features such as solar panels and a cistern for rainwater collection that eliminates potable water use for irrigation and for flushing toilets. Visitors can also learn about an innovative boardwalk that minimized disturbance to land around the piers. Rather than using metal helical piers that produce such damage, these are made from salvaged trestle wood preserved by sitting in the Great Salt Lake for decades. Other approaches included selecting sustainable materials for outdoor seating, bike racks, and pathway pavers.

Tuthill Corporate Headquarters Campus, One Star, Conservation Design Forum, Burr Ridge, Illinois.  The campus provides a workplace environment that honors the human psyche and improves the environment. The building was established on a minimal footprint and oriented to allow employees to easily access a pond/wetland and view it while indoors. Rainwater is collected and directed from the roof to the landscape. The entire site, except for the building footprint, pavement and small Buffalo grass turf edge, has been restored to hardy, native plant species obtained locally wherever possible. Locally sourced limestone was used in a terrace and patio that creates an authentic connection of the building to the local landscape. Invasive species have been removed, allowing the restoration of native grassland prairie and wetland fringe. The restored or recreated on-site landscaping and other elements virtually eliminate surface stormwater runoff and localized flooding.

SITES Certifies New Set of Landscapes

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Kirke Park / Sustainable Sites Initiative

The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) program has certified four new landscapes. These include: Kirke Park, a pocket park in Seattle (two stars); 38 Dolores, a grocery store and housing complex in San Francisco (two stars); West Point Foundry Preserve, a historic Civil War-era preserve in New York (one star); and the office of Perkins + Will, a design firm, in Atlanta (one star). The four projects join 30 other pilot projects certified by the SITES program, the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for sustainable land design and development. All 34 certified landscape pilot projects met the 2009 Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks, developed by the SITES program in collaboration with dozens of sustainability experts, scientists, and design professionals from across the nation.

The four newly certified pilot projects incorporate sustainable features that were evaluated using a rating system with certification levels of one to four stars:

Kirke Park, Two Stars, Site Workshop, Seattle, Washington (see image above). This pocket park was designed to reflect the site’s past, incorporating structural elements that were remnants from a church that previously occupied the site, while enhancing the neighborhood. A community garden recalls the site’s history of producing food while a secret garden offers a quiet space inside the preserved walls of the historic church. A gathering plaza contains other park relics and is connected to an open lawn, providing structure for community events and informal play. A playground and an “adventure trail” that uses logs and boulders promote an active, natural play environment.

38 Dolores, Two Stars, April Philips Design Works, San Francisco, California. This greyfield project in the diverse Upper Market community in San Francisco has become a mixed-use development with 81 residential units and a Whole Foods Market on the ground floor. The LEED® Gold certified project improves the use of city systems and reduces its carbon footprint. To achieve SITES recognition, the developer added sustainable features including rainwater harvesting, alternative energy technologies, and green roofs that provide habitat for the endangered mission blue butterfly and a haven for city visitors. In addition, the site has edible and rain gardens and features such as education components to promote eco-awareness.

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38 Dolores / Sustainable Sites Initiative

West Point Foundry Preserve, One Star, Scenic Hudson Inc., Cold Spring, New York. The preserve is at a former turn-of-the-century manufacturing facility, which later was declared an EPA Superfund cleanup site. The work of a community advisory group, informed by years of archaeological studies, helped inform the transformation of 87 acres into a publicly accessible outdoor museum and heritage destination with interpretation and restored habitat. The site’s existing artifacts and previous history manufacturing Parrott guns credited with winning the Civil War, steam engines and mill equipment were incorporated into the design. The preserve includes a restored tidal marsh that supports wildlife habitat. Salvaged materials found on site such as brick fragments and stone were used in the project. Uniquely, the project included an archaeological monitoring plan to address unexpected features found during construction. The preserve is the second SITES-certified project of Scenic Hudson Inc. along the Hudson River and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Preserve America site.

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West Point Foundry Preserve / Sustainable Sites Initiative

Perkins+Will Office, One Star, Perkins+Will, Atlanta, Georgia. This design firm’s new home is a living model for small urban sites that emphasize sustainability. Essentially “upcycling” an outdated office building on Atlanta’s signature boulevard, the site now showcases elegant stormwater solutions and innovative use of materials on a highly constrained urban location. Where a parking deck and driveway once focused on auto access at the front of the building, a new civic plaza was created as an open-air living room for tenants and the community that reconnects the building to the street. The site provides walkable transit access for employees and clients, creates tenant space for civic uses and additional outdoor spaces for social engagement. The newly renovated building is also certified LEED® Platinum with the highest score in the Northern Hemisphere at the time of certification.

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Perkins + Will office / Sustainable Sites Initiative

The SITES program is a collaboration of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.

Based on the experiences of the 100-plus pilot projects that field-tested the 2009 rating system and input from hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals, a refined set of guidelines and rating system was released in June 2014. Known as SITES v2, it was developed over seven years and is now available for use by anyone who works in land design and development. The SITES v2 Rating System and scorecard are available for free.

With Four New Landscapes, SITES Certifies 30th Project

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Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Albuquerque, New Mexico / Robert Reck

The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has certified new landscapes at a federal courthouse in New Mexico; an elementary school and campus plaza in Washington, D.C.; and an urban plaza in Washington state. The four projects certified by the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for sustainable landscapes are: Albuquerque’s Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse, which received a two star certification; Brent Elementary School in Washington, D.C., which received one star; Square 80 Plaza at The George Washington University, also in D.C. with one star; and East Bay Public Plaza in Olympia, Washington, with one star.

SITES is a collaboration of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden. The program was created to fill a critical need for a comprehensive set of guidelines and a system for recognizing sustainable landscapes based on their planning, design, construction and intended maintenance. This voluntary national rating system and set of performance benchmarks can be applied to projects of all sizes and on sites with or without buildings.

“It is exciting to see a growing number of projects across the country that have applied an integrative design process to meet rigorous sustainability guidelines, while finding ways to address urgent environmental and social challenges,” said SITES Program Director Danielle Pieranunzi, who is based at the Wildflower Center. “We are thrilled to certify these four new projects that truly exemplify the breadth of approaches to sustainable site design and development.”

The newly certified projects applied the 2009 SITES Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks and met the requirements for pilot certification. There are now 30 landscape projects at universities, businesses and public spaces that have achieved this recognition. The SITES rating system was created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals.

The four newly certified projects each incorporate sustainable features that were evaluated using a rating system with certification levels of one to four stars. These landscape projects include the following sustainable features:

Pete V. Domenici United States Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Two Stars, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Albuquerque, N.M. (see image above). This federal courthouse is the first project constructed by the General Services Administration to achieve SITES certification. Originally constructed in 1998, the underused hardscape plazas, overwatered lawns and faulty water feature of the existing courthouse exemplified resource inefficiency, disconnection from its environment, and distance from the public. The landscape renovation reconceives the site as a cohesive park-like landscape rooted within the rich cultural, climatic and hydrological fabric of the Rio Grande Basin. Innovative strategies include the selective removal and re-use of excess concrete paving to create seat wall terraces that direct site stormwater into a series of native habitat rain gardens. The project creates a bold landscape and dignified setting for court operations while enhancing the efficiency and sustainable operations through improved water management, decreased energy use and increased urban habitat.

Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening, One Star, Sustainable Life Designs, Washington, D.C. Located five blocks from the nation’s Capitol, this greyfield site with asphalt-dominated grounds was transformed into a sustainable landscape that educates students, parents, and neighborhood residents about green infrastructure. Improvements include the removal of 1,600 square feet of asphalt and the installation of pollinator gardens, stormwater management features, new play equipment, and 7,000 square feet of outdoor classrooms to enhance outdoor play and learning that were achieved through numerous volunteer hours. The stormwater management features include a rain garden, rain barrel, and bio-retention swale. A formerly trash-strewn space behind the school building is now an “urban canyon” that helps manage stormwater and provides native habitat.

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Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening / Michael Lucy

Square 80 Plaza at The George Washington University, One Star, Studio 39 Landscape Architecture, Washington, D.C. The Square 80 Plaza project converted an existing parking lot into a park that creates pedestrian connections and open space at an urban university campus. The project retains 100 percent of its stormwater runoff on site through the use of biofiltration planters, permeable paving, hardscape diversion through use of small channels, and the collection of site water into a system of inter-connected cisterns. All plants used on the site are native and adapted species, and all water used for irrigation and the sculptural water feature is fed by the rainwater collected in the cistern, which uses no potable water.

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Square 80 at George Washington University / Studio 39

East Bay Public Plaza, One Star, Robert W. Droll Landscape Architect, Olympia, Washington. East Bay Public Plaza is a vibrant public urban space located in the Puget Sound region that showcases the benefits of reclaimed water and the efforts of the LOTT Alliance, an Olympia-based wastewater treatment company. The former brownfield includes new educational elements such as discovery markers, interactive stream features, a series of interpretive panels, and a ground plane timeline that playfully charts the past, present and future of reclaimed water to inspire and inform visitors.

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East Bay Public Plaza / Kelly Carson

Based on the experiences of many of the pilot projects, a refined set of guidelines and rating system, SITES v2, will incorporate additional recommendations from technical experts. This updated version of the 2009 SITES rating system will be published and available for distribution and use by the general public in 2014.

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

SITES Certifies First Four-star Landscape

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The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) announced three new projects have achieved certification under the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for sustainable landscapes.

The newly certified projects are the Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh, which is the first SITES pilot project to have received the maximum four stars; Washington Canal Park in Washington, D.C., which received three stars; and Shoemaker Green, a university green space in Philadelphia that received two stars.

The SITES program is a collaboration of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden. The SITES program was created to fill a critical need for development guidelines and recognition of sustainable landscapes based on their planning, design, construction and intended maintenance. This voluntary, national rating system and set of performance benchmarks can be applied to projects on sites with or without buildings.

The new projects join 23 others across the country that have achieved certification since June 2010 as SITES pilot projects. These diverse projects represent landscapes of various sizes, locations, types, and costs.

“We are very pleased to announce three new certified projects – particularly the first four-star rating,” said SITES Program Director Danielle Pieranunzi, who is at the Wildflower Center. “Each project has achieved a great deal by demonstrating innovative applications of sustainable land design and development practices while meeting the SITES 2009 criteria.”

As with the other pilot projects at universities, corporate headquarters and other landscapes that have previously achieved this recognition, the newly certified projects applied the SITES Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks 2009 and met the requirements for pilot certification. The guidelines and rating system were created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals.

The three newly certified projects incorporate diverse sustainable features:

Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Four Stars, Andropogon Associates, Pittsburgh, Pa (see image above). The Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens was designed to be the first project in the world to simultaneously achieve LEED Platinum, SITES four-star certification, and The Living Building Challenge (still pending). Built on a previously paved city maintenance yard and documented brownfield, the nearly three-acre site supports a new 24,350-square-foot education, research, and administrative building; manages all sanitary waste and a ten-year storm event on site using a range of green infrastructure strategies; has successfully reintroduced 150 native plant species; and is designed to be net-zero for energy and water. The CSL is open to the public and its building and landscape performance is being extensively researched and monitored to inform the design and construction of similar projects that restore ecosystem services, generate their own energy, and clean and re-use their own waste water.

Washington Canal Park, Three Stars, OLIN, Washington, D.C. One of the first parks built as part of the District of Columbia’s Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, Canal Park is a model of sustainability, establishing itself as a social gathering place and an economic catalyst. Located on three acres of a former parking lot for district school buses, the three-block long park is sited along the historic former Washington Canal system, and is a centerpiece for approximately 10,000 office workers and about 2,000 new mixed market-rate and affordable housing units. Canal Park’s focal point, a linear rain garden, functions as an integrated stormwater system that is estimated to save the District of Columbia 1.5 million gallons of potable water per year. The park also features electric car charging stations and a neighborhood-scale system for capturing treating, and reusing rainwater. Numerous opportunities are provided for residents and workers to enjoy the park, including an ice rink, a café, pavilions and space for concerts, movies, and farmers’ markets.

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Shoemaker Green, Two Stars, Andropogon Associates, Philadelphia, Pa. As part of the University of Pennsylvania’s “Penn Connects” campus master plan, this deteriorating site with underused tennis courts was redesigned as a passive open space of lawns, tree-lined walkways, and sitting areas. The green space is both a destination and a pedestrian route from the core of campus to the historic buildings surrounding it. The site can be adapted for multiple events and activities at a wide range of scales, from secluded areas for eating lunch to staging areas for the Penn Relays and graduation ceremonies. Through the innovative use of various sustainable strategies and technologies, Shoemaker Green has also been optimized to capture and control stormwater from the site and surrounding rooftops, provide viable native plant and animal habitats, minimize transportation of materials to and from the site, and serve as a starting point for the development of a sustainable maintenance strategy for the university at large.

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The 2009 SITES rating system for the pilot projects includes 15 prerequisites and 51 additional, flexible credits with assigned numbers of points that total 250. The credits address activities such as soil restoration, use of recycled materials and land maintenance approaches. Projects can achieve ratings of one through four stars by amassing 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent of the 250 points.

Based on the experiences of many of the pilot projects, a refined set of guidelines and rating system, SITES v2, is finalized and incorporates added recommendations from technical experts. This enhanced version of the 2009 SITES rating system is ready to be published for distribution and use by the general public.

Image credits: (1) Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes / Denmarsh Photography, (2) Washington Canal Park / OLIN, Sahar Coston-Hardy, (3) Shoemaker Green / Barrett Doherty

Designing with Soils

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“Growing plants is the goal,” said James Urban, FASLA, Urban Trees + Soils, at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. To grow healthy plants, one needs healthy soils, and landscape architects who understand soils and know how to call a soil scientist. In a wide-ranging talk, Urban and his co-presenter, soil scientist Norm Hummel, discussed how landscape architects can design with new soils the right way, particularly in challenging, damaged urban landscapes.

Whether natural or man-mixed, soils have physical, environmental, and chemical properties. These are all important to the health of a growing medium. Physical properties include organic matter, water, drainage, and aeration. Environmental characteristics include light and temperature. Chemical elements include the pH balance, and the presence (or not) of phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium, which are all critical elements for plants.

To determine what kind of soil is needed for a project, Urban said goals and requirements are needed early on in the design process. Questions that need to be asked: “What type of trees and plants are you trying to grow? How big do you want these plants to get?” As an example, depending on the requirements, an oak can grow to 25 feet and last 50 years, or grow to its full extent and live hundreds of years. Landscape architects have think through these things in terms of soil early on.

It’s also important to know how a site is being used. A landscape may have lawn, but is that walked on a few times a year or thousands of times? Urban said the National Mall’s turf gets a quarter of a million visitors per day. That space gets 3,000 events a year. Use will determine what kind of irrigation and soils are needed.

Urban said there are eight critical properties of soils, which soil biologists can test to determine if soils meet specifications. They include structure, texture, density, nutrients, pH, organic matter, and density, which are all “inter-connected.”

More often than not, Urban said trees and plants don’t do well because of the physical properties of soils rather than the chemical. If something goes wrong — a tree is stressed, shows early fall color, or even dies — landscape architects may be planting the wrong trees and plants for the soil types.

Some details on soil’s physical properties: The structure of soils has to do with how well-glued together the soil particles are. Particles are attracted to other particles — and organic matter glues them together. Clay soil has a strong structure due to the stickiness of the soil. Silt soil has a weaker structure, while sand has no structure at all. Sandy soils are useful in areas that need to drain.

Urban added that man-made mixed soils are very different from natural soils. Mixed soils include soils that have been broken apart and put back together.

Soils are also made up of spaces or voids where water can flow. Ideal forest soils have a void space of about 50 percent, while urban compacted soils are around 20-30 percent. With the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®), Urban said more landscape architects will need to measure soil structure.

Soil texture is also important to examine. Clay, silt, and sand all have different surface areas given the unique sizes of the particles. Fine sand is .24mm, while silt is 2.4mm, and clay, nearly 24mm. Just within the family of sand, there are huge differences as well, with fine sand having properties distinct from coarse grains.

Hummel, who said he has examined over 100,000 soil samples in his career, said organic matter is a major contributor to soil health. Organic matter can be amended with either peats or composts.

He said many peats are actually not sustainable and shouldn’t be used to augment the organic matter in damaged soils. Peat farming can strip an area of nutrients, creating environmental damage. However, he made an exception for sphagum peat, which is more expensive, but a renewable resource. For Hummel, sphagum peat is “superior to compost, which breaks down rapidly.”

But compost is most often added to soils to boost the amount of organic matter. Compost is often used with disturbed urban soils that have suffered from erosion and compaction. Compost types include yard waste (grass, wood chips), bio-solids (treated municipal sewage), animal manure, and mixed waste. Some regional compost specialties include pine bark and rice hulls. Hummel added that soils have a “disease suppressive capacity.” Still, he cautioned against the practice of using 90 percent compost and 10 percent soil, saying that a “tree planted in that will simply fall over or die.”

Hummel also delved into the chemical properties of soils – and whether it’s possible to chemically amend damaged soils. He concluded that altering the PH balance of existing site soils is “unrealistic.” What’s better is to focus on the availability of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous in the soil.

While sending soil samples to a lab will yield data on all these properties, these properties can also be requested in soil specifications. Hummel said landscape architects can even specify things like permeability in soils.

Urban concluded that it’s best to reuse dirt where possible, but sometimes grading and compaction have “killed the soils.” To understand the problems and solve them, landscape architects can use web soil surveys, study soil maps, take their own samples, examine them, and send them to the lab. “Landscape architects need to learn how to do this.”

To learn how to go on to the next step and fix soils, check out Urban’s book, Up by Roots.

Image credit: Sugar Beach, Toronto, by Claude Cormier / Deeproot

Teaching Ecological Restoration (Not Restoration Ecology)

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In a session at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, ecologist John Munro worried that SER is moving away from its focus on practical, on-the-ground, ecological restoration projects in favor of more passive, “academic research on restoration ecology.” Pointing to Temple University’s landscape architecture and horticulture program, which features the first ever-accredited concentration in ecological restoration, he said the focus must remain on “doing rather than studying.” His fear is that many restoration ecologists can no longer “see the forest for the statistics.”

The solution, according to Munro, is to boost ecological site design education in both landscape architecture and ecology degree programs. Landscape architects and restoration ecologists must understand “specifications, logistics, sequencing, planning. This can’t be handed to other professions.” A landscape architect in Philadelphia discussed the ecological issues landscape architects must increasingly know about. A landscape architect professor and graduates from the Temple program then discussed their innovative program and what they are doing with what they’ve learned.

Landscape Architects Need Ecological Know-How

According to Emily McCoy, ASLA, Andropogon, “landscape architects are finally beginning to take seriously the idea of measuring ecosystem function.” They are also beginning to “take the best scientific information and apply them to landscape design.” This is challenging because landscape architects are not trained in statistics so can’t truly understand landscape function. This means they need to work with restoration ecologists or environmental designers.

Andropogon, one of the most cutting-edge landscape architecture firms in terms of sustainable design, has actually created an “integrative research department” to help incorporate the latest research into their practice. “We are focused on collecting adaptive feedback. We want to apply the latest data on landscape performance.” The firm is doing this because they believe all the new research can support their mission of improving the “health, safety, and welfare of people.” Andropogon thinks “urban environments can positively contribute to our health.”

McCoy identified a number of research areas where Andropogon says they need help from restoration ecologists or landscape architects trained in ecology. They are soils and soil biology (here, they are interested in “how what’s under the ground affects what’s above the ground”); habitat (“how do we define this?”); native plants (“can they succeed on green roofs?”); climate change; urban heat islands; assisted migration; and plant provenance and ecotypes. They need this kind of research for their sustainable landscape projects, like the green roof for the new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., which features native plant communities and now attracts wildlife (see image above).

She also said the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®), a kind of “LEED for Landscapes,” will further boost demand for ecological research services among all landscape architects. “SITES asks what is the habitat value? How do you measure performance of plants and soils in man-made landscapes?” Right now, data on ecosystem services provided by urban landscapes is largely unavailable.

Learning How to Do Ecological Restoration

Mary Myers, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at Temple University, said Temple has the only accredited landscape architecture program with a concentration in ecological restoration. She defined landscape architecture as an “environmentally-focused profession whose mission is to promote environmental balance and human well-being through sustainable design.”

To get similar programs going in other landscape architecture departments, she advised academic program chairs to “build lateral support within and out universities, get other environmental design schools on campus involved, and bring in expert outside advisers.” At Temple, Myers brought in Andropogon Associates, BioHabitats, and Mark Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

To build the case for the new program, which she did as chair of the landscape architecture and horticulture department, she pointed to U.S. Labor and ASLA reports outlining booming job growth for landscape architecture and ecological restoration, along with a U.S. News and World Report article that said ecological restoration is a growing field.

Myer’s program applies ecosystem design. There are modules on woodlands and wetlands, with classes on technical engineering and ecosystem design spread throughout. The third year has a special “public lands module,” and a capstone project in the field. Myers made a point of emphasizing how important “graphic communication” was in the curriculum, too, which was accredited by LAAB in 2013.
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How Temple University Students Approach Ecological Restoration

A group of Temple University graduates as well as current students then discussed how they are approaching ecological restoration in their work and studies. Sara Street, Construction Specialties, Inc. (C/S), a Temple University landscape architecture and ecological restoration graduate, described C/S’s efforts in designing a sustainable corporate campus for their sales office in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Located on the west branch of the Susquehanna River, the corporate campus is an industrially-zoned site in a region with a long history of human habitation. The campus’s new design includes stormwater capture and reuse, a reintroduction of native plants (including a native vegetation propagation facility), and a new trail system. Street described how the project will serve as an educational facility for local school children, teaching them about ecological restoration.

Street stressed the need for a quantifiable, objective method for judging ecological restoration projects. C/S’s new campus will be highly monitored over time. As landscape architecture and ecological restoration projects become more intertwined, Street expressed optimism for the development of new standardized system of sustainability scorecards.

Patricia Kemper, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Temple University, then discussed the integration of landscape architecture and ecological restoration. She cited several built examples, including the James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center in White Lake Township, Michigan. Completed in 2008, the project – a recipient of an ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award – involved a large-scale ecological restoration effort. MSI Design led a multidisciplinary team to accomplish this task, which required the reintroduction of 170 native plant species, the preservation of existing wetlands and woodlands, and a new ecologically-managed stormwater system. Furthermore, an underwater plexiglass classroom entices school children to learn about the aquatic ecology of the site. By merging landscape architecture and ecological restoration, the design of the James Clarkson Environmental Discover Center benefits both wildlife and the public.

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Kemper followed her case studies with the results of a survey of universities with master programs in landscape architecture. Respondents were asked questions regarding the role of ecological restoration education in their landscape architecture programs. She found that while landscape students are getting exposed to the concepts of ecological restoration, they are not typically being taught nuts and bolts of ecological restoration practice. More emphasis on ecological restoration in landscape architecture education is needed.

Sue Ann Alleger, who graduated with a Master’s of Landscape Architecture degree from Temple University, then reiterating the importance of dual training in landscape architecture and ecological restoration. Alleger outlined how pressures from widespread urbanization, population expansion, and climate change are disrupting environmental systems. In this context, she felt ecological restoration should play a part in any landscape design. She described how ecological restoration is coupled with design projects at Temple University, from inventory to analysis, concept, and final plan. For example, design projects can involve an extensive site inventory of quantitative and qualitative data, which is plotted and compared to a reference model.

According to Alleger, this kind of technical rigor extends to every stage of a design project at Temple University, integrating ecological science with design at all points. Whether or not Temple’s model of merging landscape architecture and ecological restoration becomes more widespread, further collaboration between these two disciplines will be increasingly important as ecological performance is demanded of our landscapes.

This post is by Jared Green, Editor, The Dirt, and Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters Green Roof / Rooflite (2) Andrew Hayes. Capstone Restoration Design Project / Temple University, (3) ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center. MSI Design / Image credit: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography

SITES Certifies Eight More Projects

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The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) has announced eight new projects that have achieved certification under the nation’s most comprehensive rating system for the sustainable design, construction, and maintenance of built landscapes. These projects, as part of a group of 150 projects participating in an extensive, two-year pilot program, have applied the 2009 SITES guidelines and met the requirements for pilot certification.

The newly certified projects are Blue Hole Regional Park in Wimberley, Texas; Harris County WCID 132’s Water Conservation Center in Spring, Texas; American University School for International Service in Washington, D.C.; Bat Cave Draw and Visitor’s Center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, N.M.; Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center at Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.; George “Doc” Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Az.; the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Research Support Facility in Golden, Colo. and Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon, N.Y.

SITES is a partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden. SITES was created to fill a critical need for guidelines and recognition of sustainable landscapes based on their planning, design, construction and maintenance. The voluntary, national rating system and set of performance benchmarks applies to sites with or without buildings.

“The effort and time these projects have spent to field test SITES 2009 guidelines and ensure their site is sustainable is commendable and has been a tremendous resource for informing the development of the SITES v2 Rating System, which will be released later this fall,” said SITES Director Danielle Pieranunzi.

Since June 2010, pilot projects have been testing the 2009 rating system created by dozens of the country’s leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals. The diverse projects represent various types, sizes, and locations as well as budgets. There are now a total of 23 certified pilot projects with more projects continuing to pursue pilot certification until the end of 2014.

A new rating system, SITES v2, will be published this fall, using information gained through the pilot project certification process. The projects certified up to that point will have qualified under the 2009 rating system. It includes 15 prerequisites and 51 additional, flexible credits that add up to 250 points. The credits address areas such as soil restoration, use of recycled materials and land maintenance approaches. Projects can achieve one through four stars by amassing 40, 50, 60 or 80 percent of the 250 points.

The eight newly certified projects each incorporate sustainable features and practices and have received ratings listed below:

Blue Hole Regional Park, One Star, Wimberley, Texas (see image above). A beloved local swimming hole degraded by overuse was transformed into an environmentally sustainable regional park in the Texas Hill Country. The park seeks to strike a balance between preservation of the site and recreational and educational opportunities for users. Sustainable landscape strategies include managing storm- water through the use of rain gardens and cisterns, irrigating recreational fields with treated effluent, minimizing impervious surfaces, protecting trees and endangered species habitat and restoring shoreline. New vegetation is primarily native plantings, and the park features on-site composting.

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Harris County Water Conservation and Improvement District (WCID) 132’s Water Conservation and Demonstration Center, One Star, Houston, Texas. As Texas struggles with water shortages, WCID 132 created a community outreach project dedicated to showing alternative methods for reducing stormwater runoff and demand for potable water. This project transformed an under-used public campus into a series of gardens that educate residents on sustainable water use and landscape strategies. Features illustrate efficient water conservation, stormwater management, and soil-centered practices. Paths and planting areas were built with locally salvaged and reused materials.

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American University School for International Service, Two Stars, Washington, D.C. This entrance plaza is a gathering place for students and faculty that is integrated with a LEED® Gold building to manage 100 percent of stormwater on the site and, as a result, needs no irrigation. The site features a Korean garden with adapted plants, an edible herb garden, an apiary and regional materials. The university has a zero-waste policy that includes recycling and composting landscape clippings and debris and coffee grounds from the student- run coffee shop inside.

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Bat Cave Draw and Visitor’s Center, Two Stars, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, N.M. After finding contaminants from parking lot runoff, including motor oil and antifreeze, in cavern pools, Carlsbad Caverns National Park removed the existing parking area and rehabilitated it to a natural state using vegetation native to the park. All native plants used for the project were grown nearby from locally-genetic stock, and additional work was done to collect and treat runoff from the new parking areas. The park near Carlsbad, N.M., was one of several parks that participated in a National Park Service pilot program to develop monitoring standards for re-vegetation.

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Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
, Two Stars, Mesa Verde National Park, Co. The site-sensitive landscape design surrounding the center reflects the national park’s mission to educate the public about the archeological, biological and physical resources of the park and their interconnectivity. Stormwater from the site is directed through vegetated swales and retention ponds, and the area was re-vegetated with a mix of native and drought tolerant species, meanwhile addressing concerns about wildfires. The site produces 95 percent of its energy from on-site renewable energy sources and uses locally-quarried stone. The building has earned a LEED® Platinum certification.

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George “Doc” Cavalliere Park
, Three Stars, Scottsdale, Ariz. A primary strategy for the park, located on 34 acres of rugged desert terrain, was preserving and restoring its natural resources. The design uses 100 percent native plants, and all existing native trees, cacti and plant communities were preserved in place or salvaged and re-used onsite to restore desert upland and riparian plant communities. The park also incorporates a regional on-site stormwater management system. Other strategies include rainwater collection, permeable paving in parking areas and driveways, high efficiency LED lighting, net-zero energy consumption using a grid-tied 24 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, and exclusive use of high-content recycled steel without industrial finishes.

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National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Research Support Facility, Three Stars, Golden, Co. This federal research laboratory, a former National Guard training facility, consists of a 327-acre government research campus. The Research Support Facility, one of the newest campus additions, has achieved LEED Platinum certification for its innovative building design. The landscape framework for this net-zero energy facility includes establishing natural drainage for stormwater, minimizing impacts on local habitats, protecting habitat through conservation easements, providing hiking trails for staff and community members, using porous paving surfaces, restoring existing prairie and arroyo site features, using on-site  materials for the construction of retaining walls and installing energy efficient lighting. Regional materials and high recycled content were emphasized in the selection of site materials and furnishings.

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Scenic Hudson Long Dock Park
, Three Stars, Beacon, N.Y. This project transformed a 14-acre property on the Hudson River from a degraded, post-industrial brownfield into a major waterfront park that realizes themes of recovery, remediation, reuse and re-engagement. The project returned public access to the river, remediated contaminated soils, rehabilitated degraded wetlands, re-used found materials in innovative ways and restored ecological diversity to upland, wetland and intertidal zones. Features include decks and docks popular with anglers; ADA-accessible paths; areas for picnicking, river gazing, dog-walking, and Frisbee tossing; a kayak pavilion and an outdoor classroom.

Image credits: (1) Blue Hole Regional Park / Tim Campbell, Design Workshop, (2) Harris County Water Conservation and Improvement District (WCID) 132’s Water Conservation and Demonstration Center / Ken Fraser, (3) American University School of International Service / Paul Davis, (4) Bat Cave Draw and Visitor’s Center / NPS, (5) Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center / NPS, (6) George “Doc” Cavalliere Park / Chris Brown, Floor Associates, (7) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Research Support Facility / Robb Williamson, courtesy of RNL, (8) Scenic Hudson Long Dock Park / Reed Hilderbrand LLC

 

Obama Unveils Long-awaited Climate Change Plan

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In a highly anticipated speech at Georgetown University, President Obama unveiled his long-over due plan for tackling climate change. While his plan will only take a small dent out of total emissions worldwide, it’s a step in the right direction. His approach: reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants for the first time, open up more federal lands in order to double wind and solar power capacity, further tighten car and truck fuel efficiency standards, expand the use of renewable energy by the federal government, and support local communities in climate adaptation planning. President Obama punted again on making a decision on the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands, but argued that the project couldn’t move forward if it was found to “exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

President Obama said Americans must prepare for the adverse effects of climate change while also taking advantage of the opportunities found in a move to a cleaner economy and society, namely the chance to spur economic growth and create healthier, more resilient communities. He said more than 20 states and a 1,000 mayors have already moved forward with plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and adapt to changing sea levels and temperatures, but the Capitol’s political class is still stuck in the past. “It’s time for D.C. to catch up with the rest of the country.”

He joked that we no longer have “time for the meeting of the flat earth society,” comparing climate change deniers to those who too long remain unconvinced that the Earth was round. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand” on this one. Indeed, the President said the past 12 out of 15 years have been the hottest ever recorded, as global carbon dioxide emissions have reached record highs. 2012 was actually the hottest single year on record. Average ocean temperatures have reached their highest points, while the Arctic’s ice has shrunk to its smallest size ever.

While “droughts, floods, and extreme storms go back to ancient times,” weather events are becoming more extreme as water levels rise. President Obama said the water in New York harbor is one feet higher than it was a century ago, which made Hurricane Sandy far worse. Temperature changes were also behind the recent destructive dust bowl that hit the Midwest, and the subsequent heavy rains and storms that inundated farmers. This past year, wildfires consumed an area larger than Maryland.

Beyond the effects on human lives and livelihoods, climate change will simply cost a lot more, said President Obama. “Emergency services and disaster relief will cost billions more. How are we going to pay for more expensive fire seasons?” Food costs are also expected to go up with more frequent crop damages. “Americans will be paying for the price of inaction.”

While some environmental and conservation organizations have criticized Obama for not doing enough on the environment, he said progress was made over his first term. The U.S. has managed to further reduce carbon dioxide emissions, recently hitting a 20-year low. “No country has reduced carbon emissions as much as us since 2006.” His administration has doubled wind and solar power, building on investments President George W. Bush made as well. By the middle of the next decade, the Obama administration will have doubled mileage per gallon. The U.S. is now producing more of its own energy, with the rise of destructive hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to get at more natural gas.

Moving forward, President Obama will ask the E.P.A. to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from both new and existing power plants, the first time the U.S. government is doing this. “Right now, there are no federal regulations on carbon from these plants. They can dump for free. It’s not right or safe and needs to stop.” The president said he would take a flexible approach and ask the E.P.A. to “develop standards in an open and transparent way.” Already some states are modernizing how they regulate power plant emissions.

He plans to double again wind and solar energy capacity by asking the department of the Interior to open up more lands. Right now, these renewable energy sources account for about 12-13 percent of current energy production. Given this approach will certainly put conservationists at odds with renewable energy environmentalists, a balanced and sensitive approach will be needed. President Obama also noted that 75 percent of all wind power is now produced in Republican states, creating “tens of thousands of good jobs.” The department of defense will be asked to install gigawatts of new renewable power plants on its properties, enough to power 6 million homes by 2020. “This will equal the power found in 3 million tons of coal.”

There wasn’t much discussion on energy efficiency, other than that administration will push for more stringent energy standards for appliances. He mentioned that buildings account for more than 30 percent of emissions, but didn’t reach out to the design community to ask them to accelerate progress on Architecture 2030 through efforts like LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®). The design and construction industries are making progress on changing practices but green buildings and landscapes still remain a stubbornly small share of the total stock out there.

Speaking of landscapes though, President Obama did seem to make the case for incorporating green infrastructure into the mix when dealing with climate adaptation efforts. “We can reduce the risks of flooding by using natural barriers. Dunes and wetlands can do double duty as storm and flood protection.” Perhaps he’s the first president to make the case for using natural systems to deal with these difficult water challenges. His broader remarks though were about the need for “smarter, more resilient infrastructure,” whether it’s green or grey. As an example, he pointed to a number of communities like Miami Beach, Florida, which have asked the federal government for funds to adapt to climate change by strengthening their infrastructure against storms, flooding, and salt water intrusion. More federal funds will be made available to communities to plan and implement these kinds of projects.

Lastly, while the president said the U.S. is still a leader overseas on climate change (something the Europeans may dispute), his administration can still do more. His administration will push for increasing climate change finance available to developing countries, as part of an effort to put an end to coal plants worldwide, unless there is really no other energy sources available. He wants to promote the use of clean energy technologies through a global free trade agreement, so “more countries can avoid making the same mistakes we did.”

See the full plan.

Image credit: Heidi Petersen / ASLA

Flower Power: The Phipps Conservatory’s New Center for Sustainable Landscapes

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Heralded as one of the Earth’s greenest buildings, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) is the latest addition to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Housed in a Victorian-era glasshouse presented to the city by industrialist Henry Phipps in 1893, the gardens have always strived to lead the country in “green gardening.” Since transforming into a non-profit, Phipps has also been dedicated to building sustainable facilities, including the first LEED-certified visitor center in a public garden; a new tropical forest conservatory, which is the most energy efficient in the world; and the first production greenhouses to be LEED certified, achieving the highest rating of Platinum. Richard V. Piacentini, the Executive Director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, recently visited New York City to discuss the garden’s role in the future of sustainable architecture and living.

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The primary drive behind the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, as Piacentini puts it, is to function “as elegantly and efficiently as a flower.” While the merits of this approach can be questioned, the pure essentials of this poetic gesture are there. The building serves to use every drop of water that lands on its surface and is technically constructed to physically react to various elements of nature. Phipps decided to pursue all three of the highest green architecture and landscape standards: the Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum, and Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) 4-star certification. Meeting these standards is “extremely intense,” as Piacentini put it, but is part of the “Phipps philosophy” that he feels is necessary to retain Phipps’ reputation as stewards of the earth.

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The Living Building Challenge is a philosophy, advocacy tool, and certification program that addresses development at all scales. The seven performance areas are comprised Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty. These goals, as well as those laid out by SITES and LEED were mainly met in conjunction with one another. The CSL is designed to interact with its surroundings as a vital part of its daily operation. As one of the original 150 pilot projects of SITES, it features a “restorative landscape, highlighting native plants and a permaculture demonstration rooftop garden.” Other site features include a stormwater lagoon, a solar powered water distillation system, five rain gardens, porous paving and constructed wetlands that use plants and natural processes to clean wastewater.

Some 14 geothermal wells, earth tubes, locally sourced material and solar orientation are just a handful of the features that make this construction so well executed. However, in obtaining points for LEED certification, Piacentini was not satisfied with simply scoring. After having discussed the virtues of the CSL, Piacentini nearly forgot to add one of his most proud achievements of the project. In line with the idea of locally sourced materials, Phipps decided that all of the labor, design, and execution would come from locally sourced talent. Phipps looked within Pennsylvania to select the lead design team. The architect, the Design Alliance, is from Pittsburgh and the landscape architect, Andropogon Associates, hails from Philadelphia.

After the selection of local horticulturists, permaculturists, engineers, contractors and architects, a number of design charettes ensued with representatives of the Phipps organization. The idea of the charettes was to produce a dialogue among the talented pool of professionals selected to work on the project. The result: today, the CSL offers demonstration gardens, environmental education, interpretive signage, interactive kiosks, a green gallery, classrooms, and various outdoor environs for visitors and staff to enjoy. These ideas were products of the early discussions between the designers and, according to Piacentini, are at the “core of [the Phipps] philosophy.”

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“A facilitated, integrative design approach” is how Phipps approaches the challenges of building in today’s environment. “The CSL is the ultimate expression of our systems-based way of thinking and acting, to blur the lines between the built and natural environments.”

This guest post is by Tyler Silvestro, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY) and writer for
The Architect’s Newspaper.

Image credits: Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes / Alexander Denmarsh Photography