April 19, 2001

LEED and the landscape architect

  • New emphasis on sustainable design puts first things first.

    For landscape architects, sustainable design is simply good design — guided by strong and tenacious environmental goals.

    The reason sustainable design or “green” design is so familiar to landscape architects is that it is a natural extension of their practice. It takes careful site and resource analysis along with site planning and design to make the most of given conditions.

    The green revolution is one of the best friends landscape architects have had in a long time. It provides a great framework for clients and design partners to work, and a common language. It provides an environmental foundation from which to build credible and effective designs, and encourages alternate ways of approaching elements and systems.

    While other disciplines look for alternative technologies, alternative materials and hope for open-minded clients, landscape architects know that many costs and impacts can be entirely avoided if a site’s environmental conditions are considered from the start.

    Water shortages, fish versus power generation, high costs of electricity and gas, toxic buildings, diminishing forest resources — these headline-making problems say everything about our region’s next headaches. We are aware that we don’t fully understand the consequences of our consumptive habitats and demands, but we know that the greenhouse effect is now scientific truth, not speculation.

    With this dawning awareness, some are taking action in articulating and codifying sustainable design.

    LEED tracks goals

    The best known example is the Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. LEED sets specific standards for achieving certain levels of sustainability.

    Of course this is all pretty new, and needs to be tested. But it is a tremendous start, especially when both public and private institutions take the program to heart.

    The National Park Service, for example, has adopted sustainable goals and standards for the entire park system. Significant among them is that site analysis is now a required element in the sustainability equation, to insure that the right use goes into the right place. Site analysis, even long before Ian McHarg wrote “Design with Nature,” has been cornerstone in the landscape architect’s services.

    Over the past few years, the city of Seattle has also adopted the LEED program and named a “silver” standard as a target threshold for sustainability in its new buildings, programs and facilities. The city went on to develop specific supplements to the LEED program, making it more relevant to the local climate and resource issues facing the region.

    The implications of this to the practice of landscape architecture are beginning to become clear: LEED is ineffective unless it is applied as a fundamental part of the programming, design, life-cycle analysis and budgeting process. Sustainable goals are an integral part of every design discussion and every budget discussion, and they and remain longer on the table for consideration when LEED is applied.

    This is important because green design does not always mean less expensive in the short term. Its true value is often felt over the long term in reduced water consumption, reduced demand on non renewable resources, lowered energy costs, reduced impacts associated eco-friendly maintenance and operational practices. Even though good green design is basically the “right thing” to do, this is often not enough to overcome the realities of capital budgets.

    SB&A is involved in two LEED projects. One is urban and the other is a rural forest site. In both projects, the city requires a silver LEED rating. There are other landscape architecture firms who are also actively designing with sustainable principles in their work, and getting good results.

    Bridging the budget

    The immediate issue is budget. As typically budgeted, a landscape improvement does not consider solutions that arise from the civil engineering disciplines, the long term effects of shade trees, the cross-cutting reduction of operations budgets versus capital budgets. The typical budget includes trees and shrubs to meet a minimum required open space standard only.

    A broader view of the project—including the building, utilities, landscape and sensitive areas—is new territory for most other disciplines. The broader view crosses departmental budgets, because decisions in one area may accrue to the long-term benefit of another department. The cross-budget process itself is new territory for landscape architects and everyone else.

    Some broad benefits involve education of the owner/client. The staff allocation for landscape maintenance has fallen to near-nothing in favor of acres of asphalt paving. After all, paving is easier to maintain than a significant shade tree.

    Yet the tree is doing many times more work for the district, the teachers, the children and the community. It is removing pollutants from the air, it is shading the building and protecting it from direct winds. It is treating and managing storm water, protecting the children from exposure to the sun and providing birds a roost. Important financial decisions are still being made with a single focus: lower maintenance costs.

    One way landscape architects can insure that sustainable design remains a fundamental part of the development process is to leverage its components into producing multiple benefits or outcomes—in other words, to apply a form of value-added design to the mix. For example, turn water quality facilities into urban habitat, educational sites or cultural art elements. Reuse treated water from the treatment facility for non-potable uses such as golf course irrigation and automobile cleaning. In this way, we can add more value to the final accounting.

    Too many important financial decisions are still being made with a single focus: lower maintenance costs.

    Landscape architects participate in the dialogue by bringing sensitivity in environmental and habitat issues to the developer’s table, alongside the engineering and architectural disciplines and jurisdictional requirements. No longer is it adequate to call the landscape architect to “shrub up” the project at the very end of the planning and design cycle.

    Building sites are being selected to respect the environment and existing habitat conditions rather than simply the architectural presence, or the shortest utility corridor to the street. The result is a more whole environment for humans. The landscape architect’s land and ecosystem-based knowledge is now more useful than ever.

    In this new model, the design and construction disciplines have a new, positive objective: to tax the earth as little as possible while achieving the objectives of the project.

    The city of Seattle has formed an Office of Sustainability and an environmental management plan, because officials recognize the tremendous cost to the environment city operations can be. The Environmental Management Oversight Panel, which consists of department heads, key corporations and citizens who monitor how the city is addressing its own sustainability initiatives, is working on new ideas and information. This office is now revising its goals and objectives to more fully address, track, measure and report the city’s progress. It will play an important advocacy role for sustainable measures in the future.

    We, as landscape architects, have a responsibility to educate, communicate and advocate for sustainable design decisions in both the short and long term. With LEED, we have a new opportunity to do that.

    Susan Black is principal of Susan Black & Associates. She is also a member of the Environmental Management Oversight Panel for the city of Seattle.

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