Thursday, November 5, 2009

Architects from coast to coast are “greening” their buildings to attract tenants and higher rents while projecting an image of environmental responsibility. For almost a decade, they have followed national standards set by the United States Green Building Council to gain a seal of approval known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

This certification recognizes that new construction or remodeling follows an approved checklist of green features, including energy-efficient systems, environmentally friendly materials and proximity to public transportation.

Following this LEED, landscape architects and designers are establishing their own benchmarks for green spaces.

The first such rating system for the design, construction and maintenance of landscapes, with or without buildings, is being announced today by the U.S. Botanic Garden, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The three organizations spent the past four years consulting 60 environmental experts, scientists and designers to develop the voluntary standards.

Called the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the $2-million effort is intended to boost the environmental benefits of nearly every type of landscape, from suburban backyards and urban streetscapes to public parks and college campuses.

“It’s aimed at finding better ways of interacting with the land,” says Susan K. Rieff, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “The great fallacy is that green grass means a healthy landscape. It may require a lot of harmful chemicals, emissions from machinery and lots of water to keep it green.”

Ms. Rieff and her colleagues hope to change the great American tradition of manicured front lawns and impervious concrete sidewalks. They see the potential of landscapes to provide “ecosystem services” - removing carbon from the atmosphere through vegetation, lowering summer cooling bills by shading buildings with trees and conserving water by planting drought-tolerant species.

As to how they will rank the country’s diverse terrain of forests, plains and deserts, Holly H. Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden says, “The guidelines are broad enough to be applicable nationwide.”

Part of the initiative’s mission is educating the nation about little-known sustainable-landscape practices. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the American Society of Landscape Architects, 96 percent of U.S. adults have instituted some type of sustainable or energy-efficient measure at home, but just 58 percent use energy or water-saving techniques in their yard or garden.

The sponsors of the initiative admit the costs of greening the landscape may be higher than conventional practices, but they say sustainable elements will save money over the long term. “A lot of cities are raising storm-water fees because of pollution,” says Nancy Somerville, chief executive officer of the landscape architects society. “By retaining the bulk of storm water on the site as encouraged in our guidelines, you can reduce those costs.”

To test their recommendations, the landscape groups are soliciting 75 to 150 outdoor designs of at least 2,000 square feet (go to for more information). They hope to enlist a third-party organization such as the Green Building Certification Institute, which oversees the LEED system, to rate eligible spaces according to a 250-point scale.

As the pilot projects are studied over the next two years, the guidelines will be fine-tuned and issued in final form in 2012.

According to Ms. Shimizu, Washington already has several outstanding sustainable landscapes, including a garden at Sidwell Friends School and the National Cathedral’s Olmsted Woods. The U.S. Botanic Garden is building a garden on its grounds to show how a landscape can clean rainwater; it will be unveiled in January.

By 2012, the coalition of landscape groups hopes some of its sustainable practices will be incorporated into green rating systems for buildings.

“The initiative can definitely help to improve the site and landscape components of LEED,” says Deon Glaser, a manager with the U.S. Green Building Council. At the same time, she says, the downturn in the economy means fewer buildings and landscapes, “so it will take a little longer for the initiative to change the status quo of development.”

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