A Site Plan

by | Nov 1, 2010 | Conservation

THERE ARE MANY GOOD REASONS to create more ecologically sustainable landscapes: water shortages, energy and irrigation costs, water and air pollution, the loss of native plants.

Until recently, very little guidance and few criteria existed for creating landscapes that could protect scarce and sensitive resources. To address that need, the Wildflower Center partnered with the U.S. Botanic Garden and the American Society of Landscape Architects to create the nation’s first guidelines and rating system for sustainable landscapes: the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™). This fall, the initiative launched the new Landscape for Life™ website and workbook which simplify SITES for homeowners. Wildflower Center Executive Director Susan Rieff, says, “We have always felt that for the Sustainable Sites Initiative to have real impact beyond large-scale commercial and government projects, we would also need to offer homeowners practical information about how to make changes in their yards and gardens. Landscape for Life is our approach to making that information widely and easily available.”

In this article, we illustrate the kind of principles central to Landscape for Life with four residential projects that participate in the two-year pilot study that tests the SITES rating system. The experience of these homeowners will help inform the final version of the SITES guidelines and rating system.

A Manor Of Speaking

Pilot Project: EcoManor
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Sustainable Focus: Vegetation, stormwater runoff, materials reuse, soil

Some people recycle anything they can get their hands on – even grinding up leftover wood, paper and drywall from their home remodel to use as soil amendment in their garden. Laura Turner Seydel, daughter of environmental philanthropist Ted Turner, and her husband, environmental attorney Rutherford Seydel followed LEED® green building standards to do so safely as their home became the first over 5,000 square feet and the first in the Southeast to be certified LEED® platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The long-time advocates for green living chose to renovate their house in Tudor style without leaving a mansion-sized footprint on the earth. Inside the luxury home are a number of cutting-edge – even plant-based – sustainable features, but the sustainable one-third acre landscape and green roof make EcoManor a perfect candidate for SITES™.

At EcoManor, a small recirculating water feature was created in the rear garden to provide habitat for frogs, turtles, birds and butterflies. Water from the rainwater harvesting system fills the pond, and power is supplemented to the pumps from the home’s solar panels. Native plants include Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens), marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis) and cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana).

Georgia-based Ed Castro Landscape showed the family how to integrate the outdoor native landscape with the built environment using a minimal lawn sown with a native fescue seed in sunny areas where grass is more sustainable, water retention features, native plants for beauty and wildlife habitat, and a green roof over the garage.

Concerning the green roof that is visible from their family room, Turner Seydel says, “We wanted to bring nature closer to our home and to our site line, rather than look out our family room at the roof of the garage. Plus, the green roof keeps the garage much cooler in the summertime.”

Indeed, by reducing reflective heat through native plantings and minimal hardscape the green roof has a cooling effect. Rainwater is also captured on the roof and directed to the rainwater harvesting system. Ed Castro explained how other features minimize the amount of stormwater that leaves the home and use it for irrigation.

For example, the firm created a series of terraces where there was a natural slope in the landscape. The terraced effect slows down the flow of stormwater to reduce the amount discharged into storm sewers. What would have been a patio is planted with native sedum and other plants that also slow water flowing off the site and cleanse it to reduce pollution to nearby streams. Captured stormwater and greywater from sinks indoors are used to irrigate the lawn and native plantings like red maple (Acer rubrum), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), blueberry (Vaccinium darrowii) and inkberry (Ilex glabra). Four raised beds of organic vegetable and fruit plants are Turner Seydel’s favorite feature. Composting helps make sure the family’s food doesn’t end up in the landfill, and chickens help aerate and fertilize the lawn. The native plantings helped earn the home another certification, as a National Wildlife Federation backyard habitat.

“It was important to me to choose plants so that something would be in bloom at all times for the different pollinators and for cutting for native floral arrangements for inside the house,” says Turner Seydel. And these pollinators – and other wildlife – love to visit. A small recirculating water feature perfect for a dip on a hot, summer day and blooms during every season put wildlife in the lap of luxury.

Before & After

Pilot Project: Ash Creek House
Location: Portland, Oregon near the city’s Ash Creek
Sustainable focus: Soil, water, native vegetation and materials

Walker Leiser, new business development, DeSantis Landscaping, calls this SITES pilot project a good example of what can be done for fairly little money. Small budget aside, the landscape still did so much – particularly to reduce the amount of irrigation needed – that it helped the property achieve LEED® platinum status from the U.S. Green Building Council. A rain garden retains water high up on the landscape, and storm water from the residence’s roof is detained and overflow sent to the landscape.

Leiser explains how they turned a “dilapitated garage into a treasure.” The garage was removed, the wood recycled to make a community compost bin and the concrete broken up and used as stepping stones in the landscape. Where the garage once stood, river rocks now surround native and adapted plants chosen for vibrant colors and deep root structure to help them tolerate drought and promote evapotranspiration.

The biggest labor of love was reclaiming a 7,000 square foot backyard covered in invasive plants. The answer was to mow the area before applying sheet mulch, made by overlapping cardboard on top of a thick layer of humus. The sheet mulch process is to mow rather than spray existing grass before applying trace amounts of organic micronutrients and a thin layer of compost. Next, landscapers covered this with overlapping cardboard refrigerator boxes which were watered before adding another thin layer of compost, and a leaf mold full of micronutrients that can hold up to 500 percent of its weight in water. “That will hold water if there’s a flood from the adjacent creek,” Leiser says. The backyard is now home to planted elderberry, adapted dwarf dogwood, currants and redtwig dogwoods and is the focal point of the homeowners’ view from inside the house.

Like the traditional New Orleans “shotgun” house, the FLOAT House sits on a raised four-foot base, preserving the community’s vital front porch culture. The state-of-the-art home generates its own power, minimizes resource consumption, collects its own water and features native plants in the landscape as well as pervious pavement.

Making It Right

Pilot Project: FLOAT House
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
Sustainable focus: Sustainably designed affordable housing with features that include zero stormwater runoff, buoyant foundations that float with rising water levels, native vegetation, pervious pavement

Actor Brad Pitt started the Make It Right® Foundation in 2007 to help residents of New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward rebuild their lives and homes after Hurricane Katrina. Rebuilding meant rethinking what it means to live in a floodplain and building homes able to withstand the next hurricane. Morphosis Architects, under the direction of renowned architect and UCLA distinguished Professor Thom Mayne, designed the first floating house permitted in the United States to rise vertically on guide posts, securely floating up to twelve feet as water levels rise.

One floating house and 50 houses built to the LEED®-platinum standard have been built so far. Thirty more are under construction. As if a house that floats weren’t enough, these homes are packed with sustainable features, evidenced by each receiving LEED® platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. In the landscape, attempts were made to minimize aggressive non-native turf grass and to achieve zero stormwater runoff.

Coyote Beautiful

Pilot Project: Coyote House
Location: Santa Barbara, CA
Sustainable focus: Water reuse, vegetation, materials

If it’s not a native, locally adapted plant, then you can eat it,” says landscape architect Susan Van Atta of plants in the landscape at her Santa Barbara home. Natives are planted according to exposure: on the north side are woodland plants, on the sunny south side a lawn of native bentgrass (Agrostis pallens). Non-native thyme (Thymus sp.) is a groundcover; non-native artichoke (Cynara sp.) chosen for its form.

She and her husband, architect Ken Radtkey, wanted to achieve a home very unified with the landscape, and two green roofs were integral to that.

“The green roofs alone have so many benefits that aren’t well-known and that are important to our region,” says Van Atta. “For example, the succulents on one roof are fire-resistant in a high fire-hazard area. Green roofs also provide not only temperature insulation but insulation from noisy, intense nighttime winds that are common here.”

Other landscape choices were made according to local environmental concerns. Twelve existing eucalyptus trees – a fire hazard – were removed and used as lumber for garage doors, building trim, windowsills and even a dining table and bookshelves. Sandstone boulders were salvaged from another site to build stairs and walls.

Van Atta – whose landscape architecture firm is Van Atta Associates, Inc. – calls the LEED® platinum Coyote House a “big lab” that allows her to adopt sustainable practices that she has encouraged clients to try for years. The family composts, and chickens live in a chicken tractor and will roam the grounds.

And not everything was a big investment like the EPIC® rainwater system that acts as a distributed cistern while keeping the native lawn irrigated with minimum loss from evaporation. “Some things are simple, like putting an arbor across from glass doors. Anything you can do with microclimate makes a bigger difference than people can believe.”

Landscape For Life

Right now, the pilot project study is testing the Sustainable Sites™ guidelines and rating system so that within two years landscape professionals can use them to create sustainable landscapes that can be certified by SITES™ in the way builders use LEED® standards to create LEED® – certified buildings.

But where does this leave homeowners who want to harvest their own rainwater, stop using pesticides or replace non-native plants with native plants? They won’t have a way to certify their landscape just yet, but they can view Landscape for Life™, a new workbook and online resource at www.landscapeforlife.org. There will soon be a curriculum for use by botanic gardens and arboreta to educate homeowners about sustainable landscapes.

Holly Shimizu is the executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, which is a partner in SITES™. She says that homeowners now have an accessible and free resource in Landscape for Life. “If you hire a landscape designer, for example, you can ask for these things”. You can say, “I want all native plants or I want to reuse my rainwater. Or, you can find a simple way to do it yourself.”

Landscape for Life™ is based on the principles of SITES™ which is the result of four years of rigorous research and collaboration from experts in the fields of soil, hydrology, materials, vegetation and human health. See landsapeforlife.org for more information.