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LEEDing the Way Into the Future

ROBIN WESTMILLER | Eco-Green Sustainable Landscapes

Environmental awareness may feel like a new concept, but the green seeds were actually planted more than forty years ago. Responding to what he perceived to be widespread environmental degradation, the then Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson called for an environmental teach-in, or Earth Day, to be celebrated on April 22, 1970, to raise awareness and help save our planet.

Thousands turned out to celebrate the Earth that day, but very few took that celebration past the first year or so. Now, with new concerns over carbon footprints and CO2 emissions, the concept of stopping environmental degradation has grown into a full-blown revolution. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for those in the landscape industry.

The green revolution is one of the best friends landscape contractors have had in a long time. When you think about it, “green” and landscapes go hand-in-hand. Grass is green, leaves are green. . . . Contrary to Kermit’s lament, it is quite easy bein’ green, especially in today’s eco-friendly world.

While some people, like Senator Nelson, will naturally do what is right when it comes to the environment, others need more incentive.

For landscape professionals, and the building industry, this incentive came in the form of an innovative program called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.)

The program was designed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1998 to provide a way to promote building design to the best environmental standards. LEED certification verifies that a building and some parts of the landscape were built using specific strategies aimed at improving performance in areas such as energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, stormwater design and reduced heat-island effect.

LEED verifies that a building is “green” under seven categories: Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Innovation & Design Process and Regional Priority Credits. The levels are based on points that are awarded for the environmental design, construction, and operation of a building.

Under the LEED certification program, a building is rated as either certified, silver, gold, or platinum. The certified level requires a minimum of 40 points; silver requires 50 points; gold is 60 points; and platinum requires 80 or more.

When it was first established, LEED certification gave only one point each in the five areas of water-efficient landscape. It was only recently that the total points doubled, from five to 10. With the rise in residential LEED properties, landscape irrigation is also being counted in the Innovation in Design category.

Many federal, state, and local governments and school districts have adopted various types of LEED initiatives and incentives. Program incentives include tax credits, tax breaks, density bonuses, reduced fees, priority or expedited permitting, free or reducedcost technical assistance, grants and low-interest loans.

While LEED was specifically designed to certify a commercial structure “green” by installing energy-saving features such as low energy lighting and water-efficient plumbing, there are many opportunities for landscape contractors to add true “green” to the mix. One way is by installing living walls and green roofs to the structure, which can easily add extra points to any project.

“In some cases, developers are able to use walls and roofs as part of their green space on their initial plans,” says Greg Garner, president, ELT EasyGreen, Brantford, Ontario, Canada. “An exterior living wall can help a building achieve an increased level of energy efficiency performance. The green wall provides additional insulation, reducing heating and cooling requirements of a building—which cuts down on electricity that is usually used for air conditioning and heating.”

Green roofs can reduce roof temperatures from summertime highs of up to 180% to less than 80%. In addition, green roofs can be designed with drought-resistant plants, with graywater systems directed onto the roof to irrigate, so as to conserve potable water. Condensation from air conditioners can be diverted to help irrigate the roof.

As an added benefit, runoff from the green roof is filtered by the vegetation and soil media, so the runoff can be used to irrigate other landscaping features without pretreatment.

“A green roof will hold most of a two-inch rain event and prevent stormwater runoff. Once the earth becomes saturated, it drains down and exits the building through the roof drain and not onto the pavement,” Garner says. “The infrastructure isn’t impacted nearly as much because the water is absorbed into the roof and, in most cases, doesn’t even reach the street.”


For LEED, a few extra points make all the difference between silver, gold or platinum

When every point counts, finding creative ways to integrate landscape components and irrigation methods into the equation can really add up. Nowhere on the LEED scorecard is this opportunity greater then under the Water Efficiency category, primarily because the word “landscaping” is part of the title.

Of all the points available for LEED certification, four are directly associated with water-efficient landscaping and water-use reduction. Water sustainability can easily be incorporated into the initial design process of a new project, or added later. Opportunities to offer a retrofit for a LEED redevelopment project are endless. When all the energy-saving components— both inside and outside—work together, achieving a platinum certification is not as difficult as it may at first seem. It only takes finding professionals who are knowledgeable enough to know how to work together to accomplish this.

Ivy Munion, CEO of ISC Group, Livermore, California, says that a large part of a successful LEED project is the synergy between the various components. “The best projects are those that bring everyone on board before the project begins. The developers schedule a meeting so we can all discuss how to obtain the most LEED points for the entire project, then we all work together to achieve that goal.”

For LEED, a few extra points can make all the difference between silver, gold or platinum certification.

In a highly competitive industry, “going for the gold” might not be enough.

“There are some developers who do look to the landscape and the irrigation for some of those extra points, and our company makes it clear from the start that we can make that happen under the Innovation and Design Process category,” Munion says. “We show the project manager how the use of high-efficiency drip, micro and subsurface systems can reduce the amount of water required to irrigate a given landscape, thereby reducing water use by 30 to 50 percent.”

“In addition, climate-based controls, such as moisture sensors with rain shut-offs and ‘smart’ ET controllers can further reduce demands, by shutting off the controller when it rains and allowing rainfall to supply a portion of the irrigation needs. Including these methods can add a few more of those coveted points to their scorecard.”

John Reffel, III, president at JLS Landscape & Sprinkler, Inc., Sedalia, Colorado, has seen an enormous increase in the communication he now has with commercial developers and residential builders who are constructing green buildings and LEED-certified residences.

And the added information he received by going through the course has helped change his business direction.

“Since I became a LEED-Accredited Professional, our plant material selection for projects is different from what they were before. Now, we use drought-tolerant plants to reduce water use wherever we can. We also try to plant trees to shade areas and reduce the heat-island effect, and also eliminate nonporous surfaces. All of this added into the project scorecard points can make a difference in the project’s certification level.”

About two years ago, Angelia Woodside Beckstrom, owner of Angeffects in Mission Viejo, California, found out about the LEED- AP program and decided to sign up for the course. Even though LEED wasn’t well known back then, she

understood that water conservation and landscape were intimately integrated and she knew that earning the LEED-AP credential would be worth more to her, professionally, once LEED took off.

“There are many LEED-specific projects that are shaping up all the time,” Beckstrom said. “I network in the circles of other professionals who work on LEED projects. It has paid off for me when clients are looking to retrofit their landscape for water conservation. They know what a LEED- AP is and also know the value of that credential, so they come to me for the project because I’m a LEED-AP,” Beckstrom said.

With more and more federal and state municipalities looking to implement LEED, there has been an increased interest in obtaining LEED credentials. So much so that the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) now has several different LEED-AP categories, all of which first require a LEED Green Associate credential as a pre-requisite to taking the other LEED certification exams.


We have to move to a design/build/maintenance expectation where our landscapes are actually producing the resources that our culture needs to survive

LEED Green Associate credential denotes basic knowledge of green design, construction and operations.

Debra Wheeler is a LEED Green Associate, and project assistant supervisor at Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Missouri. She felt that earning the LEED credential was necessary for her to be taken seriously in the marketplace, and she intends to continue her courses to obtain one of the other five AP accreditations. In the short time that LEED has been around, it has shown to be a very successful certification program, with increasing popularity for commercial as well as residential development.

Until a few years ago, there wasn’t any way to certify or even evaluate the performance of our landscapes. In 2005, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas, Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden partnered together to establish the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) to “promote sustainable land development and management practices that can apply to sites with and without buildings.”

“Our organizations have been working together to develop LEED-equivalent standards for landscapes in terms of performance associated with sustainable metrics,” said Steve Windhager, director of the Sustainable Sites Initiative. “SITES is a separate undertaking than LEED. Many of our credits are going to be incorporated into future standards of LEED, but it will also be available for stand-alone landscapes like parks that may have no building construction whatsoever.”

Windhager believes that both buildings and landscapes can do a great deal more than just focus on water and energy conservation. “The way we’ve practiced landscape design and maintenance over the last century has emphasized appearance, but nothing for eco-system services. We have to move to a design/build/maintenance expectation where our landscapes are actually producing the resources that our culture needs to survive. It’s that simple. We can’t accept just conservation of resources anymore,” he said.

Where participation in LEED for landscape and irrigation professionals is only a fraction of the entire project scorecard, for SITES, it will be the complete project. But there’s no reason to wait another two years for the SITES credentials to be available. All 233 pages of the SITES performance guidelines can be found on the organization’s website: http://www.sustainablesites .org.

Following these guidelines will give you a strong competitive advantage even before the finished initiative program rolls out in 2013.

The landscape industry is moving into the future. The only question you need ask is if you’re going to follow or you’re going to LEED.

 
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