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Going Green: Sustainable Landscape Design

ELIZABETH LEXAU | Landscape

Landscape professionals have a major role to play. Among other things, sustainable landscaping can help protect habitat, contribute to stormwater management, reduce fossil fuel usage and conserve water. Across the country, green industry providers are lending their efforts in countless ways. Green roofs and walls, rainwater catchment systems, rain gardens, native plantings and no-mow zones are just a few examples.

Those with expertise in sustainable landscaping are in high demand among developers, architects, engineers and homeowners. They are playing a valuable role in bettering the environment while at the same time boosting their own business and the image of the entire industry.

A booming interest

Interest in green building and sustainable design is not exactly new. But in the last few years, a movement that started like a slow march has grown into a virtual stampede. The stampede has been spurred on in great part by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Rating Systems. LEED has provided a mechanism for evaluating buildings for sustainable design, construction and operations using a number of measurable criteria. It has become an industry standard for the identification of high performance green buildings.

The program includes rating systems for many categories of construction, including new commercial and institutional projects, existing buildings and new homes. A pilot LEED rating system even focuses on neighborhood developments.

LEED certification has become a desirable, distinctive and marketable “seal of approval” for many types of buildings. Because there are several places where landscaping practices can increase a project’s LEED rating, professionals who have experience in these practices are frequently selected to work on projects seeking certification.

LEED isn’t the only force behind the interest in green building. At every level, people are seeking ways to reduce the impact their buildings have on the environment. And often, they’re spending more money to do so.

“This is an amazing open market that has barely been tapped,” says Laurie Broccolo, president of Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care in Rochester, New York. Broccolo’s company started as a lawn care service founded on integrated pest management principles. As the company expanded into landscaping, Broccolo found sustainable design to be a natural fit. “I used natives because there were fewer pest problems,” says Broccolo. “I promoted no-mow zones using creeping red fescue and sheep’s fescue, species that can be planted and left alone.”

But three years ago, she started using her expertise in new ways. “A large developer was putting in a subdivision near sensitive wetlands. The project included a beautiful meandering 1,000' stream to capture runoff. I was chosen to work on the project because of my environmental reputation. They wanted a landscaper who understood why we needed to do everything the engineers had spec’d.”

8.jpgThe system was soon tested. “We had to plan for that 100-year storm and we got it,” says Broccolo. “The stormwater blew everything out but by the time it got to the wetlands, the silt was minimal. The Army Corps of Engineers was very impressed.”

Broccolo’s understanding of the environmental sensitivity of the project and her focus on quality control to make sure the design was implemented successfully helped launch a new facet to her business. Now, in addition to the wide array of traditional lawn, landscaping, and tree services her company offers, it also designs and installs native meadows, rain gardens, green roofs and other environmentally sustainable projects. Her expertise has been called on for projects as far away as Arizona, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Positive impact

A longtime concern for the environment was one of the primary reasons Richard Heller was first drawn to a career in landscaping. “I felt that this was the best way for me to have a positive impact on the environment,” says Heller, now CEO of Greener by Design, a landscape design, construction and maintenance firm in Pelham, New York. Ten years ago, Heller was asked to build a garden directly on the roof membrane of a building. It was his first green roof and it helped solidify his commitment to making a difference for the environment— not just for the environment of the clients he served but for everyone. A green roof significantly reduces and slows stormwater runoff by capturing precipitation and holding it in the root zone of the vegetated cover. It conserves energy by moderating temperatures on the roof and surrounding areas. It also protects the roofing system itself, extending the life of the roof membrane.

Green roofs are especially valued in urban areas for reducing the heat island effect. This condition is created by elevated air temperatures around urban areas where paving, buildings and other structures have replaced natural land cover. Success with green roofs led Heller to examine other ways his company could have a positive environmental impact. “I said it’s time to take a stand. I’m going to commit myself to running a sustainable business.”

In addition to being leaders in New York’s green roof industry, Heller’s company focuses on building soil culture, using only organic fertilizers and non-chemical weed controls. Their designs incorporate native plants wherever possible, emphasize using the right plant for the right place, and include low voltage and LED energy-efficient lighting and water-conserving irrigation systems.

“We have a huge opportunity to reposition ourselves as friends of environmentalists, not enemies,” says Heller. “We need to reframe our practices to the public. Environmental problems are not going away. I think more landscapers need to get on this path because it will eventually become the only game in town.”

Heller says that in the realm of landscaping, environmental concern has only begun to emerge among consumers and will just grow from here. “The truth is that the majority of consumers haven’t yet brought this concern to their landscape, but they will. I’ve banked my company on the idea that this would happen and we are growing. More and more customers are coming to us specifically because we are a chemical-free company.” Heller acknowledges that there is always more to be done and that it’s important to be realistic about the choices you make. “Never tell your public that what you’re doing is perfect. You can always look for ways to improve your business and make it more sustainable. That’s why LEED is so important. It may not be perfect, but it’s realistic and it’s doable.”

Taking the lead

Dean DeSantis, president of DeSantis Landscapes, Salem, Oregon, agrees that green industry professionals have a leadership role to play. “As an industry, we’re on the front lines of care for the environment. A case can be made that landscape contractors are the true environmentalists. But we have to do two things: first, tell the story of what we’re doing right. Second, look at our current practices, question them and improve on the ones we can.”

Several years ago, DeSantis’ company started its EarthSense program. They converted to all organic fertilizers, significantly reduced their pesticide use and started running their trucks and all diesel engines on biodiesel. They educate clients on how they can use fewer chemicals and conduct seminars on designing and maintaining more sustainable landscapes. They even have their own 100-gallon compost tea brewer. These practices helped them to become the first commercial landscape contractor certified under Oregon’s Eco-Logical Business program.

“It’s been fun to see how many people comment on what we’re doing,” says DeSantis. “We put bumper stickers on our vehicles to say that they’re running on biodeisel. We’ve received calls out of the blue from people who say, ‘I just saw your truck and I’m calling to say thanks.’”

DeSantis is clear that this commitment is as good for business as it is for the environment. “For me, it’s not just about hugging trees and doing the right thing for the environment. It’s a business case as well. Reducing resource use reduces waste and saves costs. Since we’ve implemented these practices, we’ve achieved record profits, both from increased sales and reduced resource usage.”

One of DeSantis’ projects, the Pringle Creek Community in Salem, received the first National Association of Homebuilders Green Land Development of the Year Award. “It has the largest array of permeable asphalt in the country,” says DeSantis. “We installed more than 80 rain gardens at each intersection.

There is no typical storm drain system that pipes stormwater away. Instead, rain that falls on site stays on site.” These are just a few of the resourceefficient, low-impact technologies used in the development. “There really is opportunity here,” says DeSantis. “I sometimes see resistance to these ideas, a defensive posture against ‘activists’. This is not beneficial to industry from my perspective. People want to address these issues. There is great opportunity for early adopters.” One of the primary ways green industry professionals can have a positive impact is in irrigation efficiency. In fact, LEED lists Water Efficiency among the five key performance areas recognized in its rating systems.

Alternative water sources are one area of growth, according to Brian Vinchesi, principal with Irrigation Consulting, Inc., based in Boston, Massachusetts and Charlotte, North Carolina. His company has designed numerous irrigation systems that are partially or fully supplied by alternative sources, such as rainwater and stormwater. “This is simply the sustainable thing to do these days,” says Vinchesi. “The days of using only potable water for irrigation are going away quickly. If you’re going to be in the irrigation business, you have to be looking at these systems. And you have to be looking at ways to use less water or you’ll be regulated out of business.”

Designing for water conservation has long been a key policy of I.S.C. Group Inc., a Livermore, Californiabased irrigation design and water management firm. The company promotes reliable technology that maximizes water savings, such as smart controllers, moisture sensors, check valves, matched precipitation heads and irrigation layouts that eliminate waste. In recent years, the company has also been involved in building water-conserving elements into structures seeking LEED certification.

7.jpgAmong these elements are rainwater collection systems and even gray water systems. “Gray water is a hot thing right now,” says Ivy Munion, principal with I.S.C. Group. “This was recently approved on a state level. A lot of counties don’t have permitting processes in place yet, but we are starting to see some of these systems making their way into our designs.”

But systems don’t have be exotic or use alternative sources to be efficient. With today’s smarter irrigation technology, all systems can be designed to dramatically reduce water usage. “These are the kinds of things that can separate you from the competition,” says Vinchesi. “It shows that you are cutting edge, that you stay up to date. It shows that you’re green and not just interested in making a buck, but in doing it right. It’s also just good for business. If you practice efficient irrigation, you’ll be using higher-end products and that will make your profit margin higher.”

‘Doing the green thing’ in landscaping and irrigation makes sense from so many angles. Sustainable practices can add a new level of meaning to the term ‘green industry.’

 
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