What LEED Did for Buildings, Sustainable SITES Will Do for Landscapes—and Not a Moment Too Soon

As a new administration took residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this year, environmental scientists frantically moved U.S. climate data onto private servers amid fears the data might vanish under the Trump presidency. Noting his appointment of Cabinet members who have questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus around climate change, The Washington Post reported Trump “could try to alter or dismantle parts of the federal government’s repository of data on everything from rising sea levels to the number of wildfires in the country.”

Chicago’s Navy Pier Phase 1 is the first project to achieve GOLD certification under the Sustainable SITES Initiative v2 rating system. PHOTO: Sahar Coston-Hardy for Navy Pier Inc. and James Corner Field Operations

The POTUS fanned the flames of controversy by issuing gag orders against federal agencies, including the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy and National Park Service, in an apparent attempt to silence them from communicating with the press about climate change. The plan backfired, however, and South Dakota’s Badlands National Park began tweeting out climate-change facts in direct opposition to the executive orders, inciting further debate.

Amid the political and media firestorm, however, the building industry has quietly continued its persistent march on the path to sustainable market transformation. Although the U.S. Green Building Council, Washington, has made incredible strides toward that end with its LEED Rating System (certified buildings are said to produce 34 percent lower carbon emissions, consume 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water than traditional structures), energy-efficient buildings can’t fight the battle against climate change alone. Thankfully, landscape architecture professionals are joining the effort to enact mitigation strategies that will help reduce GHG emissions by 50 to 85 percent by 2050 and limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius if deployed at a mass scale, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), Washington.

At the forefront of this movement toward “greening” our landscapes is the Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES), a program based on the understanding that land is a crucial component of the built environment and can be planned, designed, developed, and maintained to avoid, mitigate, and even reverse the detrimental impacts of urbanization and development.

‘Leed for Landscapes’

“Just like LEED transformed the built environment and the buildings market, SITES is intended to do the same thing for the landscapes and open spaces of the world we live in, in terms of driving sustainability in the design and development process,” explains Jamie Statter, vice president, Strategic Relationships at USGBC.

SITES was developed, in part, because of the disconnect that sometimes exists between LEED-certified buildings and the properties on which they are situated.

The University of Texas at El Paso Campus Transformation Project received SITES Silver and became the first project certified under v2 of the SITES Rating System. PHOTO: Adam Barbe

“We would see LEED platinum buildings with landscapes that really didn’t reflect the sustainability principles of the buildings themselves, so SITES is intended to address that,” Statter says. “It creates a sense of true sustainability in any project, and it does that by prioritizing ecosystem services and resource management at the land level.”

Unlike buildings, built landscapes and green infrastructure have the capacity to protect and even regenerate natural systems, thereby increasing the ecosystem services they provide, such as sequestering carbon, filtering air and water, and regulating climate, according to the Washington-based Green Building Certification Inc. (GBCI), which owns and manages SITES. Further, sustainable landscapes create ecologically resilient communities better able to withstand and recover from episodic floods, droughts, wildfires and other catastrophic events.

Rather than compete with one another, however, SITES and LEED—also owned and managed by GBCI—are designed to cooperate in creating greater opportunities to transform properties and strengthen the vitality of communities and ecosystems as a whole.

“The SITES and LEED [rating systems] are now officially interacting and are able to overlap,” Statter notes. “So projects pursuing SITES and LEED can take advantage of credit equivalencies. What that means is if they get a credit in LEED, they can also automatically get that accredited in SITES, and the same is true in the reverse direction.”

How It Works

Now in its second iteration (better known as v2), SITES is quite similar to LEED in that it is based on a points system. The number of credits a project earns determines its level of certification—Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum (see table for a breakdown of points).

The number of credits a project earns determines its level of SITES certification—Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

Any physical location or land on which a project is developed can be considered for SITES. This applies to new construction proj- ects and existing sites that include major renovations. While there is no maximum size requirement for a project to participate in SITES, a 2,000-square-foot minimum prerequisite must be met to be eligible.

To determine if a site qualifies, Statter says anywhere a major retrofit is taking place where the land is being completely redeveloped, the SITES program is applicable. However, early engagement with the program is crucial, she says, because there are prerequisites centered in the pre-design and site-assessment areas that are best addressed by an integrated design team at the onset of the process.

Nearly 30 percent of materials used at Navy Pier were made from recycled content. PHOTO: Sahar Coston-Hardy for Navy Pier Inc. and James Corner Field Operations

“Right now, SITES actually is only available for new construction or major redevelopment because the program itself looks at the design and construction areas,” Statter notes. “That’s where the credits are focused—around design considerations and the construction practices, as well as some of the pre-design work.”

The SITES v2 rating system accommodates regional differences and various types of sites from urban to rural and previously developed or undeveloped, including open spaces (local, state and national parks; botanic gardens; arboretums); streetscapes and plazas; commercial (retail and office areas, corporate campuses); residential (neighborhoods or individual yards); educational/institutional (public and private campuses, museums, hospitals); infrastructure; government; military; and industrial.

Counting the Costs

Beyond its environmental impact, the SITES rating system encourages practices that have been shown to save building owners and facility managers money over time in terms of reducing energy costs from urban heat-island effect, water usage, and maintenance and operational costs. Additionally, Statter says GBCI has seen evidence the number of hours a landscaping team needs to maintain a site are much fewer in sustainable versus traditional landscapes.

In fact, a number of studies have demonstrated building sites where sustainable landscaping strategies have been implemented result in quantifiable savings over time. Consider the following:

Of course, there are costs associated with pursuing SITES certification, including registration and certification fees, which can be bundled or paid separately. For USGBC and ASLA members, the registration fee is $2,500 ($3,000 for non-members) and $6,500 for certification ($9,000 for non-members). Given the value sustainable landscapes bring to existing properties—and the fact that the fees can be recouped from the savings—the decision to pursue SITES may be much easier for buildings executives.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that, unlike buildings, sustain- able landscapes appreciate over time. As Statter points out: “As plants and trees grow, soils improve and then habitats develop and land management can significantly improve the value of a building or the entire property as a whole.”

Case Study: Navy Pier

In 2012, Chicago’s historic Navy Pier held an international design competition to reimagine the site in anticipation of its centennial celebration. The design team at James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), Philadelphia, won the bid and set out to restore the landmark to its status as “The People’s Pier,” as originally envisioned by Daniel Burnham in his 1909 plan for the Windy City, rather than simply a kitschy tourist destination.

“One of the early ideas about the project … linked to the idea of restoring its existence for the people and being a much more authentic place, was the idea of making it much greener, a sustainable place and much more of a park space than a commercial space,” explains Sarah Weidner Astheimer, principal at JCFO. “It was discussed early on to pursue LEED certification and then we introduced the idea of pursuing SITES certification, as well.”

The goal is not only to conserve natural resources but also to promote human health, fitness, social equity, mobility and synergy with adjacent neighborhoods for the 9 million people who visit Navy Pier each year. PHOTO: Sahar Coston-Hardy for Navy Pier Inc. and James Corner Field Operations

Navy Pier Phase 1 is the first project to achieve GOLD certification under the Sustainable SITES Initiative v2 rating system and is a leading-edge international model for sustainable design and management practices. The project considers sustainability in its broadest sense; the goal is not only to conserve natural resources but also to promote human health, fitness, social equity, mobility and synergy with adjacent neighborhoods for the 9 million people who visit the pier each year.

Best exemplifying Navy Pier’s commitment to sustainability is its new “green spine,” the South Dock Promenade. With approximately 200 native and appropriately adapted trees, the redesign includes forward-thinking adaptation of aging infrastructure to create a series of gigantic “tree tubs” that redirect, clean and facilitate stormwater use for 100 percent of plant irrigation, new permeable pavements and strategic use of products with recycled content that are sourced from the region.

A few of the project’s other sustainable features include:

“I can say that SITES, as a tool, was excellent for us during the design process because, like many other projects, we had to go through a series of significant value-engineering exercises, and budgets changed a little bit midway through because they weren’t exactly able to raise all of the funds we had imagined originally,” Weidner Astheimer recalls. “SITES was a great tool for us to preserve a lot of the sustainable features I think are often some of the first to be value engineered from a project.”

Case Study: University of Texas at El Paso

The results of connecting the University of Texas at El Paso campus back to its place in the Chihuahuan Desert helps instill pride in students and staff and community of their campus and heritage. PHOTO: Adam Barbe

In celebration of its centennial anniversary, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) commissioned the design team at Ten Eyck Landscape Architects Inc., Austin, Texas, to design and oversee the transformation of the heart of its campus from an automobile-centric environment dominated by asphalt into an inviting community landscape that reflects the beauty of the Chihuahuan desert by increasing the vegetative area of the site by 60 percent.

“The project integrates the city, the campus, and the land by introducing a complementary network of walkways, native planted ephemeral rainwater arroyos, and green spaces that promote connectivity, inspire outdoor exploration and support natural processes within the urban fabric of the campus,” says Christine Ten Eyck, president, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. The core of UTEP’s Campus Transformation Project (CTP) includes Centennial Plaza and Centennial Green, richly detailed outdoor gathering spaces that feature a performance lawn and amphitheater. A diverse array of native plants and local stone create campus malls, a courtyard, promontories, and desert gardens that invite students and the community to embrace and enjoy nature.

In July 2016, CTP received SITES Silver and became the first project certified under v2 of the SITES Rating System. Sustainable landscape practices include vegetated arroyo and acequia bioswales that mimic the function of natural desert riparian corridors and the replacement of asphalt with a diverse native plant palette, including 571 trees, 1,831 shrubs and 4,089 perennials.

Through this project, UTEP is helping its community be more successful and deal with life challenges by providing a sustainable landscape that can improve cognitive function, reduce stress and offer opportunities for physical exercise.

“The campus is extremely proud of the SITES certification,” Ten Eyck notes. “The results of connecting the campus back to its place in the Chihuahuan Desert with comfortable malls and paths interlaced with new water-harvesting arroyos and desert gardens helps to instill pride in students and staff and community of their campus and heritage. The project is an example to the city of El Paso of low-impact development and hopefully will influence future projects.”