Sustainable Landscaping Guidelines

Updated Feb 15, 2013

Opening Photo Cover StoryNational pilot program that rates sustainable landscaping takes off

By Ken Wysocky

When the U.S. Green Building Council rolled out the red carpet more than a decade ago for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program, aimed at encouraging the creation of sustainable, eco-minded architecture, landscapers were largely left standing outside the velvet ropes.

Since then, obtaining LEED certification has become a Holy Grail of sorts for many architects, and the guidelines for doing so have dramatically shifted the way the industry thinks about building design—in a decidedly green direction.

Next year, landscapers will gain easier access to the green-design party, thanks to new, voluntary, landscape-centric sustainability guidelines currently under development by a coalition of environmentally minded groups: the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden, plus other stakeholder organizations.

The guidelines could give early adapters a tool to differentiate themselves.

Known as the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), the program—in the works since 2005—aims to formulate voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for landscaping practices, including design, construction and maintenance. The guidelines could greatly impact the industry by establishing new best practices that will dovetail with consumers’ growing preference for eco-conscious businesses. In turn, the guidelines could give early adopters a powerful tool to differentiate themselves from competitors, and position themselves as credible, green-minded landscapers.

The philosophy behind the effort is simple: through proper training, the landscaping industry can help address problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and depletion of natural resources.

Future Incentives

“When we started several years ago, we noticed a lack of attention to landscapes in evolving green-building rating systems, like LEED,” says Danielle Pieranunzi, the director of the SITES program. “It seemed like a missed opportunity to elevate the value of landscapes and to change the practice of landscape design, construction and maintenance. It’s important because it takes a lot of different mechanisms to get the industry to embrace sustainability.

Image3 Wdp Sand Nest“Sometimes regulation isn’t enough,” she continues. “There is also the carrot-or-the-stick approach, which can entice people to embrace it and see the benefits.

Pieranunzi points out the USGBC is “very supportive” of the SITES effort and is considering incorporating some of the SITES credit content into the next-generation version of the LEED rating systems.

“We closely examine and try to influence where LEED is going, and we know they’re also looking at some of the SITES credits,” she says. “Some of their representatives are on our technical committee…we’re trying to align the methodologies where it’s applicable and appropriate.”

How SITES Works

Performance benchmarks for SITES are the result of several years of collaboration between more than 50 experts in soil, hydrology, vegetation and other areas, according to the SITES website ( The current version incorporated public feedback for two previous reports issued in 2007 and 2008.

Under the current preliminary guidelines, released in November 2009, projects can earn performance credits in a four-star rating system, based on a 250-maximum point scale. For instance, on one end of the scale, 100 points earns a project a one-star rating, while earning more than 200 points (or 80 percent of 250) results in a four-star rating.

Site Playground1More specifically, the system awards points in areas such as site selection (21 possible points), water-related site design (max of 44 points), soil and vegetation (51 possible points) and materials selection (36 possible points). The credits apply to virtually all kinds of landscape projects, ranging from corporate grounds to public parks to single-family residences. (For a more complete review of the points system, download the 2009 Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks at

“SITES outlines more than just the ecological components of a site,” Pieranunzi points out. “It also considers the human, economic and social components. It serves as a tool to guide a project throughout the design and development process…how to develop it using the best practices during construction, and how to maintain it to ensure long-term sustainability.

“This is the way things are heading,” she says, “so landscapers should get ahead of the curve. It could offer a potential market niche for contractors who decide to embrace it early.”

“Landscapers who follow SITES guidelines will use plants that are appropriate for a site and use soil appropriate for the plants, which in turn makes the plants grow better and provide more shade, live longer, require less maintenance and provide cleaner air,” she adds.

The benchmarks take into account that a one-size-fits-all approach is not practical because of dramatic climate differences from one region of the country to another. To address those vast differences, SITES imbeds regional components within the credit system, Pieranunzi notes.

In the credit for restoring plant biomass on site, for example, the more protection or revegetation that occurs on a site, the more points a project earns. But it’s understood that each project has limitations, based on where it’s located.

Working Out Bugs

Some critics of LEED sustainability guidelines say they’re too expensive to follow. Moreover, they note the guidelines are so complicated that many architectural firms, which may not have the manpower or financial resources to invest in learning the ins and outs of certification, decline to participate. What is SITES doing to avoid that scenario?

“We want it to be a tool that positively informs the design and development process.”

“We’re definitely sensitive to budgets and costs, and one of the goals of the two-year pilot program was to better understand that,” Pieranunzi points out. “We’re working on making SITES more viable and practical once it’s open to the public next year.”

With the understanding that there will be a learning curve involved, SITES offers tools and worksheets to educate and guide landscapers. So even if landscapers don’t submit a project for SITES certification, they can still learn something about sustainable design and construction.

“Overall, we really want it to be a tool that positively informs the design and development process,” she emphasizes. “Our intention is not to make it more burdensome and difficult…it’s as much about education as it is about certification.

“We all need fresh air and clean water…hopefully people see the importance, aside from just the certification,” she adds. “We don’t want people to just look at it as a checklist. We want them to see the benefits and communicate those benefits to clients and their communities, so the benefits keep going outside just that one particular landscape project.”

Kicking the Tires

To “test drive” the SITES guidelines and provide feedback as they strived for certification, 150 project teams participated in a two-year pilot program. Of those, three projects have already earned SITES certification: the corporate campus at Novus International Inc. in St. Charles, Missouri (three-star certification); the Green at College Park of the University of Texas at Arlington in Arlington, Texas (one star); and the Woodland Discovery Playground at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee (one star).

Hunter Beckham, a principal at SWT Design in St. Louis, Missouri, which led the site design and construction of Novus International headquarters in St. Charles, Missouri, lauded the SITES initiative, saying it can help landscape architects design more cost-effective and eco-friendly projects.

“It’s no secret that we can’t continue to just mindlessly pollute and throw chemicals into soil and rivers to make things look better, then maintain it all with gas-powered equipment,” he says. “This is not a nuts-and-berries mentality…it’s an economic argument, too. It can help everyone improve the environment we live in and improve the economic bottom line.”

In addition, Beckham notes that landscape architects and designers aren’t required to go for all-out certification. Some might opt to use the guidelines like an a la carte menu, selecting strategies and technologies that best suit their capabilities and clients, and building from there.


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