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By Chris Meske and Jeff Muhlbach

Landscape architects, architects, planners and developers nationwide are being challenged to change the way they design and build projects. Mixed-use and higher density developments have become more prevalent in the urban landscape as city cores and inner ring suburbs seek to stay vital by promoting infill and redevelopment opportunities. Communities are revising and rewriting zoning ordinances and design standards to allow for the development of more vertical and mixed-use projects. Strategies such as shallower building setbacks, fewer restrictions on building height and creative formulas for shared parking shed the statutes of traditional layer-cake zoning that have brought about the sprawling, uninspired suburb. This revolution in the way developers, designers and municipalities alike look at their projects comes at a time when the building industry is rethinking their approach to design in order to incorporate more environmentally sensitive and energy efficient systems. Together these objectives form a philosophy that is being adopted in all reaches of real estate development.

For professionals in the allied industries, the guidelines set forth by the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system serve as a valuable resource, even when full certification might be out of reach. Local governments can have a hand in the drive to incorporate sensitive design as they move to enact code and ordinances to reflect LEED principles. Designers will often incorporate these principles as early as the initial site planning and concept phases to ensure an integrated approach, even including scrutiny of how the proposed built environment will affect its natural and surrounding environments as a part of feasibility studies. Landscape architects in particular are working closely with their clients to develop programs for planning, planting design, and storm water management that not only are sensitive to the environment, but are also efficient and can bring significant cost savings to a project.

In the case of The Shops at Fallen Timbers, a lifestyle center developed by General Growth Properties in Maumee, Ohio, the simple use of prairie grasses in lieu of traditional turf grass greatly reduced the necessity for regular irrigation, fertilizing and mowing—maintenance activities that not only pollute and deplete resources, but also burden property managers with the cost of labor, materials and equipment. Bio-filtration swales in the parking areas eliminated many of the costly structures and piping that would typically be needed for a project of this size. The swales provide for a reduced discharge velocity and “first wash” runoff is cleaned of oils and salts, ensuring preserved water quality in the wake of the development. Early purchase of landscape material allowed the plants crucial to the success of the bio-swales to mature and adapt to their conditions prior to the project’s grand opening.

Younger communities such as Westminster, Colorado, home to the recently opened Orchard Town Center project developed by Forest City Enterprises, have committed to the use of “gray water” and reclaimed runoff for irrigation, collected in storm water management areas and fed to the site through a network of “purple” pipe, dedicated for a non-potable system being designed by the City. Reuse of storm water conserves fresh water and reduces sprinkling bills.

Green roofs go a step further to provide a reduction in storm water runoff, typically accelerated by the impervious surface of a new building footprint. A vegetated surface is a better alternative to traditional rooftop materials for maintaining oxygen levels and reducing the heat island effect. For the developer, even a partial green roof can reduce energy costs for cooling, while providing tenants of an office or residential building with a place for recreation and outdoor living. West Arriva, a Torode Commercial Ltd. hotel and residential project in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is in the planning stages and will feature rooftop gardens on lower levels of the building that will serve its residents while enhancing views from the taller hotel and residential towers. Tough conditions presented by Calgary’s northern arid climate mean a limited choice in plant material. The challenge is being met with a plant palette, comprised primarily of sedum in an array of colors, developed to provide the gardens with year round interest. Collaboration with local landscapers, nurserymen, designers and building managers will be key to preparing a garden design that fuses innovative techniques with the conventional design principles of form, color and texture.

The dawn of LEED initiatives has had profound impact on the way landscape architects implement their clients’ visions. As green design is becoming accepted, encouraged and even standard practice, landscape architects are finding economical ways of employing the strategies into every project. When integrated with the overall planning, design and construction processes, techniques such as gray water irrigation, the use of prairie grasses and native plant material, bio-filtration and green roofs are not only more sensitive to the environment, but also can be beneficial to the developer’s bottom line.


Christine Meske and Jeffrey Muhlbach are senior landscape architects with ka architecture.

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