"LEED for Landscapes" Opens Pilot, Attracts Brownfield Rehabilitation Projects

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The 4.5-acre site of the Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse is being redesigned to use less water and provide public amenities.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) has announced the launch of its pilot program, and 65% of the pilot projects involve redevelopment of brownfield sites rather than new development on “greenfield” sites. SITES has been in development since 2005 (see “Group to Create Rating System for Landscapes”), and is a joint project of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas–Austin, and the U.S. Botanical Garden.

Structured like LEED

The pilot version of the SITES rating system, made up of 15 prerequisites and 51 credits, offers 250 points and four levels of certification, signified by stars. According to Nancy Somerville, CEO of ASLA, the system, sometimes called “LEED for landscapes,” was design to complement LEED and other rating systems that focus on buildings. “LEED touches on landscape, but only in a limited way,” she said. SITES worked with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) on the rating system, using Sustainable Sites credits from LEED to inform some SITES credits. In turn, USGBC plans to consider SITES credits in the creation of future versions of LEED.

SITES emphasizes preserving intact ecosystems whenever possible, and requires that projects use 50% less water than established baselines; points are available for higher water savings as well as for managing stormwater on site. The rating system also requires project teams to use an integrated site development process, and offers points for including users and other stakeholders in the design process. Credits are available for using native species, reducing heat island effects, using vegetation to minimize building cooling loads, using materials with low environmental impact or high percentages of recycled content, and minimizing construction impacts. SITES also includes a section on operations and maintenance, which covers electricity use and generation, recycling, and waste management for organic matter.

Social impacts in; agriculture out

The rating system also includes a section on “Human Health and Well-Being.” Credits in this section reward public access to sites, educational efforts, spaces for outdoor social interaction, employing local workers, and paying living wages to construction and maintenance workers. It also rewards projects that protect the cultural value of existing sites and respond to community needs.

SITES does not address food production through a credit, despite the fact that “urban agriculture is moving on the radar,” as Somerville says. The system does reference farmland in its site requirements, and includes food production in a list of ecosystem services that SITES strives to protect.

Two-year pilot phase underway

The two-year pilot phase of SITES is designed to test the system in a wide variety of situations, and ensure that it measures environmental impacts appropriately. “We want to make sure that the standards that we’ve established are the right ones,” Somerville said. The 175 pilot projects range from under one acre to over 500, with wide-ranging budgets and contexts that include academic and corporate campuses, streetscapes, recreational areas, and industrial parks. ”We got a wonderful, diverse group of projects, which is what we wanted,” Somerville told EBN.

One of these pilot projects is the renovation of the 4.5-acre (1.8 ha) site of the Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to Samantha Harris of Rios Clementi Hales Studio, which is designing the project, the current site consists of three large lawns that use a lot of water and have limited public access. The design is still under development, but Harris says the plan is to maintain one small area of lawn and make it accessible to the public, and plant the rest with native and drought-tolerant vegetation. The project team hopes to collect rainwater off the roof of the building and store it in cisterns for irrigation.

Since the project surrounds a federal courthouse, balancing sustainability with security is a prime concern that the project team will have to address going forward. But allowing access to the grounds and providing a public amenity is important to Harris and the U.S. General Services Administration, which owns the courthouse. “Sustainability is not just environmental,” Harris said, and noted that the team was hoping to pursue several Human Health and Well Being credits.

The SITES pilot phase will run through 2011, when a final system will be put out for public comment. More information is available on SITES website.

– Allyson Wendt

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June 7, 2010