SSI works toward certification of landscape architecture

Sustainable Sites Initiative seeks to address issues not completely covered by LEED From the DJC Oregon - originally printed Tuesday, January 27, 2009


As a landscape architect with Greenworks, Jason King keeps pace with changes in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. King in 2003 was one of the first local landscape architects to become LEED accredited, and now a third of his office is accredited.

headwaters at tryon creek

But while it’s important for landscape architects to understand LEED, the system is mostly oriented toward the built environment and does not address, in depth, the complex systems used in landscape architecture. To remedy that, several groups are combining forces to develop the Sustainable Sites Initiative – an effort to define comprehensive guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable landscapes.

“This initiative gives us the opportunity to expand the (LEED) idea and provides a mechanism for certification of nonbuilding sites,” said King.

The new initiative would give landscape architects a ratings system for parks, plazas, streetscapes, golf courses and even cemeteries. Sites with buildings, such as retail and office parks, military complexes, airports and botanical gardens would also be part of the system.

Proponents of the initiative say that landscape designs can have an impact on the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the use of vegetation and soil, by controlling invasive plant species and by controlling water pollution through improved storm-water runoff control.

Landscape architect Jana McKenzie, a managing principal and vice president with EDAW’s Fort Collins, Colo., office, said she and a group of fellow landscape architects came up with the idea for a landscape architecture ratings system in 2001.

“LEED is advanced in addressing building performance, but it felt like the site components, including land use, needed to be addressed as well,” said McKenzie.

The idea expanded in the next couple of years to groups outside the American Society of Landscape Architects, and became an interdisciplinary effort that included Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden.

In addition to creating voluntary guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, the system will address construction and maintenance practices at the sites that are certified. McKenzie said the new system must be region specific, because of the importance of using indigenous plantings.

Input for the new system, which will likely be folded into the LEED system, has been sought from landscape architects, restoration ecologists, biologists, civil engineers, hydrologists and water quality specialists.

Tom Liptan, a sustainable design specialist with the city of Portland, said he has added input for developing criteria for the new system in the area of hydrology – specifically, storm-water management and rainwater harvesting.

“We’re trying to address issues that LEED doesn’t address comprehensively,” Liptan said. The new system can address issues such as preventing storm water by capturing water in vegetated areas or creating rain gardens, he said.

Liptan said developments, for example, could win extra points in the new system if they daylight a creek. Developers and designers, he said, would be rewarded for “trying to achieve a well-balanced ecosystem” on the property. Green streets could also have benchmarks in the new system.

The most recent draft of the Sustainable Sites Initiative Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks, from last year, is available on the Sustainable Sites Initiative Web site,

King expected that the new initiative would see its first pilot projects in 2011, and that a reference guide would be available the following year.