The sustainability movement is turning U.S. building-design norms on their head, in ways that go beyond LEED ratings and net zero energy buildings. The most fundamental principals of landscape architecture and site design—analyzing the site and environment to holistically integrate it with development—are beginning to resonate with developers, investors, and corporate users like never before. Why is the U.S. real estate industry now warming up to ideas long practiced in Europe and Asia? Because it simply has become cheaper and smarter to do so.
Several factors driving this trend are embodied in a growing number of projects completed or under way across the United States. First, the sustainability movement has created a demand-premium for eco-conscious space. Not only are LEED-rated structures leasing and selling faster, but so are facilities with sustainable features that extend outside the building such as heat-absorbing green roofs, water-cleansing bioswales, creek-side parks that previously might have been buried under culverts, and other techniques that turn natural systems into project amenities.
Second, the real estate industry is recognizing greater cost savings and resource benefits when development starts with site design. Successful developers and architects create great buildings on most any canvas, and the traditional approach of scraping a site flat to “make development easier” is being disproved by environmentally sensitive developments that save energy and water and reduce maintenance costs. In fact, innovation in the environmental industry is making eco-friendly site design more cost-competitive with traditional approaches and actually cheaper in the mid- to long-term. Site-oriented solutions such as planting native flora instead of lawns or installing green roofs are gaining market acceptance despite not having ratings programs like LEED to tout the measurable benefits.
The key is to step back and consider the full environmental context of a site—to listen to the land—and develop a plan truly tailored to the low-rise housing, high-rise office, or other development desired. For example, natural water drainage across a site can be tweaked and guided to create beautiful creeks and green spaces that double as water run-off filtration or stormwater retention systems—as well as attractive tenant amenities. Manmade ponds now utilize bio-engineered strips of material that are “planted” in the ponds to purify wastewater and reduce the need for sewage treatment plants. Green roof systems not only keep buildings cooler, but also absorb and filter heavy rains that normally would be shunted straight to creeks.
In our landscape architecture and urban planning projects, from residential and commercial sites around the world to entire cities in China, SWA Group has identified these design strategies as proven tools to help make the final structures more successful than traditionally designed developments.
Several of SWA Group’s recent work illustrates how early site design may create a competitive advantage in cost, amenities, aesthetic differentiation, and marketing.
Environmentalism for Profitability
About 15 miles outside of Dallas, a new office campus minimized site impact as part of the owner’s goal to maintain the natural character of the site—part ranchland, part open prairie with two ponds and a healthy collection of Post Oak Savanna trees. Its natural beauty and complementary office design helped Westlake Corporate Campus win local and national awards, but an equally important accomplishment is its lower cost for initial siting and ongoing maintenance.
Westlake is a 300-acre office property that includes an office structure built in 2000 and a soon-to-be-completed second-phase office. The initial plan for creating the 600,000 square feet of office space called for a single massive building with an adjacent large parking structure. To preserve the site’s ponds and minimize disturbance of trees, hills, and meadows, the structures were split into two low-rise office buildings of natural stone and wood with a parking garage hidden against a hillside. Trees were preserved or replaced, and the neglected ponds were integrated into the natural site-drainage system. Roads meander around natural features. And the site’s low-water situation was reversed by having most of the adjacent rainfall area empty into the ponds. The ponds have supplied landscape watering needs since the project opened, avoiding costly watering fees.
What’s more, by breaking the building mass into two structures, workers enjoy better natural views and more daylight, which research has shown to improve worker productivity by 12 percent to 15 percent and reduce absenteeism by 2 percent.
Eco-Design as Economic Boon
The Santaluz housing development in North San Diego County, Calif., blends people, homes, and open space into a harmonious mosaic that places primary emphasis on the preservation and enhancement of natural topography and vegetation. What the marketing brochures don’t say is that its innovative site design saved the developer millions of dollars.
As first envisioned, housing on this 2,000-acre semi-arid grassland just off the Pacific Ocean called for traditional single-family ‘pad’ arrangements in which home sites and yards are cut in squares or similar rectilinear parcels. The site, however, consisted of rolling hills that would have required $7 million in grading and retaining walls to accommodate square home sites.
Instead, home sites are situated among the natural contours, resulting in a design of rounded parcels atop gentle mounds or in small clusters. The homes and roadways complement the site, not carve it. Rather than introduce grass lawns, tree-lined streets, and flowerbeds, the project embraced its surroundings and was landscaped with native plants. By avoiding massive grading and introducing native plantings, the developer dramatically reduced costs while creating a distinctive, unusual community. What’s more, Santaluz became the region’s most popular community, demanding a premium over other projects and influencing the design of follow-up housing.
Restoration for Sales and Habitat
Located on Houston’s far west side, a 3,000-acre site known as the Stern Ranch is considered to be the future of the small farming town of Fulshear, Texas. New schools, housing, churches, parks, and other community amenities will allow the city to grow and maintain its economic viability as it moves from a small, rural economy to a mixed, urban community. SWA’s concepts have looked at creating a consistent identity for the project. The master plan calls for an internal loop roadway and the expansion of an existing waterway. The waterway functions as a focal point, and provides the organizing element of an extensive open space system for the surrounding neighborhoods.
A prominent feature of the development known as Cross Creek Ranch is the restoration of Flewellen Creek, a stream re-made from an existing drainage way on the former agrarian site. Failing slopes, high sediment content, invasive species, low wildlife habitat, and unstable stream flow dynamics created a greatly denuded natural system. In consultation with Biohabitats, a conservation planning and ecological restoration firm, SWA Group is using fluvial geomorphologic concepts to create a restored base-flow channel, increased floodplain width, and lower floodbench to create more systems including native reforestation zones, prairie grassing areas, and wetlands planting zones. Residents will have access to the corridor and adjacent parks through multi-use trails such as community bikeways and paths that thread through the varying natural environments.
Considering the down economy, Cross Creek Ranch community’s home sales may be evidence of the power of site-sensitive planning that restores or enhances the native ecosystem.
Mother Nature 1, Developers 0
Development projects that don’t consider the site and environment can be costly to maintain as Mother Nature exacts her toll—and sometimes she wins. The Brownwood subdivision in Baytown, Texas, on Galveston Bay east of Houston, was built in the 1960s to accommodate a burgeoning population, but ground-water pumping created rampant subsidence and then a hurricane overwhelmed the fledgling project. In 1993, a court order directed a consortium of 200 companies headed by the ARCO Chemical Co. to restore a marsh in Texas to compensate for wetlands damaged by industrial waste dumping during the 1960s and ’70s. This order, in combination with a mitigation offset from an energy company a few miles away and funding from both a city of Baytown bond and from the consortium, led to the transformation of the Brownwood subdivision into the Baytown Nature Preserve, where birds, aquatic life, waterfowl, and native grasses now are the full-time residents.
As seen in these projects, landscape architecture is taking a more proactive role in development, integrating site-sensitive amenities and marketing aspects with the cost-conscious benefits of listening to the land. Environmentally friendly development isn’t just photovoltaic panels and double-paned glass. It can achieve even greater potential if the project planning takes into consideration innovative site design and integrated natural systems.
John E. Cutler is a principal in the Houston office of SWA Group (swagroup.com).