Feature: In Landscaping, Green is Always Good

There is never a second chance to make a first impression.

University of California, Berkeley (Night View with Bicycle Shelter & Stage as Lantern. The landscape, partially on structure is lush and varied; and contrasts with galvanized steel light poles/bike shelters/mechanical equipment, with concrete walls and pedestal pavers, that are unified by silver grey tones. Image courtesy of Patrick Argast)

By Anuradha Kher, Online News Editor

New York–There is never a second chance to make a first impression. In the case of a multifamily community, it is the exterior of a community that makes the first impression. The exterior could be everything from the general look of the building, paint, windows etc. to the landscaping, which managers and landscape architects alike agree is critical to a community’s success.

In fact, a Michigan State University study found that good landscaping can help increase the value of a property by 5 to 11 percent.

Debbie Vail, regional manager of Dominium Management Services, tells MHN, “Curb appeal is one of the top three priorities in this industry. We can’t get the renter through the door, if the first impression isn’t good. What people see as a first impression is very important.” Landscaping is so important to Dominium that the company has a three-bid process every quarter and they work with representatives of the company that wins the bid throughout the season.

Speaking about how landscaping plays a role in the aesthetics of a community, Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates, tells MHN, “Renters are appreciative of projects with a certain aesthetic. Good landscaping is visually and soulfully pleasurable. It is a place where people can enjoy their time, take a stroll or simply look out the window and look at something nice. For all those reasons, good landscaping brings a lot of value to the property.”

Sustainable Landscaping

In addition to the looks of a community, if placed properly, trees can help save as much as 25 percent on heating and cooling costs by keeping the climate system running more efficiently. They also provide shelter from wind, rain, as well as the hot summer sun.

In recent years, with green becoming the buzzword in just about every aspect of our lives, sustainable landscaping has gained significant momentum in the real estate industry. But sustainable landscaping lends itself to many different techniques and designs. Everyone’s heard about concepts like green roofs and xeriscaping but there is much more to green landscaping that just that.

Lehrer says an emerging trend is integrating vegetable gardens into landscaping and installing green roofs which also appeals to the government agencies who regulate green practices.

University of California, Berkeley (Unit 2 with Bicycle Shed, Cherry Trees, and Chiller Equipment. The planting accommodates three distinctive zones: the sunniest area is lawn, the intermediate half-sun areas are flowering cherry trees, and the shadiest areas are maples, azaleas, and ferns.)

Jason A. King ASLA CLARB LEED is Principal and Landscape Architect at TERRA.fluxus LLC, a company he recently started. He tells MHN that the idea of water efficiency is big and is dominating a lot of sustainable landscaping practices. “Rain gardens and small storm water management strategies are catching on. The nice thing is that they can act as an amenity for sites where you can build the interactive part of the project around the rain gardens or storm water facility depending on the density of the project. Green roofs are gaining a lot of importance because they add to the aesthetics of a property but also because they offer a multifunctional aspect. Prices for those have dropped substantially and there are a lot of incentives to integrate them into projects on a limited budget now.”

King says that the concept of eco-friendly lawns for play areas – as many lawn substitutes don’t work well for heavy traffic/use—is also getting attention. Another is a trend toward protecting existing trees and other site resources like wetlands – rather than the typical trend of wall-to-wall site clearing.

Many landscape architects are looking for opportunities for each portion of the site to do multiple things at once. From a practical standpoint, it provides an opportunity to do things with a little more efficiency on sites that don’t have extra room. The other benefit is maximizing the investment, so if a developer doesn’t have the budget for a storm water facility and open meeting space, he/she can get both at once with creative landscaping. Jason explains, “I think it’s a newer trend but its helping architects look at landscaping as something more than just a tool to decorate. It’s more integrated into the specifics of the site and is helping solve some of the problems that were previously tackled through civil engineering techniques.”

Xeriscape landscaping, which by definition is landscaping designed specifically for areas that are susceptible to drought, or for properties where water conservation is practiced, is now practiced more and more commonly as a sustainable initiative.

“There are a lot of great new technologies that make it relatively simple such as high efficiency irrigation like spray irrigation. From the management’s perspective we like to use pretty detailed water budgets, determining owners expectations of water management and coming up with budgets that can save them money in the long term and be sustainable,” adds King.

Plant selection is another area of landscaping that can make a big impact on how sustainable a project can be. Native plants, which have a lot of proponents, are great because they are totally adapted to the region, and are, by definition more sustainable and ecologically appropriate. They also use less water but on the flip side, says King, “They might not be the most appropriate plants for a particular design. Most natives in the Pacific Northwest for example are quite large so if you are doing something on a tight sits, where you don’t have enough room, planting purely native plants opens up many long-term issues.”

King explains that the trend is more to use natives as a base and expand beyond that to regionally adapted plants, to those that are either cultivated varieties of those natives and happen to be smaller or more appropriate for certain types of development. While choosing plants, a lot of things have to be considered and balancing sustainability with drought tolerant aspects and color, seasonal variation etc. are all critical for good landscaping practices.

Debra Guenther, ASLA, LEED AP and Principal at Mithun Architects agrees that native plants are really an interesting aspect of sustainable landscaping because they have so many advantages. “They are less toxic because they contain less fertilizers and they bring to the table ecological benefits that we don’t even fully understand. When used appropriately, the right adapted species can definitely provide the right value, but what’s more exciting to me is the part that we don’t know about. That makes me want to lean toward natives,” she says.

The biggest overall driver that encapsulates a lot of these characteristics is green building systems like LEED, which provide incentives, such as tax breaks or money back.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative, which works similar to LEED, is one such driver that is getting a lot of attention. It is getting people to think beyond the commonly known practices today. The Initiative takes into account the actual process of developing sites, including soils and the types of sites being developed, habitat, open space, use of drought tolerant plants, water efficiency etc.

Guenther, who has been involved in the Sustainable Sites Initiative since it began in 2005, is now on the technical core committee where she reviews pilot projects for the Initiative. Guenther tells MHN, “The goal of the initiative is to provide best management practices to projects that are interested in pushing the limits. It is also meant to be used as a rating tool to the folks who want to know what’s at the leading edge today. The public agencies are very excited about it because LEED was adopted by different cities as a way to raise the bar and we are now hearing from cities that its quickly going to become a new standard for new communities.”

Guenther, like King, believes that the major trend in green landscaping is the integration of site issues with building issues. “It is really hard to solve sustainable problems without doing that. You have to look at water systems in the building along with the site systems as a whole. It’s the same thing with energy.”

Some of the more specific strategies include paying a lot of attention to soils, which have an invisible value that people don’t think about. She says it is a huge asset on the project. “The more we can pay attention to the volume of soil, conditions of soil etc. the healthier and more higher performing the landscapes will be,” says Guenther.

As we look to making cities more dense, green roofs will become increasingly common, because they improve the quality of the places and make them more desirable to the people of that community.

Curb Appeal on Budget

One of the benefits of sustainable design is also that it ends up being more cost effective. So developers looking to have a good landscaping plan in place that isn’t way above their budget, should look into some of the green practices. Other than that, the developer must choose the designer and team very wisely. That is probably the most important pointer but the developer can’t be too concerned about the cost, says Lehrer.

Julie Smith, president of Bozzuto Management Company and Partner, The Bozzuto Group, tells MHN that another way to stay on budget is to invest more in perennials than annuals, because they come back every year and generally bigger than the previous years.

“If you don’t have a large budget or even an average one, you have to think about where you want your pot and instead of having a few flowers everywhere you can have a lot of them in a few places.”

She also suggests trying to find someone on the site team who has a green thumb and is willing to do some of the seasonal plantings, as well as things like making trips to Home Depot.

Vail adds, “We try to do ground coverage as much as possible. It is a lot less expensive when you don’t have to go in every season and plant new plants.”