March 1, 2013

Adding meaningful value to design with LEED


Consider for a moment the depth and breadth of opportunities currently available to the landscape design profession in Canada that were not available, say, 35 years ago. When my parents started our family business, landscape design was not very well defined within the hierarchy of the landscape trade. We had a small landscape company that included the perfunctory small garden centre. Landscape design went one of two ways. Usually the wife arrived with a Polaroid of the front of her home. A few questions, a quick sketch and a walk around the garden centre later, plants were picked out, loaded up and off she went. Or the husband called. He was looking for a free estimate for the front lawn, walkway and two foundation gardens — the classic cedar-cedar-juniper-juniper-potentilla-potentilla symmetry. These were simple bread and butter transactions, where landscape design was really about selling the plants and the sod. This is how and what we sold as landscape design. Beautification! Who among us has not used the word beautify in our ads at one time or another?

Fast forward 35 years. Our company is now primarily a turf producer, commercial landscape contractor and design/build firm. My work as landscape designer is largely for commercial and industrial sites. While I am left awestruck and a little jealous of the upscale product and innovation (and budgets!) available for the residential markets west of me (especially the outdoor rooms and poolside design), alas, it is just not my market. It is the capturing of groundwater into a rain garden, to reduce volume of run-off into a municipal storm sewer, or re-vegetating a former brownfield site that is more my world. 
Membertou Heritage Park, Sydney, N.S.; contouring, swale and rain garden designed and built to collect groundwater and intercept to reduce volume of run-off into municipal storm drain.
The evolution of the landscape designer is truly epic and the career path opportunity is as diverse as it is abundant. For our industry, the former adjective green has now become to green, a very lucrative verb. With this shift has come not only opportunity but a responsibility, a due diligence requirement incumbent upon the designer and the industry to understand and be informed about our place within the big environmental picture. There has been a global paradigm shift from beautification to constructing green buildings, living in green cities, finding green energy alternatives, protecting water quantity and quality,  reducing our carbon footprint, mitigating and reclaiming our environment, developing sustainable and contributing landscapes, and placing an emphasis on public health and wellness. To truly do our job well we need to understand how these changes affect our scope of work.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is becoming a familiar face and has made its way into the landscape industry’s advertising, events and project tender packages.  LEED certification and accreditation is an impressive, albeit complex process and while the LEED program may have its share of adoption and operational challenges, one has got to respect its intent, its effect and what appears to be its staying power. LEED has gone where project specifications have not always been able to go in terms of requirement and enforcement.

LEED is defined by Wikipedia as “a building certification system that consists of a suite of rating systems for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings, homes and neighborhoods.” Initially developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and subsequently adopted by the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), LEED “is intended to provide building owners and operators a concise framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions.” The Canada Green Building Council’s mission is to “ Lead and accelerate the transformation to high-performing, healthy green buildings, homes and communities throughout Canada.”

The LEED philosophy parallels that of our industry’s in terms of general benchmarks and attainable goals. To design, build and maintain the landscape in a contributing and sustainable way should be the core guiding principle of all landscape design. While this is not exclusive to LEED, LEED does provide an organized and measurable program delivered in a practical and practiced system. Regardless of what or where you design, there are practical applications and opportunities for LEED principles in most projects that can make us better designers of better projects.

So, how can we boil LEED down to a basic relevance and, more importantly, what can we as landscape designers, coming from such diverse regions and markets, take-away for our own business?

LEED is a building certification system and, in its simplest terms, the certification process consists of a credit system that allows a building to earn credits in categories that qualify it for levels from basic LEED Certified to the ultimate, Platinum. For the landscape designer, it can be strategic to understand the LEED process, its intent and structure, to better contribute (sell) to a project, our goods and services.

The cornerstone of the LEED process is the charette, defined as “a forum where those who can influence the project decisions meet and begin to plan the project.” This integrated design approach is a common-sense brainstorming session with everyone involved in the project, to communicate and coordinate from the beginning — to determine budgets, list needs, set goals and identify constraints for group information, input and discussion. Designing in isolation is inherently restrictive and this disconnect can be a lost opportunity to the project and lost revenue for a landscape business. Limited or lack of communication often leads to reactive design revisions, while the charette model is a synergistic approach that allows the designer to be pro-active, integrating landscape components and saving valuable time, resources and money, as well as re-positioning the priorities of the landscape components within the project.  A simple example of a proactive design element would be repurposing a concrete pad from an old shed that has been demolished, into a landscape feature, instead of expending resources to break up the concrete and take the debris to landfill. A win-win-win for the project, the environment and the landscape budget.

The Triple Bottom Line is a measurement tool, a performance benchmark or checklist from which a project’s success is determined as it relates to contribution and sustainability. If you watch Dragon’s Den, you will know Arlene Dickinson often cites the phrase People, Planet, Profit when determining investment potential. These three words summarize perfectly, the intent of the Triple Bottom Line.

The USGBC describes the Triple Bottom Line as:
  • Economic Prosperity: impact on a corporation’s bottom line
  • Social responsibility: impact on a person’s happiness, health and productivity
  • Environmental Stewardship: impact on air, water, land and global climate.
From the perspective of a designer, these three guiding principles are self explanatory and form the basic framework of the designs I create for my clients. These goals are neither lofty nor altruistic; interpretation notwithstanding, they are completely doable and are relevant across all economies of scale. 

The USGBC defines the Life Cycle Assessment as “a cradle to grave analysis that examines the building along with its materials and components, from their extraction, manufacture and transport to their use, re-use, recycling and assumed disposal. The process of life cycle assessment minimizes the negative impacts on people and the environment.”

The Life Cycle Cost is defined as “an analysis that assesses the total cost of ownership, taking into account all costs related to design and construction, ownership, operations and the eventual disposal of a building and its parts.”

The positive contribution of a landscape designer to the LCA/LCC of a project can translate into four important and potentially profitable project elements, all of which can be within our scope of work and control:
  • selection and sourcing of product and materials
  • clear and concise landscape plan with accurate details
  • landscape maintenance plan
  • warranty, inspection and project close-out.
Following are five common categories of LEED, each with a sampling of the potential for landscape industry influence and contribution to LEED credits for the project:

Sustainable Site
  • Site selection; maximize value; remediation and re-purposing of an existing site
  • Protect or restore habitat; site inventory and preservation, mindful of adjacent impacts
  • Maximize open space; community connectivity, passive recreation
  • Stormwater quantity and quality control; LID; permeable surfaces
  • Heat island effect for roof and non-roof; green roofs, shade and microclimates.
Water efficiency
  • Water efficient landscapes; captured rain water, mulching, drought tolerant plantings and turf
  • Water use reduction; irrigation systems, innovative pool design
  • Innovative wastewater technologies; gray water recycling.
Energy and Atmosphere
  • Optimize energy performance; alternative energy sources such as solar power.
Materials and resources
  • Materials reuse; site soils, repurposed building materials or elements, salvaged items
  • Recycled content; site furniture and other accessories
  • Regional materials; materials extracted or harvested within 500 miles of a site
  • Rapidly renewable resources; materials typically harvested in a 10-year cycle, i.e. bamboo
  • Certified wood: as certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council).
Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Air quality; interior plantscapes, living walls, container gardening
  • Daylight and views; location and orientation of gardens within occupant sightlines.
What is important to take away from this overview is the trend, or a better description might be the new reality, of conducting business in the green economy. To succeed and excel, we need to understand our product and services and where they fit, to a degree that we have not had to before. Components of the landscape need to be assessed in terms of site-specific contribution.

The qualification criteria for LEED Green Associate accreditation are available on the Canada Green Building Council’s website This accreditation is ideal for the landscape design professional who wants to demonstrate green building expertise in non-technical fields of practice, basic knowledge of green design, construction and operations. You owe it to yourself and your business to explore the potential of LEED accreditation.

Christene LeVatte, CLP is a landscape designer and LEED Green Associate from Sydney, N.S. Her family business, Highland Landscapes for Lifestyle, which she operates with her brother, David Stenhouse, CLT, has won several Landscape Nova Scotia Awards of Excellence and the 2012 National Award for Excellence in Landscape Design. Christene is currently working toward her CLD designation.