Creating Sustainable Campus Landscapes

It has been 13 years since the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) set out to methodically quantify and document degrees of success in sustainable design and construction through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program. The cumulative impact LEED has had on the way we design and build on our campuses during this time is undeniable. As we have learned, however, it is not the be-all and end-all that many had hoped; shortcomings and miscues have been well documented and, in many cases, corrected.

At least one problem that has never been sufficiently resolved, however, is the relatively little attention LEED pays to the landscape. While the nonstop, point-grabbing treasure hunt for Silver, Gold, or even Platinum certification has forced architects to get better at designing and creating more efficient structures, everything outside the building envelope has basically remained an afterthought. This narrow approach not only downplays the complex role a project’s site plays in its overall sustainability, it also ignores cultural and contextual considerations that are critically important to campus planning and design. Thankfully, there could be help on the horizon with the long-overdue introduction of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) into the certification game.

The Roots of SITES

SITES began in 2005 as collaborative effort between the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the Lady Byrd Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) joined as a partner a year later, increasing the program’s visibility and credibility. Their goal from the beginning has been to create sustainability guidelines and performance benchmarks that specifically address the landscape and fill the void left by building-centric rating systems.

Like LEED, SITES is basically a numbers game. A project can amass up to 250 points based on established criteria. The total number of points dictates whether a project receives one, two, three, or four stars — with the idea being that a four-star landscape would be on par with a LEED Platinum certified building. Nearly two-thirds of the available points are handed out for site design within four categories: water, soil and vegetation, materials selection, and human health and well-being. This broader consideration of site design is significant because it recognizes that creating sustainable landscapes goes way beyond just using drought tolerant plants or limiting the use of irrigation — two common targets for landscape-related points in the LEED system. From a campus perspective, this is particularly important because, with SITES, there will be opportunity to place tangible value on responding to context and addressing how people use campus open space. At least that is the goal. SITES is still a more or less one-size-fits-all program, so its effectiveness at dealing with issues specific to cultural landscapes like college and university campuses is not guaranteed.

Comparing Evaluations

This is not a unique problem. In fact, it is inherent to these types of generic rating systems. Evaluating disparate projects such as a new commercial building or landscape versus one in the heart of a historic campus in any sort of equitable way is not easy — especially when you take into consideration less quantifiable things like aesthetic and cultural context. To its credit, the USGBC has learned from criticism and successfully broadened its perspective over the years — with LEED for Neighborhoods and On-Campus and Multiple Building Certification — but it is still not a perfect system. What SITES aims to do is take some pressure off of LEED by addressing the site and landscape specifically; not to compete with the USGBC’s efforts, but rather to support and complement them. The two agencies have worked together, sharing information and research, since the very beginning, and for mutual benefit. In addition to this, discussions are underway between SITES and the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), the organization that oversees the certification process for various green building programs, including LEED, for GBCI to handle oversight for the SITES certification once the new guidelines come out.

In order to test the guidelines and ratings and correct as many potential problems as possible upfront, SITES conducted an extensive pilot program between 2010 and 2012. At this point, feedback from this program is being studied and applied to the 2013 SITES Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks, which is scheduled to be released this fall. More than 150 projects were submitted as pilots, with about 20 percent of them self-identified in the institutional/education category. Of the 15 projects that have been certified to date (dozens more are still going through the certification process), four have been on university campuses: The University of Texas at Arlington, Cornell University, Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, and Duke University. Each of these projects is basically a standalone landscape; something LEED would not be able to effectively handle. Each is a good example of how colleges and universities are designing and managing their campuses in increasingly innovative and comprehensive ways in regards to stormwater management, water use, transit, landscape maintenance, and site ecology. Having a way to showcase this work through SITES certification will, in theory, not only provide positive buzz for the institutions, but also elevate the important role the landscape plays in creating sustainable campuses.

Looking Ahead

SITES does face some major obstacles in becoming common practice on campus projects, however. For one, the certification process — at least through the pilot process — is cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive. Funding landscape projects not attached to buildings is never an easy thing on most campuses, and adding cost to what may already be minimal budgets could prove to be a challenge.

The bigger problem that I see, however, is an apparently fading interest in LEED and other ratings programs. Green design and construction is no longer something that separates institutions, but, rather, is a common baseline from which most everyone starts; achieving LEED certification, which was heralded a decade ago, means far less today. Colleges and universities, which typically construct buildings to last 50 or 100 years, seem to be realizing that the idea of chasing points to meet a standardized, targeted goal may actually be holding them back from creating projects that are sustainable in a more holistic manner. If the trend moves away from demanding validation through third-party organizations, then SITES will face an uphill battle gaining traction in the higher education sector.

What is far more important than these cautions, however, is that regardless of whether SITES lives up to any preconceived idea of what its success looks like, it will provide a wealth of research, methodology, and best practices related to site development that landscape architects, civil engineers, contractors, and clients will be able to use in the design and creation of more ecologically sound and healthier places on campuses, in cities, and the world around us. In that sense, SITES cannot get here fast enough. 

Mark H. Hough, PLA, ASLA, is
campus landscape architect for Duke University.