A LEED-Inspired Model for Landscapes

June 22, 2016

The Sustainable SITES v2 Rating System aims to do for the outdoors what LEED has done for buildings.

While the debate over climate change continues to churn, the building industry forges ahead with sustainable design and construction practices.

Thanks to the widespread adoption of the LEED rating system, an estimated 40-48% of all new nonresidential construction projects this year are considered green. LEED-certified buildings have realized 34% lower CO2 emissions, consume 25% less energy and 11% less water, and have diverted more than 80 million tons of waste from landfills, according to USGBC.

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Still, green buildings alone can’t sufficiently diminish the nation’s carbon emission levels. Fortunately, a range of landscape strategies can help reduce GHG emissions by 50-85% by 2050, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Many communities are already feeling the effects of climate change, and ASLA reports that landscape adaptation measures are underway worldwide.

The Sustainable SITES Initiative

The Sustainable SITES Rating System represents one of the most promising frameworks for managing climate, carbon storage and flood mitigation. SITES is owned and managed by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which also administers LEED. Modeled after LEED, SITES includes best practices in landscape architecture, ecological restoration and related fields as well as knowledge gained through peer-reviewed literature, case-study precedents and projects registered in the SITES pilot program. According to GBCI, SITES was developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of ASLA, the United States Botanic Garden, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

“In its inception, SITES was intended to be a ‘LEED for landscapes and open spaces,’” explains Jamie Statter, Vice President, Strategic Relationships at USGBC. “Recognizing that LEED had such tremendous market transformation power, the folks that look beyond the building wanted to replicate a similar model for the work that they do in hopes that it would jumpstart significant sustainability efforts in the unbuilt part of our environment.”

Like LEED, SITES certification is based on a point system. The number of points that a project earns determines the certification level: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum (see box on page 18 for point categories). The SITES certification process allows projects to benchmark against performance criteria by using SITES Online, a simplified tool designed to collect documentation and track projects from start to finish.

Related: LEED Certification Tips: Water Efficiency

The rating system can be applied to development projects located on sites with or without buildings – ranging from national parks to corporate campuses, streetscapes, homes and more. By providing performance measures rather than prescribing practices, SITES supports the unique conditions of each site, encouraging project teams to be flexible and creative as they develop beautiful, functional and regenerative landscapes.

How It Works

Before a site – defined by GBCI as “the physical location or land on which a project is developed” – can participate in the program, it must meet certain requirements, but containing a building isn’t one of them. The minimum size for participation in the program is 2,000 square feet (there is no maximum), and it applies to both new construction and existing building sites that include major renovations.

SITES is designed to accommodate pre-existing conditions, regional differences and various types of  locations, including urban, suburban, rural, undeveloped or previously developed sites. Examples include:

  • Open spaces – botanic gardens, arboretums and local, state, and national parks
  • Streetscapes and plazas
  • Commercial – corporate campuses, retail and office areas
  • Residential – neighborhoods and individual yards
  • Educational/institutional – museums, hospitals, and public and private campuses
  • Infrastructure
  • Government and military
  • Industrial

Projects registered under the v2 Rating System can earn up to 200 points from 48 credit categories, which reflect a project’s impact on site sustainability and protecting and restoring ecosystems. According to GBCI, each credit is assigned a value in meeting one of four of goals:    

  1. Create regenerative systems and foster resiliency.
  2. Ensure future resource supply and mitigate climate change.
  3. Transform the market through design, development and maintenance practices.
  4. Enhance human well-being and strengthen community.

For projects that include buildings, the SITES program supports and encourages simultaneous certification with LEED, although the two programs are not currently optimized for compatibility.

“Right now, the ratings systems don’t actually speak to one another, but we are working on integrating these in the long run,” explains Statter. “Many building owners and facility managers are very familiar with LEED, and I think the important thing is that SITES totally complements LEED.”  

Reaping the Benefits

For projects that undergo the certification process, the benefits are many. For example, sustainable landscapes help reduce water demand, filter and reduce stormwater runoff, provide wildlife habitat, reduce energy consumption, improve air quality, improve human health and increase outdoor recreation opportunities.

While operational and maintenance cost savings are difficult to quantify due to limited performance data, Statter anticipates positive results for sites that achieve certification.

“For building and facility managers, there’s significant opportunity to improve their environmental performance beyond just the footprint of the building when it comes to the land that the building occupies,” Statter says. “We expect that users of SITES will see significant reduction in operations and maintenance costs.”

Beyond the numbers, Statter notes that tenants will enjoy increased access to beautiful spaces that are sustainable and healthy – a selling point that is difficult to put a price tag on.

And SITES is another way “to demonstrate commitment to sustainability that goes beyond just a building.”  

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Perkins+Will Office | Atlanta, GA

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