Services & Maintenance: Greener Groundskeeping

By Danielle Pieranunzi
From the April 2014 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Greener Groundskeeping
At the Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse in Albuquerque, NM, a sustainable landscape renovation included the use of landscape patterns derived from regional and site history. (Photo: Robert Reck.)

As streamlined efficiency and waste reduction continue to be primary drivers in facility operations and maintenance practices, the often overlooked potential of the landscape has become a critical component of many development projects.

Landscapes are distinct in that they have the capacity to enhance and regenerate collective natural capital. Rather than simply minimizing damage, a sustainable landscape can actually improve the environmental quality of a place by providing flooding and storm surge protection, carbon sequestration, temperature moderation, and other ecosystem services, which are often underestimated or ignored when making land use decisions. Many of these environmental improvements also deliver associated economic and social benefits.

As a starting point for any development project, the SITES™ rating system can provide a comprehensive set of guidelines and benchmarks for the landscape components of projects, including soil, vegetation, water, materials, and human health and well-being. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES) is a program that has set out to transform the market and professional practice. Modeled after the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system, the SITES rating system is a set of voluntary guidelines and performance based metrics for sustainable land design and development.

Greener Groundskeeping
In St. Charles, MO, this pavilion overlooks the improved aquatic habitat at the headquarters of Novus International. (Photo: SWT Design.)

Once projects are built, effective maintenance, monitoring, and reporting of performance data are key to understand and improve a landscape’s contributions to the built environment and infrastructure. These aspects of development projects are also addressed in the SITES rating system. This approach benefits clients, facility owners, and governments who are increasingly asking for quantitative, credible data to support upfront and long-term investments in site design, construction, and maintenance.

The nine acre Novus International headquarters landscape in St. Charles, MO was one of the first pilot projects to achieve SITES certification using the SITES 2009 rating system (“version 1”). Although the company’s headquarters earned a LEED Platinum rating in 2009, Novus’ then-president and CEO saw a greater need to communicate the organization’s mission beyond its walls. This motivation came after a flood in 2009 when resulting stormwater runoff threatened the building’s underfloor ventilation system and global computer network. A two year landscape redevelopment project resulted, designed by SWT Design of St. Louis, MO.

Among the many sustainable features implemented, the site’s retention pond was redesigned from the existing engineered basin into an amenity for employees and habitat for wildlife. In its 2012 SITES certification year, Novus benefited from a 12% reduction in annual maintenance costs from the year prior to implementation. Since then, these costs have continued to decline annually, and in 2014 Novus anticipates a 47% reduction in maintenance costs after just two years of growth and maturity. To supplement these maintenance cost savings, on-site renewable energy efforts, including solar panels and a wind spire, offset enough energy to power the parking lot and pedestrian lights and to provide irrigation for a vegetable and herb garden. To produce a healthy, functioning landscape, those involved in the design process require foresight into how it is operated and maintained for the long term. To encourage a collaborative, transparent process, the SITES rating system requires that every project team encompass diverse disciplines—including a professional with expertise in maintenance—to inform the site design.

American University Green Roof
This green roof at the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC was a component of a SITES pilot project. (Photo: Paul Davis.)

The input from maintenance professionals at the inception of a project is critical to understand how a design will meet its long-term sustainability goals. Michael Mastrota, landscape architect at American University in Washington, DC, which also received SITES certification for a pilot project, states, “Participation in SITES helped us think ‘out of the box’ not only on our SITES project but also across our campus and has changed the way we approach our daily operations.”

Sustainable maintenance strategies are threaded throughout the SITES rating system, particularly in the “Site Design” sections covering water, soil, and vegetation. For instance, critical sensitive features such as floodplains, wetlands, and wildlife habitat require expertise in ecology and natural resource management in order to maintain natural functions effectively.

Blue Hole Regional Park in Wimberley, TX, another of the 30 pilot projects certified to date, had to rewrite its criteria for its site manager position to suit the particular conditions of this 126 acre site. For example, the site manager had to be knowledgeable in maintaining native grasses, which require much less mowing and watering than conventional turf grasses. It is also important for the manager to have knowledge of rain gardens and other stormwater features to ensure their long-term effectiveness at managing stormwater runoff at this recreational facility based around a spring fed creek.

In addition to the many maintenance requirements throughout the SITES rating system, a specific section on “Operations and Maintenance” is included to promote sustainable maintenance regimes further. As a base requirement (i.e., prerequisite), a site maintenance plan must be developed before construction is completed. This is intended to maximize a site’s long-term potential in providing ecosystem services using strategies such as recycling organic waste (i.e., composting, mulching), minimizing or eliminating pesticide and fertilizer use, conserving energy and water, and using preventive and alternative control methods for managing pests and enhancing plant and soil vitality. By setting effective goals, using a collaborative design process, and taking advantage of building/site synergies, landscapes and the natural systems at work within them can be integrated into the overall sustainability aspirations for facilities.

Stuart Blakely, GSA property manager for the SITES certified Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse in Albuquerque, NM, says, “The SITES project has had an overall positive impact on operations and management. The favorable reception from both tenants and visitors promotes pride in federal ownership and further increases our dedication to maintaining the desired appearance and public impression of the courthouse.” Based on many of the pilot projects and additional recommendations from SITES staff and technical advisors, an updated version of the 2009 rating system, SITES v2, will be available for use in 2014. Major changes include relocated, combined, and new credits and prerequisites. SITES v2 will also contain additional information on how to achieve the goals outlined in the credits.

Greener Groundskeeping

Pieranunzi is the program director of the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™). Based at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, she has worked closely with technical experts from across the country researching and developing comprehensive, science based criteria for sustainable land design and development. She has also been overseeing review of pilot projects from around the world that are seeking to be certified as sustainable sites. She has spoken nationally and internationally on the SITES program and high performance landscapes since 2008.