Sustainable SITES to See

What LEED is to green architecture, SITES is to sustainable outdoor design. Will it find a foothold in thirsty Southern Nevada?

George “Doc” Cavallier Park playground. Photo by Bill Timmerman

George “Doc” Cavallier Park playground. Photo by Bill Timmerman

On a cool spring morning, landscape architect Chris Brown walks through George “Doc” Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona, pointing out sustainable features of the 34-acre park. Native plantings dot the park, and several ancient mesquite trees were incorporated into its design. All around are maintenance-free materials: gabion walls for stormwater-retention basins, lines sandblasted on the basketball court so they don’t need to be repainted, artificial turf–made of old plastic bags. The sun-shelter’s roof harvests rainwater and is adorned with solar panels. The park, Brown says, is net zero—meaning it produces as much energy as it uses.

Brown is the principal of Floor Associates, the Phoenix firm that designed the park; he’s also a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The park has won several regional design awards, but for Brown the main point of pride is that the park is one of just 30 pilot projects in the U.S. to be certified by the Sustainable Sites Initiative, known as SITES. It was the first-ever batch of certifications for the recently launched program, which recognizes landscape designs for their sustainable planning, design, construction and maintenance.

While there were no Nevada landscapes among the pilot projects, Las Vegas landscape professionals believe it won’t be long before projects statewide begin seeking SITES certification. “We push for sustainability in all our landscape projects,” says Las Vegas landscape architect Brad Theurer, president of the ASLA’s Nevada chapter. “No doubt, there are projects out there now in Nevada that could be SITES certified.”

Exactly what is SITES, and how does it work?

In a nutshell, it is the landscape-only equivalent to the U.S. Green Building Council’s widely accepted LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating system, which focuses more on buildings, rating them for a wide array of strategies, such as the use of recycled-content materials, low-water-use plumbing fixtures and the building’s proximity to a transit corridor.

Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes.  Photo by Denmarsh Photography

Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes. Photo by Denmarsh Photography

“There was a need for a stand-alone, sustainable rating system for projects without buildings, such as parks, or projects where only the landscape is being renovated,” SITES program director Danielle Pieranunzi says. “We developed SITES as a complement and a supplement to LEED.”

The SITES program had its origins in the mid-2000s, when the national ASLA began working on sustainable design and development issues, as did the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The two groups joined forces in 2005 and, a year later, were joined by the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., to develop sustainable benchmarks for landscapes.

By 2009, SITES launched its pilot program, putting out a call in the United States and internationally for projects. About 350 were submitted, and the number was narrowed to 162; to date, just 30 have earned accreditation. Besides, Brown’s Scottsdale park, certified projects include a single-family home in Pennsylvania, the renovation of the landscape at the Albuquerque federal courthouse, and the 105-acre Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center in Colorado. The rating system awards one to four stars to the projects. The Scottsdale Park received an impressive three stars; so far, only one project—Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes, an arboretum in Pittsburgh—has received four. (That 3-acre site was once a paved-over maintenance yard and brownfield. Now it’s an educational facility that boasts net zero on both energy and water usage.) Next up, SITES plans to start not only certifying projects but accrediting specially qualified landscape professionals, similar to the LEED program’s certification of architects.

Nevada’s landscape pros are ready to embrace SITES, Theurer says.

“We’ve been designing sustainably here for more than 20 years,” he says. “We have to, because we don’t have the luxury of water here. We’ve learned to create beautiful landscapes with our limited resources. In a way, we’ve been doing our own pilot program for SITES.”