The new Sustainable Sites Initiative or SITES for short is a the first national rating system for sustainable landscapes, and is modeled after the USGBC's LEED rating system for green buildings. Led by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the U.S. Botanic Garden, the SITES program has set out to promote and ensure that sustainable landscape design has the same credence as buildings. We think this new national rating system has the potential to make a major impact on landscape architecture, so we hooked up with the CEO of ASLA, Nancy Somerville, to get the low down on SITES, how it works and why it's different from LEED certification.
Inhabitat: Can you give us a brief overview of Sustainable Sites Initiative?
Nancy: The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) is an interdisciplinary partnership between the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the U.S. Botanic Garden to create the first sustainability rating system for designed landscapes of all kinds, with or without buildings. We’re currently testing the rating system with more than 150 pilot projects from around the country, plus several international projects located in Canada, Iceland and Spain.
Inhabitat: What are the main areas that are addressed with the standards?
Nancy: The rating system covers nine areas: site selection; pre-design assessment and planning; water; soil and vegetation; materials; human health and well-being; construction; maintenance; and monitoring/innovation. More broadly speaking, the rating system can be applied to sites like brownfields, transportation corridors, corporate campuses, streetscapes, parking lots, and even single family homes.
Inhabitat: How will this certification program improve landscape architecture?
Nancy: We envision SITES as a program that will transform and improve the entire design and construction industry. Sustainability has always been a core value of the landscape architects. But, outside of the profession, there has been very little real understanding of what is required to make a site sustainable. Most people assume that anything that looks green really is “green,” i.e., sustainable. SITES will help the whole design and construction industry, as well as the broader public, understand what is actually involved in making a site sustainable.
Inhabitat: What are the major goals? To reduce water and energy usage, or is it more?
Nancy: While sustainable landscapes can significantly reduce water use, utility bills and maintenance costs, the benefits go well beyond dollars and cents. Landscapes can regenerate polluted brownfields, clean the air and water, restore habitats, sequester carbon, reduce the urban heat island effect and so much more. I would say the larger goal is ultimately to transform the marketplace and how we think about our designed spaces so that we can find an equilibrium between the built and natural environments.
Inhabitat: Is there a monitoring and verification period to ensure the site runs according to spec?
Nancy: A substantial amount of verification is built into the certification process. For example, one of the prerequisites is restoring the soil that is disturbed during construction. Soil tests and other documentation– for example, receipts from purchase of compost or soil amendments– are required to prove that soil restoration has occurred. Projects can also earn points towards certification through an ongoing monitoring program, but that isn’t a prerequisite.
Inhabitat: You describe the system to be similar to USGBC’s LEED system. How does your program cover a need that isn’t already addressed within LEED?
Nancy: When we first explored the concept of a new rating system, the standard-bearer in the marketplace was (and continues to be) LEED. However, LEED’s central focus is on buildings, so it doesn’t address all of the natural resource issues that are fundamental to site and landscape sustainability. Also, LEED was never intended to apply to designed sites that don’t have buildings. USGBC sees SITES as complementing LEED, and has strongly supported the SITES project since its inception.
Inhabitat: Do you think Sustainable Sites might ever join forces with USGBC? And if so, in what way?
Nancy: We’re already working with USGBC in a number of ways. SITES has greatly benefited and learned from USGBC and the LEED rating systems. Almost half of the prerequisites and credits in SITES are based in part on credits in LEED NC or LEED ND, and some of the SITES Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks 2009 have already been incorporated into drafts of the next edition of LEED.
Long-term, we’re also looking at alignment in other ways, such as how a LEED certified building would fit into SITES certification and vice versa, and how to align requirements so that documentation for certification in one system would also be applicable to the other. USGBC was very helpful throughout the development of the SITES guidelines and rating system, and the USGBC and GBCI staff and volunteers are continuing to provide critical guidance and input.
Inhabitat: Do you need any special training to use the certification program? Will you be offering courses soon?
I think it’s fair to say that achieving certification in SITES for any project will require the involvement of design professionals. It’s important to note, though, that the SITES guidelines and principles can be applied to projects outside of the certification process—and we want to see the SITES guidelines used as broadly as possible.
We’re in the process now of exploring different education options on SITES – ranging from a professional certificate to an accreditation program similar to LEED AP. We’re also planning a workshop on SITES at the ASLA Annual Meeting, along with several other sessions around the country. We keep an updated list of presentations on the SITES website.
Inhabitat: Who or what organization was the impetus to start the program?
Nancy: In early 2000, we heard from our ASLA members that there was a need for a site and landscape-focused rating system to fill the gaps that existed in LEED. At the same time, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin was having similar conversations. Fritz Steiner, Dean of the UT School of Architecture and a Fellow of the ASLA, helped bring us together in 2005. The United States Botanic Garden joined in 2006 as the third partner, and a number of other organizations have also participated in the Initiative. We have a full list of organizations here: www.sustainablesites.org/participants
Inhabitat: Roughly how much does it cost to get a project certified?
Nancy: Certification fees haven’t been established yet since we’re still in the pilot program. Fees for the pilot projects ranged from $500 to $5,000, based on overall project budget.
Inhabitat: Can individual home owners get their site certified? Or are there minimum size requirements?
Nancy: There are several residential projects participating in the pilot program, and single family homes will certainly have the opportunity to participate in SITES. For the pilot program, projects had to meet a minimum size of 2,000 square feet.
Inhabitat: So far how many sites are seeking certification? And when do you anticipate awarding certifications?
Nancy: We currently more than 150 projects in the pilot program, and we certainly hope all will achieve some level of SITES certification. We anticipate the first projects to be SITES Certified sometime this year.
Inhabitat: What are your working on right now and what does the future hold?
Nancy: Our focus right now is the pilot program. We’re doing everything we can to learn from the first projects how to systematically use SITES – what are the challenges in meeting the credits, how can we clarify requirements or streamline documentation, are there regional differences we need to account for, and so on. In addition, we’re working with USGBC Technical Advisory Groups on increasing the collaboration between LEED and SITES.
When the pilot project phase concludes, we will make changes to the rating system based on what we have learned, publish a revised Guidelines, and open certification to any project that wants to participate. Based on the very high level of interest we’ve already seen in SITES, we expect that use of the SITES guidelines and SITES certification will grow quickly—and that’s very good news for everyone who cares about the environment and the livability of our communities.
Thanks Nancy for taking the time to answer all our questions and fill us in on this new program. Now it’s time for all you landscape architects to bone up on your skills and start learning the standards and principles.
Images Courtesy of the Sustainable Sites Initiative