SITES Program Promotes Sustainable Landscape Design

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In the shadow of a large TV tower on the south campus of Grand Valley State University, ducks, geese and cranes gather in ponds ringed by native grasses and plant life.

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HOME OF THE LAKERS Runoff from Grand Valley State University's new athletic fields help supply adjacent wetlands. (Photo by Andy Schwallier/Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber Inc.)

In the shadow of a large TV tower on the south campus of Grand Valley State University, ducks, geese and cranes gather in ponds ringed by native grasses and plant life. Deer and eagle sightings are not uncommon, and a closer look finds rodents, turtles and insects in abundance. To the north, one might spot a more exotic species - rugby players - scrumming on a synthetic pitch, or track athletes running along a polyurethane track, or varsity soccer players competing on a natural surface maintained to championship standards. All this activity can be witnessed within 45 acres of university property in suburban Allendale, in the lower west region of Michigan, and all of it is exactly according to plan.

The GVSU plan was to restore campus storm water runoff to patterns not seen since before the university was founded in 1960 on land overlooking the Grand River, which flows into Lake Michigan. The school had already begun to design the new sports fields in 2009 when its civil engineer of record approached GVSU officials about the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITESTM), a partnership between the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin and Washington, D.C.'s United States Botanic Garden. GVSU became one of more than 150 pilot projects, helping the fledgling SITES program "create voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance practices," as stated on its website.

The GVSU project - which incorporated the sports field construction with the manmade storm water management complex in phases so as not to disturb activity on the school's adjacent golf course (aptly named "The Meadows") - achieved SITES certification in November 2012. As of this writing, it remained one of only a dozen pilot projects to achieve certification, with more pilot certifications pending. It is also the only certified project to involve athletic fields, much less ones made out of synthetic materials. "SITES is not tailored for these types of surfaces, so obtaining certain credits was more difficult," says project manager Scott Whisler, a LEED AP (accredited professional) in GVSU's facilities planning department.

GVSU seeks LEED Silver certification in all new campus building construction, Whisler adds, so working with SITES guidelines on a landscape project was a natural fit. Given its unique familiarity with the athletic field component, the project team was even able to shape certain guidelines for the official SITES guidelines rollout this fall. "Being part of the pilot, we were able to give a lot of feedback to the SITES staff with regard to credits that may have been too limiting for certain project types," Whisler says. "For example, SITES has specific soil compaction densities that the project must maintain, but the playing fields need a certain density requirement that is different than typical grass areas. Several credits were adjusted to help sports fields earn points."

SITES has taken what LEED has done for sustainable building construction and applied the same principles to open spaces. "We're looking at the site from the building skin out, if you have a building at all," says SITES director and LEED AP Danielle Pieranunzi. "It fills a gap for some projects, such as parks or athletic fields, where there is no building to get certified."

Similar to the LEED rating system ranging from certified to platinum, SITES uses a four-star scale for its certification. "Being a national, voluntary tool for a diverse set of project types, sizes and locations, we modeled the SITES system after LEED in that you have base requirements and then optional credits, and a project needs enough points to get to certain levels of certification," Pieranunzi says. "So it's really about trying to find the best approach for achieving site sustainability for that place and that program."

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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW Synthetic rugby and track surfaces have found a place among the natural setting of GVSU's south campus, which includes The Meadows Golf Course. (Photo courtesy of Grand Valley State University)

According to SITES, landscape sustainability starts with site evaluation and progresses through design, construction and maintenance with an eye toward the site's ecosystem services. "That might be a new term for a lot of people, but basically it's looking at these built landscapes as providing benefits and services to humans and other organisms that natural systems provide free of charge - things like cleaning air, cleaning water, reducing urban heat island effect," says Pieranunzi, adding that the SITES credit system is framed around the concept of "trying to protect and regenerate those ecosystem services if they've been lost, if the site has been degraded."

A site evaluation might entail identifying areas that are thriving naturally, and doing everything possible to avoid disturbing those areas, while targeting already degraded areas for refurbishment.

Soil is often where site degradation takes root, but Pieranunzi points out that SITES emphasizes practical solutions. "Soil is the foundation that's going to ensure long-term success with your vegetation, and the less disturbance and care you have up front, the less expensive it's going to be and the more likely you can ensure healthy vegetation," Pieranunzi says. "We specify that you would restore soils in areas that you're going to revegetate. You're not necessarily going to restore soils where you're going to put sidewalks. So it's trying to gear development of a building or a road into those areas that are already degraded - kind of common sense, but not normal practice."

Stockpiling soils, as opposed to trucking in new volumes, is another recommended practice, and one that scored points for Grand Valley. "Our initial design for the recreation fields called for the use of the storm water project spoils to raise the ground level of the recreation fields and to promote effective drainage under the artificial surfaces," says James Moyer, the university's associate vice president for facilities planning. "Our initial challenge was to achieve a soil balance between the two projects."

The storm water management complex had to be sized, as the GVSU case study states, "to create adequate storage volumes for runoff, encourage evaporation and plant uptake, and create viable ecosystems for habitat." More than 180,000 cubic yards of soil were excavated and compacted within the site's boundaries, and the fact that Allendale's soil makeup is heavy on clay and not conducive to turfgrass viability led designers to specify synthetic surfaces for much of the sports complex, with the exception of the existing soccer field and the track throws area. As a result, proper drainage of those synthetic surfaces became a special design priority. Says Whisler, "Drainage from the playing surfaces, including the track, is routed to the storm water management complex for a slow release while also providing an environment for different habitat." Eventually, adds Moyer, collected storm water will be used to irrigate the soccer field, which currently taps the university's domestic water supply.

Creating suitable habitat involved removing dead trees and rescuing others, planting live stakes (tree cuttings), building sand mounds that protrude from the water surface and seeding grasses around it - all as part of an $11 million project budget. "We believe a smart design with energy-efficient equipment, healthy materials and a quality work environment is a worthwhile effort," Whisler says. "A certification is not needed to accomplish this effort, but it helps to keep you on track and challenge the design team and owners alike to think outside the box."

Being in elite company is nothing new for GVSU, particularly in the athletics realm. The Lakers have earned 11 consecutive top-two finishes in the Division II Directors' Cup standings, including a run of eight straight titles between 2004 and 2011. But this new landscaping serves more than student-athletes. "The primary mission of the university is education," Moyer says. "The overall site has provided an excellent outdoor lab for the sciences. We have several student-involved research projects under way, and more are being planned. These construction projects, when combined with research, will result in a better-informed graduate and a more-involved graduate."

Involving established experts from the very beginning is recommended to making such projects possible, according to Pieranunzi. "A critical component of SITES is to have an integrated design team, having different expertise at the table early on," she says. "Whether it's landscape architects or biologists or architects or engineers, have them in as part of the process - from predesign to design and construction - so everyone can understand each other's perspectives and the value of the site itself before a design is made."

Is SITES poised to truly make a difference in the grand but fragile design that is our larger environment? "I'm optimistic that we are," Pieranunzi says. "I think as long as there's a continual evaluation and feedback loop of what we're doing and how we're measuring things and that we think ahead and actually continue that mindset and those practices over time, then I think that we'll get somewhere for sure."

"Given the ongoing scarcity of resources and the degradation of the environment - both natural and built - the green movement is one of the many tools that should be employed to enable a better future for all living creatures," Moyer says. "If we can reduce consumption and recycle existing materials, we have an opportunity to slow consumption and extend the availability of resources."

Moyer then turns to nature to further make his point. "This should be viewed like the efforts of an ant," he says. "One ant working alone does not appear to accomplish very much, yet the family as a whole can move mountains."

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