Eternally green: Bala Cynwyd cemetery achieves SITES certification for sustainable landscape design

Eternally green: Bala Cynwyd cemetery achieves SITES certification for sustainable landscape design

Fall 2018 | Written by Catherine Shannon

After a week of unrelenting rain in June of 2018, Dave Witek wasn’t expecting West Laurel Hill’s Nature Sanctuary to look very pretty. “The day before my visit, there was another huge rainstorm, and I was expecting to arrive to a lot of mud,” says Witek, who, in addition to overseeing finances and operations for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is also the program lead for SITES certification. But when he walked onto the 0.68-acre plot, nestled in the 187-acre West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, bordering the western edge of Philadelphia, he was pleasantly surprised. The wildflowers were in bloom, a comfortable breeze blew through, the air smelled of spring. “It looked like not a drop had ever come down there. I had to ask someone if it had,” he says. “But then again, because the site had been developed to withstand a 95th percentile storm with native plants, a rain garden, and pathways with natural filtration, I should’ve known better.”

West Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Nature Sanctuary is perhaps one of the most unique projects to achieve SITES Gold (developed by the Sustainable SITES Initiative). SITES project types typically include public parks and gardens, trail and bike paths, streetscape designs, commercial and educational campuses, and more. And like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified projects, not only is the final space functional in regard to climate regulation, carbon storage, and flood mitigation, but it’s also beautiful and enhances the well-being of those who frequent it.

But West Laurel Hill Nature Sanctuary is not, at least at first glance, your typical SITES project. While most may assume this is solely a public park (as indicated by the “nature sanctuary” part of its title), it’s actually, first and foremost, a green cemetery—the first of its kind to receive a SITES designation in the country. Which begs the question: Why apply green infrastructure strategies to a cemetery?

Above: As the first cemetery to ever achieve SITES certification, Alta Planning + Design’s primary design objectives for this project included creating a green cemetery that was going to be an ecological system designed to care for and manage itself, restore the damaged site, and transform the space into an ecologically diverse native habitat.

Above: Alta Planning + Design was the lead landscape architect on West Laurel Hill. The goal was to restore the landscape to a sustainable and thriving ecosystem. The project began by removing invasive plant species and then amending the soil.

Above: West Laurel Hill achieved Sites Gold. Site remediation included amending soil so it could support native plants again.

“Because of the nature of what a cemetery is—a final and forever resting place—it calls for perpetual eternal care,” says Adam Supplee, lead landscape architect on the project and principal at Alta Planning + Design, a firm with more than 30 offices across North America that specializes in planning, design, and building of public outdoor spaces. “That involves lawnmowers, weed whackers, chemicals to keep invasive plants at bay. That’s the opposite of a self-sustaining, healthy space.”

Established in 2008, after years of functioning as an urban dump site for the larger cemetery, the sanctuary’s goal was precisely that. In addition to offering a green burial option for the community (intended to minimize the environmental impacts of death), West Laurel Hill was looking to restore the landscape to a sustainable, thriving ecosystem by assisting the space in an ecological succession—beginning as a meadow, advancing to a successional forest, and eventually becoming a full-formed woodland. After managing the project themselves, West Laurel Hill brought in Alta Planning + Design in 2013 to take a look at what they were doing.

“We really wanted to do it right,” says Nancy Goldenberg, president and CEO at Laurel Hill Cemetery and West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Funeral Home, “because we wanted this cemetery to become an area for learning more about sustainability and nature. The team at Alta really got that.”

Alta Planning + Design completed the majority of the construction between 2015 and 2016, and wrapped everything up in 2017. The project started with removing invasive plant species with the help of a herd of goats brought in to graze (which still live on site to perform natural weeding maintenance in place of fuel-guzzling lawnmowers). Next came amending the soil to bring it back to a state where it would once again be able to support native plants. That did not require hauling anything away, but simply removing the topsoil, screening it, adding organic compost from a nearby municipality, and returning it to the site all by hand.

Above: Adam Supplee is a principal at Alta Planning + Design.

Above: The sanctuary has also proven to be a place that promotes health and wellness for visiting families.

As for materials, most came right from the site, reducing the amount of overall items purchased and transported, as well as ensuring as little as possible went to the dump. “All the stone we excavated served as our edging along the pathways, as well as the freestanding wall (engraved with the names of those resting on the grounds) that frames the site,” says Supplee. “Even the current rough-hewn benches—which will eventually be phased out because they won’t last forever—will be replaced with benches made from on-site boulders cut with a site saw.” Crushed concrete served as a base for the path system.

Perhaps the most important component of the project, as Witek personally witnessed himself, is how they handled rainwater. In addition to native plantings, which allow water to more effectively soak into the ground, a beautiful rain garden was placed just on the edge of the sanctuary’s hill, preventing runoff from flowing into a nearby rail trail. The rain garden can accept up to 5,700 cubic feet of water in a 24-hour storm period. No irrigation required.

“We never had any intention of going for SITES,” explains Supplee. “Just to simply follow the guidelines and push the envelope in terms of what we could do.” But as they progressed and checked off more and more boxes on the SITES scorecard, they realized they were potentially a qualified candidate for the certification.

The result isn’t just a SITES-certified site, nor a restored one, nor an ecological system designed to largely care for and manage itself. It’s that and more: an environmental oasis of a native meadow—the first phase of succession—that offers loved ones a place to take a meditative stroll or quietly reflect.

“In addition to hitting all the checkboxes SITES requires in terms of water, soil and plants, and materials, there’s also a box for human health and well-being,” notes Witek. “That means improved human health and increased outdoor recreation opportunities. Indeed, this is a place to gather and go find mindfulness.”

Kim Roy
The Health of Our BuildingsRead more
Green Women
Women Leading in Green Around the World Read more
Langford Park Orlando
Orlando: A Model for Urban SustainabilityRead more
Education CornerRead more
Colgate LEED
The Colgate-Palmolive Manufacturing Facility in New Jersey Achieves LEED Zero WasteRead more
The Armory
Heritage Assets: Portland Center Stage at The ArmoryRead more
rachelle schoessler lynn
LEED Fellow: Rachelle Schoessler LynnRead more
Barbara Lawrence
Teaching Sustainability in PrisonsRead more
Modern Office
10 Green Jobs with High Growth Potential Read more
advocacy group photo
Advocacy and Policy UpdateRead more
crane and workers
Sponsored: Construction ContractsRead more
Ashley Fowler
USGBC's Ashley Fowler on Keeping the Conversation GoingRead more
Seattle Public Market
Baltimore, Seattle and Oakland put environmental and economic justice at the center of their green...Read more
Through public and private leadership, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have made significant leaps in LEED certifications...Read more
EV charging station
Top 10 Green Building products for a changing climateRead more
Discovery Elementary School
First three LEED zero energy projects show the market what’s possibleRead more
Little Rock Station 23
First Responder buildings become leaders in sustainable design across the United StatesRead more
The latest report from C40 Cities is one part call to action and one part...Read more
Sarah Talkington
The manager of Austin Energy Green Building’s commercial team leads the way to provide...Read more
bob berkebilen
Q&A with Bob Berkebile, Chairman of the American Institute of Architects' National Committee on...Read more
Creating a living standardRead more
Living Standard research shows storytelling advances the sustainability conversationRead more
atlanta kids painting wall
Atlanta finds new ways to create a greener, more equitable futureRead more
Jamie Margolin featured image
Jamie Margolin’s climate action movement gathers momentumRead more
Around and Around featured image
Manufacturers use Cradle to Cradle principles to achieve a circular economyRead more
Native American Connections’ LEED Platinum housing supports recoveryRead more
LEED Fellow Daniele Horton helps clients achieve sustainability across portfoliosRead more
Kandeda Building Featured Image
The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable DesignRead more
San Diego County’s energy-saving strategies led to LEED PlatinumRead more
Stargazing featured image
Interface makes rapid progress toward net zero goalsRead more
Nadav Malin
Get to know Nadav Malin of BuildingGreenRead more
Introducing a new way to test your knowledge of the stories and strategies presented in...Read more
From USGBC: Exploring the benefits of green buildings near and farRead more
LEED in your backyard: Sustainable summer vacation destinations in the U.S.Read more
Hawaii: A model state for a sustainable and independent economyRead more
From high-performance buildings to AI technology, California is a hotbed for emerging resilience strategiesRead more
Marriott’s sustainability and social impact program aims for large-scale changeRead more
Chris Ladner, LEED Fellow, puts Arkansas on the sustainability mapRead more
Interface calls for industry collaboration to address embodied carbonRead more
Taipei 101 Tower pushes new heights for super-tall buildings and sustainable artRead more
In conversation with Skanska USA’s Chief Sustainability Officer Elizabeth HeiderRead more
Introducing a new way to test your knowledge of the stories and strategies presented in...Read more
USGBC’s Taryn Holowka on the changing state of the green building industryRead more
Building a sustainability-fluent workforce for Tennessee’s construction sectorRead more
Unveiling RELi 2.0: piloting a new standard for sustainability, resilienceRead more
Advancing healthy interiors with LEED v4.1Read more
Solving for the first/last mile: micro-mobility looks to bridge city transportation gapsRead more
Embracing disruptive design with Leyla AcarogluRead more
The rise of distributed energy: what it means for utilities, consumers and green infrastructureRead more
How LEED Fellow Dana Kose got her unexpected startRead more
Austin storage facility becomes first of its kind to achieve LEED PlatinumRead more
Interview with Bill Browning, partner at Terrapin Bright GreenRead more
Introducing a new way to test your knowledge of the stories and strategies presented in...Read more
LEED’s broad applicability in Europe: from Sweden, to Italy to GermanyRead more
UN Young Leader Karan Jerath on climate changeRead more
LEED Cities shun a one-size-fits all approach to sustainabilityRead more
Schools worldwide achieve sustainability goals through data, experiential learningRead more
What’s next for LEED: v4.1, recertification and LEED ZeroRead more
The four commandments of sustainable co-working spacesRead more
We are still in: USGBC reports back on progress toward Paris commitmentsRead more
LEED’s broad applicability in Europe: from Sweden, to Italy to GermanyRead more
Moving the needle with longtime sustainability leader and LEED Fellow Mary Ann LazarusRead more
The Space Needle completes first phase of Century ProjectRead more
Interview with Dave Witek, COO of Arc Skoru, IncRead more
USGBC’s Mahesh Ramanujam: The future of the human race is intertwined with the planetRead more
The Windy City embraces its environmental legacy ahead of Greenbuild 2018Read more
Interface’s Climate Take Back Initiative Aims to Reverse Global Warming, One Tile at a...Read more
EPA grants millions in funding to research green building impacts on health, performance in schoolsRead more
Survey says: Employees are happier, healthier and more productive in LEED buildings Read more
Eternally green: Bala Cynwyd cemetery achieves SITES certification for sustainable landscape design Read more
A look at how McDonald’s, Bank of America, and Colgate-Palmolive are advancing UN SDGs...Read more
New York native Harry Gordon: Architect, advocate and green building legendRead more
New USGBC-commissioned case study examines Boston’s resilience, emergency preparednessRead more
Chicago’s theMART leverages the Arc platform as it eyes a new LEED certificationRead more
Interview with Wight and Company’s chief sustainability officer Lois Vitt SaleRead more
NYC chief sustainability officer talks energy innovation in the Big AppleRead more
Costa Rica’s LEED-certified Olas Verdes surf hotel gives local community an economic boostRead more
As South Africa’s water crisis continues, the nation’s building industry pushes for conservation...Read more
A new wave of activists and businesses is tackling food waste worldwideRead more
The tiny house movement goes mobile in Florida with help from volunteers Read more
NYU Langone Health overhauls its power system, emphasizing resilience using PEERRead more
Intel, Autodesk making inroads in industry, innovation and infrastructure Read more
LEED pilot credit for building materials helps clarify potential health, safety and environmental impacts Read more
Kath Williams: A self-proclaimed 'old-fashioned' Montana girl’s journey into sustainabilityRead more
Go inside the LEED Platinum home of actor and activist Ed Begley Jr.Read more
Interview with Lance Hosey, architect and LEED FellowRead more
Mayor Bowser’s vision for a green D.C.Read more
Industry leaders sound off on the trajectory of the U.S. green building marketRead more
New streamlining for building code makes it easier to achieve green projectsRead more
Designing for human health is the next frontier in sustainable buildingRead more
Educators eye green building strategies to enhance K-12 curriculum, career preparationRead more
Saint Paul is on the cutting edge of decarbonizationRead more
MARS tackles quality of life challenges for farmers in alignment with U.N. Sustainable Development...Read more
For schools, net zero energy design provides more than cost-saving benefitsRead more
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has been in existence for 25 years, and Leadership...Read more
High-performing, energy-efficient homes dominate millennial real estate marketRead more
Interview with Emily Pilloton, Founder and Executive Director, Project H Design/Girls GarageRead more
USGBC’s certification programs encourage innovation in sustainability on a much broader scale than ever...Read more
In coastal Vina del Mar, the fuel and energy company COPEC SA is working with...Read more
Mirabella, a new community in Florida, creates 158 sustainable houses specified to USGBC’s highest standards.Read more
LEED On letter from Rep. Chris LeeRead more
HP creates a breathtaking and sustainable landscape for its Boise campusRead more
Toyota’s new Lone Star State headquarters showcases the company’s singular vision of sustainabilityRead more
Rhode Island takes another huge step toward expanding its green infrastructureRead more
Q & A with Andy To, managing director of GBCI North AsiaRead more