Driving Sustainability Beyond the Building

Driving Sustainability Beyond the Building

General Services Administration has adopted SITES, a rating system that takes sustainability outside and into our landscapes.


By Alexandra DeLuca

Can landscape architecture help save the world? The way Christian Gabriel, the national design director for landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), describes the federal agency’s recent work in the field makes a compelling case for the affirmative.

Take, for an example, how an evolving approach to landscaping, such as delaying cleanup of vegetation that would have previously been deemed an eyesore, is creating crucial foraging space for honey bees—in a time when colonies and other pollinators are dying off at unprecedented rates, yet are responsible for more than 50 percent of the world’s food supply and $25 billion of the annual U.S. economy.

GSA’s efforts to counter this threat were prompted by a 2014 memorandum by President Obama, and it is a prime example of how the federal agency uses its diverse real estate portfolio comprising more than 140,000 acres of land to tackle “increasingly complex environmental and forward-thinking aspirational policies,” says Gabriel.

“We take these ideas and chase them within the context of designing a project that may be a laboratory for NASA, a federal courthouse, or a border station,” he says.

Embedding this sustainable thinking early on in the design process has been part of Gabriel’s purview since he joined GSA in 2012. The independent agency, which works across the whole of government to support real estate, acquisition, and technology services, has increasingly pivoted away from being solely building-focused to embracing whole site design.

Kites, by Jacob Hashimoto, was created specifically for the east and west atria of the historic GSA headquarters building in Washington, D.C. The artwork’s sky, water, and plant imagery highlights the importance of green practices in GSA’s mission. Photo: Ana L. Ka’ahanui

In line with this mission, and in addition to its Design Excellence Program, GSA formally announced in April that it had adopted the Green Business Certification Inc.’s (GBCI) Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES®) rating system for its capital construction program. Modeled after the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building program, SITES is the most comprehensive program for developing sustainable landscapes. Land is a crucial component of the built environment and can be planned, designed, developed, and maintained to protect and enhance the benefits we drive from healthy functioning landscapes. The SITES rating system drives sustainability beyond a building envelope by defining what a sustainable site is and, ultimately, elevating the value of landscapes in the built environment.

SITES is currently being used by landscape architects, designers, engineers, architects, developers, policy makers and more to align land development and management with innovative sustainable design. The rating system can be applied to development projects located on sites with or without buildings—ranging from national parks to corporate campuses, from streetscapes to gardens and much more. SITES helps create ecologically resilient communities and benefits the environment, property owners, and local and regional communities and economies.

GSA’s public building service is one of the largest and most diversified public real estate organizations in the world, with a portfolio of 376.9 million rentable square feet in 8,721 active assets. Incorporating SITES into the program ensures GSA projects meet environmental performance standards and federal goals. Gabriel says: “The SITES program offers GSA an effective and efficient way to compel site-related performance on our various project types. Our incorporation of the SITES certification program provides an added focus on the quality of our site development, clear performance standards, and third-party verification; all of which will help GSA meet its sustainability goals and ensure accountability in the actual performance of delivered projects. It’s great to have a thoughtful system in your back pocket like this.”

The framework of the SITES rating system is based on the concept of ecosystem services, the benefits provided by the natural ecological processes working all around us that support our daily lives. GSA’s utilization of SITES continues the federal government’s recent commitment to incorporating ecosystem services and green infrastructure in decision making. Last fall, the White House issued a memorandum for executive departments and agencies requiring that such considerations be incorporated in all federal decision making, writing, “Integrating ecosystem services into planning and decision-making can lead to better outcomes, fewer unintended consequences, and more efficient use of taxpayer dollars and other resources.” Traditional land development and land use decisions often underestimate or ignore healthy ecosystems, which provide vital contributions to economic and social well-being. SITES allows federal designers to utilize a performance-based approach to incorporate these important factors in all future projects.

Christian Gabriel, the national design director for landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration. Photo: Ana L. Ka’ahanui

Gabriel says SITES meshes well with his whole push—coupled with the executive order on green infrastructure—to provide ecosystem services. By pursuing SITES, Gabriel can achieve the following for site design: develop higher grade design themes through peer review; educate staff on integrated design in an environment where site work was not always a primary concern; create a landscape analytics program; and develop policy standards on site work.

The decision to adopt SITES was memorialized in the most recent version of GSA’s Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service document, which establishes design standards for new buildings’ infrastructure projects, and major and minor alterations and work in historic structures for the Public Buildings Service (PBS) of the GSA. This document contains both policy and technical criteria used in the programming design and documentation of GSA buildings and facilities.

United States Botanic Garden’s Bartholdi Park’s accessibility and irrigation have to be improved and so it has been redesigned as a Sustainable Sites Initiative using SITES v2.

United States Botanic Garden’s Bartholdi Park’s accessibility and irrigation have to be improved and so it has been redesigned as a Sustainable Sites Initiative using SITES v2.

Gabriel emphasizes the importance of understanding the elasticity of what landscape and landscape architecture encompass. “It is a special art,” he says. “It’s how the pieces constitute the whole site—from the infrastructure, civil, and technical engineering and horticulture.”

It also requires monumental coordination and collaboration by the GSA head office in Washington, D.C., and its 11 regional offices. Such is the case for designing the half dozen land ports of entry, which are an entirely new type of site in the United States. “A typical land port of entry is a 20- or 30-acre site that has to be hyper-engineered and hyper-designed to coordinate the movement of pedestrians or vehicles,” says Gabriel. “It’s like a choreographed dance.”

“Using SITES as essentially a proxy, it helps to deliver and compel environmental performance with a modest economic investment at the scale of the project we are talking about,” says Gabriel. “Certification in the early process of our projects helps create a system by which we can help the architects and engineers working for us understand how we are valuing certain aspects that may be overlooked in a more staid or traditional paradigm. This would include things such as hydrology, biodiversity, and how these projects manifest in the physical world.”

Gabriel adds that SITES has compelled GSA to work more collaboratively between the office of facilities management group and the office of design. This group effort can mean changes to irrigation and composting, applying chemicals to remove graffiti and clean flatwork, or the previously mentioned sensitivity to vegetation removal for pollinators. The growing field of data analytics in sustainability is applicable here as well, even if the goals are not immediately and easily measured and metered like a water or electric bill.

“We are entering a third year of our program where we are essentially looking at this in measurable terms,” says Gabriel. “We have partnered with the University of Maryland and the Landscape Architecture Foundation to look at a specific site in the Washington, D.C. area, everything from metering the site for heat island temperatures to putting string gauges that better allow us to understand how fast water is being processed and to address other water quality issues.”

“I hope to see more architects and landscape architects get into public service,” Gabriel says. “If not for a whole career, at least for a while. We need to keep raising the bar. LEED, SITES, and WELL [Building Standard] help us do that and help bring up what is considered standard.”

Bartholdi Park features demonstration gardens for homeowners using SITES guidelines. Each demonstration is a synergistic solution for dynamic and holistic systems that can be interpreted for the home gardener, helping improve garden design and maintenance practices nationwide.

SITES was developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of the American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden. In June 2015, Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) officially acquired SITES from the University of Texas and ASLA and launched project certification for the second version (v2) of SITES. To learn more, visit sustainablesites.org.