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Greener landscape architecture at the office

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Locally based Nowell and Associates Landscape Architecture just completed a renovation project for DirecTV at Kilroy Airport Center in El Segundo, that involved turning an existing fire lane into a pedestrian mall. The area now includes a fountain with a glass-tiled water wall, geometric paving patterns leading to the main entrance of the two office towers, date palms and patio space. Photo courtesy of Nowell and Associates Landscape Architecture

The need to lower costs and a desire to create sustainable outdoor areas is driving today’s top trends in commercial landscape architecture, according to local experts. Commercial building owners are also looking to create more comfortable outdoor spaces where people can gather and spend more time.

As the price of water continues to rise, developers and building owners are increasingly asking for drought-resistant landscapes that require less maintenance and reduce irrigation costs. New rules on stormwater runoff in San Diego County are also pushing the use of porous paving, bioswales and other techniques to mitigate runoff.

Water users in the county have seen rates increase between 7.5 percent and 18 percent in each of the last five years.

One of the easiest ways to make a landscape more water efficient, said David Reed, owner of David Reed Landscape Architects, is to change the crop type. Using native and similarly low water use plants can greatly reduce the need for irrigation.

Irrigation systems are also becoming more sophisticated, he said. “Smart” controllers adjust the amount of watering in response to current environmental conditions, using solar, rain and soil moisture sensors and/or data from a local weather station. The smart controllers can even be operated remotely via the Internet.

Technology that makes maintenance more efficient translates into savings in labor costs over time, while the use of water-efficient landscaping and smart controllers can save between 20 percent and 50 percent of water use over traditional landscaping and irrigation methods.

Reed also said that whenever possible, his company uses permeable interlocking pavers, which can be used for walkways, patios, parking lots and more. Rainwater can seep through the joints connecting the pavers and be captured on site for treatment or reuse on the property.

Bioswales are being used to capture and treat storm water runoff. These landscape elements use plants to trap silt and pollutants before the water is released into the storm sewer.

Landscape architects are also making more use of eco-friendly technologies and materials. LED lighting continues to improve, providing long-lasting lighting with little maintenance and surface temperatures that remain cool for better safety and no energy loss due to heat. Recycled plastic wood alternatives and recycled glass concrete are becoming more popular.

“Developers, architects and all design professionals are becoming more comfortable in designing with green materials, and that’s true of landscape architects as well,” said Michael Peltz, principal of M.W. Peltz and Associates. “You see a lot more sustainable features in office building design.

“And depending on the scale of the complex, there are certainly opportunities for outdoor spaces that can double as meeting rooms and gathering spaces. So we’re taking advantage of designing for outdoor space that’s added bonus square footage, even though it’s not considered part of the building square footage,” he said.

Brad Lenahan, partner at Nowell and Associates Landscape Architecture, said his company has been doing a lot of landscape renovation, changing out existing spray irrigation systems to drip systems and eliminating lawns entirely. Building owners are converting lawns to hardscape and creating more usable space.

“Tenants are taking less space inside the building, and that makes the outdoor spaces much more important,” he said.

Nowell just completed a renovation project for DirecTV at Kilroy Airport Center in El Segundo that involved turning an existing fire lane into a pedestrian mall. The area now includes a fountain with a glass-tiled water wall, geometric paving patterns leading to the main entrance of the two office towers, date palms and patio space to accommodate a large number of employees.

“As it becomes harder to find tenants, it becomes a much more competitive market between landlords,” Lenahan said. “Anything they can do to cut down costs and allow them to compete in the leasing world helps.”

Particularly in the retail market, local landscape architects are seeing an emphasis on making outdoor spaces more comfortable as well as more environmentally sustainable.

“What I’m seeing is more clients looking for spaces where people of all ages can enjoy being outside -- more ways to extend the hours of their establishments,” Peltz said.

Individual stores as well as retail outlets are adding more amenities such as fireplaces, water features and play structures to entice customers to linger longer.

People want comfortable spaces and deep seating in their search for a sense of hominess and comfort, agreed Lenahan. His company is using warmer materials like wood, and installing more shade structures and trellises.

“Modern design doesn’t have to mean uncomfortable,” he said.

As governments and society increasingly see the built and natural environments as a continuum, the industry may see more collaboration among disciplines. Landscape architects, who must consider ecological as well as cultural uses, are in a position to handle questions of land use.

“Landscape architects should be brought in at the very beginning, at the point of site selection, to evaluate whether a certain project type will work on a given project location,” Peltz said. “We have the experience and background to be able to take the environment, landform and location in consideration to marry that to whatever projected uses are being considered.”

Landscape designs in the future will likely become more sophisticated, including structures such as green roofs, bioswales and underground cisterns to capture, cleanse and reuse stormwater runoff. Adding these types of features will require more advanced planning and partnership among landscape architects, building architects, developers, engineers and construction managers.

“A lot of folks still consider a landscape architect as someone who comes in at the tail end of the project, to simply identify what types of plants to use, how to screen something or how to water those plants,” Peltz said. “It’s a very shallow view of our training and background.

“Unfortunately, those who bring landscape architects in almost after fact -- after the building has been designed or the site has been laid out -- are missing out on a deep pool of knowledge.”

Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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