Sustainable Landscapes and its Benefits

Neil Hourahan- BCT

Nick Kline- NRC

David Gagne




In today’s world, the word “sustainability” and “green building” have endless meanings and definitions in people’s minds.  With the two words going hand-in-hand with each other, there are endless parts of a building that are built under the LEED standards that can be considered going green or building sustainable.  Sustainability alone can have to do with our environment, our ecology, or even our economy, and although each help our nation and world in endless ways, sustainability in landscaping incorporates all three into its meaning.  Sustainable landscaping is using the efficient planning of a landscape to help lower energy costs of a building, reduce water runoff, and overall help the performance of the building.  With planners and designers using pervious surfaces and native plants around their buildings for shading and native plants on the roofs of their structures to help lower energy costs and runoff respectively, buildings can help the environment and the inhabitants of the building or structure in many ways.  Landscapes of a building play a much larger role than most people in today’s world believe and can really have a positive overall effect in our future to come.


The landscaping of a building can have a great affect on the overall appearance the building or structure and can play a crucial part into how the building performs.  Commercial apartment buildings have been a key player in recent years in incorporating a landscape of a building into the building envelope itself to help the building save energy and reduce water runoff.  The landscaping of a building can be an enormous size compared to the square footage of the house, so why not use that space to help the building its surround perform at a more efficient rate while also helping our environment as well.

With our green or sustainable landscapes, which are very beneficial to a building or structure, the structure itself may not live up to its full potential.  Thompson and Sorvig (2007) claim how:

Sustainability is a framework, a systematic way of linking ourselves with the natural systems that support us.  Without it, individual green buildings…will not add up to what is really wanted: a worldwide network of healthy places that sustain people and sustain themselves. (p. 3)

With high energy use and water depletion happening everyday around our nation and world, more steps must be taken in the right direction to help save these resources for future generations to come and a healthier environment overall.  Landscaping is one if those steps in the right direction.

For sustainable landscapes to become a part of our everyday built environments, contractors and designers locally and across the country need to be informed of the positive effects of these landscapes.  With designers and contractors implementing green roofs and permeable surfaces into the designs of their landscapes, the building can save energy, use less resources, and overall help the environment in multiple of ways.  Ogunsote, Adedeji, and  Prucnal-Ogunsote (2011) describe aspects of the [environment] that can be regulated through landscaping: sol-air temperature, air temperature, humidity, air velocity and wind speed, wind direction, surface absorptivity and reflectance (albedo); seasonal shading, pollution, glare, air freshness and fragrance (para. 8). In the Northeast, it is very easy to implement landscape practices that can help all these aspects.  Two major examples are permeable surfaces such as walkways, patios, and roadways can be put into any area given the right space and green roofs that can use native plants of the East to perform proficiently to help our environment and microclimate in many ways.

Using native plants of the area on green roofs and the surrounding landscapes will not only help the building perform well, but will also help with maintenance costs of the building they sit on top of.  Native, hearty, perennial plants grow back every spring season and will be able to survive the colder months and season changes and help the green roof garden perform efficiently year after year.  Using these sustainable landscape practices can have huge advantages for our environment now, and in the years to come, and with our nation going towards green practices everyday, designers and contractors really need to start seeing past the dollar figure of these landscapes, and start thinking about the future of our environment and nation as a whole.

In today’s world there are green movements in every way of life.  With resource depletion coming to people’s attentions within the past couple decades and being on the fast up rise over the past few years, companies and people all across the country are starting to buy and build in a greener way to help our environment and resource depletion in any way possible.  Populations of the world being sustainably conscious today will leave a healthier world and place to live for future generations to come and will influence generations after them to think in a sustainable way and carry on the movement for decades to come.  One of the biggest green movements in recent years has been the green building movement.  This movement builds structures with a better environment in mind and helps lower energy costs in buildings along with better air quality and water conservation in mind.  Builders and designers all over the country and world implicate green designs and methods into their work every day and are finally starting to notice and use a newer kind of green design and building that will not only help the building it is used in accordance with, but also the environment as a whole, the landscaping of a building.


Residents and inhabitants of a building or structure have the right and are encouraged to enjoy the landscapes around them.  Which is why incorporating landscapes into apartment buildings benefit not only the building, but also the residents inside and if more builders and investors alike were aware of these benefits, then maybe our environment would be on a faster track in the right direction faster than once originally believed.  Integrating the design of landscapes, such as plants and water conservation, into commercial apartment building plans will increase the efficiency of the building the landscape surrounds and the overall air and water quality of the encompassing environment.

Pre Construction

When a piece of land is chosen for a construction site for a new apartment building or any other type of building the first thing that is usually done is site is pre-clearance. Conventionally all vegetation was removed from the site and the ground was striped of the topsoil so there would be a sturdy base to build upon. Along with the topsoil being removed the site was leveled so it would be easier to move equipment on and to build upon. In the past this was believed to be the best choice because it would help reduce some of the permitting process because there was no natural environment left on the site to regulate. However companies are starting to realize that this is not the best option because it takes away from the landscape of the site. When land is pre-cleared it loses its ability to support a natural environment which consists of many different plants. Also pre-cleared sites produce much more runoff than sites that are not cleared ahead of time.

Even though a pre-cleared site may be easier to build on it is often not the best practice to do. According to Thompson and Sorvig sites that have not been pre-cleared have “at least a 15 to 20% higher property value” (p.38) then sites that have been pre-cleared. Some reasons cleared sites are worth less money are because there are no mature trees or other plants on site to add to the aesthetics. Also mature plants help hold soil in place during heavy rainstorms so this helps reduce runoff. Another reason a site is worth less is because there are no healthy soils on site so new soil has must be brought in when the project is finished.  If the builder or contractor waits to much time before the actual ground break of the structure, invasive plants can move onto the site which can cause future problems down the road.  Thompson and Sorvig say “site clearing should be kept a minimum but should not be done any longer in advance then is truly necessary” (p. 39). By not clearing the site to far in advance this will help reduce the amount of invasive plants that move into the site.

One way to get the site ready for construction without having to pre clear it is to make sure the landscape is a main priority from the start of the construction process all the way through building. When the landscape is valued as much as the building that is being built it tends to be better taken care of more than when the landscape is just thought about after the building is built. If there is a plan to keep certain plants and soils in place they can be protected throughout the construction process. Also when there is a plan for the landscape the amount of water runoff can be kept at a minimum because there will be more of the native plants and soil on site. By having more of the native plants on site there will be more mature trees and shrubs with deep root systems that will help move the water into the soil. Also by having mature plants on site they will help to block the wind and sun, which can help reduce the amount of energy needed to run the building. However even if a large amount of plants are left in the landscape the new building environment will still have an effect on the water runoff for the site.

Water Management

When we put a man-made structure into a natural environment, the processes that storm water undergoes will most likely differ from the processes that occurred in that environment, naturally, before it was altered. In order for a landscape to be sustainable, it should mimic the natural water cycle that took place on the site before it had been developed. Buildings should not behave as entities separate from the landscape, but should contribute to the emulation of the natural water cycle. Water runoff is an important factor to consider when it comes to melding the built environment and natural landscapes, if approaching with this naturalistic train of thought (Calkins 2011).

Rainfall soaks into the ground in an undisturbed landscape, which is extremely important for reducing flooding and maintaining sufficient ground water levels (Calkins 2011). A built environment doesn’t usually allow storm water to undergo such absorption, as they incorporate impervious surfaces such as roofs and paved driveways or parking lots. These surfaces dramatically increase runoff. This unnatural runoff not only tampers with the natural reduction of flooding and maintaining groundwater, but it also facilitates water pollution. Water that flows from these nonporous surfaces reaches nearby water sources much quicker than it would if the water were to percolate back into the soil. So what makes this such a big deal? Well, it’s mostly the fact that this runoff tends to pick up other, potentially harmful, constituents and transport them into our water supplies. Some examples of substances that make it into our water supply due to excessive runoff include oil, grease, toxic chemicals from vehicles, sediment from new construction, road salt, and the list goes on. These pollutants can harm wildlife, native vegetation, and contaminate our drinking supply (Water Supply in the U.S.).

Water runoff has detrimental effects to our environment, but we rely on the features that facilitate runoff for everyday life. So what can we do to gain some control over this runoff? One way mitigate the amount of water runoff that we face is to capture storm water that falls onto our roofs and reuse that water instead of using water from municipal water supplies or the ground. This process is called rainwater harvesting. The first component of rainwater harvesting is having a catchment area. Impervious surfaces, usually roofs, are where these catchment areas are located and where runoff occurs, but the goal is to control where the water flows. From here, the water is directed to a storage tank or cistern through a system of gutters and downspouts. Since rainwater is slightly acidic, it will take minerals from surfaces that it runs off of so this collected water is best for non-potable uses. The best way to take advantage of this collected water is to use it for things like toilet flushing or irrigation (Kinkade-Levario 2007). If rainwater harvesting isn’t incorporated into the building design, a simple way to reduce runoff is to design buildings with multiple levels in order to minimize the footprint and area of impervious surfaces (Calkins 2011).

Areas such as driveways, parking lots, and walkways are huge contributors to runoff. So, another great way to reduce runoff on a site is to integrate porous pavements into the landscape. Porous pavements allow water to trickle down through the soil and percolate back into the ground, reducing runoff and recharging groundwater. Rain gardens are also a great remedy to storm water runoff. These gardens are at a lower elevation than the surrounding land to let water pool and absorb into the soil over time. It’s best if there is multiple rain gardens throughout a site in order to capture runoff as close to the source as possible (Calkins 2011).

Effects of Plants

Another way a landscape of a building can affect the building envelope itself is through plants.  Many people do not know all the benefits plants and shrubs can bring to a landscape and structure they surround such as lower energy usage, increased air quality and helping with runoff.  When choosing plants for a landscape it is important to choose plants and shrubs that are native to the area to not only make sure they can survive the season changes, but also for the maintenance of the plants and shrubs themselves.  In the Northeast, these plants and shrubs can include junipers, hollies, dogwoods, and many more species.  Residents of apartment buildings pay annual fees for the maintenance of the building they live in along with other fees to keep the building looking good and running safe and do not want to see those payments to their apartment building going to waste.

In Tara Armbruster’s article in “Greener Properties” she talks about the advantages of a greener landscape to the residents of an apartment building, and the cost effectiveness of them with local and native plants.  “In fact, about 94% of people surveyed said they liked low-maintenance landscapes… Choosing plants that are native to the area can reduce the amount of work required to keep them healthy, and this move would please 87% of the survey respondents [apartment residents], too” (Armbruster, 2013, p.1).  Residents of apartment buildings can enjoy the landscapes for themselves, but also the price, and know that what they are paying for is providing major benefits for themselves, other residents of the apartment building, and the environment as a whole.  However what residents also do not realize is how plants can affect energy costs of apartment buildings as well which is even a greater advantage to lower maintenance costs.

Plantings such as green roofs and shrubbery around or on an apartment building can have a huge effect in the lowering of the energy bills for the building in relation to heating and cooling costs.  Clements and St. Juliana (2013) state how “Green roofs provide better insulation than conventional roofs, reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the roof surface, reduce roof surface temperatures, and improve the operational efficiency of rooftop air conditioning units” (p. 6).  Green roofs help absorb the heat and coldness of the air and store it in the plants and soils of the rooftop gardens.  This prevents the cold air in the winter and hot in the summer from infiltrating the building envelope and having negative effects on energy costs.

Many green roofs today on apartment buildings and other building alike already show how beneficial they can be for the building they sit on top of.  “The Chicago City Hall-County Building’s 20,300-square-foot green roof yields $3,600 in annual energy savings. The Target Center Arena’s green roof in Minneapolis decreased annual energy costs by $300,000” (Clements & St. Juliana, 2013, p. 6).   Green roofs also have a longer life expectancy of almost twenty years more than that of a conventional roof.  So not only will the roof help the building envelope itself for many years, but it will keep doing so for decades into the future and has the possibility of even paying off the cost of the green roof in the long run.  Landscape planting on the roof will not only affect the energy costs of the building, but also the planting of trees, shrubs, and plants on the ground around the building as well.

Strategically placing plants around a building will not only decrease run off going into sewers and storm drains, which then can pollute our waterways, but can also have a great effect on heating and cooling costs.  Larger trees in the warmer months can provide adequate shading for the building, which then cools the building and lowers the demand for cooling energy in the hot months.  Clements and St. Juliana state how “a single large tree can generate nearly $45 in energy savings annually; multiplied by numerous tree plantings on a commercial property, annual savings can easily total hundreds of dollars per year” (p.7).  Although larger trees may be harder to come by for newer construction apartment buildings, even the planting of smaller trees can provide shading for maybe only the first floor in the first couple of years, but over time grow and provide shading to other parts of the building while also lowering cooling costs as it grows.  Many other advantages of green landscapes around apartment buildings make living in apartments like this so desirable, which can also lead to a price tag that is very beneficial for the owner.

Clements and St. Juliana talk about how green landscapes can make living in apartment building so desirable to live in immensely in their article ‘The Green Edge: How Commercial Property Investment in Green Infrastructure Creates Value.”  They talk about how not only do these green landscapes look beautiful and attract people’s attention to live in apartment buildings, but also can lead to benefits for the owners since with a high demand can come a high price.  Clements and St. Juliana state how “A wide range of studies found that landscaping and trees increase residential property values by 2 to 5 percent. In one study, green roofs have been found to add 16 percent to the average rental rate for multifamily units” (p. 6).  Apartment buildings with green or sustainable landscapes also can have the opportunity of receiving LEED certification, which also makes the building must more desirable to live in and can make raising the price tag of an apartment in a LEED certified building that more acceptable.

Many building rating systems today incorporate landscapes into their checklists to help receive certification.  LEED certified is of course the major one, with many others coming in the future including the Sustainable Site Initiative (SITES), which will be focused specifically on landscapes, and will provide its own certification that will once again make living in a building with this type of accreditation that more appealing.   Having a LEED certified building “can increase occupancy rates in office buildings and rental rates in residential buildings” (Clements & St. Juliana, 2013, p. 6).  Out of the total points a building can receive for a LEED accredited building “22 percent are site credits, with another 18 percent under site related water and materials categories” (Thompson & Sorvig, 2007, p. 7).  Green landscapes can fit into these categories very well and can make receiving points in these categories easier than others and lead to a building that is LEED certified for the residents, but also helps the environment in multiple ways for the rest of the community, nation, and world.

Resistant Audience

So we’ve discussed how incorporating the landscape into the built environment can improve the efficiency of the building and the air and water quality of the encompassing environment, but is there any reason we shouldn’t integrate these designs? Well, the tipping point of building sustainable landscapes seems to be the price factor. At the end of the day nobody will want to use sustainable techniques if they’re not profitable. The truth is, these designs will initially cost more than your standard design. This may be unsettling to whoever is making the investment, but that initial investment can lead to savings in the long run.

These savings come from lower energy costs and lower infrastructure costs. Clements and St. Juliana (2013) state “a green roof can reduce daily energy demand for cooling in a one-story building by more than 75 percent.” (p. 6) Green roofs are great insulation and can reduce heating and cooling demand. Strategically placed trees can also provide shading and reduce cooling demands in the summer and possibly heating demands in the winter. There could be annual savings of about $1,800 for an 8,345 square foot building with 90% green roof coverage and 12 strategically placed trees for shading. On top of this, green roofs don’t need replacement as often as conventional roofs, avoiding about $128,000 over 40 years for the same building (Clements & St. Juliana 2013).

The increased environmental quality of the building and surrounding environment will appeal to people that might potentially live there. The desirability to live in such a building will increase and the building owner can then charge renters more money to live there, mitigating upfront costs (Heerwagen 2000). Clements and St. Juliana (2013) claim that a 32-unit apartment building of the qualities specified in the previous paragraph could increase rental income by roughly $77,000 a year. Although, some builders may argue that there would be a reduction in profitability when incorporating these types of landscapes because it may reduce the amount of available land for commercial or residential construction. But, it should be taken into consideration that there could be loss of property and failed infrastructure due to flooding and erosion, and degraded waters due to runoff pollution. Improper storm water management can result in the loss of facets that hold great value (National Research Council 2009).


In conclusion we argue that by incorporating the landscape into the building envelope the building will be able to save energy and reduce water runoff. By having plants in the right places around a building the heating and cooling costs will be reduced. We also argue that by installing permeable structures around a building water runoff will be reduced further. When water runoff is reduced around a building and its landscape there will be less pollution that goes into the water system. By including plants into the building envelope while also taking steps to reduce water runoff we will be able to slow the resource depletion that is currently going on.

















Armbruster, T. (2013). What americans want in apartment landscaping.  Greener                 Properties. 11. Retrieved from     want-  in-apartment-landscaping/


Calkins, Meg,,.(2011). The sustainable sites handbook.


Clements, J., St. Juliana, A. (2013). The green edge: How commercial property investment in           green infrastructure creates value. NRDC Issue Brief.   Retrieved from


Kinkade-Levario, H.,. (2007). Design for water : Rainwater harvesting, stormwater                              catchment, and alternate water reuse. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society             Publishers.


National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on reducing stormwater discharge       contributions to water pollution.,. (2009). Urban stormwater management in the           united states.


Ogunsote, O. O., Adedeji, Y., & Prucnal-Ogunsote, B. (2011). Combating environmental         degradation through sustainable landscaping in emerging mega cities: A case study       of lagos, nigeria. Proceedings of the 24th World Congress of Architecture “UIA2011        TOKYO”, September, 16-21.  Retrieved from Google Scholar.


Thompson, W. J., & Sorvig, K. (2007). Sustainable landscape construction: A guide to green             building outdoors (2nd Edition), 1-39. Washington, DC, USA: Island Press. Retrieved          from

Water supply in the U.S. Retrieved 10 Sept. 2013






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