Set Your SITES: What to know about the new rating system

Photos courtesy CeCe Haydock

by CeCe Haydock, LEED AP
SITES is a globally sustainable rating system used by landscape architects, designers, engineers, architects, developers, and policy-makers to align land development and management with innovative sustainable design. After several years of beta testing, version SITES v2 was released last year. Ever since then, projects throughout the United States, Canada, and Asia have been applying for certification.

Administered by the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), SITES can be used on projects pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification—there is even credit overlap between the two systems. However, the new landscape rating system goes further in many ways. By using it, practitioners can have a significant impact upon improving the environment, addressing climate change, resiliency, and even air and water cleansing. As mentioned in the SITES Reference Guide for Sustainable Land Design and Development, the program has “the capacity to protect and even regenerate natural systems, thereby increasing the ecosystem services they provide.” (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of the University of Texas at Austin, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the American Society of Landscape Architects, SITES v2 Reference Guide for Sustainable Land Design and Development (2014), p.vii)

The new rating system consists of five areas: water, soil, vegetation, materials, and human health and well-being. These five areas are addressed in detail in the aforementioned SITES reference guide for Sustainable Land Design and Development, which can be purchased from GBCI, the certifying arm of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). A free downloadable shorter version, SITES v2, Rating System and Scorecard, is available online.

Examining the rating system
The SITES v2 rating system can apply to many site development and landscape projects, such as corporate campuses, parks, streetscapes and plazas, residential, industrial, commercial, municipal, and government sites. In fact, in April 2016, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced it would adopt SITES for its capital construction program. With this arm of the federal government supporting it, more clients will become not only familiar with the system, but also comfortable weaving the guidelines into their projects, and gain certification. As with LEED, cities and towns may follow and adopt SITES certification or its guidelines for development and codes.

The SITES rating system is divided into different sections covering site context, design and construction, operations, maintenance, education, and innovation. There are a total of 200 points, which can be achieved through 48 credits; not all projects will earn the same status. In addition, 18 prerequisites are required 
of all projects, which can then be certified at four levels, depending on the amount of credits gained. The levels align with LEED levels—Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

SITES originally grew out of a need for more landscape credits than the LEED rating system offered. Further, there was no comprehensive framework for national green landscape practices available. In 2006, the Sustainable SITES Initiative was formed by American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas in Austin, the United States Botanic Garden, and multiple interdisciplinary groups.

Between 2010 and 2012, more than 150 pilot projects tested the criteria of the 2009 version of SITES. Six years later, 46 of those projects received the first SITES certifications.

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