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

An entrance through native plantings leads to Hempstead Plains Education and Research Center, a new visitor’s center with a vegetated roof structure; open and closed classrooms are used for classes and workshops.

Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center
The success of the Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center demonstrates a non-profit group with a small budget can meet the SITES prerequisites and achieve enough credits to earn the second level of certification, which is equivalent to LEED Silver. Located on a college campus in Garden City, New York, Hempstead Plains is one of the last remaining remnants of what once was a 16,190-ha (40,000-acre) eastern prairie, the only one east of the Appalachian Mountains.

The 7-ha (19-acre) Interpretive Center project included the design and installation of an existing education building with site restoration. While LEED was not practical because of commissioning costs, SITES was sufficient. Included with the building design was a vegetated roof, cistern, compostable toilet, solar panels, and ‘hyper-native’ seeds (i.e. seeds collected onsite) for the site prairie grassland restoration and roof. The project designers—RGR Landscape Architecture PLLC, and this author serving as SITES project manager—combined their experience to work closely with the client, Betsy Gulotta and the Friends of Hempstead Plains to attain SITES certification.

The first requirement—Prerequisite 1.1, Limit Development on Farmland—presented an interesting challenge. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) listed Hempstead Plains as “prime farmland” as well as “farmland of statewide or local importance,” which meant only five percent of the site could be developed, per SITES requirements. While the construction footprint was already intended to be small from the outset, the designer deftly created an irregular, fenced construction zone to stay under this limit. Since the construction drawings and specifications were done after the SITES decision was made, the contractor and construction manager knew of the constraint, and were prepared to respect the tight construction zone, thus protecting preserved areas.

Section 2, Pre-design Assessment and Planning of SITES, requires an integrated design team and a pre-design site assessment. This section communicates the importance of gathering the project’s key players around the table very early in the process to “maximize the opportunities for beneficial site performance” and also identify “synergistic opportunities across different disciplines throughout all phases of design and construction.”

By assembling the integrated design team early, the client and the professionals involved in all SITES phases can determine the prerequisite threshold, as well as the possible credit total and ultimate certification level. A well-developed site assessment conducted before or during the conceptual design phase, can reduce a project’s costs, maximize its sustainability goals, promote occupant health, and honor a site’s unique characteristics.

For the Hempstead Plains pilot project, the integrated design team consisted primarily of the conservation manager, the architect, and the SITES project manager. Other experts were consulted for strategic input, but because of the core group’s extensive knowledge of the sustainable practices for site planning, design, and maintenance, the integrated design team was small. On other projects, specialists in wetlands, soils, and urban ecology might be important members of the integrated design team who would help with the required site assessments (Prerequisite 2.2, Conduct a Pre-design Site Assessment). Teamwork, early knowledge, communication of SITES criteria, and thoughtful analysis of the project site and its potential are all essential to the process.

The water, soil, and vegetation sections (Sections 3 and 4) proved to be the areas where the Hempstead Plains project gained several points, including protecting endangered species, using native plants, and reducing the urban heat island effect with the vegetated roof. Since SITES only counts points “from the building skin outwards,” the many recycled and sustainable elements of the reused shipping containers were not included in the credit count. Therefore, the single prerequisite in Section 5, Site Design–Materials Selection, but the project earned no materials credits.

However, on another SITES pilot project, Novus International Headquarters Campus (St. Charles, Missouri), the designers earned several points from the materials section. Included in this Gold-equivalent certified project was a pavilion with a vegetated roof, Wi-Fi for outdoor meetings, and rain chains. It earned points for the Credit 5.3, Design for Adaptability and Disassembly, by using lag bolts, nuts, and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood. In addition, the project employed recycled content (Credit 5.5) and regional materials (Credit 5.6).

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