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

by Katie Daniel | September 30, 2016 10:00 am

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.

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).

As the center encourages visitors to immerse themselves in the natural environment and experience prairie life first-hand, the Plains volunteers are better equipped to increase their educational, environmental, and community-based programs.

For design professionals interested in environmental stewardship, making the case for SITES is straight-forward: by being an early implementer of the system, the client/owner will gain national recognition in the competitive and growing marketplace of sustainability. Hempstead Plains was once a beloved sanctuary of only a few preservationists and researchers; this year, the number of visitors multiplied and included a contingent of designers from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, interested in the prairie plant palette and vegetated roof.

In September, the Interpretive Center partnered with the Ecological Landscape Alliance and hosted a regional conference open to landscape architects, ecologists, and designers, offering Landscape Architect Continuing Education System (LA CES) credits to attendees.

Developers can also benefit from project cost savings by reducing energy, maintenance, labor, materials, and water. For example, transportation costs are lowered by the use of imported locally native plants, while maintenance fertilizers and pesticides can reduce or eliminate the need for potable water.

For more expensive materials, such as soils, SITES encourages the reuse of onsite materials like recycled wood, concrete, and asphalt. Additionally, soils require careful handling as outlined in Prerequisite 7.2, Control and Retain Construction Pollutants, which mandates vegetation and soil protection zone (VSPZ) to reduce the construction footprint and prevent soil contamination and compaction. This will reduce the common practice of exporting expensive disposal and importing soil materials.

The education value of SITES is not to be underestimated. As high schools, colleges, and universities implement sustainability into their facilities management and curriculum, students are seeing first-hand the value of green practices, in both the buildings and landscape. While students learn about water cycles, pollination, waste streams, and biodiversity in the classroom, the tangible benefits are visualized and experienced as they walk in and out of sustainable buildings and through sustainable outdoor courtyards, designed to provide healthy habitats for humans.

While commissioning is not required as with LEED, a plan for sustainable site maintenance is a prerequisite and an important and detailed element of the SITES documentation. To further encourage the visibility of a project, credits can be achieved for developing an outreach program for sustainability awareness and education, communicating a case study, and monitoring and reporting site performance. All this information will help improve and quantify the body of sustainable landscape knowledge.

As with any forward-thinking standards, SITES practitioners are encouraged to create innovative solutions or to go beyond the required or credited areas to earn points. Simultaneous to Hempstead Plains Friends decision to become a SITES pilot project, the group spearheaded a gathering of so-called ‘meadow managers’ from around Long Island and New York City.

This group, mostly non-profit managers and volunteers, met for the first time at Nassau Community College, the site of Hempstead Plains. Each participant presented a case study on his or her park, preserve, or private retreat, which included a meadow. Presentations were delivered, as members exchanged knowledge of grasses, wildflowers, birds, butterflies, insects, and methods of invasive plant control. The conference is now in its seventh year of existence and Hempstead Plains continues to fill a leadership role. For project certification, the SITES project team created a new innovation credit and earned an additional four points for this initiative.

To keep current and ahead of the competition, developers, contractors, architects, and landscape architects must adapt to the growing demands on the natural resources, including energy, water, and materials. More and more, the public is embracing the growing body of scientific research demonstrating the importance—in terms of health, absenteeism, and productivity—of green spaces for all. Owners, clients, and design professionals can work as an integrated team and combine their efforts to create a better, more sustaining built environment while improving the bottom line.

CeCe Haydock, LEED AP, is a registered New York State landscape architect, and the manager of the 2015 SITES pilot project Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center. She is a partner at StudioVerdeUS, which has offices in in Maine, Texas, and New York. Haydock can be reached via e-mail at[1].


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