Turf Design Build Magazine - October, 2012
The Contractor-Architect Balancing Act
Completing the sustainable landscape doesn't always follow the script
The farmer and the cowman should be friends.
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,
But that's no reason why they can't be friends.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF APPLIED ECOLOGICAL SERVICES, INC.
These lyrics from the classic musical, "Oklahoma!," describe the great conflict in the Oklahoma Territory at the time of settlement - a conflict that stemmed from two distinct ways of seeing and using the same land.
The cowman wanted free-range. The farmer wanted fences to protect crops. After a period of struggle, ways evolved to accommodate both interests and viewpoints on the land. Today there are farmers and cowmen, wheat and cattle, in Oklahoma, but it didn't happen overnight, and it did require some modifications.
Any development project starts with loosely analogous components of this historic conflict, the plan and the site. The landscape architect lays out the plan. The contractor makes it happen. The landscape architect and contractor (not to mention the client) may have independent expectations of how the site will look in the end.
Each of these distinct disciplines has its separate unique mindset. All the coffee and conversation in the world doesn't change that, nor should it. We aren't talking about erasing the borders of specialties and disciplines and creating an amorphous fuzzy unity. Sharp edges can be useful. Fences have their place. The farmer and the cowman can be friends, but it might take time and some modifications.
Let's start with the assumption that both the landscape architect and the contractor have the same green sustainable intent in mind. Let's presume a hypothetical plan that already goes far beyond the legally mandated minimums when it comes to environmental concerns. From the outset, this hypothetical green development project has been about more than just immediate profit.
A constructed wetland designed by land-use experts at Applied Ecological Services, Inc.
The design started with a clear intent of creating a sustainable, truly green development. The planning process began with a careful natural resource inventory of the site. The hydrology of the site was foremost on this list. Existing drainages and wetlands were identified. Water quality concerns were put on the table. Green infrastructure was designed to take advantage of the natural topography and features of the site.
The natural resource site inventory included much more: regional ecology, geology, topography, historical features, native plants and wildlife habitat. Native plants were selected, matching patterns of soil types and moisture and meeting aesthetic goals. Integrating all this information, appropriate and reliable regional sources for seeds and plants were identified. Native plants replaced mowed lawn in many spaces, creating wildlife habitat and saving on future maintenance costs.
This project was not going to be a case of "greenwashing." From its initial stages, the plan was integrated with the land. Installation went smoothly, conducted by an experienced and knowledgeable ecological contractor. Everyone was on the same page when it came to creating a sustainable project. The contract appeared to be fulfilled.
At the International Crane Foundation, AES designed a sustainable habitat for the new African Crane exhibit using native Midwestern species that would emulate the natural vegetation the cranes need on their home continent.
However, sustainable development, in reality, is not just a large-scale LEGO project. Sustainable development involves living, breathing, dynamic land, land that comes complete with unpredictable weather events, hidden liabilities, and ever-changing human perceptions and activities.
Things change and the unexpected happens. If you are a landscape architect, contractor or maintenance worker, this isn't news to you.
When the plan was first assembled, who could have anticipated the construction of the huge retail building with its 2-acre parking lot on a neighboring parcel, drastically altering the site's drainage? At the contract signing last winter, no one expected a long summer of drought that blasted the newly installed native shrubs and trees. And, there was no way to anticipate how that choice patch of restored native prairie would become the favorite diagonal shortcut for cyclists and pedestrians.
Prairie Crossing Project
In 1989, AES became involved in early phases of the project such as planning, field studies and approvals. Groundbreaking was in 1994, and the bulk of AES construction and planting activities were accomplished by 1996. Natural areas management services continue, and significant native landscape design and construction work for model homes and the Prairie Crossing Campus of Lake Forest Hospital were ongoing from 2001 through 2003.
Prairie Crossing, an award winning conservation development in Grayslake, Ill., incorporated clustered home sites to preserve surrounding agricultural and natural area open space.
One of the main features of the native landscape at Prairie Crossing is the treatment of stormwater runoff. Applied Ecological Services designed a series of measures to reduce stormwater volumes and associated pollutant loads (nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, road salt, etc.) through an innovative stormwater management concept. This was the first major installation of the AES Stormwater Treatment Train, a system composed of open swale stormwater conveyance, upland prairie biofiltration, wetlands and a man-made lake. Working in combination, these methods increase opportunities for pollutant removal through biological and mechanical means while significantly reducing the rate and volume of stormwater runoff.
In addition, over 1,500 linear feet of eroding Lake Leopold shoreline at Prairie Crossing was stabilized. The use of geotextiles and wetland plantings has created ideal habitat for desirable emergent aquatic vegetation that attenuates wave energy and stabilizes soils. These measures, combined with biofiltration provided by the Stormwater Treatment Train, have resulted in exceptional lake water quality. Swimmers, fishermen and four threatened fish species enjoy the clean, clear water. Habitat Conservation Plans and agency approvals were required to restore habitat for rare fishes and to capture and import the fish species.
The designer and installer did their best to satisfy the client's vision, but there are often, quite simply, differing expectations about a project's appearance. In short, some aesthetic fine-tuning may be in order after installation.
Invariably, in every project, portions of the best-laid plans of the designer, careful actions of the installer and expectations of the client simply don't work together as planned because of unforeseen events, unanticipated environmental impacts or differing aesthetic outlooks.
A plan was formulated with a goal of creating a sustainable project. The designer and contractor did their best as a team to anticipate most contingencies. Nevertheless, given the inherently unpredictable nature of the land, weather and human inhabitants, a few tweaks are in order to reach the desired sustainable outcome.
How can we resolve this dilemma, knowing that a resolution is not merely optional, it is fundamental to having a successful green project that works for everyone in the long run?
The short maintenance period guaranteed in the contract isn't going to cover all possible outcomes of the paired plan and installation. What is needed is an extended modification period during which the designer and contractor continue to collaborate, plan and execute changes, addressing emerging challenges as a team, and receiving and integrating feedback from the client.
The proposed extended modification period is more than an insurance policy; it is part and parcel of a successful, collaborative and integrated process of design, planning and installation. To create this modification period, contract periods for the designer and contractor would actually overlap, extending beyond completion of the installation. Or, alternately, a different contractor might be identified and retained for maintenance during the modification period.
During the modification period, landscape architects and contractors would work hand-in-glove to remedy identified problems such as erosion, flooding or vegetative viability. Native plants might be taken out, moved or replaced. Trails could be added to direct human traffic. Armoring can be enhanced to address unanticipated erosion problems. Native plantings might be trimmed and tended to achieve a more groomed appearance.
A modification period might be as little as one year, or it could be as much as five to 10 years in the case of particularly complex sites or seemingly intractable environmental problems.
Regardless of its length, inclusion of a modification period in the contract ensures that the creative partnership of landscape architect, contractor and client continues long enough to set a new sustainable development project firmly on its feet.
It is something to consider. It could be the single most important innovation toward successful sustainable development to come around in a long time.
Jacob Blue, M.S., is a registered landscape architect and the director of design at Applied Ecological Services, Inc., an international ecological restoration firm with 10 offices in the U.S. and two abroad. At AES, Blue oversees all aspects of the design function for large and small-scale conservation design and restoration projects. He is recognized nationally as a leader in the field of defining and practicing ecological landscape architectural design, or "Ecotecture." He specializes in the use of native species in landscape design and habitat restoration as well as the aesthetic implications of their use.