It's been two years since a tornado swept through Greensburg, Kansas, and ravaged rows of houses lining the streets. The townsfolk were used to living simple lives, where nothing out of the ordinary ever happened, but this was like something out of a big budget Hollywood movie.
Eleven people were left dead and the whole town was virtually destroyed, but rather than lose hope, the people of Greensburg decided to see their predicament as something of a fresh start. Here was the perfect opportunity to have a more positive impact on the land they had lived on for so long.
“Being a small, rural town, the question was, ‘How do we get people to come back here?’” explains Mason Earles, project manager for GreenTown, the rebuilding project the town put together to make Greensburg whole again. “That’s where the idea for the all-green community came from. Why rebuild things exactly as they were before when we could do better?”
The township decided to go green—not just with the new homes that needed to be built, but with the downtown area as well. Today, a $4 million streetscapes program is underway which will completely redo the downtown district, outfitting each building with the proper mechanisms to filter water runoff into underground cisterns. In addition, the vegetation surrounding the buildings will be comprised entirely of native plants.
Greensburg’s story has garnered plenty of national media attention. It’s become something of an example for the rest of the world, a call-to-arms for all of those who are ready to go green. But Greensburg is not alone. In many places across the country, entire communities are starting to go green, and many landscape contractors are picking up on this and following suit.
Wright Farms, Wildwood, Florida, is another all-green community, scheduled to commence development by 2014. It employs some of the same practices that Greensburg uses, such as native plant species, reclaimed water and stormwater management. Landstone Communities, LLC, Los Angeles, California, which is developing the land, is committed to building sustainable properties whose all-green features set them apart from what most have come to expect out of a house. In fact,
Landstone is on track to obtain Florida Green Building Council Certification for Sustainable Community, based on its commitment to green building. Landstone Communities retained Edward Durell Stone, Jr. and Associates (EDSA) as the consulting firm to assist Landstone Communities in the establishment of Wright Farms. “In a typical home situation, rainwater is discharged directly onto the lawn or elsewhere,” says Brad Collett, an associate at EDSA. “So why don’t we use the water that falls from the sky instead of the water that comes from your pipes? After all, rainwater is free.”
Greensburg plans to take advantage of rainwater in a similar fashion, outfitting its new “Eco-Homes” with the proper tools to store and re-use rainwater. These homes will eventually be open to the general public, operating as bed-and-breakfasts where tourists can come and enjoy the live-in comfort they have to offer while also educating themselves on the myriad ways in which they can go green.
The Eco-Homes are structurally designed to withstand tornadoes and other natural disasters, but what is equally important are the green-friendly features they were built for. Triple-paned windows to help generate heat, LED lights for energy efficiency, recycled concrete to make up the walls and, of course, green roofs. But these roofs offer more than a nice variety of vegetation for visitors to admire; they are the means by which rainwater is recycled.
Excess rainwater is filtered through three inches of sand and a collection of small rubber tire chips piled along the edge of the roof. From there, the water is directed along a series of tubes that leads to a 550-gallon water system. This same water will later be used to irrigate the surrounding turf. This process is known as “harvesting rainwater,” a practice widely touted by environmentalists as a practical and cost-efficient way to save on water usage.
The green roofs are watered by a drip irrigation system which slowly releases tiny droplets of water into the soil to saturate it from the bottom up. “If we were to irrigate the roof by spraying the traditional way, there’d be a lot of water loss due to factors such as wind,” says Earles. “Drip irrigation uses considerably less water, all of which is absorbed directly by the soil.”
Although there’s an additional upfront cost to establishing a harvested rainwater system, that cost will eventually be offset by the monthly savings homeowners will reap each and every month it rains. This rainwater will not be used in showers or kitchen sinks; however, you’ll find that using harvested rainwater for irrigation will go a long way.
“The bulk of water usage in the home is in the exterior, not in the interior,” says Charles Schetter, senior vice president at Landstone Communities. In an effort to curb excess water usage, the Wright Farms community is requiring builders to use nonpotable sources for irrigation. “Roughly 50 to 70 percent of all water consumed in the entire household is being used for irrigation. By using the proper irrigation combined with the proper plant materials, you can cut your water consumption down by as much as 50 percent.”
You can also take the approach of directing harvested rainwater immediately back into the soil. Such a practice is part of a larger, multi-faceted plan known as Low Impact Development, or LID. This approach emphasizes the protection of the environment by incorporating the environment itself into the design elements. “This practice takes rainwater and disperses it through grassy swales to let it percolate back into the soil, as opposed to letting it run through big basins where it simply evaporates,” says Schetter.
Another common LID practice is to grow only native plants within the landscape. While it might seem like a good idea to plant bromeliads in your clients’ gardens because of their rich and vibrant colors, you have to remember, these flowers thrive best in tropical regions such as southern Florida. Trying to get them to grow even in relatively warm areas such as southern California could be very difficult, because bromeliads aren’t used to those types of climates. At the very least, they would require a lot of maintenance in order to stay healthy.
“Native plants require low water and maintenance,” says Kim Alderfer, assistant city administrator for the town of Greensburg. “If you plant something that’s not native, it’s going to need a lot more water because it’s trying to live in a habitat that it’s not used to, so it makes a lot more sense to use native plantings.”
Other issues must also be taken into consideration. If your client wants a plant that has to be shipped from across the country, it’s going to require a lot of gas to have it transported. It certainly can’t be considered green-friendly to waste hundreds of gallons of gas just to have one specific type of plant growing in your clients’ yards. This would not only be costly, but harmful to the environment.
Native plants will have a much easier time thriving in your area, and any gas emissions created getting those plants from point A to point B will be minimal. “It’s all about finding plants that won’t need a lot of water to survive,” says Collett. “Part of being green means lowering the gallon consumption of potable water required by your landscape as much as possible.”
There are plenty of other easy green-friendly practices that can be followed. Installing a mulching attachment onto your mower and then taking the grass clippings and discharging them as mulch onto the turf is another way to stay green. These clippings will germinate on the very turf from which they came.
Installing an edible landscape is another practical solution to a green landscape. Rather than having to drive to the grocery store to buy produce that’s been shipped halfway around the world, your clients can go straight to their backyard to pick their homegrown strawberries and tomatoes.
Having a thick and verdant landscape will also have a noticeable cooling effect on the household. As plants soak up rainwater, that water will permeate down into the soil. Not only will the soil itself cool, but so will the air around the soil as the plants undergo evapotranspiration.
This same strategy can be applied to green roofs. Houses which are made up of concrete will have severe temperature issues; they’ll be colder in the winter and hotter in the summer. The hotter it is outside, the more the concrete will absorb that heat and bring it inside the home. Installing a green roof can help solve such problems. Every inch of rain that falls on that roof will help cool the overall temperature of the house and lessen the need to blast the air conditioning system.
You can install green walls as well. Draping ivy down the walls of the house will help insulate the property and keep it cooler. If going green is your choice, then your ultimate goal is to get the properties you’re working on LEED-certified. Buildings that have earned LEED certification are essentially given a stamp of approval from the U.S. Green Building Council stating that they are environmentally sound. Such certification can offer wonderful returns, often in the form of rebates and tax-based incentives, depending on which state you’re in.
To become LEED-certified, the property in question must follow certain requirements. It must conserve a certain amount of energy, have a certain amount of air flow, reduce water by at least 50 percent and more. Using recycled water or materials helps as well. “The more recycled, renewable materials you have, the more LEED components you have,” says Ivy Munion, an irrigation consultant in Livermore, California.
Plenty of states now offer rebates on LEED-certified projects, but cities are taking the initiative as well. San Francisco is offering rebates to properties that harvest rainwater for future use, and in areas in Florida, one home builder’s association is offering rebates to sites that use Smart Irrigation controllers.
California recently started a program called Smart from the Start, which will provide irrigation contractors with design templates they can consult to follow green principles one-by-one. With this program, there will be initial rebates that will pay for irrigation equipment completely.
With more and more states and municipalities catching on, going green is becoming more than just a trend; it’s becoming the way of the future. Greensburg and Wright Farms are just the beginning.