4 Essentials of Sustainable Site Design

The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate in August 2021 proposed a variety of improvements, such as $7.5 billion for the installation of thousands of charging stations for electric vehicles. Green initiatives like this highlight the ever-growing importance of sustainable infrastructure.

Designers have the power to influence sustainable infrastructure for a fraction of what the U.S. government is spending; and, in this blog, we’ll share a few examples.

1. Consider Your Natural Surroundings

As designers already know, before you begin any grading, planting, or hardscaping, you must first consider the project site’s existing conditions with an intent to make the least amount of adverse impacts possible.

Aside from walking around and taking inventory of your client’s project site, the next best way to understand this space contextually is with GIS. If you are already familiar with the support GIS data can provide, such as parcel data, zoning overlays, building footprints and topography, you should also note the even broader range of information available from online services like Esri’s ArcGIS Online. This data can be brought into Vectorworks Landmark via a connection to online feature services to offer a site real-world context, essential to making better decisions for each project. 

GIS data will allow you to document and inventory existing trees and vegetation into your design. As well, GIS data can also account for protected areas, natural watersheds and flood zones within the site and surrounding area, which is vital for an understanding of how you’re impacting nearby waterways.

2. Look for Opportunities to Include Bioswales

Slowing down the flow of water — that’s the name of the game for a lot of green infrastructure.

According to Ann English, PLA, LEED AP, CBLP D+I, and RainScapes manager, “Plants need water. And fast flowing water erodes soil. Plants support the ecosystem pollinators, knit together soil, and transfer carbon from the atmosphere to the soil.”

English continued, “Imagine your soil is a dry sponge. If the water goes too fast, it doesn’t have a chance to soak in and the soil stays dry, meaning that plants don’t have a chance to use the water to grow. The goal is to have soils that are able to absorb the water and reduce the amount that runs off to be more similar to that from a healthy forested condition; in a forested condition, somewhere between four and ten percent of water runs off from the surface. The rest is either infiltrated or evapotranspirated.”


It’s also important to manage the flow of water to ensure the quality of water. If rainfall reaches the nearest waterway too quickly, not enough toxins and possible pollutants will be removed from it. Slowing down the flow of water aids in its purity.

One solution is to control the flow of water with a bioswale. A bioswale is like a swale in that it's a graded area designed to redirect water. However, unlike a concrete swale that may simply pushes rainfall elsewhere, a bioswale is constructed with soil, plants, and other elements that make the surface penetrable. This way, the water is encouraged to seep into the earth.

3. Favor Permeable Pavement Systems to Rigid Hardscapes

There’s a natural tension between green infrastructure and hardscapes like concrete, since the latter are installed to the detriment of the former.

Moreover, most concrete doesn’t properly manage the flow of water. After a heavy rainfall, water may pool in certain areas; or, if a grade is present, race towards the lowest points. In both situations, flooding becomes a great risk. `

A permeable pavement system allows water to be absorbed by the soil beneath the concrete or other paved surface. Because the water can soak into the layers of soil and porous rock underneath the system, it can benefit the moisture content of the soil in nearby plantings, enter an underground drainage system, or perhaps recharge the water table in that area.

An underground drainage system is going to cost your project time and money. As is the case with most green infrastructure, the more you can do above ground, the more money your client will save.

4. Add Green Roofs to Your Repertoire 

A long-standing, yet still growing trend in sustainable design is green roofing. Rooftop gardens and urban agriculture are becoming more and more popular in urban areas.  Not only does rooftop farming provide building tenants with fresh vegetables or beautiful greenery, but they also help control water runoff and carbon levels in urban areas.

Not all rooftops are conducive to harboring rows of plants, however. So, there must be more intentionality and consideration in the design process. When designing intensive rooftop gardens and extensive green roofs in Vectorworks Landmark, it’s important to consider structural loads, water management systems, climate, and the ability to access the gardens. All these details can be considered and recorded using Vectorworks’ powerful worksheets.

If you're working with other engineers or architects on your rooftop garden, you also have the option of seamless file sharing (DWG, IFC, image files, etc.) in Vectorworks.

But don’t stop with rooftop gardens — green roofing can be taken to a whole new level with solar-integrated green roofing. This is a practice of combining greenery and photovoltaic panels. The greenery will keep your panels cool and therefore, more efficient. In turn, the panels will promote more variety in the plants that can be used on the roof. This is due to areas of greater sunlight and of greater shade.

Green roof

Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion | Courtesy of PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc.

Click here for more information on how you too can design sustainably with the software built for the way landscape architects work.

Topics: Landscapes


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