Green building tips for the outdoors

Green building tips for the outdoors

by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A green roof is one of the most visible — and beautiful — components of green building. More than just a container garden, green roofs are covered with vegetation and planted in soil over a waterproofing layer. Modern green roofs were developed in Germany in the mid-1960s, and while more prevalent in Europe, they're quickly gaining popularity throughout the United States.

Costs can vary, ranging from $10 a square foot to $40 and up a square foot, depending on the type of building and design complexity. Both pitched roofs and flat roofs can sustain a landscape, however pitched sod roofs tend to be a simpler design.

Green roofs help reduce stormwater runoff and the urban heat island effect while also filtering pollutants from the air. "Green roofs are everywhere," says Linda S. Velazquez, LEED Accredited Professional and American Society of Landscape Architects Associate.

Troy Wagner of Tacoma, Wash., owns a 110-year old home with a roof covered in sod. Although he's been known to let a goat climb the pitched roof from time to time, that's not what thrills him the most. "The life expectancy of the roof could be 900 years," he says.

When it comes to landscaping or outdoor green building, it's not a one-size-fits-all but rather a custom approach. Fortunately, there are some terrific guides to lead us through the process. The U.S. Green Building Council provides step-by-step instructions to consumers, builders and contractors striving for green construction, which takes green beyond the walls of your home and impacts your outdoor living space. The National Association of Home Builders offers a similar list of guidelines through their Green Building Program, which encourages home builders to consider the environment from the earliest design phase.

LEED certification comes when a third-party evaluator ensures the process meets the set standards, says Jay Hall, an Annapolis, Md., engineer working as a consultant with the USGBC and serving as acting director of the LEED for Homes program. "The green process is a different mindset, where durability is key, along with innovation and design," Hall says. "On the exterior and in landscaping, durability includes making sure the design and materials selected take into account the specific environmental conditions of the site. That covers siding, roofing, storm water management, plants and many other factors, depending on geographic location."

For instance, Southerners need to take into account heat and high humidity, while Northerners may need to pay more attention to guarding against winter elements or strong winds. No matter where you're building, it literally starts at ground level — where points are earned for the least disturbance to the land.

Before the first shovel hits the dirt, you must pay attention to how the house will be oriented on the property, says John C. Carter, owner of John C. Carter & Co. Inc., a landscape architecture firm in Narragansett, R.I. You want the home's design to take advantage of the sun's rays in winter yet be shaded from them in summer.

With homeowners paying a premium for wooded lots, preserving the valuable trees during construction is common sense, according to Jud Scott, owner of Vine & Branch Inc., of Carmel, Ind. To avoid soil compaction and other damage to a tree's trunk and root system, erect a temporary fence and post signs to delineate where equipment can go. Also, additional care is needed when digging foundations or swimming pools in order to protect a tree's roots.

For the exterior of the home, materials might include a metal or living roof rather than asphalt shingles. Siding can be comprised of cement-fibers and wood products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organization committed to the responsible management of the world's forests by monitoring the processing of trees for lumber and other wood products.

Fencing and deck materials also are a consideration, with high marks going to FSC-certified wood, recycled plastics, vinyl or other low-impact products. Materials for sidewalks, patios, driveways and other hardscape surfaces also control storm water runoff. Pervious concrete, permeable asphalt and porous pavers allow storm water to percolate through the soil rather than gush into the sewer system, carrying pollutants along the way. In addition, rainwater collected from your roof can be stored in rain barrels or in underground cisterns and used to irrigate plantlife.

How water moves on the property is important when considering a "green" certification. Storm water runoff and water features, such as fountains or ponds, play an integral role in the health of your landscape. Rain gardens or bioswales are beautiful, yet natural ways to control storm water runoff. Try to eliminate the use of potable water for landscape irrigation and rely instead on rainwater capture, recycled wastewater or graywater.

Selecting the appropriate plants for your outdoor living space can make an environmental impact. One of the most important things is choosing the right plant for the right place in your landscape. Native plants are best because they're already acclimated to the climate of any particular region. They can withstand crazy weather patterns and are successful at fending off insect infestations and diseases. When selecting plants to complement a water feature, choose foliage that's able to withstand periods of wet and dry soil. Or, look for greenery with a deep root system that can soak up large amounts of water. Such plants will encourage a slow, filtered absorption during a rainfall.

Integrated Pest Management is an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment in combination with available pest control methods. It can be used in the garden to manage damage with the least hazard to people and property. The benefits of having a "green" outdoors will be evident as native insects, birds and other wildlife seek refuge amongst the natural setting.

Your contribution, in native plants for food and shelter, the recycling of rainwater or the use of environment-friendly materials, will play a part in sustaining us all. 

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, freelance writer, author, speaker and photographer, is an Advanced Master Gardener and a national director of the Garden Writers Association. A self-proclaimed trial-and-error gardener, she also enjoys spending time with her dog, Penn, and cat, Cowgirl.

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