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In context

By David Tuch on 02/01/2008

Far too often, the emphasis of green building is placed on the building itself, to the neglect of the site. If a house built with the most sustainable and environmentally conscious techniques is located within a development that destroys the natural features and cultural heritage of the surrounding landscape, then an opportunity has been lost. That building could have been integrated into the larger environmental context of the property, but instead, it will most likely look like part of any other development found across the country.

Despite the patterns of development we have seen in our region over the years, there is hope through the application of green site-planning principles. Thanks to an understanding of smart-growth concepts, increasing involvement by our local land trusts and the many active environmental organizations in the region, a desire for a better way to develop our mountains has emerged. The real-estate community has developed an Eco-Agent program to promote green homes; many municipalities in the region have passed stringent hillside and storm-water requirements; and developers are beginning to recognize the benefits and marketing advantages of going green.

Several planning and design principles can be applied to new developments for an environmentally sensitive approach.

The location of a property is an important factor for determining the appropriate type of development. A high-density, mixed-use development may not be appropriate for a rural landscape, while a low-density alternative is not appropriate for an urban setting.

With Western North Carolina’s natural diversity and mountainous terrain, perhaps one of the most important aspects of site planning is the assessment of a property’s unique natural and cultural resources. These resources can include habitat, rare plants and animals, agricultural areas, water resources (streams, seeps, springs and wetlands), viewsheds, historic features and uses. Once these resources are identified, the infrastructure of roads, buildings, recreational areas and utilities can be located to protect or enhance such features. In green developments, these conservation measures become site amenities for the development. In rural developments where significant acreage is protected, the undeveloped areas may qualify to be placed into conservation easements, which permanently protect the undeveloped areas for future generations.

In urban settings, the emphasis on land conservation and preservation lies in protecting the water quality of streams and waterways, creating pedestrian-friendly communities that promote alternative modes of transportation, and accommodating a mix of uses and a diversity of people. Place-making, or the creation of spaces that are infused with character and features that promote an enjoyable and livable neighborhood, is often overlooked as a component of green development. But if developments are created with the intention of providing interesting places to live, work and play, people may drive less — and the result can be an overall boost in the quality of life.

Whether a development is located in a rural, suburban or urban area, several environmentally based planning and design principles should be integrated into the overall design of every green development. The use of Low Impact Development (LID) techniques, such as bio-retention areas, constructed wetlands, green roofs, bio-swales, riparian buffers and porous paving help minimize impacts on our waterways. Appropriate design of roads and architecture can minimize construction impacts, such as massive earth moving and alteration of the landscape. Energy-conservation principles, such as passive solar and/or solar panels, should be explored, in addition to utilizing landform and vegetation to help reduce energy needs of a building or home. With the current drought, emphasis on water conservation through rain-water collection and gray-water reuse is becoming more important. Rain-water collection can be used for vegetable gardens and even for indoor use. The materials used for the buildings and the landscape improvements, such as retaining walls and plantings, should be local, recycled or sustainable. Native plants can be used not only for landscape improvements, but to restore formerly derelict or impacted landscapes.

When a site’s significant natural and cultural resources are protected and several of the above principles are used in combination with one another, the integration of a well-planned, environmentally sensitive development will be evident. Green building works best when both the buildings and the overall development of a property are approached from the same perspective of environmentally sensitive design.