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First Things First: Considering Green Land Development

April 2004     

There is more to "going green" than just reducing, reusing, and recycling building products. The way land is developed for construction is also an integral aspect of green building. When it comes to land development, builders and developers have a wide array of options on how best to use the available natural features, topography, and landscaping of the area. These considerations can positively distinguish one community from another.

The benefits of green development practices do not end with their reduced impacts on the environment - these practices can also reduce costs. "A good site planner will design streets, infrastructure, and building footprints in such a way as to reduce the amount of site excavation," according to Little Rock, Ark., developer Ron Tyne.

Getting Started

"You look at your natural features as amenities and then see what you have left over," said Ken Dierks of Landmark Design Group, an environmental planning firm in Virginia Beach. In order to maximize the impact of a site's natural amenities, Dierks says builders and developers should conduct what he calls an "opportunities assessment" at the start of the project.

But doing this kind of evaluation is not just about hitching a ride on the green building bandwagon, according to Vaughn Rinner, another principal and lead planner with Landmark. "The real trend is the whole idea of heritage and preserving a sense of place‹this is what people are looking for in their communities," said Rinner. By maintaining the general "lay of the land," green builders and developers are able to market their neighborhoods as places that have not lost this heritage that many consumers are seeking.

Location, Location, Location: Consider Clustering

Land development techniques that "cluster" homes in close proximity to each other and preserve trees, wetlands, meadows, and other natural amenities as open space can be very effective.

Chuck Stewart of Urban Forest Management Inc. in Fox River Grove, Ill., has seen more of his developer clients using this approach in recent years as a way to preserve tree stands. Stewart provided this scenario: "Say you have 100 acres zoned for one house per acre. You could spread these houses out and also put in the necessary roads and infrastructure. But suppose you could take those 100 houses and put them on 50 acres. Now you have gained 50 acres of open space." In the second option Stewart proposed, the "clustered" development, there is more open space and less needed in terms of streets, roads, and pipes—resulting in less natural space disturbed and less overall cost in infrastructure and development.

While this might seem like a win-win option, unfortunately, according to Stewart, a lot of local governments do not understand or are not willing to consider this concept because they think clustering means higher densities that are unattractive. "To balance your environmental goals with your need to meet market demand," Stewart has countered, "you might [need to] cluster your homes and increase the density. You have to be creative."

Water, Water Everywhere: The Green Connection

Green building is also being used to address stormwater management concerns. Using traditional practices, sites are engineered so that water run-off from roads, driveways, and other impervious surfaces is collected through curb and gutter and other above- and below-ground pipes. But there are greener ways of managing stormwater that builders and developers are using more and more. For example, they are reducing road widths, using grassy swales in place of curb and gutter, and eliminating or reducing unnecessary sidewalks and other impervious areas. This, in turn, increases the surface area on their sites where water can be readily absorbed into the ground.

Another way to develop green in areas that are particularly sensitive to surface water contamination is by planting vegetation that removes pollutants and sediment while providing habitat for birds and wildlife. In the Pacific Northwest and other damp climates, developers are improving stormwater management and water quality through the use of biofiltration swales, wet ponds, and constructed wetlands. All of these features, which can be designed to compliment the community around them, provide a place for surface water to collect and naturally recharge groundwater aquifers. Al Schauer, an environmental engineer with the firm MacKay & Sposito in Vancouver, Wash., said, "It is very hard to sell a geometrically perfect hole in the ground as an amenity." The key to making these features marketable, according to Schauer, "is to make those water quality facilities blend in with the surroundings. Then your facility becomes an amenity that helps to sell the project, rather than detract from it."

Developers are also saving, planting, and transplanting more and more mature trees because the roots of sizable tree stands act as water purifying filters. "If you retain larger portions of a woodland next to your site, it will improve water quality," according to Chuck Stewart.

Breaking Down Barriers

Regulation can be one of the biggest barriers to more widespread green building participation. But voluntary green building practices are gaining the attention of regulatory authorities. For example, in Montgomery County, Md., residential streets can have a pavement width as small as 20 feet, helping to reduce the amount of impervious surface in the county.

Environmental planner Chuck Ellison said, "We are building and developing much better than in the past. What we need now is more flexible regulation. Each piece of land is different. What works on one piece of land may not work elsewhere."