Thursday, October 2, 2008

Reading List: Materials for Sustainable Sites

It's rare to find a must-read book for the profession of landscape architecture. This is not to say that there aren't a bunch of amazing books to highlight a diversity of works - including projects, theories, styles and interests. It is, however, rather uncommon for the topical nature of a text to be able to contribute to understanding and knowledge of most, if not all landscape architects - regardless of how and what type of work you do. I know this sounds like a sales pitch, and a bunch of hyperbole... but the new book Materials for Sustainable Sites by Meg Calkins delivers...

:: image via Construction Book Express

First the requisite snapshot, if you will, via the Wiley website: "This complete guide to the evaluation, selection, and use of sustainable materials in the landscape features strategies to minimize environmental and human health impacts of conventional site construction materials as well as green materials. Providing detailed current information on construction materials for sustainable sites, the book introduces tools, techniques, ideologies and resources for evaluating, sourcing, and specifying sustainable site materials. Chapters cover types of materials, both conventional and emerging green materials, environmental and human health impacts of the material, and detailed strategies to minimize these impacts. Case studies share cost and performance information and lessons learned."

That's all well and great, and I've been curious about the volume since I saw it advertised a few months back. I immediately liked the general idea, and feel that this would fill in the gaps of what many books lack. This lack is a certain focus in trying to be too many sustainable things to too many professionals. It's time we had a companion to such comprehensive resources out there like Sustainable Landscape Construction by Thompson & Sorvig, or other more neo-technocentric books like Living Systems by Margolis & Robinson. Both tend towards a necessary generality or focus on a particular strategies - which is helpful, but lacking in hard detail and specifics. Thompson & Sorvig come closest to matching the focus of Ms. Calkin's book, but Materials for Sustainable Sites shines in that one very particular benefit - the afforementioned laser-like focus on materials, and only that.

:: image via Permagreen Organics

It may seem strange to refer to a book about as general of a topic as 'Materials' as focused, but in the realm of landscape architecture texts, this focus is a rarity. Perhaps this is due to our small profession and it's generally small readership, but it seems often that a book tries to do everything - in reality doing nothing well. It seems simple when you think of it. Look to the life-blood of the profession... the essential and rudimentary tools of our trade. How often do we wield these tools -- wood, metal, plastic, concrete, soil or plants? We come to know their properties, possibilities, and limitations well over time, and still manage to cook up amazing new designs with these relatively simple ingredients. It seems more often than not, we look to references to help us in using the raw materials to create assemblies that are, in so many words, machines to achieve sustainable ends. Rain gardens, permeable pavements, green roofs - all with laudable goals but perhaps able to become even more sustainable by looking not only at their function, but their DNA... the items that are used in their creation.

Even more rare, in the world of sustainable design, is an honest look, and a more honest accounting, of our 'sustainable' designs. This quantification is telling when put under the analytical microscope into which this book veers. The refreshing part I found in Materials for Sustainable Sites was that it was someone not telling designers how to use materials at all. The aim is just presenting, in amazing detail with copious research, the accumulated knowledge of what we know. All of this information could probably be found in a variety of other sources if you look hard enough and have a few hundred hours of free time. In essence, this is not a presentation of new source material or research, but rather a comprehensive and encyclopedic collection that provides, dare I say, THE essential source for sustainable materials. It also goes beyond landscape architecture - to urban design, architecture, and any building trade - because the data and analysis is readily transferable.

:: Does your design use sustainable materials? - image via D&E Landscape

So to discuss the idea of what is a material for sustainable sites? According to Calkins, sustainable materials (p.3) "...are those that minimize resource use, have low ecological impacts, pose no or low human and environmental health risks, and assist with sustainable site strategies." The further distincition is what I think is most important, where it gets into the 'characteristics' of green materials, which elaborates that these REDUCE resource use, MINIMIZE environmental impacts, and POSE NO THREAT or low human health risks. Some less specific but important are those that assist with sustainable site design strategies, and products from companies with sustainable practices

As with everything, there exists a continuum in which sustainable sites reside... and decisions should be made on material use and specification at all phases and on all projects (with the particular goals guiding the extent to which they are applied). Although the requirements of site specific LEED strategies, the sorta rigorous Sustainable Sites Initiative, and the more perhaps overly rigid Living Site and Infrastructure Challenge, all have directions for sustainable use of materials - it is unclear how these fall on the continuum of dangerous to less bad to regenerative. This book should provide some direction to making these value judgements.

Take for instance, the litany of potential impacts that must be considered: global climate change, fossil fuel depletion, ozone depletion, air pollution, smog, acidification, eutrophication, deforestation, erosion, loss of biodiversity, water quality, toxicity - amongst many others. In addition to the issues, there are a range of potential macro-scale methods included in the book to help reduce the impacts as well, including Industrial Ecology, Biomimicry, Zero-Waste, and the Proximity Principal - many of which will be familiar, but some will be new concepts for landscape architects as well.

The first section is summed up as a iterative process document that looks at defining, educating, evaluation, and learning to design with these sustainable materials. Chapters 4 was specifically informative, particularly in detailing strategies for developing closed-loop systems, deconstruction and design for dissassembly, and use of recycled materials.

:: Landfill or opportunity? - image via Uncyclopedia

Aside from the general conceptual context, the second part of the book goes into this level of hyper-detail that is necessary to look at the common materials we use on a daily basis. Chapters specifically cover concrete, earthen materials, brick masonry, asphalt pavement, aggregates and stone, wood and wood products, metals, plastics and rubber, and biobased materials. The information is not something that can even be summarized, and in truth, I have only looked at the sections for content. When I have a particular issue, myself, and others in my office who have seen the book and it's content, know the first place we will look.

In closing, I'm not going to lie to you. This book is dense. This is not a book you take to the beach, and not a book you pick up and read in bed, turning pages wildly as you glance at the clock wondering how you are going to get up for work the next day after staying up so late. That's not to say that the text isn't readable. It's just that you need to absorb for a bit, then take a while to digest before going back for more.

Rather, this book is an amazing reference for use during the design process, when assembling materials for use in sustainable ways. This will also be a great tool for planning, ecosystem valuation, life-cycle costing, and many other more broad-based uses. As mentioned, planners, designers, and everyone in between will find a use for Materials for Sustainable Sites. It also promises to be a fantastic method of checks and balances during any form of ecological accounting, whether unbuilt, seeking renovation, or already complete. There are books you pay good money for, page through and forget. There are also books you pay good money for, and sit dog-eared next to your drafting table or computer screen. This is the latter, and $80.00 is a small price to pay for all the work Ms. Calkin's did for us.

An interesting side-note of modern cross publishing is the trivalent means in which this information will be available. First, and my favorite - is the good 'ol hard-cover copy (i.e. an actual, physical book). Second, via Wiley: "The e-book version will be available from the Wiley website later this week ( and the online course covers the use of recycled materials in sites, and is based on a portion of the book. The course will be available by October 10th at Wiley's soon-to-be-launched online continuing education portal AIA CEUs will be given upon successful completion of the course."

All of these things lead to more design intelligence. To become intelligent in our use of materials is the key to transcending sustainability and embracing regenerative design. To do 'less bad' is only 'less bad'. To create 'sustainable' assemblies using unsustainable materials is counterproductive, and will ultimately lead us down the same recurring cycles of resource depletion. This book provides you all that you require to understand, utilize, and communicate the sustainable aspects of materials for any project. You just have to pick it up and use it.

Materials for Sustainable Sites Wiley (October 6, 2008)
Hardcover, 464 pages B/W with color plates
$80.00 (Purchase via the Land8Lounge Bookstore)

About the Author:
Meg Calkins, LEED AP, holds master's degrees in both architecture and landscape architecture from the University of California at Berkeley, and is currently on the faculty of the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University. She has written numerous articles and book chapters on sustainable site materials and serves as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for Landscape Architecture Graphic Standards. She served for many years on the LEED Sustainable Sites Technical Advisory Group and is currently on the Materials Subcommittee of the Sustainable Sites Initiative.

[Thanks to Margaret Cummings at Wiley for the review copy and dialogue, and Meg Calkins for the sneak peek while her Ball State landscape architecture class was at our office last week. It was great to see the color plates, many of which, surprisingly, featured GreenWorks projects. Glad to see we're still doing things right!]

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