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Episode 58 – Synchronizing Sustainable Design and Landscape Architecture with Special Guest Meg Calkins of the North Carolina State University


Jessica McNaughton: Hi, this is Jessica with Build Green, Live Green, the CareGreen podcast on the latest in the sustainable building materials space. Today, we have Meg Calkins, who is the department head and professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University right here in Raleigh. Welcome, Meg.

Meg Calkins: Thank you.

Jessica: So we wanted to kind of get off our beaten path, which is we do a lot of interior products and we're starting to look more at the exterior products as we bring on things like sintered stone and pyrolithic stone or bio-UV quartz, these materials that are now addressing a lot of the shortcomings that a lot of stone materials had outside. And so some of our products that we've always typically used inside are now able to be used outside. So we've started to dip our toe into landscape architecture, and we're so excited to have you here and expand upon it for us, talk a little bit about your role and some of the materials that you work with. 

Meg: Great. Well, I am so pleased to be here and I also have an architecture background, so I sort of look at what's happening in building materials in the architecture profession and sometimes the interior design profession and I bring some of those lessons and some of those materials to landscape architecture. 

Jessica: Well, that's perfect. So can you talk about your role at NC State and how you ended up there? 

Meg: Sure; I've been in academia since the late nineties and I was recruited and applied for the department head job for the department of landscape architecture and environmental planning here at NC State and so I've been here for two and a half years as part of a wonderful community of accomplished faculty and motivated students in the department, but also in the College of Design at NC State.

Jessica: Well, that's great and we know that even some of The CaraGreen employees were students of yours. So we're very excited to kind of have that connection with you as well.

Meg: Yes.

Jessica: So can you tell us from a design standpoint, when someone's looking at a building, what does the landscape architecture piece of that building really look like? Where are we looking for those elements, for which landscape architecture is responsible?

Meg: Sure. Well, a simple definition is that everything outside the building, “skin,”  is part of the scope of the landscape architect. Of course, other consultants work with the area outside the building as well, for example, civil engineers. But I think that people tend to think that landscape architecture is landscaping and it's not, landscaping might be a very small part of the discipline of landscape architecture, but the discipline of landscape architecture has to do with far more than just plants. It has to do with the design of streets, parks, plazas, trails, campuses, commercial landscapes, and of course, residential landscapes. And then landscape architects also deal with the design of entire neighborhoods and communities. We do a lot of master planning, we do urban design and we do environmental and regional planning

Jessica: Yes, so that was my next question I had kind of teed up here because obviously, we're a sustainable building materials company. We deal a lot with different building certifications, like WELL and LEED and Fitwel, and most of those standards really kind of start with site selection, maybe remediation, brownfields about property development and things like that. So what environmental challenges do landscape architects or do landscape architecture as a field kind of face in this world with a changing climate and we're trying to conserve resources, what are some of the things that you guys are looking at from the very beginning of a project?

Meg: Well, some of the issues and challenges that we're addressing are similar to those in architecture. We look at the carbon footprint of a built landscape. We look from the standpoint of materials and products, we look at resource use issues. We also look at energy use to operate the landscape, although this is much smaller than it is with a building, but the difference with these issues is that carbon can be mitigated in a landscape with vegetation and there are material specifications such as the way we specify concrete or concrete products that can certainly improve the carbon footprint of a landscape. Some environmental challenges that we deal with that architects don't deal with are stormwater and vegetation. So stormwater is a key consideration of our profession and this overlaps somewhat with civil engineering. We focus on dealing with stormwater near where it falls. So if we can infiltrate it on the site in rain gardens or permeable pavement or in bioswales, we do. We also work on designing naturalized ponds and constructed wetlands to help it evaporate. 

Then in terms of vegetation, I think our profession is actually moving away from lawns everywhere and moving towards more native and adapted vegetation, and adapted vegetation can be defined as lower inputs such as water or pesticides or fertilizers. Then also that we use plants and we do planting design in communities and focusing on habitat creation. So the stormwater and vegetation are really the two areas that are very different than architecture.

Jessica: Yes, I can sort of picture that. It's interesting too, because we talk a lot about biophilic design and bringing nature into a space and you have this ability to kind of build out that nature so that it's a more interactive space. So I imagine that using that landscape architecture to actually allow people to kind of interact with it, whether it's walking through it or just have kind of line of sight to it is probably a part of that as well.


Meg: For sure and there's so much research particularly now during the pandemic, there's so much research on the health benefits of being in a natural landscape and not even so much in nature, but just being around vegetation and having a view to vegetation and being able to go outside and walk through trees. Even if you're walking down an urban street, this can have a tremendous benefit on your health and well-being.

Jessica: Sure. That's great; and so another area that I'm kind of curious about from a landscape standpoint is some of these alternative energies, like renewable energy sources and stuff. So would a solar panel or a solar array or wind or any sort of renewable energy fall under the scope of a landscape architect?


Meg: Sure. I mean, we would consult on those structures and those technologies if they were going to be placed in a landscape. So for instance, in the Southeast, it's becoming increasingly common to place solar panel structures over parking lots that does two things, one, it generates renewable energy, but it also shades the parking lot and reduces the heat island effect or the heat island impacts of dark-colored paving. So landscape architects are commonly consulted about those types of approaches to renewable energy. Additionally what I think is sort of underutilized by architects planting trees around a building, particularly on the South and West sides of the building can reduce the energy load of a building substantially with respect to air conditioning. If they are deciduous trees, then it allows sunlight access into the building during the wintertime when you want the heat gain.

Jessica: Interesting; I get my energy bill and it makes me want to plant trees, North Carolina summers.


Meg: Well, yes. For sure and it's such a low-tech thing to do, but I think in all of our fancy energy calculators that we use, we forget about trees and trees really are so low tech and they provide so many benefits. 

Jessica: Right, they are a carbon sink for one and, yes. So let me ask you a question about, well, you mentioned the solar array and it makes me think of Hunt Library and there's a little charging station outside, which has a little PaperStone tabletop that we created and then it's got a solar panel on top and the kids can kind of charge their phones and sit around out there. So that's what that made me think of. Do you use, or, I mean, I'm sure that you fall in some of these projects where there's a LEED certification or more recently WELL certification, those WELL tends to be a lot of interiors, but do you still see momentum behind LEED certification? Are there other exterior certifications that landscape architecture would fall under?

Meg: Sure, landscape architects engage in LEED Building Design and Construction and LEED ND primarily. We also consult on some of the WELL building credits those to do with outdoor thermal comfort or onsite non-potable water reuse, for example, but there is a new rating system that is very similar to LEED in many ways. It's aligned with LEED, it's called the Sustainable Sites Initiative, and it gets abbreviated with the acronym S I T E S, sites. It's also administered by the Green Business Certification, Inc. There are many credit synergies with LEED credits and in fact, we had some folks that were working on LEED at the time that we were developing the Sustainable Sites Initiative work with us on some credits and in the end, the Sustainable Sites Initiative version two has been in use now for I'd say about five years. Some of our credits have actually influenced some of the newer LEED V4 credits. The Sustainable Sites Initiative, I believe having worked on both lead as a technical advisor years ago, and having worked on the sustainable sites initiative and still working on it, I believe the Sustainable Sites Initiative is more robust with respect to vegetation, soils, and human health and well-being issues of outdoor sites.

Jessica: Well, that's good. So it sounds like sites, which is S I T E S you said, so that initiative it sounds like it's more all-encompassing when it comes to kind of that landscape architecture side, but it does overlap with lead to the degree that you could basically secure a set of site initiatives, that whole first section of LEED, and also you could do both and there's overlap, so you'd be getting credits in both programs.

Meg: Yes and there is a credit synergies document that exists that was put together by GBCI. So that if you earn a certain credit in sites, you will automatically earn a credit in LEED and vice versa. So many projects that are getting sites certified also get LEED certified. 

Jessica: Great. So one of the things that I think has always been interesting to me is in landscape architecture, you guys have the luxury of actually using nature in your design, where in interiors, you kind of have to bring it in from the outside, but it's kind of your canvas and also your tools to work with, but you do have to introduce outside or man-made materials and obviously concrete is a big one. What sustainable building materials, or what kind of research do you guys do or criteria do you have to kind of qualify what man-made materials you use and why?

Meg: Well I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but I wrote a book that came out in 2009 called Materials for Sustainable Sites and that book took the basic construction materials, many of which are used by architects as well, concrete, asphalt, metals, plastics, brick, wood, stone, earth, and materials and we looked at some of these materials like concrete, for example, and ways that one could reduce the environmental and human health impacts of those materials. So I think it's possible to take very standard materials and specify them in such a way that they actually become sustainable materials or green materials and then on the flip side, there are new products out there that are, right from the start are green, like some of the thermally modified woods.


Jessica: Yeah, like Accoya or Kebony. 

Meg: Yes, Accoya, or Kebony, or Thermory. They are all relatively good stand-ins for tropical hardwoods for use in site construction index in benches, railings, et cetera. So there's no more call to use tropical hardwoods, even though people still do that we have good substitutes now. So I think that sometimes we can make a material or product greener, other times we need to just try a different material or product.

Jessica: Yes, that makes sense. So let me ask you a question about kind of landscape architecture. When I think about kind of, you talked about like Neighborhood Development or LEEDND, and I think about kind of production builders and how they kind of just throw landscape architecture together. Between residential and commercial, do you see landscape architecture just generally given more attention in a commercial setting versus a residential development or is it pretty well looked at evenly in both?

Meg: Well, I think when landscape architecture is built in a residential ownership situation, not so much the production developers, but when someone hires a landscape architect to address the landscape around their house, there's quite a bit of care and opportunity for sustainability in that setting if the homeowner is dedicated to that. But in a production builder situation, very often the idea is to just build it, sell it, and walk away and so the landscape becomes something that is there to shrub it up and make it look good until the sale happens. So in terms of using native or adapted plants, or really incorporating stormwater management strategies that keep the water on or close to the site, there's not a whole lot of interest to do that, but there is starting to be more interest in certain parts of the country. I haven't seen it hit the triangle yet, but the Pacific Northwest, sustainable communities are a priority of people buying into them sometimes and so those developers will take the measures to deal with the stormwater sustainably and to plant native and adaptive plants. In addition, they make walkable streets or walkable sidewalks by the streets and connections to other neighborhoods so that people don't have to drive. They can either bike to work or kids can bike to school, et cetera. So I think there are models out there. I just haven't seen as many models in the Triangle yet.

Jessica: Yes, I agree. I think it's Briar Chapel out near Chapel Hill, I looked at a house out there when I first moved back to Raleigh or back to North Carolina and that was one area where I was very surprised at the amount of native landscaping. Because it's just, like you said, you don't see it that often in North Carolina, but it's good to see that it's a trend. Are there other trends that you're starting to see? I know you mentioned the solar panels over the parking garage, which I think it's a great idea, but are there other trends that you're seeing happening in landscape architecture that kind of; what are the newest classes that you guys are introducing to kind of stay on top of the latest and greatest?

Meg: Sure, yes. There's a really huge trend that I believe is really transforming our field and that is the idea of designing to promote ecosystem services and ecosystem health. So a lot of people don't know what ecosystem services are, but they're essentially the services that are provided by nature to human beings. So naturally occurring wetlands, clean water, trees, sequester carbon, they also clean the air and reduce loads of nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. Another ecosystem service is the pollination of plants so that we can grow food and have agriculture workout. So these are all ecosystem services and,  we can look at the Amazon and say, okay, the Amazon is providing amazing ecosystem services for our entire planet, but there's a new idea and that is that any built site or built landscape should provide ecosystem services. So the biggest one that is kind of a no brainer is that trees sequester carbon. So for instance, the carbon impacts of a building can be mitigated by the trees surrounding the building somewhat, a constructed wetland or a bioretention area can clean the stormwater that falls on the roof of a building or a parking lot and then another ecosystem service that tends to get short shrift is just the health value, the mental health value, and the physical health value of vegetation and nature.

Jessica: So it sounds like you're kind of circling around a couple topics, not that you're circling, but that you're alluding to a couple of topics that we cover quite substantially, which is the biophilic design and the body's response to nature. But also the ecosystem services, to me sounds almost like a large-scale version of biomimicry. So it's mimicking an ecosystem, but in a built setting with which we're interacting. So it's almost like it can mimic part of the rainforest activity in those ecosystem services, but in a more tangible setting that you might be interacting with on a daily basis.

Meg: That is exactly right. I mean, that's exactly right, because, we obviously, the Amazon provides far greater ecosystem services to the world, but landscape architects would make the argument that a small patch of trees on the edge of our campus is going to provide ecosystem services to the people within 500 feet of the place. So it is biomimicry. We design wetlands to act the same way as a natural wetland would act, but oftentimes they look very different. So we might put it in a series of constructed wetlands, we might put into some concrete basins that are rectilinear. They aren't necessarily irregularly shaped, but they can still perform the same way in terms of cleaning and aerating water.

Jessica: Well, this is all fascinating and it's funny that you talk about the rainforest because in my, well in most of us mothers new part-time jobs as homeschool teachers, my son is reading this book, The Most Beautiful Roof in the World about that whole kind of rainforest ecosystem. So it's really neat to be able to pull that back into the work that you do and in the work that we do on the construction side and really see that people are starting to put occupant and human health, mental health, physical health in front of just dollars and cents when it comes to construction inside and out. So thank you for everything, Meg. It was great having you here. 

Meg: Thank you.

Jessica: This is Jessica with Build Green, Live Green.


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