Planning a Sustainable Multifamily Landscape

In addition to maintenance costs, landscaping irrigation often accounts for up to 30% of an apartment building’s water and sewer charges.  By applying the principles of sustainable landscaping, operating costs may be lowered and maintenance crews freed to do other tasks. 

The first step in any sustainable building plan is to define the project’s goals.    

  • Reduce energy or water consumption?
  • Mitigate the heat island effect?
  • Reduce storm water runoff?
  • Reduce maintenance costs?
  • Provide an amenity such as an outdoor seating area?
  • Improve curb appeal?
  • Correct health and safety issues?
  • Is legislation pending or in place that restricts the use of potable (drinking) water for landscaping?

Next take an inventory of your available resources and reuse whatever you can:    

  • Existing plants
  • Existing soil type
  • Existing irrigation
  • Existing hardscape
  • Existing site orientation
  • Experienced personnel

Bring your team together in one room including:    

  • Owner
  • Manager
  • Maintenance personnel
  • Groundskeepers
  • Landscape designer
  • Contractor

During the team meeting, discuss the affects construction will have on residents, neighboring properties and the surrounding environment and come up with a plan to reduce soil damage via compaction, protect existing or desirable vegetation and prevent runoff of debris into storm drains.    

Ultimately, a sustainable design should focus on reducing potable water demand within the landscape by at least 50%, manage storm water on-site, protecting any adjacent sensitive areas, restoring native vegetation and providing habitat and reducing the use of toxic chemicals.    

100% Xeriscape Courtesy of Colorado WaterWise

Green property management professionals will also want to take into account the effect landscaping has on residents.  Can a seating area be provided? What will renters see when they look out the window or step out their door?  In other words, how are plant choices affecting their view?  While the view from a window may not be high on management’s list of things to consider, as any real estate agent will tell you, views affect market value.    

Many people mistakenly believe that a beautiful landscape can only be achieved through heavy watering, lots of chemical fertilization and extensive pesticide application.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Plants that are adapted and natural to a region require the least amount of care and don’t need the coddling a non-native species might.    

Take full advantage of the free resources available for your conversion to a sustainable landscape. The libraries have books on the subject and Master Gardeners are delighted to give free advice. We have listed a few picture links to demonstrate the many types of sustainable gardens, but contact your parks department, nearby arboretums and the water district or water utility in your area for the best local advice.     

There are also many nurserymen, landscapers and gardeners with great practical experience. Depending on your site, budget and vision, however, you may want to hire a professional landscape architect to develop and supervise the implementation of a sustainable design.   

Denver Water’s Xeriscape Resources    

Lose the Lawn: 21 Inspiring Yards     

The Secrets of Xeriscape Landscaping    

While the cost of designing and installing a sustainable landscape may seem steep, it will permanently improve your bottom line through reduced water and sewer bills, lower maintenance costs and improved rental rates. Well-adapted and indigenous plants also thrive in their home territory and rarely need replacement. The biggest benefit of any investment in sustainable landscaping, however, is that it will continue to improve with age and thrill your residents and your accountant.    

Portions of this article were adapted from the IFMA Foundation’s ‘Sustainability How-To Guide Series: Sustainable Landscaping’, available via pdf here.    

Other articles of interest:    

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