Integrating landscape into the built form

This Issue This is a part of the Urban form feature

By - , Build 120

The landscape is more than just a complex natural system. It should be treated as part of the complex building support system, which can deliver a range of benefits.

Figure 1: Landscape can be considered as a series of systems, with each element within the landscape delivering more than one positive outcome.

Any building, whether a house, apartment or a corporation’s flagship headquarters, can be designed as a safe, functioning, beautiful, sustainable structure. The surrounding landscape can either strengthen or undermine these values.

Often a neutral landscape

A landscape having a negative influence on the built form is obviously not desirable, but a neutral influence is not much better. A ‘neutral’ landscape benefits neither the building nor the greater environment. It does not add value or strengthen building systems, create positive micro-climates or help visually anchor the building to the land, city or region where it is located.

Neutral landscapes that lack integration with built form can often be identified because they clearly stop at the edge of the building – there is little relationship between inside and outside spaces. Landscape materials may have been selected for their aesthetic value and not their ability to deliver positive outcomes to the environment and building.

In public urban environments, these landscape-building combinations currently seem to take the form of minimalist concrete landscapes with clean lines and the occasional tree, heavy concrete or steel seating and sometimes a rain garden as a nod to sustainability. They would not be out of place in New York, London or Mumbai and follow international design styles with little focus on the place in which they sit.

Much more than a style statement

The landscape has significantly more to offer than a design-style statement, with planting around the building and a path to the front door.

The landscape is the element that binds the building to the ground, the environment and the community. It is the first ‘built space’ your friends or clients see and they use it to judge your approach to the world. The landscape should create a safe space to inhabit and enhance safe street edges for the community.

Figure 1: Landscape can be considered as a series of systems, with each element within the landscape delivering more than one positive outcome.

A positive landscape improves the performance of building systems (heating and cooling) while reducing the building’s impacts on the greater community infrastructure (stormwater, wastewater, power and potable water consumption). It should also add value to the greater environment’s fauna values (food and habitat source) and maybe provide food and learning opportunities for the public. The landscape should be built from materials and plantings selected for their low carbon and toxicity values, minimal carbon and chemical-based maintenance and low natural resource consumption.

With integrated design, the landscape can comfortably achieve all the above at most building scales. But how well are we doing this level of integration in New Zealand?

What we currently deliver

A portion of the New Zealand building industry actively integrates architecture and landscape. They generally do a reasonable job at incorporating ecological values and stormwater run-off initiatives, mostly in the form of rain gardens, swales and biodiversity planting.

However, we continue to struggle with the integration of buildings into the streetscape and the role that landscape space and edge design can play in achieving safe public spaces. Many buildings turn their back to the street or use landscaping to buffer the building from the street.

It is still uncommon to see the landscape acting as a water harvesting and filtration device for the built form. This may be due to developer’s concerns about meeting council requirements.

Finally, our landscapes still tend towards resource-heavy consumption of water, fossil fuel-based chemicals for maintenance and use of high-carbon and low-toxicity construction materials.

Consider early in design

Landscape is typically seen as the last stage of a building’s development. It often has the lowest budget amount and is the first part to be reduced during value engineering. Landscape designers normally only enter the design process at the end, when the opportunities to integrate architecture and landscape are mostly gone.

Compared with America and Europe, New Zealand has poor access to low-carbon, low-toxicity materials. Often there is only partial information on the environmental footprints of materials.

In addition, popular culture continues to reward high-profile sites and asthetics over integrated and sustainable design – it only takes a couple of rain gardens within a carbon-heavy landscape to win design and sustainability accolades. This sends a confusing message to the design community and public.

All of these issues work against the development of integrated and sustainable landscapes and so it is hard to find good working examples in New Zealand.

Environmental footprint important

Landscape design needs to be considered early within the design process, ensuring that it becomes an integrated part of a development.

New Zealand needs a transparent and agreed environmental footprint for materials so that designers and developers can make informed decisions on issues such as integrating water systems into the landscape or the carbon impact of landscape materials. Design institutes, the materials industry, government and non-government organisations need to provide the tools for such decision-making.

It would also help if design institutes reviewed their environmental-based awards to ensure that they consider the environmental footprint of materials used within a design and ongoing environmental costs for maintenance.

Future-proofing as environmental consumerism grows

Understanding of how the landscape can have positive or negative impacts is rapidly increasing within the professional and public realms. This is driving environmental-focused consumerism growth here and internationally, whether for clothing, food or the buildings we work or live in.

As environmental-focused consumerism gains momentum, companies will come under more pressure to publicise their environmental and social profiles. Accountability is important, whether for housing companies providing house and landscape packages, material producers or utility providers, so it makes sense to future-proof the buildings and landscapes we are designing today.

Many opportunities with integrated design

Some of the opportunities that integrated design can offer are shown in Figure 1. This maps out individual opportunities within the landscape and also shows how one opportunity is linked to another. It shows how single individual items such as a garden within the landscape can deliver a range of positive outcomes while still filling the role of aesthetics and place-making. Although these outcomes are achieved within the detailed landscape such as the use of levels, materials and structure, the overall design style of the landscape is flexible to suit any aesthetic desired by the client.

Work smarter not harder

It is not just a question of sustainability, integrated design or doing the right thing for the environment, the community or your market profile. It is simply allowing buildings and landscapes to work smarter, not harder, by integrating the landscape and the built form to gain maximum advantage for building systems.

To do this requires starting an integrated landscape and architectural design dialogue earlier in the development process. If done well, it should result in lower running costs and more environmentally efficient and user-friendly buildings and landscapes.

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Figure 1: Landscape can be considered as a series of systems, with each element within the landscape delivering more than one positive outcome.