Try Native Plants, Rain Gardens

My residential design/build firm is trying to design its new and remodeled outdoor living

spaces with the current economy and recent environmental trends in mind. The recession has in effect helped our business grow because clients are not taking as many vacations and are spending more time and discretionary income on improving their properties. Although we deal with high-end clients, they are still concerned about whether initial costs of “green” projects will be higher than traditional projects and whether the investment will pay off in the long run.

Some of the green trends we’ve been including in our projects include installing high-efficiency variable-speed pumps for swimming pools and spas. Standard pool pumps can consume as much energy as all other home appliances combined—often costing more than $1,000 per year. Variable-speed pumps typically provide digital controls and proprietary software that allow custom programming of optimum pump speeds for specific tasks, like filtering, heating, cleaning, spa jets, waterfalls, etc. The result is energy savings of up to 90 percent.

We also install automatic pool covers, which reduce pool heat loss by up to 70 percent, and LED lighting, which uses one-third the power of incandescent lighting and lasts twice as long.

We have been designing and installing lower-maintenance gardens and employing the practice of xeriscaping, which is the planting of indigenous species that can survive the local environmental conditions, wherever possible. We also minimize the amount of turf we install and encourage the installation of native gardens and meadows. In the New York suburbs where I practice, this can sometimes be a tough sell. It seems to be ingrained in the American psyche that plush, green, weed-free lawn areas somehow are a symbol of success. We try to re-educate the homeowner that using less typical turf and more native plantings will create a healthier environment for children and pets, as well as save money on expensive chemicals.

Another trend we have been employing is the installation of permeable paving, which allows water to flow through it and into the ground. Although my clients still want natural stone for their terraces and walkways, we are encouraging them to set the stone on a permeable base. We have been installing turf-block-style paving, which consists of interlocking concrete or plastic cells filled with soil and/or a low-maintenance ground cover, for overflow and additional parking areas with great success.

Runoff is a major concern to anyone who is designing hardscapes. Most municipalities we work in have instituted zero additional runoff policies on projects. We can no longer let the water from terraces, walks and drives run off onto the property or out into the municipal system. To meet these requirements, we stay away from installing concrete or plastic dry wells and take a greener approach by designing rain gardens. A rain garden takes advantage of rainfall and storm-water runoff in its design and plant selection. Usually, it is a small garden which is designed to withstand moisture extremes and concentrations of nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous, that are found in storm-water runoff. Rain gardens are sited close to the source of the runoff and serve to slow the storm water as it travels downhill, giving it more time to infiltrate and less opportunity to gain momentum and erosive power. Although creating a rain garden is more expensive than letting water run off, rain gardens are less expensive and more environmentally friendly than typical engineered dry wells. You can find more information about rain gardens on the Rain Garden Network,

These new times present challenges to designers and builders to become more educated about the many creative solutions that can be aesthetic, environmentally conscious and even more profitable.