The sustainable outdoor room

The newly found awareness and genuine human desire to reduce our carbon footprint by actively taking care of our planet has inspired contractors, homeowners, landscape architects and manufacturers to design and develop new products and solutions to accommodate this social consciousness.

The desire for living in “outdoor rooms” has never been greater; however, these spaces now are being designed and built with a strong focus toward being green. In the landscape, this comes in the form of water management, energy reduction and sustainable solutions that are more appropriate for Earth yet still provide all the niceties we have come to expect from our properties.

Green Roofs, Green Walls

The literal greening of buildings and architecture is in response to the necessity of reducing the urban heat island effect, which raises temperatures in our cities and urban areas because of the significant amount of paved and structure-laden environments that so many of us live in. There is a strong need to create energy-efficient buildings utilizing plant material to better control energy consumption inside and outside. Green roofs satisfy this goal naturally by utilizing plants to help control the ambient temperature through their normal process of providing shade, creating oxygen and reflecting heat.

Today, everyone is focused on how to reduce our carbon footprint by providing goods and services that protect the Earth. One of the goals of these types of solutions is to reduce heating and air-conditioning costs by installing plant material on buildings to help manage weather changes that affect a building’s temperature. These plants also clean the air naturally and provide garden spaces for people to use.

Natives and Sustainability

Although sustainability has various interpretations, the general concept is to design and develop architecture and landscapes that not only initially minimize the impact to a site, but also “selfmaintain” so they solve today’s objectives without compromising future needs of the planet and society as a whole.

There is a tremendous effort underway to use native and indigenous plant material in landscapes. Borrowing from the concept of xeriscaping, landscape architects and designers are selecting plant material that is native to the area in which a project is located. If properly designed, using indigenous material will naturally reduce water-consumption requirements, minimize insects and plant diseases, reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides, and minimize a project’s overall maintenance requirements.

Along the same lines, more sophisticated clients are developing a strong desire to be self-sufficient and are returning to the concept of agronomics and requesting edible gardens. Homeowners want to grow and cook with crops cultivated in their own yards with their own two hands, controlling what they consume and how their food is processed.

Water Management

From the reduction of water usage to the reclamation, capturing and recycling of rainwater, residents are requesting or being required to reduce water consumption and manage runoff on-site. This means better and more sophisticated irrigation systems with smart controllers and sensors that monitor the needs of the plants, thereby reducing water usage. Rainwater that falls on the home or property is now being captured and utilized for irrigation, directed into seepage tanks to naturally restore groundwater, and also incorporated into natural ecosystem ponds and recirculating water features.

The popularity and aesthetic appeal of permeable pavers and permeable pavement fits this criterion, as well. Instead of water running off hardscape areas, such as driveways, patios and walkways, these pavement installation systems allow water to be naturally absorbed into the ground, alleviating stress on streams, rivers and treatment plants. On the business side of things, communities are beginning to appreciate the value of permeable pavement, allowing greater lot coverage for structures and hardscape features.

By being even more aware, vigilant and respectful of the natural processes inherent in Earth, design professionals, contractors and homeowners can do their own small parts to protect and preserve our planet while experiencing the enjoyment of the great outdoors.

Jody Shilan is president of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association and a green industry veteran with more than 30 years’ experience. He is president of Jody Shilan Designs and editor of, a members-only website exclusively for the professional landscape design/build contractor.