NREL leads with sustainable landscapes

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The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has received certification from a pilot program called SITES, an initiative to create more sustainable landscapes.

Sustainable Sites Initiative or SITES spawned in June 2010, and has certified 26 projects across the nation from organizations, businesses and parks who have achieved a sustained land management system that progresses the idea of depleting the carbon footprint from inside a building, to its outside.

Around 30 acres on the NREL campus in Golden has received SITES certification including the campuses detention pond to help with storm water run-off, managing water use to replacing a natural habitat disturbed by the construction of the NREL campus. NREL was rated three out of four stars for their sustainable landscapes.

“When you look at sustainability, you have to look at the entire way you do business, all of the impacts that you have,” Frank Rukavina, sustainable NREL director said. “It’s not just the waste we put in landfill.”

NREL’s part in SITES fits well with the lab’s building certifications from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED for green building design.

“This was the perfect opportunity to do something about the landscaping because we built an enormous amount of buildings and disturbed a very large percentage of acreage of ground that we’re on,” Rukavina said. “We wanted to put that back into the most pristine environment that we could.”

Managing water use is another important factor for any type of landscape, and NREL uses a satellite controlled watering system for their sprinkles that takes into account humidity and weather forecast. These devices are readily available at a local hardware store such as Home Depot, Rukavina said.

The detention pond is perhaps one of NREL’s most notable achievements in land management which helps to collect and discharge storm water run-off as well as minimizing the impact to the sustainable habitat NREL has created. The test came during the September floods with many drainage systems and ponds overrun by water.

“If it wasn’t there, our community neighbors just to the south of us would have had a huge inundation of water,” he said. “The idea of this pond really helped managed the amount of water that was really coming down Lena Gulch.”

The SITES pilot program started with 162 registered projects seeking certification, with 54 percent located in urban areas, according to the SITES website. Open space and parks make up 38 percent of the project types. SITES is a partnership between the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.

“It helps us to continue to investigate all the different ways we can manage the laboratory in a sustainable manner,” Rukavina said about SITES. “It helps put that big picture together that shows that you’re looking at everything is a system and how to manage it as a comprehensive system,” he said. “Like LEED or buildings, it also provides you an internationally accepted level of performance.”

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