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Playgrounds and Green Design

By Arthur Mittelstaedt, Jr., EdD, and Richard Ward, MBA

Green roof applications are not limited to downtown buildings. How about green roofs on restrooms, picnic shelters, play pavilions and other structures? Green roofs can also be applied to dog houses as seen here. (Editor's note: We know of at least one restroom facility in Norway with a green roof.)

The sustainability of buildings is now encouraged throughout the country. However, little is said about sites around buildings or near buildings, such as playgrounds. These should also be sustainable sites.

Every designer should explore the issues addressed by green design:

  • Planning sustainable sites
  • Safeguarding water
  • Promoting water efficiencies
  • Generating energy and efficient energy
  • Conserving materials
  • Using renewable resources
  • Promoting use of expendable, reusable, recycled by-products.

The benefits of green design and green built areas are:

  • Reducing costs
  • Reducing or neutralizing first costs
  • Enhancing asset value
  • Optimizing life cycle benefits
  • Improving efficiencies
  • Contributing to health, comfort, safety and well being.

The playground is a prime venue for creative and progressive adaptation by designers for application to the U.S. Green Building Council for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. It is a voluntary standards and certification program that defines high performing buildings and systems which are more environmentally responsible, healthier and more efficient.

Talk about green design for a playground, this one is in the Kaiserslautern Gartenschau, Germany. Although Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) does not specifically address playgrounds or other park venues, materials selection and sustainable site development, two of the five LEED design categories, seem appropriate fits.

Although LEED addresses a variety of building project types and neighborhood development, it has not addressed playgrounds or other park venues. (Editor's note: Standards are being developed for sustainable landscapes and site components. Please see "Sustainable Landscape Design Rating System Under Development.")

The LEED rating system is organized into five design categories: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. Each category has specific technologies and strategies and with various levels of certification.

Basic Certification:26 to 32 points
Silver Certification:33 to 38 points
Gold Certification:39 to 51 points
Platinum Certification:52 to 69 points

Under Sustainable Sites, for example, you can earn a possible 14 points. Points can be earned for erosion/sedimentation control; urban redevelopment; brownfield redevelopment; public transportation access; alternative transportation; bicycle storage and changing rooms; alternative fuel refueling stations; parking capacity; reduced site disturbance stormwater management; light pollution reduction; roof design that reduces heat island effect.

Under Water Efficiency you can earn a possible five points for water innovative wastewater technologies and water use reductions (one point for 20 percent reduction, another point for 30 percent reduction).

Energy and Atmosphere (possible 17 points) practices can be earned, for example, by optimizing energy performance and use of renewable energy.

Various levels of building reuse, construction waste management, resource reuse, recycle content and use of certified wood earn points for Materials and Resources (possible 13 points).

Under Innovation Design, a more subjective assessment, designers can garner five possible points.

Green design, of course, is also applicable to rooftops, but not just roofs on downtown buildings. There are roofs on restrooms, picnic shelters, play pavilions and other structures. (Editor's note: We know of at least one restroom facility in Norway with a green roof.) Green roofs provide aesthetically pleasing coverage in a variety of ways. Municipal bylaws are allowing green roofs to make their ways into the green building rating systems. They once were only applicable to concrete structures and underground garages, but are now being adaptable to wood-frame and steel-frame structures.

Green roofs used to be correlated with leaky ceilings and mold, but that was before installation of waterproof membranes. The importance of appropriate design, construction and maintenance along with warranty coverage creates a new prospective for green roofs by third parties, i.e., insurers, owners and operators.

Conventional roofs and vegetated roofs must be differentiated. Vegetated roofs might be referred to as either intensive or extensive systems. Intensive green roofs are those with eight plus inches of soil; extensive green roofs have less soil. Some designs might be characterized as uncharted territory. However, both roof systems can be warranted, through many infer that only extensive types can be covered under a roofer's contract.

While green roofs require more upkeep than conventional roofs, the benefits are exceeded with alternate green site design. New design applications have to be explored with green roof design as part of a playground's contribution to energy and resource conservation. However, such green roofs should not be inviting to play and creative design must deter their use for unattended or obtrusive use.

Other environments are incorporating sustainable design techniques into the green design projects, such as wind farms, brown fields and wetlands.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has emerged as a national organization with a rapidly growing number of members representing many building design organizations, companies, and design professionals. According to their website,, the "USGBC is a community of leaders working to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has adopted position statements to "promote sustainable design and resource conservation to achieve a minimum reduction of 50 percent of the current consumption level of fossil fuels used to construct and operate buildings by the year 2010. As part of this initiative, the AIA will develop and promote the integration of sustainability into the curriculum for the education of architects and architecture students, so that this core principle becomes a guiding mindset for current and future architects."

State and federal governments have stepped up to become involved in these initiatives by offering a number of financial incentives to building owners for both commercial and residential buildings. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-58) established a tax deduction for design and installation expenses of energy-efficient commercial building systems. However, the deduction is only applicable to buildings installed before January 1, 2009, so it is important to take advantage of this deduction before its expiration. Pending legislation before Congress would also add a federal tax credit (as opposed to a deduction) for certain energy improvements in commercial buildings.

There is a real and growing degree of elevated public consciousness on sustainability issues and responsible building design. Shouldn't landscape architects also envision parks and playgrounds as an environmentally responsible, healthy and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life?

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December 7, 2019, 3:56 am PDT

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