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Water and More: 25 years of Sustainable Landscapes in Texas

By J. Robert Anderson, FASLA, J. Robert Anderson Landscape Architects




The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin was designed for “total resource conservation” and has been an important source of guidance and information to laymen and design professionals. Boulders are recycled for walls, site stones create curbing, pond restoration and water features reflect regional identity, and native plants are exclusively used.

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Roy Bedichek, legendary naturalist of Texas, often used the term “little waters.” What Bedichek found during his years of writing, field observations, and wandering Texas was that by saving and storing water at the source or upper reaches of watersheds meant creating “little waters” throughout a drainage system. This idea was espoused by Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes in the 1930s, as he lead America to adopt better soil conservation practices nationwide.

By starting at the source of a watershed, whatever the size or type, rural or urban, the ability to keep and use water where it fell is a precursor to sustainable landscape design in the 21st century. In looking at the hundreds and thousands of “little waters” that need to be caught, released, absorbed and fed into our rural and urban landscapes, Bedichek encouraged us to think locally, while acting globally to use water where it falls. This idea has become central to sustainable landscape architectural planning and design in Texas and throughout the country.

 




Soil, rocks, boulders, and plants were all salvaged and recycled into the gardens, grounds, parking lots, water features, and infiltration ponds at the Lady Bird Johnson Center. This attention to keeping the “little waters” on site and dispersed throughout the grounds allows percolation and absorption. Plants are watered without exhaustive supplemental irrigation.

 

Landscape Sustainability Always Starts With Water

There is a growing concern in the south central United States that the increasing shortage of cheap oil and gas will soon be accompanied by shortages of good clean water. In short, water could become the oil of the 21st century.

The efficient use of water and preserving the public water supply has become a top priority for most Texas cities. The effort to conserve water has encompassed commercial and residential landscape gardens that rely on the life giving attributes of water. Water is the life-giving element of all good landscapes and has been necessary for the health and growth of commercial and residential landscape gardens throughout Texas.

 




At the Schumberger Well Services (now Concordia College) site plantings were rescued from planned roadways, disturbed building pads and from nearby highway construction sites. These were moved and replanted as live transplants—grasses, forbs, perennials and supplemented with locally collected seed species (more than 100 species in all). Schlumberger set the stage for many of J. Robert Anderson’s later work, and was an important precedent in sustainable design.

 

Water conservation has become something of a business for San Antonio, Texas. It has some of the best water savings strategies in the country. The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) includes a tiered pricing structure, strict lawn-watering rules, free low-flow toilet distribution programs, free or low-cost plumbing repairs for low-income households, and rebates on the installation of low-water use landscapes and clothes washers. The SAWS staff has briefed and continues to brief many other cities on their mission, the city-wide approach and pragmatic results.

LEED® and SSI

In 2005, the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SSI) was created by the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. The purpose is to develop sustainable, landscaping standards that would become part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system. While the goal is to create a template, better landscape planning and designs push the limits, especially in innovation and creativity.

 






Large trees, up to 36 inch caliper (35 feet high by 45 wide canopy) were carefully harvested, stored and watered, then transplanted by the contractor into carefully designed locations throughout the streetscape.

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The work of J. Robert Anderson Landscape Architects (JRA) of Austin fosters many of the sustainable principles outlined by SSI. The work by JRA has inspired a generation of native plant designs, large tree protection or harvest and relocation, and water feature designs that conserve water and tell the geologic or natural history of the region.

Wildflower Center: A Landmark in Sustainability

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center was designed for “total resource conservation” and has been an important source of guidance and information to homeowners and design professionals. The Wildflower Center’s main goal was to demonstrate the use of native Texas plants in numerous settings, habitats, and gardens. The result is a living library of flora. Alone, the Wildflower Center has influenced landscape design as well as architectural and site planning more than any single facility in Texas.

 









?The Redbud Center stormwater design begins with a 33,853-gallon rainwater capture system (the large unit at left, plus the three smaller units behind the car). Rainwater captured from the roof of the building is redistributed as drip irrigation, for the water features and for toilet flushing.

 

Aesthetics and environmental responsibility were co-equal terms applied at the Wildflower Center in way that ecological design permeates and integrates both landscape and architecture. Rainwater is received from most of the buildings, and nourishes the plants. The guttering system, constructed of galvanized steel, blends well with the building facades and boldly connects with cisterns via local stone columns and arches recalling Spanish missions in Texas. The conservative water features that act as part of the storm management system, also serve as teachable moments where native aquatic plants create intimate ecosystems. Fish, turtles, frogs, and aquatic native plants demonstrate to visiting students the many facets of pond life. The stone edged, spring-like feature of the central plaza imitates the natural springs of central Texas. All water features avoid spraying water into the air to minimize evaporation.

During construction, all soil, rocks, boulders, and native plants were preserved or salvaged and incorporated back into the gardens, grounds, parking lots, water features, and infiltration ponds. Of note are the small stones used as curbs in the parking lots where storm water is allowed to percolate and filter between the stones into the water quality ponds. This multiple filtration concept allows for a more total linear exposure to vegetative filters prior to being released downstream in a more filtered state. . This attention to allowing the “little waters” to remain on site or to be spread throughout the grounds retains the attributes that allow for deeper water absorption, thereby reducing the need for supplemental irrigation and conserving water.

 




The Redbud Center stormwater design begins with a 33,853-gallon rainwater capture system (the large unit at left, plus the three smaller units behind the car). Rainwater captured from the roof of the building is redistributed as drip irrigation, for the water features and for toilet flushing.
The rainfall that hits the parking lot is directed into this bioswale that is designed with special soils and plants to filter out pollutants from the parking lot. A series of check-dams slow the storm water, causing it to release sediment and increase infiltration. A second vegetated swale provides additional filtering as it ushers storm water into the two-chamber water quality pond. The ponds and bioswales were aesthetically designed to serve as an attractive demonstration of an effective storm water management system.

 

Preserves within the Site Context

At the Schlumberger Well Services Austin campus (now Concordia College) existing grasses, forbs and perennials were rescued from planned roadways, disturbed building pads, and from nearby highway construction sites. The rescued vegetation, along with locally collected native seeds adding up to more than 100 species, were relocated within the planned landscape design. Schlumberger set the stage for many of J. Robert Anderson’s later work, and was an important precedent in sustainable design.

 




San Antonio has some of the best water savings strategies in the country. The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) includes a tiered pricing structure, strict lawn-watering rules, rebates for low-water use landscapes, free low-flow toilet distribution programs, free or low-cost plumbing repairs for low-income households and rebates for low-water clothes washers. The SAWS staff has briefed and continues to brief many other cities on their mission, the city-wide approach and pragmatic results.

 

Integrated Gardens with Biological Filters

A major recent project for JRA is the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) Redbud Center. It includes an interpretive park, a new emergency operations building for staff and environmental education, and extensive on-site water management. The interpretive park features a water feature, a rainwater harvesting system, demonstration planting beds, and an extensive stormwater treatment system. Every component of the project was designed to demonstrate that good land stewardship conserves and protects natural resources, and to educate visitors about the value and practice of good stewardship. The Redbud Center has received the Texas Rain Catcher Award (last quarter, 2008) from the Texas Water Development Board and a Four-Star Sustainability Rating from the Austin Energy Green Building Program and has achieved LEED® Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Recently, the project was recognized with an Award of Excellence by the Texas ASLA, 2009.

 




Sustainable design can also be achieved through careful preservation of site vegetation. Large tree transplanting is a frequent goal of most JRA projects and was most notable at The Domain, a mixed use complex in north Austin. Developed by Simon Properties, the project includes 700,000 sq. ft. of retail, office and residential usage on 57 acres. After comparing the success of native transplant trees at another retail project in San Antonio, Simon asked JRA to save and reuse over 25 live oak and cedar elms on site.

 

The design of the Redbud Center uses three primary sequences to tell the story of water, both on the site and throughout the Colorado River watershed. The stormwater sequence begins with the rainwater capture system. This 33,853 gallon system captures water from the roof of the new building and redistributes it for drip irrigation, water feature make-up, and toilet flushing.

The rainfall that hits the parking lot is directed into a bioswale that is designed with special soils and plants to filter out pollutants from the parking lot. A series of check-dams slow the storm water down, causing it to release sediment and increasing infiltration. A second vegetated swale provides additional filtering as it ushers storm water into the two-chamber water quality pond. The ponds and bioswales were aesthetically designed to serve as an attractive demonstration of an effective storm water management system.

Large Tree Rescue + Planning to Save Trees

Sustainable design can be achieved through the careful preservation of site vegetation. One way this can be accomplished is by preserving or transplanting older, large trees. The large canopies and well defined trunk and extensive, deep root systems of Austin’s older, large trees reduce the impact and velocity of our flooding rain to encourage deeper percolation of water to recharge our groundwaters. Also, such trees are excellent at mitigating the heat island effect, primarily because their higher canopy structure more effectively facilitates the cooling of breezes.

Large tree transplanting is a goal of most JRA projects and was most notable at The Domain, a mixed-use complex in north Austin. Developed by Simon Properties, the project includes 700,000 square feet of retail, office and residential on 57 acres. After comparing the success of native transplant trees at another retail project in San Antonio, Simon asked Anderson’s firm to save and reuse over 25 live oaks and cedar elms from the site.

Large trees up to 36-inch caliper (35 feet high by 45 wide canopy) were carefully harvested, stored and watered. Then the transplant trees were moved by the contractor under JRA’s supervision into strategically selected locations along the streetscape. This act gave the project a dramatic and instant “Austin” feeling to the project.

 




The Lower Colorado River Authority Redbud Center includes an interpretive park, a new building for environmental education and extensive water management: interpretive water feature, a rainwater harvesting system, demonstration planting beds and an extensive stormwater treatment system. Every component of the project was designed to conserve and protect natural resources and to communicate the value and practice of good stewardship.

 

In addition, the site had large existing trees that were preserved and incorporated into plazas and walkways. These trees were the inspiration to the main street name, “Century Oaks Promenade.” Currently in debate in Austin is a proposal for strengthening the code for preserving “heritage trees.”

By preserving existing trees, and rescuing the numerous oaks and elms, the project retained the local landscape character that Austin is known for – a lively city where business, outdoor living, music and environmental concerns flourish together.

Summary

As the next generation of Wildflower Centers and LEED projects are completed and evaluated, the increasing integration and innovation of sustainable principles will be fascinating to watch. Roy Bedicheck had it right when he told us in 1950 that “trapping water by the cupful, barrel, or acre-foot, as the lay of the land offers the opportunity” is the optimum way to address water resources conservation. And water conservation is the bedrock to Texas’ sustainable landscape planning.

 

 

About the firm: J. Robert Anderson, Landscape Architects (JRA) was founded in 1983 by Bob Anderson, FASLA, who has practiced in Austin since 1978. Services include landscape architecture, land planning and ecological restoration. The firm has received 13 Texas ASLA awards, including three Awards of Excellence, three Honor Awards and seven Merit Awards. The firm’s work has been featured in the New York Times, on the Today Show and in many professional periodicals.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has received a national ASLA Merit Award.


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November 18, 2019, 12:00 pm PDT

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