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Sustainability certifications aren't just for indoor spaces

From solar panels to water fixtures, building plans have adapted over the years to promote sustainable practices. That certification process has expanded to also include outdoor environments.

Orange Mall in the heart of Arizona State University's Tempe campus is filled with palm trees, succulents and some noisy birds.

But this mini desert oasis is more than just a campus space. It’s actually sustainable.

“You can create a very sustainable landscape without a lot of extra stuff,” said Norman Yatabe, the design manager of the Orange Mall project.

The area used to be an asphalt road leading to the parking garages. That’s until they unpaved the parking lot road and put up paradise. Yatabe worked with ASU’s maintenance team to build a space that preserves more of the natural environment.

“The goal was to understand how they maintained the space and making sure that we were using materials and designs that were easily and readily maintained without a lot of effort in terms of manpower,” he said.

It’s all part of an effort called the Sustainable SITES Initiative. Similar to federal green building certifications like LEED, SITES is like an outdoor report card that ranks how a space protects and restores the environment.

Cindy Quinn, a sustainability consultant, says everything from sourcing products locally to restoring the soil is part of the process.

“You know, kind of as close as we can get to the landscape that this area would have been before we destroyed it,” she said.

The runnels built into the ground on the mall are subtle. But they help collect excess water and transport it to the plant beds to get re-used, according to Yatabe.

“The plant material actually cleans the quality of the water,” he said, “so it removes all the pollutants that are falling, either on the ground or dirt or dust collected on the building rooftops.”

Orange Mall received Gold certification, which is a fairly high ranking. ASU is also working to get SITES certification for the Nelson Arts outdoor center. The space has water drainage systems, tall grasses, and some interesting shade structures.

“We call them them Pringles because they actually look like Pringles chips,” he said. I guess that’s what we’ve just always known them as.”

The certification process has expanded worldwide since its creation in 2006. Yet here in the Southwest, there aren’t many participants. The Four Corners states only have 10 registered projects, and five are in Arizona.

Allison Colwell is the prime architect consultant in charge of the Orange Mall project. She says that several barriers make the certification process challenging.

“We are mostly unsuccessful pushing it because there are higher costs involved,” she said. “The contractor has to do extra documentation. We have to do extra documentation.”

Organizations don’t have to get the SITES certification for their sustainability work. But Quinn says they are missing out. She says a certification approves the steps, like seeing the organic label on your food.

“It conveys a message to everyone who interacts with that project that it really has met those sustainability goals,” she said.

But SITESprojects provide more than a gold star for an organization.

“SITES was developed as much as the educational tool to really show the connection between healthy landscapes and a healthy community,” said Danielle Pieranunzi, the SITES national director. She says SITES projects can benefit the health of future generations.

“Land is an important component of the built environment,” she added, “and it has so many things that it’s already doing that’s invisible to us — like cleaning our air, cleaning our water, controlling flooding, protecting us from so many hazards and and then just being beneficial to our health.”

For now, ASU plans to incorporate these sustainability practices into other design projects. That’s something Yatabe says everyone should do.

“It’s really part of our DNA here at ASU,” he said. “Holistically, everyone should be concerned about climate change and trying to create more resilient landscapes and provide more sustainable spaces for people.”

Orange Mall is the only certified project at ASU. Meanwhile, the Nelson Fine Arts Center still has a ways to go before it is certified, which could take months. But the team hopes the university will continue to be a beacon of sustainability — both inside and outside.

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