Sasaki Associates: A Comprehensive View on Sustainable Design
Multidisciplinary firm brings philosophy of green design to all aspects of its practice, including its own offices, and the projects it supports, like the ASLA green roof.
Sasaki Associates' commitment to sustainable design and building practices stems from the firm's founder Hideo Sasaki and continues today through its Sasaki Green initiative, investments the firm makes in training its staff, and even its building. This year, the Sasaki shared that investment with ASLA by making a major contribution to the Society's green roof project. LAND Online sat down with Sasaki President Dennis Pieprz, Affiliate ASLA; Senior Associates Willa Kuh, and Jason Hellendrung, ASLA; and sustainable design manager Meredith Elbaum to discuss the firm's commitment to green design, and what prompted it to get involved with the ASLA green roof project. Read below for excepts of the interview, or click here to listen to the complete audio podcast .
Sasaki is making a very strong commitment to bring sustainable practices to, not only the projects it completes, but in its own office. Where does this commitment stem from? Is it something that has come to the firm recently?
DP: Hideo Sasaki founded the firm in 1953 and he had a very string interest in environment and site. He believed that projects needed to be in balance with nature, that design needed to address the ecology of a place, and there were a lot of innovative projects in those early days that went a long way to preserve wetlands in the early '50s and '60s--so it's been part of the firm for a long time.
Then around 2000 a group was started called Sasaki Green in the office that began more in the architecture group than in the landscape group, mainly because architecture in those days was not as focused on green design as it is now. Although we paid a lot of attention to many of the issues that people talk about now. So Sasaki Green began to infiltrate the whole firm. People thought a major future initiative was coming, where people were talking about sustainability and ecological ideas. They realized this was a major movement in Europe and it was coming to the U.S. and we were very interested in how this would affect the world of design.
ME: As sustainability started becoming more mainstream it started becoming more mainstream here as well. We've been talking a lot about why we do this, and I think we have global reasons on a large scale--you can't go anywhere without talking about carbon dioxide emissions and population growth--and there are planning and design reasons, where clients are starting to ask for it. The whole industry is growing exponentially in direct response to the fact that the built environment contributes a huge percentage to the World's resource use and pollution problems. We have our own reasons, we think it's important to do, it's part of our history, and the idea of being an integrated firm really lends itself to sustainability. Sustainability is really about the health and well-being of each and every person here. We believe it's not just enough to do it in our work, and we should be practicing what we preach in a way.
|The green roof at the Manulife building in Boston. (image courtesy of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities.)
As a multidisciplinary firm, you clearly work with a broad array of clients, from private businesses to large municipalities--how do you approach these various clients with the ideas of sustainable design?
JH: There's a couple different ways in which it comes about. Certainly sometimes there are clients who are coming to us directly and saying, "This is the direction we want to go. We want to tackle issues of sustainability across the board from the large-scale site, planning, and buildings and having it all work together." Then we have instances where we're presenting it and sometimes clients jump on board and want us to run with it as much as we can, and sometimes that's not really the direction it goes. We've had discussions internally about it, and some clients are really afraid of green, and what we try to stress is that it's really smart decision making. If we can talk about offsetting operating costs for them, or if we can talk about getting a green roof that's going to last 50-60 years as opposed to 25 or 30 years, I think that is where it starts to become a better approach for some of the clients we approach.
WK: In the planning process, which often is the first interaction that Sasaki has with any given client who might continue on to be a client in our landscape architecture or interior architecture department. In the very beginning, when we're framing the project, when we're studying what the site is, and who the client is, and what the client's interests are, we give a PowerPoint presentation that talks about Sasaki's interest in sustainability. It's a way in which we introduce the topic and gauge the interests group in the issue. What we find is that when we talk about the array of opportunities to be green, there's always going to be different people within the client group that have different levels of interest. If we don't ask or give them the opportunity to talk about their interests and passions, sometimes they'll be shy at the table to bring it up, to ask, "should we be worried about the transportation access in this new master plan that we're developing?" So, we have an icebreaking exercise on the issue of green. It's always interesting to us the varying interests that come out--that one person will have a real interest in the landscape component, another one will care very much about water conservation--in that way the green elements of the plan really get some momentum while we're looking at some of the larger goals. For example, how many students need to be served in this expanded campus. So it elevates the green elements in terms of timing and in terms of importance.
DP: I would just add that in an interdisciplinary practice such as ours, major impacts on the sustainability of, say, a building occur at the planning stage--in terms of its orientation, its position, context, relationship to transit, and other factors. So we're able to influence, in many cases a building or landscape project very early on at the planning stage, and that is something we try to do as much as possible, whether the client's interested in it or not, we just think it's good design practice to pay attention to all the factors that influence sustainable decision making.
JH: I think it's interesting to emphasize that the opportunities present themselves in a wide range of arenas. We were just talking a little while ago about a green roof we did here in Boston for the headquarters of Manulife down in the seaport district. That was an opportunity where being an interdisciplinary design firm really played off. Our interior architects were actually working with the building architects going for LEED certification. As the massing of the building started to shape up they realized they were going to have a large roof area on the 12 th floor with several floors--the building itself is 14 stories--of a lot of conference rooms and public spaces that were going to be looking over this expansive roof on the 12 th floor. The idea was to try and turn that into a green roof. And that was our interior architects engaging us as landscape architects to implement it.
We've been working in Charlotte for a longtime on their lightrail system, and going from the planning level several years ago--looking at where all the alignment goes, where do all the stations go--to where we actually got down to the implementation of it and introducing bioretention cells, and drainage swales at all of these park and ride lots in the suburban areas to try to slow down and clean the stormwater that would be hitting all of the impervious areas that would be introduced. The opportunities present themselves in strange ways sometimes.
How do clients tend to react to ideas that center around sustainable or green design? The prevailing thought seems to be green equals green--as in money. Do you ever have clients who simply say, "We're not going to do that," or, "we're not going to pay for that?"
DP: When we run into clients who don't want to do it, we do as much as we can anyway. We call it "stealth green."
ME: I think the answer is, yes, we definitely run across clients who say, "we're not doing that." I think we try to, as best we can, to show them alternatives. One major issue we came across when we were working on a campus that has a campus plan or guidelines and what we're calling for goes against those campus guidelines because they were done years ago. Where we have an advantage is when we can do full campus plans and rewrite campus guidelines, we can go a lot further. For instance, there are some campuses that still call for black roofs, and from a sustainability standpoint we'd like to be using white roofs on buildings. But it's very hard to get an institution to change their entire campus plan for one particular area of the plan whether it's landscape or architecture. But we do our best and we take it on a project-by-project basis. Sometimes you make leaps, and sometimes it's baby steps, but as we do more and more projects we have a larger portfolio we have more examples of sustainable design solutions that we can show our clients
JH: It's interesting talking about the babysteps Meredith just mentioned. I worked with one University and the architects here on a building that was, and still is, going for LEED certification. When it came time choose the plants that were going around the site, we were looking to do more native vegetation, and actually slice in a little piece of a Midwest prairie into the entry plaza. And the client immediately said, "Nope, we're doing a new building, we can't have these weeds out front. We don't want to send that message to the campus community." So we had to go back to the drawing board a little bit, but it's a building where we're doing amazing daylighting in the interior spaces, we're collecting stormwater from the roof, and collecting it into large tanks underneath the plaza and using that for irrigation, yet when it came to that one thing--what are the plants that you're using--there's still this perception. And that's where you get a little into the frustration. You're trying to get into the sales pitch and at a certain level you just have to stop selling and go back to the drawing board and rethink how you approach the solution to that one specific issue.
WK: I've found with corporate clients it's not as one dimensional as cost, because they have three concerns: They have cost, and they have the pain of the regulatory, and they have the public perception of their product. So, it's rare that the conversation is as simple as, "Oh gee, I don't want to spend that extra money." It's more often, "I don't want to spend the extra money unless you tell me why I should." And sometimes it can be easing the permit process, and that can make the difference. And sometimes there's knowing they're going to go before the city council in a month, and that can make it easy to decide to spend extra money.
Are their other clients that put a premium on sustainable design, and look to Sasaki because they know this is one of your core values as a firm?
DP: I think so. Certainly, we're finding it more and more, not only in implementing the building portions of our design, but very early on in the campus planning stages. You know, many campuses have land constraints, they're in urban environments, they have huge traffic problems, parking issues, so a lot of our work tries to deal with these in sustainable ways--developing brownfields, improving transit access, reducing cars parked on the campus, improving the pedestrian environment. And it all happens at a very early level. I think what we like to see is that it covers the full range, form the planning to the building, to the landscape setting, to the interior design.
Are there any aspects of the various disciplines you practice that just don't lend themselves to sustainable practices that are accepted on the client level--along the lines of what Jason was saying with regard to native plants?
JH: I've worked with the developers, I've worked with the cities, I've worked with various institutions, and I wouldn't categorize one person or one group being a better leader than the other. It all comes down to the leadership of that organization. I can give examples of working on projects with cities, and working with the planning department and getting a lot of leadership and having them direct things in a certain way and wanting to introduce sustainability goals as a big component of a project. Then you go from a planning level to trying to do implementation, and you start working with an engineering department, a public works department, or public services and they simply won't do it for reasons like snow removal, or something to do with maintenance and operation. There are also instances where you work with leaders in so mot those departments and they kind of take it on as a new challenge that the mayor or company president has thrown their way and yhey look at it as a great way to relook at the way they do their work.
ME: The great thing about sustainability is that it works on all different scales--if you start looking at it from a systems perspective. You can start looking it on a global scale and start thinking about inputs and outputs all the way down to our smallest scale here, which is some of the interiors we do, as well as environmental graphics.
We have an inhouse initiative called Green RED--RED stands for Research Education and Development--where we provide inhouse funding for research projects. And the interesting thing is that our environmental graphics group is one of the top groups for coming up with proposals for green RED proposals. Yet, planning also just received a green RED grant as well. I think it's universal as far as the different opportunities at different scales.
Sasaki and Associates made a very generous contribution to the ASLA green roof project, very early in the fundraising process. Why was it so important to the firm to contribute to the project in this way?
DP: I received an email form [ASLA Executive Vice President and CEO] Nancy Sommerville mentioning that ASLA intended to have this green roof built--designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA--and we contributed for a number of reasons. One is clearly, the ASLA as a professional organization has many members within Sasaki, we go back a long time supporting ASLA. But we thought this initiative was especially important because of its potential visibility. It seemed like ASLA was using its own headquarters as vehicle for experimentation and demonstration, which is exactly what we're doing ourselves with our own building so we thought that's totally consistent with the way we're thinking. And we thought if we could help fund it, it needed our support. I know that many people in the office strongly supported the idea.
Also, we've received some notices not just from peers, but from some clients who saw the press releases, and the ASLA green roof web page and said, "Great, good to hear the Sociey's doing that."
JH: Also, I talked about sustainability and who's pushing it and you look at what Mayor Daley did in Chicago with the green roof at the city hall and that has affected the whole city and what's going on there now. You see pockets of similar things taking place across the country, and we hope that this project with ASLA will have a similar impact where this can start to change the shape of things in DC and beyond that with those inside and outside the landscape architecture profession.
Is there a particular interest in green roofs at the firm that led you to this project? I know you recently received an award from Green Roofs For Healthy Cities for a green roof project?
JH: Form what I know the Manulife building is one of the first real green roofs--it was completed in 2004, I think, two years ago, so that project was probably started in 2000, 2001. And I'm thinking we've got a few others around. I've got a project that's going in a couple blocks down the street, and it's not what you would typically consider a green roof. It's a new hotel and condo tower that's on Four Point Channel, and because it's on the water, it has a setback and there's a public open space that the developer is building. That has all the same components of a green roof. It's not on a roof, but its' above an underground parking structure. There's a few others that I can think of. Green roof has become a little bit ofg a buzzword, but for quite awhile we've been doing landscapes over underground buildings right there in DC.
ME: We also have examples of buildings that we've been designing that are designed to anticipate the load of a future green roof. The project that Jason was talking about earlier with the underground water storage is designed to add a green roof later if the client decides to go that rout. I think initially it wasn't included because of budget.
JH: It went out to bid as a bid alternate, and it's been tabled, but the building's actually nearing completion--they have their ribbon cutting in a couple of weeks--but it's still something they're still kicking around as a bit of a retrofit.
Would it be accessible to the occupants?
JH: Yes, that specifically was to be inhabited because it's at a rec centers. There's an upper track indoors, and the green roof area that we're looking at is directly adjacent to it. The idea that we're looking at is a small plaza could be created out there on the roof adjacent to the track, and people could go out on the track and stretch as well.
That's interesting, because one of the major things that we spent money on here was creating roof access. Basically our building stopped on the third floor and it had a hatch to access the roof and they had to build in a whole new stair well. Is that something you think is a viable solution, to basically say, "This building can carry the load of a green roof. It has the access that's needed if you want to put it up there when your budget clears up."
JH: It's something to plan for, and it varies too. The green roof at Manulife is a somewhat occupiable green roof. The thing that's interesting is because of the glazing system for the building, they have a system of window washing that prevented them from doing a parapet wall around the roof, so the green roof is not occupiable, but there's a small plaza around the top that is, but prevents you from getting onto the planted area. But the intent with that was to create a more boldly designed, sculptural plant pallet that would be viewed form the levels above the green roof.
Finally, Now that the ASLA green roof is finished and beginning to be used for tours and education, how would you like to see ASLA leverage it as a resource to make the public more aware of green roofs and landscape architecture in general?
JH: Where are you, are you on I street? I think you should take a sign and put it right out on the sidewalk and invite people up onto the green roof to build awareness. And then we'd have to do some less convincing to our clients.
ME: It would be great if ASLA produced a pamphlet that talked about some of the myths of green roofs, We get a lot of questions from clients about leak detection, added weight, how you water the roof. Working on public awareness on how they work on a practical level, and how to solve some of those problems would be great.
DP: I like the idea of actually measuring the impact of the green roof and getting statistics on the effects of the roof. That is one interest of ours--post-occupancy analysis of the impact of sustainable projects. Also, organize events at the green roof to give it exposure.
JH: Post-occupancy measurements are something that need to be strengthened on all types of sustainable projects. People talk about it and you can talk a good game, but when you can have the statistics to back it up, that makes a pretty compelling case. In this case, where you're doing the retrofit, to be able to come back and say, "Weather changes from year-to-year, but we saw an 18 percent reduction in what it takes to air condition the building this year, or we saw and 18 percent reduction in what it cost to heat the building this winter." That would add some more ammunition to the cause.