Sustainable Facilities

By Randy Gaddo

The term “sustainable recreation facility” can mean different things to different people.

To an architect designing a new or renovated facility, it can include Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, low volatile organic compounds (VOC), passive cooling and heating strategies, water walls, wave fans, solar vents, etc.

To most recreation professionals, the lexicon of sustainability is probably still only vaguely recognizable. Nearly everyone knows what LEED means, at least in general terms. There are four levels of LEED certification, a program under the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), that go from a low end of “certified” up to Silver, then Gold, and at the top of the heap, Platinum.

Beyond a peripheral idea of what these levels actually mean, it takes a professional trained and studied in sustainable requirements to really guide the development or re-development of a truly sustainable recreation facility.

Reduced Maintenance Costs
“A sustainable building, landscape, or built environment refers to the use of materials, systems, and operational policies (i.e., maintenance) that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life cycle,” says Bryan Astheimer, a consultant with Re:Vision Architecture in Philadelphia, which is affiliated with the Green Building Council.

Astheimer specializes in advising clients who are in the process of developing sustainable projects. He is quick to point out that a project doesn’t merely include a building. “Sustainable facility” means the building, the grounds around it, and any supporting or associated buildings and grounds. A good example might be a recreation center with indoor pools, gymnasiums, programming rooms, outdoor sports fields, playgrounds, parks, restrooms, and picnic areas.

He also emphasizes that when he talks about a facility’s lifecycle, he means from site design and construction to operations and maintenance, renovation, and demolition.

“Think about it as a building; when it is in its first day, everything is working fine, but over time, it needs help to keep functioning, and with a landscape, it’s just the opposite—it takes time to develop it to maturity and replenishment,” he explains. “But in both scenarios, the maintenance is very critical to make sure your landscape and buildings are going to last a long time and that the components are functioning properly. The longer the components and systems are functioning as anticipated, the less it will cost in the long run to maintain.”

Setting Sights On SITES
There is a new rating system, “Sustainable SITES Initiative,” that works hand-in-hand with LEED to help evaluate a landscape project and guide sustainability decisions.

The SITES program was developed through a collaborative effort of 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.

The U.S. Green Building Council has been a long-time supporter and stakeholder in the Sustainable SITES Initiative. USGBC has incorporated certain SITES credit content into iterations of the LEED green-building rating system. Likewise, SITES has adapted LEED credits as part of its SITES v2 Rating System, when relevant and appropriate. Green Business Certification Inc. provides project certification in accord with the requirements of the SITES v2 Rating System.

“There was an initial pilot program, and now it is in its “v2” or version-two phase, so project coordinators can go online, sign the project up, and go through the process of working towards certification,” says Astheimer, who notes that there are four levels, from certified to platinum, just as with LEED. He adds it can apply to landscape projects, or extend to the buildings and structures that are part of the project.

Sustainability also goes beyond the inside of a building. There are issues outside, such as water conservation and quality, energy usage in areas such as sports field lighting, and other electrical equipment or devices.

Put Maintenance First
Once the new building is built, or the existing building is renovated, and it is signed off by all the professionals, everyone walks away leaving long-term care in the hands of parks and recreation professionals. Sustainable does not mean maintenance isn’t required; there are always after-affects that must be accounted for in the design and construction process.

If the design process is working properly, advisors and their clients will keep a keen eye on maintenance matters. “If they are smart, maintenance considerations will be a high priority,” advises Astheimer. “One of the most important team members to have around the table during the design process is the facility manager or building manager, as they have a true understanding about maintenance implications of design decisions.”

Do the terms “sustainable” and “maintainable” go hand in hand? They can, if future long-term maintenance is a primary concern at the front end of a project.

Sustainability Source
Resources are available to help parks and rec staffs educate themselves in preparing to support design of a new or renovated facility with sustainability in mind. It is challenging, if not impossible, to find a one-stop source on all relevant information, so it takes some research to pull together information that is specific to the type of facility you are planning.

One source is a publication available in April 2013 from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, titled “Recreation Facility Design Guidelines.” These guidelines are focused on outdoor recreation venues and all of the accompanying buildings, structures, and facilities needed, such as campgrounds, trails and trailheads, beaches, and picnic areas. Even though the publication is not a single-purpose sustainability document, it has helpful suggestions.

For example, the authors note initially, “Designers should make decisions with sustainability in mind. Choose manufacturer’s site components that are made of recycled materials. Use solar lighting and power for buildings whenever possible. Select components that minimize the use of water.”

They then refer the reader to the Green Building Council’s LEED process for more considerations to aid in sustainable development. According to the council’s website, about 1.85-million square feet of building space is being LEED certified—daily!

Recouping Costs
USGBC notes that projects aiming for LEED certification earn points across several areas that address sustainability issues. Then, based on the number of points achieved, a project receives one of the four LEED-certification levels. “LEED-certified buildings are resource efficient. They use less water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the website notes. “As an added bonus, they save money.”

Well, really, the buildings are inanimate objects and can’t “do” anything without human or computerized interaction that continuously keeps the systems functioning according to expectations—also known as the maintenance process.

True sustainability comes with a price tag. Design professionals often charge additional fees; generally, the higher the qualification, the higher the cost of design. Estimates of one-half of one percent of a total project cost are not unusual. So for a $2 million facility, the cost could be an additional $100,000 or more to build in LEED elements.

However, the Green Building Council notes that the payback can come in the form of more efficient, lower-cost systems, with major priority areas being energy-efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning, windows, lighting, plumbing fixtures, and other key technologies.

For recreation department staff members, a possible benefit is that they are able to demonstrate to patrons that their facilities are safer and healthier. The council’s website ( has a wealth of information on the tangible and intangible benefits of going green. The SITES website ( has additional resource information for those seeking to self-educate on this increasingly important topic.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his master’s degree in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or