In the same way drivers of luxury cars are trading in their Mercedes for Teslas, owners of high-end properties are abandoning their lush lawns and exotic outdoor plants for ecologically sustainable, environmentally conscious landscapes.
Across the U.S., landscape architects are being asked to create outdoor spaces that reduce water and energy consumption and utilize more locally sourced materials.
While some of this is driven by regulation, in many places it is simply seen as the right thing to do.
Russ Greey, a principal at the landscape architecture firm Greey|Pickett in Scottsdale, Ariz., said that 10 to 15 years ago, people migrating to the Southwest sought to re-create the green, ornamental landscapes they had back home in the North and Midwest. But over time, people have become more environmentally aware and are embracing water-wise desert plants native to the region.
Instead of water-intensive lawns, Mr. Greey said, clients are installing synthetic turf, man-made paving materials that are cooler to the feet and locally sourced building materials that don’t have to be shipped halfway across the globe.
“People aren’t saying that they can’t afford stone imported from China,” he said, “but that it is the right thing to do.”
Water and energy issues
Even in non-desert climates, Mr. Greey said, clients are increasingly concerned with the water consumption on their property. Coastal regions in Northern California and Oregon, for example, are surprisingly dry, and native grasses are gaining in popularity over box hedges and other traditional types of plants.
Other sustainable elements in his landscapes include permeable paving materials that allow water to soak in and down into the aquifer, rather than creating runoff and erosion, and LED outdoor lighting systems that use less energy and wiring and last far longer than incandescent bulbs.
It’s not only the materials that must be environmentally conscious, but the labor as well: Some high-end clients have requested landscape contractors who use electric mowers, hedge clippers and blowers, rather than the fossil fuel-driven variety, Mr. Greey said.
What happens outside could affect the entire house
Mr. Greey noted that trends in exterior design are having an impact on the design of homes themselves. Desert plants, he said, lend themselves to sleeker, more sophisticated contemporary architecture–their spiky, interesting forms can silhouette up against a wall–and he believes this is pushing architecture as a whole toward a more contemporary style.
John Feldman, founding principal of Ecocentrix Landscape Architecture, a landscape architecture firm in Santa Monica, Calif., agreed.
“Classical architecture, from Cape Cod to Spanish Colonial, has a very defined look, an Italian or French garden with clipped and manicured hedges, low border plants,” he said. “The water issue is a game-changer,” as contemporary styles are more tolerant of innovative uses of materials.
He said he is seeing a definite nod toward contemporary landscapes and housing in Los Angeles, with 15,000- to 30,000-square-foot contemporary homes being built in the Hollywood Hills at a rate he’s never seen before.
Like Mr. Greey, Mr. Feldman is experiencing client demand for exterior LED lighting that is ecologically friendly and easy on the energy bill. Other popular features: fire effects, bocce courts, outdoor theaters with projectors and sound systems, and pools or spas that are themselves water features.
What he’s not seeing anymore are big, luxurious lawns. In fact, much of his business now involves turning clients’ water-hungry estates into sustainable gardens and grounds.
In some cases, it’s the law
Starting this past Jan. 1, any new home or significant remodeling project in the State of California must undergo a strict environmental review for water consumption that takes in the entire property and includes a point system that ranks every type of plant. The City of Santa Monica, Mr. Feldman said, has its own environmental regulations and sends inspectors out during installation to make sure the plants on the plans are actually going into the ground.
Some high-end buyers have purchased new homes whose exterior design plans do not comply with the law. In effect, he said, they end up buying something they can’t have. In those cases, he said, high-end landscape architects have to come in late in the process to adapt the project, at considerable cost.
But for clients who still want green, there are options. Large trees and a smaller, artificial lawn produce a shady effect that can trick the eye, and some of the material is a plush muslin-y weave that is soft underfoot, Mr. Feldman said.
One upcoming project in Santa Monica, he said, takes environmental awareness to a whole new level—it is designed as a net zero house. In addition to low-water-use plants and subsurface irrigation design, it will use graywater –recycled from the home–to water a portion of the grounds.
A similar trend takes hold in cities
Katherine Gauthier, of Douglas Elliman in Manhattan, said the desire for a reduced impact on the environment “is translating to outdoor sanctuaries” in the city, too.
One property she is selling—a $37 millionpenthouse on the Upper East Side—has a 2,900-square-foot terrace that was redesigned taking ecological principles into consideration. Cement was replaced with recycled wooden planks, one section has artificial turf and most of the plants were specifically chosen because they don’t need excessive water.
When she shows the property to prospective buyers, “we want them to know we worked with a landscape architect to use materials that didn’t tap the water supply,” Ms. Gauthier said. “It’s become part of what more people are expecting.”
As Mr. Feldman put it, “The way people luxuriate is being rethought.”