At California’s Malibu Whole Foods in the Park project being developed by Soboroff Partners, ValleyCrest Design Group is focusing on creating a high-quality walking environment that will reduce car trips, thus conserving energy and reducing air pollution. ValleyCrest also is implementing an innovative and sustainable approach to allay ecological concerns about the water quality in the watershed and the project’s proximity to natural areas.

“We will be filtering 100 percent of stormwater on site before it reaches the municipal system,” says Esther Margulies, managing principal at Calabasas, California–based ValleyCrest, one of the country’s leading landscape companies. “Also, the majority of the plantings on the site will be native and low water use. Our goal is to integrate all of the sustainable design requirements so that they are indistinguishable from the design of high-quality, high-functioning retail public spaces.”

The pioneering sustainable features at Malibu Whole Foods in the Park are but one example of the continuing trend toward green development in the Golden State. From skyscrapers to landscapers, from multifamily developments to retail emporiums, increased awareness of lower operating costs, added health benefits, and the competitive value of sustainability are driving increased demand for sustainable design in California.

The landscape is a high-performance,
walkable environment with
dining, performance and play areas. 

“Sustainable landscape design and development are expected to see a steady increase in demand, keeping pace with green building development activity,” says Margulies. “Owners and developers are certainly complying with code requirements and guidelines, and we have also seen with the maturity of LEED [the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program] the economic benefits of energy conservation and the productivity benefits that come with a higher-quality living and working environment.”

Sustainability will continue to be a major factor in real estate design and construction in California for some time to come, says Rick Fochtman, director of project development at Bernards, a nationally ranked builder based in Los Angeles. “Driven in part by regulation and in part by consumer demand, private developers are incorporating LEED certification requirements into their projects and marketing the benefits—such as energy savings and improved interior health—that green buildings provide,” he says. “Green building is now required by code. CALGreen [California’s new mandated building standards] lays out a host of mandatory and voluntary building measures that are aimed at improving energy and resource efficiency, reducing waste, and improving indoor air quality of all new commercial and residential construction in the state.”

Bernards is currently working with BRE Properties—a San Francisco firm than develops, acquires, and manages multifamily communities—on projects that are either voluntarily committed to sustainability goals because it makes sense or that are required by local municipalities to incorporate sustainable features in water conservation, utility consumption, or environmental quality.

“CALGreen is an initiative that will ultimately be adopted by other states because of the long-term savings and benefits,” Fochtman predicts. “Almost without exception, our projects incorporate some level of sustainability. In fact, we have a project underway that is net zero—adding no impact to the power grid: a 1,005-car parking structure and warehouse, part of a larger project for Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Several other public and private projects, such as the Los Angeles Harbor College, are all pursuing LEED certification as a matter of course.”

John Ashworth, principal at Bull Stockwell Allen, a San Francisco architecture and planning firm, agrees that CALGreen will continue to push energy efficiency and sustainability in the state. “The trend seems to be toward the adoption of green initiatives within California building codes, as opposed to third-party, point-based green building certification programs such as LEED,” he says. “A code-based approach to sustainability, despite some additional costs to developers, should streamline the high design and certification costs associated with third-party application and review. This would also put all developers on the same playing field.”

Sustainable development is here to stay, says Alan Chamorro, senior vice president of the San Francisco office of Grosvenor Americas, an international property development and investment group. “It is a major factor in all of our new developments both nationally and internationally, and it is something as a company we strongly believe in,” he says. “Tenants are starting to ask for sustainable buildings, and soon they will require them. With energy costs expected to continue rising, energy-efficient buildings are also the best way to limit our exposure to this variable. If energy costs skyrocket, energy-efficient buildings will differentiate themselves and will command higher values than older, inefficient buildings.”

As green building standards are adopted by more jurisdictions and institutions, and as younger practitioners move up the professional ranks, sustainability will continue and increase as a strong influence on development, says D. Jamie Rusin, principal at Berkeley, Calfornia’s ELS Architecture and Urban Design.

Designing sustainable projects gives developers a positive corporate image and a marketing advantage compared with work on nonsustainable new projects, says David C. Michan, president of San Diego–based Strata Equity Group, a privately held and managed real estate investment and development company. “The biggest challenge for sustainable projects thus far is the higher cost to build and making sure the end users buy into a slightly higher price,” he says. “In order to compensate for this, many jurisdictions have an expedited sustainable project processing track that usually cuts the permitting time in half (as long as the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] allows it) and provides for cost savings upfront. I also believe that building costs and methods for sustainable material and technology will improve and become competitive with traditional building costs.”

Many Californians are embracing the idea and understand that occupying sustainable communities and developments is essential for the longevity of the state. “The state and local tax incentives are allowing for more end users to experience a sustainable design and realize the long-term social and economic benefit, which will become the norm in the near future,” Michan says.

One of the main ways to enhance sustainability in California, Michan believes, will be to greatly improve the public transportation system. The announced plans for high-speed rail in the state are a significant milestone, he says, but cities themselves must embrace new public transportation projects. “Local cities need to expand their systems as well,” he explains. “In San Diego, where I live, the trolley, Coaster, Amtrak, and bus system provide access to limited areas, and in most cases, once you arrive to one of the stations, you have to take a secondary method of transportation to your destination. This is a sector where private/public ventures could work harmoniously, especially since the state and cities are tight for cash right now.”

The real estate industry will continue to see local demand for sustainable design in California and elsewhere driven by state and local water conservation and water quality ordinances and legislation, says Margulies. “This is challenging due to the many jurisdictions in which we work and the varied approaches taken by municipalities,” she continues. “For instance, the city of Los Angeles’s low-impact design ordinance is a comprehensive document that expands the applicability of previous water quality requirements, and provides a clearly illustrated handbook for the implementation of the new requirements.”

Solar modules at the Southern California Edison solar
array in Porterville, CA. 

ValleyCrest is working on the next generation of master-planned communities where, in addition to water-conserving landscape design implemented from the outset, landscape architects at the company are exploring ways to integrate local food production, community gardens, and on-site composting and other techniques to reduce production of waste. “We are currently working with some of the largest residential developers in the U.S. on master-planned communities in southern California that will incorporate live/work housing, multiuse trails, reclaimed water for irrigation, and native habitat restoration,” says Margulies. “Our landscape architecture services are essential in meeting water conservation and green building requirements.”

Although the overall real estate market in the United States is still suffering and development is a fraction of what was seen a few years ago, many projects are coming back to life, as are smaller renovation and remodeling projects. “In almost every case, there are regulatory requirements for sustainable design or the project developer has made sustainable design a priority in a competitive market,” she continues. “For projects with large landscape components, owners want to know that they are developing projects that will be efficient to maintain for the long term. Firms like ValleyCrest are uniquely positioned to provide that knowledge, especially with design/build delivery systems where our expertise in project design, construction, and maintenance is integrated from the very beginning of the project design.”

The trend of sustainability gaining popularity and importance has not reached its peak, although it may be close, says R. Zachary Wasserman, a partner at Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean in the San Francisco East Bay. “More California cities are adopting green building ordinances, mechanisms for sharing costs of greening are becoming more sophisticated, and over the next five years will see sustainable projects being the norm,” he says.