Passive house, active landscape

passive house, sustainable landscape

Photo credit: Steven Baczek

When one of RI's finest custom, craftsmen-builders contacted me about an ultra-energy efficient home he was working on, it got my attention. I love this kind of innovation and was really excited about being a part of this project.

The home is a certified Passive House, which means that it can use up to 90% less energy that a typical home by use of passive solar heating, super-insulation, minimal thermal bridging, no leaks, high performance windows and doors and whole house ventilation. Click here for more details on this home.

I knew the landscape had to rise to the challenge. When the homeowner told me, "I'm not buying a lawn mower -- so no lawn," I thought "fantastic!" When he said he wanted to restore the naturalistic setting of his wooded, lakeside site, my enthusiasm really peaked. When I learned that he had a great fondness for his native western landscapes -- I have to admit, I had to pause and refocus my vision a bit. Marrying the "dessert" aesthetic with the "wet woodland" reality of the site -- and make it rise to the level of sustainability that the architecture had achieved -- was going to be a challenge. So we put our thinking caps on. The goals of this landscape were to:

1. Compliment the architecture and energy efficiency of the home: this meant careful selection and placement of trees, paying particular attention to height restrictions due to solar panels.

2. Restore the ecology of the site after construction: we focused on providing habitat for pollinator species by planting a diversity of native, flowering plants. Over time, this landscape will naturalize and gradually blend with the woodland surroundings.

4. Provide a low-maintenance (no mow!) landscape for the homeowner. This landscape will require "management" as opposed to "maintenance." Keeping invasives at bay to let the meadow and native gardens fill in will gradually create a landscape that blends with its natural surroundings and will require mowing once or twice a year.

5. Engage the homeowner with his new garden by providing subtle references to his beloved western landscapes.

Native plantings surround a bluestone patio

The photo above is just after planting. A series of terraced, boulder retaining walls divide the garden area from the drive. The green you see on the right is a wet meadow mix we seeded to the buffer edge. Most of the plants are natives, and will fill in the garden area to blend with the meadow edge. We also tucked a large rain garden in (can you find it?), which captures roof runoff and soaks it into the ground, thus protecting the adjacent pond from pollutants. Plant color selection was influenced by the beautiful vermillion trim on the home's windows and doors.

Bluestone and boulder pathway through the garden

Most of the boulders for the walls were excavated on site. We incorporated large slabs of Pennsylvania bluestone to navigate the rise up to the drive. We chose rugged stone, plant material and lighting fixtures that were reminiscent of the drier climes our client so loved. The Betula nigra (River Birch) above reminds me of aspen, and really works great here.

rugged landscape materials and native plants

A few short weeks after installation, the plants are loving their new home. This time next year, the plants here will have doubled in size and by year three, you won't see any mulch.


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