On a recent Friday in Phoenix, the thermostat hovered around 110 degrees, and developer Austin Trautman was bracing for a predicted 117 degrees the following day—blistering even for Arizona. After a cooler-than-usual spring, the region experienced “crazy swings” in weather, he says, with 3½ inches of rain in a single day, one-third of what the area typically gets in one year. This unpredictability affects the way Trautman develops home sites for his company, Vali Homes. “The traditional idea is to get water off the lot and into a storm drain,” he says. “We treat water like an asset rather than a liability and keep it on site. It turns out we don’t need much irrigation water if we plant the right things.”
Most cultural milestones creep up unannounced, and for builders, landscaping for climate change may be one of them. Since NASA began researching global temperatures going back as far as 1880, the 10 warmest years have occurred since 2000 (with the exception of 1998), and 2010 and 2005 ranked as the hottest on record.
That trend parallels another shift that landscape architect Andy Baron has noticed of late. He is a principal of Anderson Baron Landscape Architects based in Chandler, Ariz., and works with builders in nine states. “Six years ago, I’d have said builders don’t want to create outdoor spaces here” because it’s too hot for people to enjoy them, he says. But many of his clients have learned through focus groups that prospective buyers, millennials in particular, say they’ll go outside if builders create an environment they want to be in.
“The No. 1 thing we focus on is how to create quality shade, which can drop the temperature 15 degrees,” Baron says. In a smaller space, it’s often better to have shade come from a natural feature like a tree, because a permanent structure makes the space feel smaller, he says. And although color is important to create ambience, not all of it has to come from blooming things. “We can use elements like vines and tile on walls to create color and texture,” he says. “The landscape comes from the composition of the entire space using different materials and patterns.”
In a state that mandates the use of drought-tolerant species, Anderson Baron cultivates relationships with local nurseries that are constantly developing new native hybrids that are more water-efficient and offer a variety of growth habits for different purposes. “It’s not just cactus and thorny things, but a lot of colorful, green, vibrant plants,” Baron says. His right-place-right-plant approach also means that they don’t have to be constantly pruned, he says, or replaced in a few years because they’re too big.
Landscape architect Bryan Harris, principal of Urban Cactus and co-owner of Dig It, a retail nursery in downtown Phoenix, tries to emulate patterns in nature with big trees to create a comfortable microclimate, pops of native perennials near patios, and accent trees to frame views from windows. Remediating the soil is often crucial to ensure good percolation, he says. So is studying the site’s natural topography and grading to create infiltration basins, if necessary. For two adjacent spec houses by Vali Homes, he created small swales and berms directing water to native trees and desert-adapted succulents in the back of the lot.
“We planted a native wildflower seed mix there so in spring there’s an insane boom of color around these trees and a backdrop of native shrubs,” Harris says. “The swales funnel the water to plants that are drought-tolerant but can handle wet feet for a while, like the mesquite trees you see growing next to the Salt River here.”
Trautman has studied how local ecosystems function by spending time in the desert, and he’s noticed that the desert rock gradients are different from those in most commercial mixes. He specifies a variable rock size that matches the desert—3 inches minus or 2 inches minus, down to crushed rock, which does a better job of controlling erosion when heavy rain comes. Wildflowers and desert plants like the rocky surface and grow through it, he says, while potentially invasive, non-native species sit on top and dry out.
Indigenous creatures enjoy it, too. “Lizards and salamanders like the crannies,” Trautman says. “Within weeks of planting the spec houses, local animals and birds started showing up. They eat all the bugs you don’t want.” He is also partial to “UC Verde” buffalo grass, a lawn substitute that grows to about 6 inches tall and takes a third of the water of a traditional lawn.
Jake Joines, owner of J2 Builders, St. George, Utah, builds in areas with a lot of native plant species already on the site, such as sand sage or black brush, and conserves as much of it as he can. The building sites are then revegetated with plants such as yucca, cactus, and agave, which require little maintenance. Chaste trees also do well in the desert, he says, and can get fairly large. “It’s great to use plants around homes to increase the comfort level,” he says, “but it takes a little bit of research and planning.”
At Blue Heron, a design/build company in Las Vegas, the architecture echoes the vibe of its natural environment: The simple, sculptural forms of yucca and cactus complement the lines of its “Vegas modern” homes. “If there’s a lush zone it will be in a very shaded and protected courtyard, a relatively small piece of the overall design,” says principal Tyler Jones. “Green hedges and overgrown styles don’t appeal to us.”
In the leafier Southeast, Serenbe’s sustainable landscape approach starts far up the construction chain. Buyers at the 1,000-acre master planned community outside of Atlanta are prohibited from putting down sod, but it’s harder to tell its builders not to use it. Instead, “we try to educate builders about how to think differently,” says Monica Olsen, head of marketing. “How you plan the site itself affects what you plant. Lawn chemicals kill good bugs, so we encourage builders not to clear-cut. The decision is baked in when they level off the site; you’re forced to put something down to get close-out. If you’re more considerate in the early stages, you won’t have to put down sod. “
KB Home is also conscious of what it puts in the ground. Its ethic evolved with participation in the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s water-smart program for home builders, starting in 2005. The emphasis is on using the least amount of water possible outside, and that means no lawns, says Rob McGibney, division president for Las Vegas. At Inspirada, its large master planned community in Henderson, the company practices desert revegetation. When land is graded, healthy existing plants are harvested, put in big plastic pots, held in an open desert, and then put back in a more concentrated form along the streetscape. “It’s tricky; you have to have a good landscape architect and installer so you don’t lose the plants,” McGibney says, “and you have to water them to get them going.”
The builder concentrates on curb appeal, using plants to frame large windows and along walkways. Landscapers install high-tech drip irrigation systems, and a watering calendar is posted next to each home’s irrigation clock. In addition, its model homes showcase colorful, climate-appropriate plant combinations that buyers can use to finish the backyards themselves.
Along with protecting investments—theirs and their buyers’—these practices help builders become trendsetters in their markets. “The focus has shifted to these exterior spaces, and sustainable landscaping is one of our core principles,” Jones says. “It does great things for the interior when we spend more time integrating landscape elements into the architecture.”
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