Drought-tolerant landscaping is a prominent feature at Lennar's Innovation Village in Fremont, California.
Courtesy Gates + Associates Drought-tolerant landscaping is a prominent feature at Lennar's Innovation Village in Fremont, California.

Droughts have been a growing problem for much of the U.S. for years. They’re the cause of sweeping wildfires and drinking water shortages and the driver behind Las Vegas’ recent ban on most home lawns, which goes into effect just a few years down the road.

They’re also a unique challenge for builders, pushing traditional, lush landscaping to the wayside and ushering in a more creative, climate-focused approach to beautifying new-home communities.

“In the last decade, drought-tolerant and sustainable landscaping has become essential in the design process for new homes,” says Casey Case, president at landscape architecture firm Gates + Associates. “Where new homes used to receive a tree and lawn in the front yard, the industry has moved toward a palette of drought-tolerant planting, lawn alternative ground covers, and efficient drip irrigation systems as standard.”

Focusing on Drought-Tolerant Landscaping

Case is right: Swapping to more drought-tolerant plants is one way builders are complying with new legislation and reducing the water required for new-home exteriors.

According to Chad Eby, corporate director of sustainability at Taylor Morrison, local, native species are “the absolute best” for this task. (The builder recently teamed up with the National Wildlife Federation to incorporate more native plants—ones that also help conserve wildlife—into its new communities.)

“These plants have adapted over many, many years to these conditions and are best suited to not only survive but to also thrive in these environments,” Eby says. “Native plants also require less water and maintenance, resulting in less energy use and a lower overall carbon footprint.”

Flowering succulents, lantana, aloe, cactus, and yucca plants can be smart options in drought-prone areas, too, according to Mike Pruitt, co-owner/founder of CoConstruction Builders and owner of Master’s Landscape Design.

“Ground covers are also great to spruce up a drought-prone landscape while also helping hold moisture in the landscaped areas,” Pruitt says. “Gray and silver-colored perennials are also good choices—dusty miller, lamb’s ears, Russian sage, and lavender.”

Reducing Landscaped Space

Choosing the right plants is only one piece of the puzzle. Reducing the area that needs landscaping can help, too.

To be clear: That doesn’t mean carving out smaller lawns or lots—but, instead, using those spaces for alternative treatments and more functional purposes.

“I recommend home builders reduce the amount of lawn space and increase hardscaping wherever possible,” Pruitt says. “Add paver patios, walkways, or gardens mulched with rock and boulders. Outdoor kitchens, living areas, bocce ball courts, and artificial golf putting greens are also a great way to add value and create a more usable and drought-friendly space.”

For any remaining areas that require landscaping, Case says builders should be choosy about where they allocate resources.

“Determine which areas have a lot of visual impact and which don’t,” she says. “Focus efforts on highly visible areas, while less visible areas can use very simple designs.”

Opting for Alternative Watering Systems

Alternative watering systems can also be an option. These not only reduce water output for homeowners but overall maintenance and utility costs, too. For many home shoppers—particularly those in drought-prone areas—this can be a huge draw.

“Lawn and spray irrigation are cheaper to design and install, but the ongoing maintenance costs can be astronomical,” Case says.

It’s true. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, as much as 70% of a home’s total water usage comes from maintaining lawns and other outdoor landscaping. To combat this, KB Home has combined drought-tolerant planting with alternative irrigation systems in many of its Western communities.

“In Arizona, California, and Nevada, we design water-efficient landscaping using drip and weather-based irrigation controllers and plants that are defined as low-water-use or drought-tolerant,” says Dan Bridleman, senior vice president of sustainability, technology, and strategic sourcing at KB Home. “This lessens the strain on water demands, saves our home buyers money on utility bills, and helps them comply with local watering restrictions.”

The proof’s in the data, too. KB Home recently participated in the pilot for the EPA’s WaterSense 2.0 home labeling program, which took place in Las Vegas early last year. The result was notable. By the end of the pilot period, KB’s properties had a median water use of just 44,000 gallons per year—a 55% annual reduction compared with non-WaterSense homes.

A New Opportunity

Droughts, at least in many parts of the U.S., are likely here to stay, and restrictions on traditional lawns (like those recently passed in Nevada) could expand as well.

For builders in these affected regions, a shift in strategy—not to mention perspective—will be critical moving forward.

“While the ban on lawns is an obvious restriction, it actually opens up a whole world of design creativity,” Case says. “Lawns are still popular for dogs and small children, and many may even have a nostalgic memory of a large childhood lawn, but a well-designed drought-tolerant garden will use less water and resources than lawn, provide beauty and curb appeal, and create unique and memorable outdoor spaces in our yards, neighborhoods, and cities.”