The perfect time to leave a truly green mark on an apartment’s landscape is during the renovation. Property rehabilitation can not only upgrade the look and feel inside but improve out-of-date landscapes with a more modern – and sensible – look that's environmentally pleasing. Previous perceptions that green landscapes are boring and costly are being trumped by easier and less costly applications. Sustainable landscapes are more feasible for apartment operators to realize utility efficiencies and lower maintenance costs while shedding those 1980's hedgerows (or the “gas station look,” as one sustainability specialist stated). Water consumption is being reduced by a combination of native plants and improvements in landscape irrigation technology, as well as a shift from large, leaky water features that were the splash 20 years ago. In many cases, properties can qualify for low-interest loans to pay for some or all of the irrigation upgrades. “You’re driving down those irrigation costs and reducing overall expenditures,” says Mary Nitschke, Vice President of Sustainability for RealPage. “That’s a big bang for scoring with benchmarking.” Nitschke, who works with expense management customers on eco-projects to conserve resources, is a featured speaker on the webcast, “5 Go-to Strategies to Lower Utility Costs,” that airs in October. Nitschke, Vice President of Product Success Management Amye Baker and Director of Energy Management Bob Ricobene will provide an overview of the latest utility management tools that help conserve resources and increase NOI. Nitschke has seen an uptick in sustainable outdoor practices like upgrading to irrigation systems that allow watering flexibility for plant type, topography and runoff, and existing moisture conditions. Big benefits are lower water consumption and bills that typically come out of the operator’s pocket, and incentives for improvement loans from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. “It’s where sustainability intersects with water-efficient upgrades,” she said. “If your focus is on water, irrigation is a big part of that. Depending on the size and construction of the project, I’ve seen properties where 60 percent of water consumption can be from the landscape and amenity features.”
Reducing water consumption through hydro-zoning, ET irrigation
Chris Lee, president of Dallas/Fort Worth-based Earthworks, said more sophisticated irrigation and landscape technologies, like hydro-zoning, are being required by cities in drought-prone areas but many operators are seeing them as opportunities to cut water bills. Hydro-zoning is clustering plants with similar watering requirements to conserve water, which allows for customizing water schedules and consumption. Installing native beds blended with rock and other materials in areas where grass or plants don’t grow well is replacing traditional landscapes that often include green, leafy plants unsuitable for the climate. Native plants adapt to the area’s natural moisture and soil conditions and are less likely to die, thus reducing maintenance costs. “It’s much more forgiving,” Lee said. “It’s in the area where it wants to live, where it grows in nature.” Smart irrigation systems apply the right amount of water at the right time and take into consideration plant type and the landscape’s topography to minimize runoff and over-watering. Rather than water everywhere for the same amount of time, zones are controlled individually and timed based on whether the area is in the shade, full sun or the property slopes are has low spots. Irrigation systems that receive weather data from satellites control when and how long water runs during scheduled times save thousands of gallons of water as well. Evapotranspiration Technology (ET)-based controllers act like a thermostat for an apartment property’s sprinkler system, telling it when to turn on and off while using local weather and landscape conditions to tailor watering schedules to actual conditions on the property. Instead of irrigating using a controller with a clock and a preset schedule, ET controllers allow watering schedules to better match plants’ water needs while minimizing runoff. Simpler solutions like drip irrigation technology that ensures water gets to the plants’ roots and doesn’t run off save on water expenses and improve landscape health.
Sustainable landscapes more efficient in the long run
Lee said apartment operators have been reluctant in recent years to go green with landscapes because of higher costs for irrigation systems and plants. However, because demand has increased the cost is coming down. “There are more growers out there and more native plants are available for this purpose,” he said. With 20-plus years in horticulture and landscapes, most of them in multifamily, Lee believes that even before going sustainable was cool that the cost really wasn’t that much more than traditional landscape approaches. “If you were in it for the long haul when things were more expensive, I would almost argue that it was cheaper over a 20-year period when you factor everything in,” he said. “It just may not have been as cost-effective initially, but even now that’s gone. If you’re not maintaining it, if you’re not paying to replace it, if you’re not over-watering it, that’s where you make up the difference.”
Increasing the property’s look and environmental appeal
Overhauling the landscape is just as sustainable as swapping out lighting indoors to reduce energy costs, Lee says. He has seen the migration toward more native plant material in multifamily mostly in California and the Southwest to battle drought but sustainability can be practiced anywhere. While rehabs may be the perfect time to invest, starting a sustainable landscape can be as simple as addressing obvious areas in need. “If you have a bare spot because it’s not getting enough sun, start there,” Lee said. “And as the budget or conditions permit, do a little more.” When complete, years of life will be added to the property’s appearance as if it used a good wrinkle cream. “You get a more modern look for the property and it becomes more efficient and sustainable,” Lee said. “You got better curb appeal, a better-looking property and you’re not going to have the plant loss that you’ll have over the years than a normal property landscape will have.” Discover more sustainability insights in "5 Go-to Strategies to Lower Utility Costs." Register for the free webcast today!