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How to build sustainably into your landscape

Last Updated Dec 7, 2016 · Written by Rob Schneider

Sustainable building makes sense for the environment and your pocketbook. Sustainability goes beyond your house design. It includes your landscaping as well. Landscaping includes both hardscaping (structures, paving, etc.) and softscaping (plants, lawns). A sustainable landscape design sits gently on the earth. It requires less water and can help keep your home more comfortable, too.

Whether you're building a new home or have an existing home, there are many ways to build sustainability into your landscape:

  1. Building a New Home
  2. Landscaping a New or Existing Home
  3. Trees, Palms and Sustainability
  4. Sustainable Hardscaping
  5. Built Structures and Sustainable Landscaping

Building a New Home

Is your building site on flat ground or a slope? Either way, think of ways you can do less excavating. There are real benefits to building an elevated home. The air underneath an elevated home is cooler. In a hot or tropical climate, you can use that cooler air to cool your home. A good builder can construct a solid elevated foundation that will be better for the environment than a cement slab.


Even if you insulate your floor (a good idea if it's cold in the winter), you can make use of the cooler air under your house. Just as you can expel hot air from your roof with whirlybird fans, you can draw cooler air into your home from under the floor using mechanical devices. Your Guide to Under House Ventilation mentions three:

  1. Air flow vents
  2. Sub floor fans
  3. Wind driven turbines

A ventilation expert can provide you with an underfloor ventilation system that will reduce your reliance on air conditioning.

Landscaping a New or Existing Home

If you're building a new home, take a closer look at the "weeds" on your site. Many of those "weeds" are there because they grow naturally in your environment. While they may not look like much now, don't just pull them out of the ground. With a little care, some of them can become a beautiful part of your landscape.


You probably will want to do some landscaping, but instead of using exotic plants, ask local landscapers or gardeners to help you choose plants that thrive in your local environment. Many of them will be indigenous to the area, but others may come from other areas that have a similar climate.

When you plan your landscaping, keep these things in mind:

  • The amount of rainfall your area gets
  • Water runoff
  • Shade
  • Privacy

If you get little rainfall in your area, plants native to the area will require less water. Instead of installing a lawn, think about installing a rock garden with native plants.

Trees, Palms and Sustainability

Plants can provide you and your home with shade and privacy. You need to be careful choosing trees to plant near your home. Some have extensive root systems that can damage your foundation or break sewerage pipes. Others may shed too many leaves and block your gutters or may pose a fire hazard.

Palms and small trees may not reach over your roof, but can shade a wall that is facing the sun. The shade will reduce heat transfer into your home and the palms or trees will make a beautiful addition to your landscape.

If you're building and there is a tree on your land, think of ways you can incorporate it into your landscape. You might want to make it a feature by installing pavers and creating a shady area to relax. If it's closer to where you are building your house (but not too close), you might want to build a larger deck so you can have shade when you're outdoors.


Larger trees should be planted away from the house. You'll love having a large tree with a wide canopy in your garden. It will provide you with shade and the moisture-laden leaves will cool the air.

Sustainable Hardscaping

We don't often think of the problems associated with water runoff. Even if it is controlled, enormous amounts of water are wasted every year. As the water runs in street gutters, it picks up pollutants that ultimately harm the environment. If water runoff is not controlled, it will erode the soil.


Driveways are one source of water runoff. Just as you have gutters around your roof to collect and distribute water runoff, you can install a water collection system in your driveway and store water in a rainwater tank.

Another way to make use of that potentially wasted water is to design your driveway to direct water towards your lawn and garden. With a little clever planning, you can even direct some water into a backyard stream, waterfall and pond.


In a hotter climate, a driveway can make your landscape even hotter. If breezes blow towards your house, some of that heat will find its way into your home. Choose lighter colours or find ways to shade your driveway and keep your outdoor area cooler.

The same principle applies to your backyard paving. You want patio pavers, but if they aren't shaded, you won't use your patio in the heat of the day and the hot pavers will make your home interior even hotter.

Built Structures and Sustainable Landscaping

Indoor/outdoor living is popular today and can be part of sustainable living. Pergolas and gazebos can be an ideal way to provide shade and allow you to enjoy a more outdoor lifestyle. How far you want to take it depends on how much outdoor living you want to do. A covered patio allows you to relax or dine outdoors. Take it a step further and you can build an outdoor kitchen and cook, barbecue or enjoy a snack without having to go indoors.


Today, many architects and building designers go beyond designing a house. They often take landscaping into consideration and build sustainable homes that include the outdoor areas. Doing this can improve your life both when you're in your home and when you're outdoors. For example, they will design an overhang or patio cover that is deep enough to block the summer sun, but allows winter sun to enter the home and warm it.


In the garden, you can install a gazebo and use it for relaxing and entertaining. Add lighting and a fan and your gazebo can be a private retreat you can use at any time. A gazebo can be anything you want it to be. While most gazebos have open sides, you can install a privacy screen for shade and privacy or even a wall that allows you to enjoy your gazebo if it's raining.


If your gazebo is in a shady location that picks up the breezes, you won't have to stay indoors with the air conditioner on when the weather is hot. A few plants will cool the breezes and you can relax outdoors.

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