Nature enhances the built environment

By Dana McClure, AIA, Warner Summers & Associates

CREWMemberBugGrowing up in Atlanta, I would spend every summer at a camp in the mountains of Tennessee. I can still recall the relentless buzzing of cicadas in the background of a crackling of campfire, the pleasant aroma of the earth after an intense afternoon thunderstorm, and the flicker of lightning bugs floating in and out of a dense tree line on the edge of a field. Those experiences inspired moments of deep introspection and reverie. Away from the bustle of the city suburbs, I would return home feeling recharged for another year, but part of me never left.

When I started architecture school in undergrad, those memories urged me to seek out ways to introduce nature into the built environment. Throughout history, architects have been finding ways to connect design to nature — like the vaults of gothic cathedrals that soar like petrified tree canopies. Designers before the gothic era and since acknowledged that there is something very powerful about the human relationship with nature. And that power can be expressed both through man-made structures and by situating man-made structures conscientiously in the natural environment. Think the renowned Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, who by the way, was a big nature buff.

Dana McClureA year after I graduated, my brother was going to school for landscape architecture. He introduced me to his classmate — now my husband — who had just started work in Atlanta as a landscape architect. Coincidentally, my brother also married a landscape architect. Would it surprise you that my husband and I got married outside in a state park? But, I digress.

Just like a marriage can bring together two people from seemingly different backgrounds, we are not so different after all. The same is true of architecture and landscape architecture. It is simply a difference in the material that is used to craft the space. Whether you are a designer or a developer, a property manager or a painter, the following tips will provide some valuable perspective on importance of landscape:

  1. Utilizing native plant species, especially those that are drought tolerant, can cut down on irrigation needs, which means less strain on the water supply and reduced maintenance costs. Not to mention, they’re less likely to die if they are living in the environment where they were “born.”
  2. While grass is nice for running barefoot in the back yard, it is a high-maintenance landscape material for places where it is merely a visual element. Consider something lower maintenance such as Dwarf Mondo Grass. It looks like grass, but it’s actually a short-growing evergreen that does not need to be mowed.
  3. Trees provide shade to buildings, which helps cut down on energy consumption within the building. However, large trees with massive root systems underground that are too close to the building can damage floor slabs and foundations, so trees must be chosen and placed with great care. Conversely, placing a building next to an existing large tree can lead to the same problems, so pick an appropriate spot on your site. Another way vegetation can provide shade is through roof gardens. These require a more robust structure and waterproofing system, but they also cut down on energy consumption within the building.
  4. A bioswale system integrated into the parking lot can divert stormwater runoff created by large impervious paved surfaces like a shopping center parking. The water is infiltrated back into the groundwater instead of into storm drains that carry the water into the municipal system and away from the site. A bioswale is a shallow valley on the site that is lined at the bottom with vegetation and rocks to naturally filter stormwater runoff. Not only does it serve the purpose of filtration and groundwater recharging, it can look nice if it utilizes a decorative (but native!) species like Inkberry or Fakahatchee Grass.
  5. Water features (also part of landscape architecture…that’s right, it’s not just about plants) not only create pleasant sounds and visual stimulation, the sounds can mask surrounding undesirable sounds such as a nearby freeway.

For more information on the practice of landscape architecture and how it applies to your world, visit the website for the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Dana McClure, AIA, LEED® AP is a senior project architect at Warner Summers & Associates, a multidisciplinary architecture and interior design firm, established in Atlanta in 1964, and broadly specializing in corporate interiors, medical office space, ground up office buildings, adaptive reuse projects, higher education and industrial. She can be reached at

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Author: CREW Atlanta

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