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Posted: April 21, 2009

How landscape architecture can boost real estate sales

Well-designed exterior property entices buyers

Kim Douglas

It's not all gloom and doom in the commercial real estate sector. Property owners and investors fortunate enough to be in cash-positive positions may find now is the ideal time to make improvements and upgrades to their holdings.

As important as structural and interior refurbishing can be, a building's exterior and surrounding property create that all-important first impression. That's why even modest exterior landscaping and hardscape projects can add visual, aesthetic and practical dimensions that transform a nondescript commercial property into a handsome and desirable acquisition.

Sellers often assume their property's architectural and interior appearances are the key selling points, overlooking or ignoring the impact of the surrounding exterior space. How the exterior property is designed and managed —  the site design, hardscape features, softscapes and more — can not only influence a prospect's decision to visit the property but also subtly or dramatically affect the decision to buy.
Maximize ROI and minimize environmental cost

Exterior enhancements that provide the highest return on investment include improved signage and entry design features that increase visibility and define branding, says Courtney McRickard, ASLA, vice president of the Colorado chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Human-scale exterior features like plazas, courtyards, water features and plantings are amenities tenants and purchasers are willing to pay for. For instance, "outdoor plazas create a new image for office buildings and retail developments while providing attractive amenities for employees and potential consumers," McRickard notes, "while additions like bio-swales that mitigate storm water runoff and distinctive landscaping provide infrastructure improvements that extend property life and reduce maintenance costs." All those factors are music to a real estate investor's ears.

Going green

Landscape architects are experts in green technologies and local and national environmental regulations. They know how to design and implement new environmental trends like "green roofing." Replacing hot, black, petroleum-based asphalt roofing with vegetation reduces the size of HVAC equipment and insulation needed to control temperatures inside. Green roofs can incorporate cooling and/or water treatment functions, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for costly, unattractive roof drains.

As an added bonus, the cost benefits for green roofing are significant. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) introduced the Clean Energy Stimulus and Investment Assurance Act of 2009. The legislation is geared toward creating high-wage green-collar jobs and revitalizing the economy through clean energy investments.

ASLA worked closely with Sen. Cantwell's office to ensure a section of the bill was dedicated to green roof tax incentives. The bill defines qualified green roofs to mean any roof containing at least 50 percent green vegetation. The bill means big savings to commercial builders as it gives a 30 percent tax credit towards the construction of a green roof.

For larger facilities, a landscape architect may redesign outdoor parking lots to minimize the use of impervious covering to better control storm water runoff and make the parking area more attractive to passersby and users. Wetlands can be created to protect against erosion, control sediment and water quality.

Residential upgrades

It's not only commercial properties that can profit from exterior upgrades. Both contemporary and older residential and retail developments can see a gain in value with the addition of colorful xeric plantings, water conservation features and energy-saving solar installations. Such improvements can increase a property's value by as much as 20 percent while reducing energy and operational costs by 20 percent to 30 percent, according to some reports.

For property owners and architects contemplating a building upgrade, McRickard recommends bringing a professional landscape architect early in the process because "landscape architects are involved with planning, designing and protecting every element of the outdoor built environment in harmony with the architecture and interiors qualities.” Landscape architects must be licensed in 49 states, including Colorado, and many local practitioners seek accreditation through the Colorado chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the profession's governing body.

Landscape architects collaborate closely with other design professionals such as architects and structural and civil engineers to make sure each project is harmonious and unified as well as sustainable and environmentally conscious.

Landscape architects' close relationships with the contractor community can bring big savings to a landscape design project. Many vendors and contractors are struggling to stay afloat in this challenging economy and are willing to bid at reduced rates to land projects that will keep them in business.

"We've received competitive bids that are 10 percent to 20 percent lower than just a year ago," McRickard said, "and that infuses additional dollar value into the return on investment."

In this market, property owners who can take advantage of the cost savings to be had from eager vendors would do well to consider their exterior landscape a must-do part of any commercial property upgrade. The short- and long-term return on that investment can easily offset any near-term cash infusion.

Kim Douglas is president of the Colorado Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and senior associate with studioINSITE. With more than 400 members, ASLA Colorado promotes the landscape architect profession in Colorado. For more information, call (303) 830-6616 or visit the Web site at

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