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Corporate oasis

Companies that utilize a native plant landscape can save money.

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

In 2007 Union Bankshares Corp.  moved its operations center into a LEED certified building in Caroline County.  The new facility boasts green technology inside and out.  The one thing missing?  An irrigation system.  Three years after planting, the facility’s 14 landscaped acres thrive with nothing more than rain. 

That’s right on schedule, says Lou Vernen, biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).  Vernen helped Union Bankshares (now Union First Market Bankshares) select and properly establish native species. 

“A native plant landscape is going to take about three years before it matures,” says Vernen.  “Then your maintenance needs drop away.”  It makes sense.  Virginia grasses have deep roots adapted to survive our seasonal dry spells (Bermuda grass hails from the moist soils of east Africa.).  So planting native species saves water.

“It also saves money,” says Matt Snow, sustainability manager at Dominion Due Diligence, a national environmental engineering firm based in Richmond.  When Due Diligence traded two acres of traditional turf for a native blend, its irrigation costs evaporated.   

Water represents just one area of savings. Native species thrive without expensive herbicides and pesticides.  Since habitat prioritizes shrubs, trees and wetlands over traditional lawn, maintenance costs are likewise cut. “One of the best financial incentives for putting in habitat is that you’re mowing less,” says Carol Heiser, VDGIF’s habitat education coordinator. 

These changes add up.  Landscaping with native grasses instead of exotics can save as much as 27 percent per acre in the first year according to an EPA-funded report from 2004. Replace that lawn with diverse native plantings, and a 10-acre corporate site can save 48 percent on installation and as much as 86 percent on maintenance over a decade, according to a ground-breaking 1999 study by Conservation Design Forum, an Illinois-based landscape architecture and water resources engineering firm.

Recent case studies include a 2009 budget-cutting report by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas whose facilities management team converted 855,000 square feet of turf to native plants slashing irrigation needs and saving as estimated $135,000 per year.

“That’s our pitch,” says Vernen.  “It will actually save you money.” Of course, VDGIF is trying to save something else as well. Habitat loss due to commercial and residential development is the number one threat to Virginia wildlife, including our 61 threatened and endangered species.  “Anything you add back is a plus,” says Vernen, and office parks and corporate headquarters offer huge opportunities.

In 2001 the Habitat Partners program expanded from its original target — homeowners — to include a corporate certification program.  Participants, including Union Bankshares, Due Diligence, DuPont, Capitol One Financial Corp. and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, work with VDGIF to conduct baseline studies, design and create habitat, and monitor the arrival of birds, butterflies and other Virginia natives. 

Habitat plantings earn “restorative landscape” credit for certification under the Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design (LEED) program. However, Heiser says the primary motivation for companies is what she calls “the human benefits.” When people drive by and see the Habitat Partners sign, “It shows employees, customers and neighbors that the company cares about the environment.” 

“There is a benefit to morale,” echoes Snow. “It’s valuable to employees to work someplace beautiful.” 

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