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April 23, 2012

Sustainability saves landscape architecture | Tavella pushing for growth opportunities as he leads industry's national trade group

PHOTOS/PABLO ROBLES Landscape architects at Manchester design firm Fuss & O’Neill designed Filley Park in Bloomfield. More than just picking out plants and benches, landscape architects deal with issues such as planning, design and land-use management.
Thomas Tavella, landscape architect, Fuss & O’Neill

By all rights, landscape architecture should be struggling.

As construction and related industries such as architecture and engineering suffer through reduced workloads that could last until 2014, landscape architecture should be down with the rest of them.

But the industry is holding its own, thanks to sustainability, says Thomas Tavella, landscape architect for Manchester design firm Fuss & O’Neill and newly-designated president of the industry’s national organization.

“The whole idea of sustainability is out there,” Tavella said. “Now it is cool to be green again.”

Because of the push from the environmentally-conscious movement, landscape architecture is playing a bigger role in construction projects — collaborating on design and construction early in the process, Tavella said.

“We are getting involved in more jobs for sustainable sites,” said Tavella, who is accredited in sustainable building practices. “The collaboration between landscape architects, architects and engineers is much better than it has ever been.”

In March, Tavella was elected the president of the national trade group American Society of Landscape Architects with its 16,000 members. As designers of outdoor space, landscape architects have been working on making projects environmentally friendly since the profession began with Frederick Law Olmsted designing parks, including Bushnell Park in Hartford.

On April 26 — Connecticut Olmstead Day — Tavella and the state ASLA chapter will host a landscape architecture event at 4 p.m. at the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport to honor women in the profession and discuss some of the issues facing the industry.

One of the big issues is education, Tavella said. Most people don’t know what landscape architects do, which forces the industry to push hard for its place at the table.

“It is kind of that unknown profession,” Tavella said. “It is the art and science of designing exterior spaces. Anything that is outside of a building, we have our fingers on it in some way.”

Landscape architects at Fuss & O’Neill designed spaces such as Filley Park in Bloomfield, Harbor Park in Middletown, Tunxis Community College in Farmington, and the memorial garden remembering the shooting victims at Hartford Distributors, Inc. in Manchester.

More than just professionals who bring plants and other vegetation to the outside of buildings, landscape architects perform planning, designing and land-use management, said Vincent McDermott, senior vice president for Cheshire landscape architecture firm Milone & MacBroom

“We were involved in sustainability before sustainability was a word,” McDermott said. “People, in general, are interested in what we do once they understand what landscape architecture is.”

So when the push for more sustainable buildings came along in the last decade — seeking U.S. Green Building Council accreditation for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design — landscape architects reaped the rewards, Tavella said. The uptick came at just the right time, as other landscape architect design area such as golf course design and new home construction tanked.

But there’s plenty of room to grow.

“The level of growth needs to be two to three times what it is now,” said Jeffrey Gebrian, principal for Simsbury landscape architecture firm CR3. “The private sector has taken a hit.”

Despite the benefits from sustainability, the design industry in Connecticut has 25-30 percent unemployment right now, Gebrian said. Multi-disciplinary firms such as Fuss & O’Neill and Milone & MacBroom have weathered the storm better than most.

Firms that offer strictly landscape architecture services, such as CR3, are having a harder time in the down economy, Gebrian said.

“The bottom line is we need growth,” Gebrian said. “It has been dead.”

Tavella said struggles by firms such as CR3 speak directly to the industry trend of the elimination of subcontracting landscape architects. Now, the design firms are bringing the discipline in-house.

This leads to even greater collaboration on projects as in-house landscape architects aren’t kept at arm’s length the way subcontractors are, Tavella said.

For Fuss & O’Neill, Tavella just completed work on the brownfield remediation project of Knowlton Park in Bridgeport, which included a landfill on the Pequonnock River. There was a lot more cohesion from early in the project because landscape architecture was involved from the beginning, Tavella said.

Tavella is working on another brownfield remediation project in Pawtucket, R.I.

“It is a great way to take these derelict properties and turn them into something useful,” Tavella said.

The sustainability movement will lead to an even bigger boom for the industry once other design work starts to come back, Tavella said.

Landscape architecture is playing a larger role in the efforts to increase public health, Tavella said. In order to get people out and exercise, cities need walkable spaces where residents are comfortable. Landscape architects design those spaces.

“We are finding that we are getting traction on that,” Tavella said.

The industry still needs the rest of its sectors to recover. McDermott said he is keeping his fingers crossed that the positive signs in public transportation projects and private landscape development is the start of a rise out of the current rut.

“As the big boys come back, we will do better,” McDermott said.

When that recovery happens, Tavella wants to make sure the profession is best aligned to take advantage. His three tenets as ASLA president will be increasing the visibility of the profession; advocating for state and federal legislation giving more work to landscape architects, such as bikeway and parks projects; and growing the ASLA membership beyond its current 16,000.

“I just love what I do. It just oozes out of me,” Tavella said. “It is a great profession. People kind of overlook it.”


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