Site & Landscape

Whether your land is on the ocean side, in the mountains, or by the bay, it will have special characteristics that make it distinctive.

Understanding your site – what it offers, what lives there, how sun, wind, and water flow across the area – is central to using it in a meaningful way. Your site has a unique collection of San Mateo County plants, insects, and animals. The more your project recognizes the benefits they have to offer, and avoids the problems that arise when we neglect them, the better its indoor and outdoor spaces will be.

1 Micro-climates and heat islands
2 Building orientation
3 Building footprint
4 Site impacts
4 Native plants
4 Recycled rubble
4 Stormwater Management
4 Rain Water Harvesting
4 Water-conserving landscape

The opportunity exists on every site to discover or restore natural communities and help people on the site connect with the environment. This is at the heart of "sustainability" – providing places that benefit current users without compromising the needs of other users and future generations.

Goal: Respect your site

Designing your project to work harmoniously with the site is essential to achieving substantial energy and water efficiencies, and their associated cost savings. The most important thing to do is to think through your project first in the context of your particular needs and the site's particular opportunities and features. Design so that indoor and outdoor spaces are as comfortable as possible without the need for extra heating and cooling. Save space on your site for outdoor space and natural features, and save resources and money while doing it. Recognize the value of the existing soil and plants on your site and work with them, enhancing these living systems through thoughtful additions and transformations.

area one

Design and landscape to create comfortable micro–climates and reduce heat island effects

What is this?

A "micro–climate" is the sum of the outdoor conditions in a specific place – a backyard, a parking lot, or a lawn all have micro–climates. Outdoor comfort depends on air temperature, humidity, sun, shade, and wind; but different conditions will be comfortable depending on your activities, clothing, and personal preferences.

When a city has a higher temperature than surrounding rural areas, it's called the "heat island effect." This is caused by the greater generation of heat by urban activities (factories, cars, air conditioners, equipment in buildings, etc.) and the greater absorption of solar heat by pavement and roofs as compared to forested or planted areas.

Why do it?

Your landscape design can create comfortable conditions and outdoor spaces that you can use and enjoy in all seasons. Further more, thoughtful design can reduce the contribution your project makes to unwanted regional heat gains, helping to reduce everyone's air–conditioning bills, including your own.

How to do this?

Reduce the amount of paved area on your site – it collects heat in summer and does not cool itself through evaporation like planted areas do. Add trees strategically to create shaded outdoor areas that might get too hot in summer, and also provide south–facing sunny outdoor areas for winter use.

Who does this?

Building owners, planners, architects.


area one

Optimize building orientation for heat gain, shading, daylighting, and natural ventilation

What is this?

Solar orientation describes the way that your building receives sunshine: south–facing walls receive strong midday sun, east and west faces get intense low–angled rays in the morning and afternoon, and the north face is shaded. Sunlight entering your building brings heat and light – which can be advantageous or, if not planned for, can cause problems. The shape and position of the building on your site also influences whether and how prevailing breezes can provide cross–ventilation.

Why do it?

Good solar orientation is an excellent opportunity to make a better indoor environment and reduce energy use substantially without any increase in project cost.

How to do this?

Consider the availability of sunshine, shade, and wind on your site before you plan the building, parking, and other areas of use. Also consider whether your building wants to gain free solar heat (as is typical for houses), or stay cool in the face of high internal heat gains (as in office spaces). A little study in advance can result in big energy savings and vastly more pleasant spaces.

Who does this?

Building owners, planners, architects, energy consultants.


area one

Reduce building footprint – smaller is better

What is this?

Your building footprint is literally the amount of land area your project covers.

Why do it?

If you can achieve the same project goals — be that a comfortable home for your family, space for a certain number of workers, or some level of return on investment — with fewer square feet, you will provide the same level of benefit with a smaller financial investment. Smaller buildings require less of every thing that makes projects expensive and increases their environmental impacts — building materials, labor, energy, waste generation, etc.

How to do this?

Consider the reasons for your building project, and how those needs can be met with the least space. Review the per–square–foot rules of thumb many projects use to see if they fit your project specifically. Look for innovative ways of housing people and activities that are equally or more satisfying and take up less space.

Who does this?

Building owners, planners, architects.


area one

Limit site impacts, balance cut and fill, preserve existing vegetation and protect soil during construction

What is this?

The construction process has many short– and long–term impacts on your site that arise from land clearing, excavation, and earth moving. Best management practices prevent extensive loss of mature plants, groundcover, and soil during construction.

Why do it?

Preserving your site's integrity during construction is an important way to maintain the quality of the land resources you already own, while also preventing environmental degradation that might impact your neighbors or local water supplies.

How to do this?

Fence off sensitive areas of the site from construction workers and staging areas, including mature trees, established plant communities, and important landforms. Use erosion control materials such as straw bales and geotextiles on exposed cut slopes. Design your excavations and final grades so that a large quantity of earth is neither imported nor exported from your site. Include limits on site damage in your construction contract so that the value of soil and plants is apparent to your contractor.

Who does this?

Architects, landscape architects, civil engineers, specification writers, general contractors, excavation subcontractors.


area one

Use native plants that are drought–resistant, create habitat for indigenous species, and do not require pesticides for maintenance

What is this?

Proper selection of plants on your property can save the need for irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides and also provide numerous environmental benefits. Native plants of San Mateo County are adapted to the long, dry summers, local soils and pests, and also provide the best habitat, food and shelter for local butterflies and other animals.

Why do it?

Reliance on irrigation and pesticides is not only expensive, but also environmentally poisonous. Urban runoff is the largest source of pollution for San Francisco Bay and many local water sources, and pesticides and fertilizers are a major component of that pollution. This not only harms bay life, but also poses a significant public health hazard.

How to do this?

Some strategies include: Group plants with similar water needs together. Select native plants that attract beneficial insects. Use perennial instead of annual plants. Replace lawn areas, which require intensive chemical maintenance, with native fescues or a "wild lawn" of groundcovers and wildflowers. Use mulch to prevent water loss and protect plant roots.

Who does this?

Landscape architect, landscape contractor, horticulturist, or gardener.


area one

Use recycled rubble for backfill drain rock

What is this?

Drain rock is crushed stone placed against foundations so that water moving through the soil will not wick into the concrete, eventually getting inside the building.

Why do it?

Using recycled material reduces virgin material environmental impacts and waste disposal fees.

How to do this?

Demolished concrete from your jobsite or other sites is often available – small amounts of concrete can be broken into suitable pieces with hand labor, larger amounts can be machinepulverized. Clean drain rock and use filter fabric to exclude all sand–sized and smaller particles that can block drainage.

Who does this?

General contractors, demolition and excavation subcontractors

Goal: Save water and reduce local water impacts

In San Mateo County, most water arrives in winter storms. The water picks up all the accumulated waste, dirt, grit, and pollutants on the ground, so stormwater management is very important to maintaining good water quality. Furthermore, stormwater peak flows are often too large for local sewers and can cause sewer overflows. On the other hand, stormwater can be saved and stored for irrigation. Many other techniques in irrigation can save water, maximizing the benefits we get from this precious resource.

area one

Maximize onsite stormwater management through landscaping and permeable pavement

What is this?

In typical construction, roofs and large paved areas – especially parking lots – send rain directly to catch basins and storm drains and eventually into sewers. Managing stormwater on site involves alternative treatments for pavement and water channels, slowing down water so it can be filtered and absorbed by plants and will percolate back into groundwater.

Why do it?

Conventional engineered drainage systems can be very expensive – not only can alternatives be less costly, but they can also retain water for landscaping. Sending stormwater to drains can flood storm sewers, causing sewage backups, and delivers untreated pollutants such as motor oil or fertilizers from hard surfaces into San Francisco Bay and our other water bodies.

How to do this?

Permeable pavement (concrete that allows water to percolate through by leaving out fine particles), pavers set in sand with gaps, and grass– or gravel– stabilization mats and rings allow stormwater into soil, reducing peak stormwater flows. Vegetated swales (shallow trenches) can slow and absorb some stormwater from the edges of parking lots. They can lead to drains or to vegetated percolation basins. On small parcels, a "rain garden" can transform roof runoff into a valuable irrigation source and a playground of sound.

Who does this?

Landscape architects, civil engineers, architects.


area one

Use rainwater harvesting

What is this?

Instead of directing roof runoff into drains, gutters, downspouts, and into the sewer system, rainwater can be stored in barrels, tanks, or cisterns to be used for future irrigation.

Why do it?

Farmers in dry climates have always stored rainwater. This not only lessens the amount of water you must purchase for landscape irrigation, but also reduces the burden on storm sewers as mentioned above.

How to do this?

The simplest system is probably a 50–gallon barrel under a roof downspout. Larger, more thoroughly planned systems can include an underground cistern or gravel–filled dry well connected to irrigation pipes. In San Mateo, large cisterns are better because almost all our rain comes in the winter and there is a long dry summer when it will be needed.

Who does this?

Landscape architects, architects.


area one

Use water–conserving landscape technologies such as drip irrigation, moisture sensors, and watering zones

What is this?

A lot of water used for landscaping is wasted, failing to reach the plants it is sprayed towards. Drip irrigation supplies water through small, perforated underground pipes that get water near plant roots – rather than on the surface where it can evaporate. Moisture sensors detect when irrigation is necessary, shutting it off when plants won't need water. Zoning your irrigation system allows plants of different kinds or in varying amounts of sun to get an appropriate amount of water, instead of applying equal water to all areas.

Why do it?

Saving water is always important, especially as San Mateo County is growing, but water supplies are not. While water prices may not reflect the full cost of delivering each gallon of water to your tap, saving water still saves money.

How to do this?

Design an efficient irrigation system – one that keeps plants healthy and doesn't use more water than necessary. Make sure that the amount of water and timing of delivery are appropriate to the types of plants you plan to use in different areas.

Who does this?

Landscape architects, landscape contractor, irrigation specialists.


Sustainable Landscaping
San Mateo County Watershed Protection Standards