Two-Star Certified Pilot Project

Location: Washington D.C.
Project Size: 1.8 acres
Project Type: Institutional / Educational
Site Context: Urban
Former Land Use: Greyfield
Terrestrial Biome: Temperate Broadleaf & Mixed Forests
Budget: Confidential
photo by Paul Davis

Project Overview

The School of International Service (SIS) at American University created an integrated site and multiuse building that work together to produce a more sustainable environment for the university. The site was previously an impervious parking lot, but now works to recycle and filter all stormwater on the site. This is accomplished by collecting water from the building roof in a cistern for recycling to use in the building toilets. Stormwater detained on the site is reduced and filtered through green roofs, bioretention, and vegetated buffers. The building has also earned a LEED® Gold rating. A variety of outdoor seating opportunities were included to help facilitate interactions between students, faculty, staff, and guests. Other sustainable features include xeriscape planting, edible plants, LED lighting, and no irrigation.

Regional Context

The School of International Service is located in urban Northwest Washington D.C. on American University's main campus. The site is in the Southeastern Plains ecoregion, and major plant communities are hickory oak and pine forests. Annual average precipitation is 39.73 inches. Site soils consisted of disturbed silty clay loams that were restored to loamy sand. 

SITES Features + Practices

No Irrigation: In order to eliminate the use of potable water, turf was excluded from the design and native and adapted plants were installed.

Stormwater Management: Two bioretention swales, vegetated buffers, and green roofs were installed on the site to contain and naturally filter stormwater on site.

Edible Landscaping: Edible landscaping was incorporated into the site including Korean perilla leaves, Rainbow Swiss Chard, and various herbs. Site users are encouraged to harvest and consume them, and some are used by the Davenport, a student run-coffee shop on site.

Apiary: The site includes an apiary on top of the LEED® Gold building. The hive was installed in 2011 and the honeybee population has since grown to an estimated 50,000, helping to pollinate the plants on the SIS site.

Zero Waste: American University is committed to a Zero Waste policy to keep waste out of landfills and incinerators. The policy includes strategies such as composting 100% of landscape waste and debris produced on site.

Materials: Locally harvested boulders and stones were used for the rock garden and for seating arrangements surrounding the building.

Other Certifications: LEED Gold, National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat


The integrated design team included the contractor, the University Architect's Office, and Facilities Management, as well as various consultants. Without the coordination of these different parties, the outcome would not have been as successful. The team meetings allowed for the exchange of ideas and feedback that was integral to the project. Many decisions were made after various perspectives from the different disciplines were heard and general consensus was reached as to the best course of action.

Unfortunately, large trees were removed during construction of the School of International Service project, but were replaced and replanted during American University's annual Campus Beautification Day. A local ordinance in D.C. protecting both public and private trees 55 inches in circumference or greater influenced how some decisions were made on the project. Prior to removal, the trees must be evaluated by the city arborist, and if the tree is deemed healthy, a permit must be filed. The owner of the tree is required to either pay a fee to the city tree fund for planting trees in the District, or replace the equivalent in circumference of the tree removed by planting other trees on the property.

Maintenance + Stewardship

The University oversees maintenance of the site with in-house staff. The Offices of Sustainability, Facilities Management, and the University Architect's office are responsible for the long-term maintenance of the site. The grounds supervisor monitors and maintains the site to ensure project goals are maintained. Staff landscape architects, a certified arborist, and a horticulturist are available to assist with decision making as needed.

The University also has a long term commitment to climate neutrality and zero waste by 2020 and participates in LEED® Volume throughout the campus. 

Site Challenges

Before the School of International Service was developed, the site was a parking lot, which compacted the soil underneath. Soils had to be restored with compost and topsoil.

Additionally, a major feature of the new design was a Korean garden, where many site-appropriate adapted plants were used.

Project Goals + Successes

The former School of International Service Building, now called the East Quad Building, included Korean cherry trees planted in 1946 by the first President of South Korea, Dr. Sygnman Rhee, and the Korean Women's Relief Society of Honolulu as a gift to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the birth of Korea's provisional government. This long standing relationship was rekindled with the new building through a gift from the Korean government to develop the site as a Korean landscape. Celebrating this relationship became a key goal for this project.

The primary goals of the project were to integrate the building and site to best meet the needs of the campus community and to create a new home for the School of International Service. The project was the first time the university attempted LEED certification, and becoming a SITES pilot project fit with the overall goals for the project.

The building and site have received outstanding press within the community and the project has become the model for future campus development. Key successes included incorporating bee hives, a zero waste policy, and edible landscaping. The student-run coffee shop, Davenport, also started composting coffee grounds which became a model for beginning organic waste collection for composting on campus.

Seeking SITES certification changed the way the entire site design was approached, including construction and maintenance strategies.

Lessons Learned

Designing a site with no irrigation was a challenge, and the lesson learned was that turf was not necessary to the success of the design. The way stormwater is perceived and managed has also changed significantly. Since the project, additional green roofs and rain gardens have been installed across campus. The idea of selecting materials that can be reused once the projects life is complete is another new idea and strategy that will be incorporated on other projects at the University. Finally, the documentation process for SITES took a long time and used many resources. This being the University's first attempt at SITES certfication, the lessons learned during the process will influence future development projects. The next SITES project will be easier and achieved more efficiently.

Project Team

American University (AU) School for International Service:
Michael Purcell, AIA, LEED AP BD&C, Project Manager, Architect
Michael Mastrota, RLA, Site Project Manager, Landscape Architect
Helen Lee, LEED GA, Sustainable Sites Initiative Manager, AU Zero Waste Coordinator
Don Harvey, Construction Supervision
David Wilson, Construction Supervision, Grounds Supervisor
Mark Feist, Assistant Director of Facilities Management, Grounds Operations
Stephanie DeStefano - Grounds Operations Coordinator, Horticulturist, Certified Arborist
Reuben Chavez, CLT, Ground Maintenance Zone Supervisor

Tilson Group:
Rob Tilson, RLA, Landscape Contractor

Quinn Evans Associates:
Carl Elefante, Design Architect, consultant

Delone Hampton Associates:
Jim Long, Civil Engineer

Whiting Turner:
Gary Murphy, contractor, general building construction

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