Two-Star Certified Pilot Project

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Project Size: 4.4 acres
Project Type: Governmental Complex
Site Context: Urban
Former Land Use: Greyfield
Terrestrial Biome: Desert
Budget: $2,837,131
photo by: Robert Reck

Project Overview

The Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation in Albuquerque, New Mexico reconnects an existing site to place through an evocative, sustainable design. Led by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the multi-disciplinary team proposed a design that re-imagined and re-purposed existing site elements with sustainable strategies to create an exemplary landscape rooted within its context. Deriving patterns from regional and site history, the project creates a bold landscape and dignified setting for court operations while enhancing efficiency and sustainable operations through improved water management, decreased energy use, and increased urban habitat. Through the conceptual design process, a new story for the site was woven through art, ecology, engineering, and cultural history, achieved with key improvements in five areas: water, material re-use, energy, habitat, and culture. The result deftly balances security and public access to integrate the Federal Government into the local community while greatly improving the efficiency and economic viability of the site.

Regional Context

The site sits within the Albuquerque Basin, a high desert transitional region between semi-arid grasslands and low relief tablelands featuring hot days and cold nights. Precipitation averages 8-10 inches with the most rain occurring in summer. Winds are predominately from the north, and the solar resource potential is high due to 300-plus days of sunshine. The site sits outside of the 100-year floodplain, and does not have any wetlands or streams. However, it once featured a historic Acequia prior to the urbanization of Albuquerque.

The context soil is Glendale loam, which is derived from old flood plains or stream terraces, and is likely alluvium derived from igneous and sedimentary rock. It has moderate infiltration capabilities and is classified as well-drained. Currently, the site is a mix of lightweight soil over the parking garage and compacted urban soils. Located within the downtown core, the area is relatively flat. However, the site slopes from one end to the other roughly 12 feet in elevation, with the majority of the site draining to an underground sump collection where excess water is pumped to the city storm system. The landscaped median swale filters parking lot stormwater.

SITES Features + Practices

Viewing the existing site as a “selective quarry” was instrumental in generating interesting design opportunities for the project, and for achieving a successful sustainable retrofit of the site. It helped maintain a number of existing features in place, while increasing the amount of planting area, overall site permeability, and promoting creative reuse of harvested material for new site performance. Focusing on increasing energy and water efficiency for an existing site was another key strategy. Upgrading fixtures and implementing solar panels reduced energy use on site. By mimicking regional hydrology through a series of wet and dry gardens, the site received an enhanced water management system that also created spaces for site users and engendered a local sense of place.

To increase the amount of planting area, increase site permeability, and to generate a material to terrace the ground plane into wet and dry gardens, excess site concrete paving was cut into blocks and salvaged for reuse onsite. Early in conceptual design, the design team studied the as-built drawings to determine the thickness of existing concrete, and analyzed which areas of the site concrete could be effectively harvested. The design team determined an optimum block module of 8 inches wide by 16 inches long by 3-4 inches thick, and included demolition details within the contract documents and specifications describing the selective demolition in addition to the wall and curb details for construction.

During demolition and construction, over 21,000 square feet of existing concrete was removed from the site. The design team calculated an 80 percent usable block optimization, and included provisions to shorten or eliminate a portion of the 2,000 linear feet of recycled walls and curbs if the optimization was found to be lower. As construction was completed the block reuse optimization was found to be approximately 84 percent, resulting in an excess of 1,000 concrete blocks (or roughly 16 percent of material produced onsite).

The resulting quality and beauty of the recycled blocks became immediately apparent, providing not only a unique design feature on site, but also leading the contractor to receive multiple inquiries from the public as to where the concrete blocks were “purchased”. The resulting salvaged material achieved multiple goals. Not only did it effectively offset the need for new construction materials on site and off, it also was a vehicle for promoting the beauty and quality of recycled material to the design and building communities.

Water: Due to the scarcity of water in the region and the overall intensity of storms, developing a comprehensive approach to rainwater capture for infiltration and reuse was a critical strategy used onsite. By integrating a connected framework of rain gardens, bioswales, and cisterns, the design significantly reduced stormwater runoff and potable water use onsite while also creating a legible design language that provided new amenities for site users. The existing site used 3.5 million gallons of water annually to feed extensive lawns and exported tens of thousands of gallons of untreated stormwater runoff monthly into the city storm drain. By replacing lawn with native plantings and capturing and reusing roof water in 16,000 gallon underground cisterns, the project reduced the site’s water use by over 86 percent. Additionally, a mix of onsite treatment structures, rain gardens and planted swales in the rear parking lot collect and filter over 95 percent of stormwater runoff for pollutants of concern before exiting the site. Click here to see a water use diagram created by Biohabitats.

Re-use: The project maintained and repurposed over 63% of the site’s existing materials in place, reducing cost and environment impacts associated with virgin material construction. Selective cutting and removal of 21,000 square feet of existing concrete plaza and sidewalks also generated 10,000 8 inch by 16 inch concrete blocks used for building garden walls and terraces throughout the site. These walls provide seating while directing site storm water into a system of dry and wet rain gardens. This material “harvesting” strategy reduced the need for new materials, increased site permeability and helped reduce the urban heat island effect and irrigation water requirements.

Energy: Leveraging the strong solar potential in the region helped significantly reduced energy use onsite. The renovation capitalized on Albuquerque’s 300-plus days of sunshine to replace inefficient landscape lights with bright, efficient LED fixtures entirely powered by a 27.5 Kwh array of new solar panels installed on the courthouse’s roof.

Habitat: The new planting design provides a refuge for urban wildlife by replacing the exotic existing plant palette with a regionally appropriate palette comprised of drought adapted plants and 79 percent native plants. Selected and located together by water-needs, the plants were placed into sloped and terraced rain gardens reflecting the surrounding Rio Grande Floodplain Bosque ecology.

Culture: Connecting with the site’s history as McClellan Park, the new site design re-situates the courthouse back into the park, embedding it within accessible landscape features evoking regional environmental and cultural elements. Derived from contemporary abstractions of Pueblo patterning, the diagonal arrangement of landscape features creates a bold, culturally-based identity for the courthouse while referring to the function and location of historic Acequias, or irrigation canals, on site. Improved site access, enhanced public amenities, and educational outreach promote a better Courthouse experience. New stabilized decomposed granite pathways connect users to the entire site, and widespread seating options provide space for different size groups to gather and connect. Additionally, interpretative signage, pamphlets and a website describe the sustainability features of the project to the public.


The Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission govern the use and distribution of all water resources in the State of New Mexico and obligate the downstream release of all surface and groundwater. To comply with these orders, the Domenici Courthouse rainwater/stormwater system was designed to slow and filter site stormwater, while not limiting the water's eventual release into the downstream municipal system. However as the Water Right Regulations do not limit the use of roof water, we added a subgrade 16,000 gallon cistern to capture rainwater for irrigation reuse.

The success of the project depended largely on the collaboration and communication of team members. During the conceptual design phase, frequent conference calls were conducted to discuss cross-disciplinary issues: replicating pre-development hydrology on top of an existing parking garage, engineering retaining walls constructed from site salvaged concrete paving, and sizing solar arrays to offset the on-site electrical requirement. Through the design development and construction documentation phases, bi-weekly issue based conference calls and file sharing at major milestones occurred. Prior to construction, the Landscape Architect led a kick-off meeting to outline the project goals, SITES process, team members and communication process in Albuquerque. As construction was mobilized, biweekly conference calls were scheduled for the construction group and client group. During construction, conference calls were scheduled each week, with additional calls taking place as needed, allowing for design issues to be resolved in a comprehensive, and integrated manner to ensure a successful outcome that met stakeholder and site performance needs.

Maintenance + Stewardship

Generally speaking, the site will be maintained in a manner that emphasizes timely intervention and appropriate maintenance strategies to maintain a regionally adapted, sustainable landscape that showcases regional aesthetics with minimal inputs and upkeep.

The client, the GSA, is committed to ongoing monitoring to evaluate the performance of the site and cost savings to the American taxpayer. They have funded ongoing monitoring of invasive plants, potable water use, and soil restoration per SITES Credit 9.1 through periodic site observations, testing, and record-keeping. GSA also co-presented the project with our firm at the 2013 ASLA National Convention to share some of the lessons learned with the profession. The project has applied for the Landscape Architecture Foundation Case Study Investigations program, which would provide an opportunity for additional post-occupancy evaluation.

The GSA is committed to effective maintenance of the project to ensure long-term performance of the site and cost savings to the American taxpayer. An onsite Facility Manager is in charge of monitoring site care and site performance, and overseeing a series of maintenance contractors who will handle different aspects of the site maintenance. As part of the project, the owner has worked with current and upcoming maintenance contracts to align ongoing maintenance practices to adhere to guidelines developed as part of the maintenance plan. The owner has also expanded their operational capacities to help meet the goals of the design. Lastly, the owner will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the maintenance practices through ongoing evaluation and periodic strategic updating of the plan.

SITES and the sustainable strategies used in the project have had a huge impact in the surrounding area. At a site scale, the project has restored a park-like setting to a site that once housed the last urban park in downtown Albuquerque, offering renewed passive recreation opportunities to urban workers and residents. It has also become a showcase for sustainability in the region by imaging sustainable practices as a desirable aesthetic and through education about a set of sustainable tools for the region. Site visitors can learn about native and regionally adapted plant material, water reuse strategies, renewable energy, and material reuse through a self-guided walk tour with a brochure, interpretative signs, and an online website. The imaging has influenced the local design and construction community to consider new materials and approaches for design and construction, including local University of New Mexico Master of Landscape Architecture students who now incorporate harvested concrete block walls into their conceptual designs and contractors who are desiring the use of harvested block as new site materials for local projects. Recycled concrete block walls provide seating under existing shade trees.

Site Challenges

The Pete V. Domenici Courthouse is a federal courthouse in the urban core of downtown Albuquerque. Located along the historic Route 66 corridor, the site has been a greyfield for much of recent history. As Albuquerque grew, the historic, topographically based Acequia landscape maintained by Pueblo and Spanish farmers was replaced by a Jeffersonian grid. In 1998, the Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse opened, replacing McClellan Park, one of downtown Albuquerque's few remaining public parks.

The existing site design was dominated by impervious surfaces, minimal shade, overwatered but underused lawns and exotic plant materials. The courthouse occupies one-quarter of the site, and a massive entry plaza comprised of concrete hardscape, a faulty water feature, and four lawns sat atop a parking garage at the south half of the site. The north half featured a small, fenced lawn area surrounding the ‘Madonna of the Trail,’ a National Historic registered sculpture from the former park, and a concrete surface parking lot. 31-foot wide concrete sidewalks with bollards lined the site. The site was resource inefficient and disconnected from its environment and the public.

Project Goals + Successes

The mission of General Service Administration (GSA) is to deliver the best value in real estate to the American people. In support of their mission, GSA strives to achieve a more sustainable government and save taxpayer dollars. This project is consistent with these goals and sought to provide a model for the sustainable renovation of an existing federal property. To achieve this, the approach was to enhance the usability and performance of the site by amplifying the unique story of place, and focusing on five key objectives:

  • Improved water management
  • Re-use of materials
  • Reduction of energy use
  • Increase of habitat potential
  • Connection to place and provision of respite for urban dwellers through a park-like environment

The project began with the intention to implement a sustainable landscape retrofit, and very early the owner, the GSA, requested the project attempt SITES certification through the pilot program. The influence of the SITES process cannot be underestimated. It greatly influenced how far we pushed to have the team conceive of, and eventually construct, the site in innovative ways. The process expanded the typical understanding of sustainable landscape design, engineering and building techniques, and all were enriched by being a part of the process. Clearly showing the financial benefits associated with the sustainable retrofit helped the project to gain owner and tenant approval of the retrofit and pursuit of SITES certification.

The project models strategies for improving the performance of existing properties through innovative landscape architecture. Key successes include harvesting existing materials to create new amenities for site users, reducing water use through the implementation of a low-water plant palette and rainwater capture, offsetting site electrical needs with solar energy production and efficiency upgrades, and restoration of a park-like setting within the downtown urban core of Albuquerque. The project creates a sense of place by integrating sustainable features within a bold design, successfully benefitting the surrounding community while still supporting court operations.

Lessons Learned

The fact that our project was a renovation of an existing landscape presented numerous design challenges. Though our project scope and budget were not defined to address all of the pre-existing problems to the site, the primary users of the site would largely judge the success of our project by how our design fixed those issues. With a limited project budget, each of our design choices had to serve multiple goals. To limit reduce excess hardscape and increase permeability, we selectively removed concrete paving. This concrete paving was reused as site walls and landscape seating and terraced the ground into a series of wet and dry gardens.

Project Team

Rios Clementi Hale Studios - Lead Landscape Architect
Mark Rios, FAIA, FASLA
Samantha Harris, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP
Mike Tramutola, RLA
Brent Jacobsen, RLA, ASLA

General Services Administration - Client
Leslie Shepherd, FAIA
Christian Gabriel, RLA, ASLA
Tim Wideman, Senior PM
Stuart Blakely, Property Manager
Christopher Adams, Operations Manager
Sam Lopez, Supervisory PM
Steve Kline, AIA
Keven Myles, PM, Sustainability Coordinator
Carrie Haman, CO

United States District Courts - Tenant
Scott Ferguson, Facilities Supervisor
Lydia Piper, PM AIC - General Contractor
Tiffany Gaede
John Monteverdi
Lindsay Wright

The Hilltop - Landscape Contractor
Aaron Forrester

Consultant Team
Biohabitats - Civil, Water Reclamation, Plumbing 
Erin English, PE, LEED AP 
Justin Lyon, PE, LEED AP, CGBP 
Ryan Case Nicole Stern, RLA, LEED AP

Surroundings - Local Landscape Architect/irrigation design
Faith Okuma, AICP, LEED AP, RLA

Bryan Suhr, Master Arborist

KPFF - Structural
Benjamin Segura, PE Kent Kaewwaen, PE

SGH - Waterproofing
Amy Hackney, PE, LEED AP BD+C

Syska Hennesy - Electrical
Alireza Hadian Alan Ayap

KGM - Lighting
Mike Gehring, FAIA, IALD
Kris Sandheinrich, LC

Positive Energy - PV design
John Bro

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