The sub-tropical RGV looks lushly green most of the year, but a new definition of green is becoming part of the landscape of palms and poincianas. The contemporary greening of the Valley encompasses environmentally sensitive practices that are becoming visible in green buildings and green walls and in the spreading use of native plants and water-wise irrigation systems. Companies involved in green construction, water conservation and ecotourism are finding opportunities for sustainable growth. Many green practices help trim operational costs while improve the community’s quality of life.
Environmentally sound construction and design qualified Quinta Mazatlán’s new Discovery Center for Silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The facility with a science laboratory, exhibit area and meeting space was inspired by the original builders of Quinta Mazatlán, Jason and Marcia Matthews. “In the 1930s, before green was cool, they built an energy efficient house,” said Colleen Hook, manager of the World Birding Center site. The couple used 10,000 adobe blocks made locally and recycled old newspaper plates to insulate the roof.
Today Quinta Mazatlán is a mansion with a mission: to show how people and nature can live beautifully together. “Our goal was a sustainable new building, and it actually ended up having the attributes of a home built in the pioneer days,” Hook said. “Some of our greatest tools were the simplest ones. Over 50% of the new building has a wonderful patio that provides shade and serves as a visor. This can save up to 30% in cooling costs. The ‘L’ shape of the building allowed us to place it in the corner of the property, which meant more native landscaping space.” In fact about 95% of the plants are native, therefore low maintenance and a source of food and shelter for Valley creatures.
“Many assume green buildings are difficult to build and very expensive, but actually you can choose from a huge ‘green’ tool box and use the simplest of tools,” Hook said. “We did not use solar panels, a green roof or install large metal cisterns, as they were not economical for our 3,500-square-foot building. We chose a design and tools that worked with our budget, served our programmatic goals, and would save us money in operational costs.”
Megamorphosis is the Valley’s only architectural firm where both principals are LEED AP certified architects. “LEED buildings are more expensive to build and design, but not to operate,” said architect Meg Jorn. “Basically LEED is like an accounting system. There are many things you must do and document to achieve LEED certification” on silver, gold or platinum levels. The additional documentation of everything from the materials used and the construction techniques to the energy efficient heating, cooling and plumbing systems installed and the recycling of construction waste adds to the LEED point tally … and to administrative costs.
Environmental design elements include techniques for capturing rain water and using as much recycled material as feasible. “LEED buildings are extremely well insulated so they are not gaining or losing heat. We have to build them tighter and better with the most efficient plumbing fixtures. Most of the lighting is LED,” Jorn added. Public buildings and schools have been the first recipients of LEED certification in the Valley, as green building practices make their way south.
David McEver, who was the superintendent for All Pro Contractors on the Quinta Mazatlan project, agreed LEED certification makes a construction job more complex. “There is more paper work,” he said of the two LEED projects the company has taken on. The contractors completed LEED training to understand how the certification system works through the U.S. Green Building Council. Recycling was an important factor in construction, from using crushed concrete in the slab to capturing and recycling rainwater from the roof to tracking the trash generated by the builders. Low voltage lights and toilets that use one-third the water of standard toilets garnered additional points under the LEED system. “That’s what you’re trying to do: get points.”
In 2012, after many customers of Ricardo Garcia’s irrigation systems had asked him to include landscaping services as well, he changed the company name to Rainhunters. A native of the garden city of Cuernavaca, Garcia first encountered vertical garden walls in densely populated Mexico City. Captivated by the living art ecosystems, he recently introduced green walls to the Valley: vertical canvases of succulents that are simultaneously innovative landscapes with benefits.
Beyond the visual appeal of living green walls, Garcia cited studies that show the exterior vertical gardens reduce noise, dust and odors while lowering energy costs of the buildings they attach to by acting as insulation and reducing temperature fluctuations. Stress reduction has also been attributed to greenery as art. (In Mexico City, some walls have brand names and themes in their designs.) An added benefit: green walls get no graffiti.
Rainhunters installs fiberglass panels that have indentations they have filled with multiple plants. The customizable, exterior wall designs include an auto-timed, micro-drip irrigation system that keeps the plants thriving. “We use plant species that use less water and are suited to the region,” Garcia explained. The plants can capture rainwater as well.
Garcia said the panel lifespan is approximately 25 years. Green walls increase the appeal of a property.
Botanist Mike Heep of Heep’s Nursery has seen the interest in native plants grow as droughts and cold spells kill off tropical species. “There are a lot of native plant aficionados down here.” Native plants also attract the region’s abundant bird and butterfly populations. Heep has supplied major commercial landscaping projects that decide to go native. “Natives survive better. You don’t have to battle to keep them going and growing.” He recommended fiddlewood, pigeon berry and potato tree for people who want to attract birds and native Turks’ cap in particular for hummingbirds. Rugged ground covers include frog fruit and snake herb.
The Valley’s nine World Birding Centers have tapped into the green-ecotourism trend. Marissa Oliva, manager of the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, said the site has slowly become a model for native urban habitats. “We show what grows and how to care for it,” she said of the 10-year-old native landscaping. Today rare bird species are coming to the park and bring as many as 1,000 visitors in two months.