Interview with Green Chamber Member: Arterra Landscape Architects

I got the skinny from Katherine B. Stickley, Principal/Landscape Architect of Arterra Landscape Architects on how her company utilizes sustainability as a design principal and not just a buzzword…

LL: How did Arterra first begin?

KS: My business partner Vera Gates and I had both come from large landscape architecture firms right out of school. We were practitioners working on large scale planning projects which often we never saw built because big projects can take years to permit. We met about 16 years ago when we both left firms to work independently on residential projects. We started working on each others’ projects and bartering time. Ten years later we realized we were great business partners and that it would be less confusing if we just formed one entity. Arterra has officially been around for six years, even though our body of work is 16 years in the making.

LL: What prompted your decision to be a sustainable business?

KS: Having the background we did in large scale land use and site planning, we already approached residential work with a lot of knowledge about grading, natural systems and honoring the land. It’s interesting because we have been doing sustainable work for a long time, but it was never called that. We look at design in a holistic way. What is the ecosystem we are working with on a site? What unique systems are already in place? Then we figure out how to translate that into a design for our clients that tries to maintain the natural landscape and integrity of a site. This is the hallmark of our work. We choose planting that is ornamental and also supports the site’s habitat and living creatures. Thus, we try to use low water, drought tolerant planting. 

Ten years ago we didn’t have many resources. We had native plant nurseries that provided a range of materials you could find in small quantities. But when you are talking about high end residential sites, the materials just didn’t exist — especially native trees. It used to be that a client would specify a stone. You would know that it was coming from the East Coast, but that was your only option if that was the stone they wanted. Now people are much more interested in how far materials have to come, a phenomenon that didn’t exist before. As designers now we have many more resources — landscape, hardscape materials, low voltage lighting, native plants, etc. in larger quantities.

We work hand in hand with collaborative teams on larger projects with structural engineers, civil engineers to plan a site with passive solar and grading to capture rainwater and use it for irrigation. This work has also changed in the last couple of years because now there are municipalities that will let us use the grey water, whereas before they said grey water was not up to code. There has been a real revolution in how we approach things as an industry, and we are excited to see areas like this where we are able to push the envelope even more.

LL: So not only have more local, sustainable landscaping resources become available to you, but municipal policies are changing?

KS: Exactly. What happens often is that state law says you can reuse grey water but then a local municipality says no. So there is this dance you have to do that emphasizes to the municipality that it’s legal according to state law. It is not the fault of those issuing the permits, but there is an educational process that has to occur on the policy side to teach them that it’s the right thing to do and their citizens are requesting it.

LL: Your bio on Arterra’s site describes how you believe sustainability is a design principle, not a buzzword. What design elements would a potential customer look for to know that a project will be designed in a way that is authentically sustainable?

KS: At Arterra, we are not just looking at a portion of design with sustainability in mind, but as I mentioned, taking a holistic approach to each site. We are really examining what systems are already in place. What can we use so we don’t have to offhaul unnecessary material that will go to the landfill? What low maintenance, waterwise plants can we use that don’t have to be trimmed, thus cutting down on waste and maintenance time? How do we utilize existing features of the landscape? These are the questions designers are asking if they are really serious about sustainability.

Where you get LEED points from on a project is a good standard for customers to look at. For example, you get points from categories such as plant selection, innovative design, impact on site, grading system, etc. There are a number of clients who come to us and ask what is the difference between having the project LEED certified or not? The complete LEED process can add as much as $10,000 to a project. Some people simply want to have that LEED documentation no matter what. But most clients are mainly interested in making sure sustainability standards are met and that our design matches up with their ideals.

LL: Speaking of using existing features of a landscape, can you talk more about your designs in the Sunset Idea House that was featured on the cover of Landscape Architecture in 2009?

KS: Sunset does these pilot projects, where they have builders create a spec home to showcase new design ideas using mostly donated materials. This house in San Francisco was the first city idea design house. They wanted to do the most sustainable design project possible, which is where we came in. Rainwater, catchwater and grey water systems were designed where water could be stored in cistern tanks and brought back into house to use for toilets as well as onsite for an irrigation system. The house also included a wind turbine, solar panels, vertical garden elements and green roofs.

One element of this project was our use of an old fence that was originally going to be replaced. It contained vertical fence boards that spoke to the originality of the site, and more importantly it was an existing resource. We decided to retain and use the existing fence boards in a way that was in keeping with the contemporary design proposal by using them in a horizontal fashion interspersed with a few newer fence boards. This meant we didn’t have the cost of offhauling the old fence and reused an existing feature of the site.

LL: Your company tag line is leaving a “sustainable landscape legacy.” For businesses who are working toward more sustainable practices, what advice do you have for them?

KS: We come from the point of view that it is not just about being “green,” but in practicing what you preach and finding the right way to do it in your own industry. My experience has been that if a business takes the time to research the healthiest, most sustainable way to offer their services and they truly believe in it, then people can see that. It’s the walk and not the talk. We spend a lot of time researching and talking to people in order to be on the cutting edge of our industry. My advice is that businesses should research their industry. It is very exciting right now because there is a lot that’s happening on sustainability. If they are up to speed on current innovations in their field, they can start to see what limits are being pushed and how they can start pushing those limits themselves.

Finding out the services that support your product so it can be successful is also very important. For our industry, the Bay Friendly Landscaping & Gardening Coalition puts out a guideline similar to Build It Green for best practices.

LL: Did you face any obstacles in the process of becoming a sustainable business and what challenges do you still face?

KS: It used to be that you had an idea but no support services or materials. One good example is what we’ve done on lighting. We recently went to a lighting manufacturer and said, “We love this light, but can you do this light in LED?” And they said yes. We have to work with suppliers and dealers and explain that this is an interest of our customers and if they have this product it will do really well. Everybody gets it now, but five years ago they were more likely to say no. Having resources be specified to support our clients request for sustainable materials has been a big change.

An issue we are also finding is that so much water is wasted on poorly managed irrigation controllers. There now exists new technology to address this issue. evapo-transpiration (ET) controllers or “smart” sprinkler controllers measure how much water a plant needs. The watering time is based on soil and local climatic conditions. We have gone back to older clients and done energy audits and made suggestions so that they can take advantage of current technology that didn’t exist when we installed a system. So going back to advice for other businesses — if you are looking to start a green business, there is a great market in trying to offer expertise to clients who have already received certain services that need revamping to meet current sustainability standards.

Another challenge we have faced is that often on larger projects, contractors are used to having the full site to use. When the only area that they don’t use has been fenced off for tree protection, the soil and native habitat is often destroyed. This causes it to lose its original soil structure, which requires us to have to bring in a lot of soil amendments. We are trying to change this so that the amount of disruption to the soil is as limited as possible. The goal is to leave the soil as an intact resource so that it does not have to be regraded, reseeded, etc. A number of cities are requiring residential projects prove they have met a minimum number of points based on Build It Green’s Green Point Rater system to obtain a building permit. They are trying to do it in a way that doesn’t shy people away from getting a permit, but which provides incentive and helps them to build their project in the best way possible.

LL: Are there any current trends in sustainable landscape architecture that you see coming around the corner?

KS: I just took a seminar on natural pools. It’s a great example of how things are evolving over in Europe. We work with amazing clients who buy all organic food, use solar/geothermal energy, install ventilation systems to prevent noxious air from being in their homes, and at the same time some want a pool filled with chlorine. It’s going to take municipalities time to come around to natural pools. The issue is not that they wouldn’t approve them, but that they are not being asked. How a natural pool works is that the water is filtered through natural wetland ponds and the plant material cleans the water so there are no chemicals used at all. The water clarity is surprisingly really good and doesn’t look like pond water.

They have been doing natural pools in Europe since 1990, the first being in Germany. There is all this data from the health and safety standpoint that finds natural pools are perfectly safe. In fact, in Europe they have even made some public pools natural. No natural pool has ever been shut down due to health issues. It just seems like a natural segway that if you are buying organic cotton for clothes to keep chemicals off your body that you would want a pool free of chemicals as well. Those really interested in green and sustainable living in the healthiest environment possible will be interested in this.

There is also a new trend we see where people are starting to have their plumbing designed to use grey water. This will become more widely available, but right now it is still a fairly new concept.  Green roofs and vertical walls have been built in Europe for years. Now green roofs are much more understood in terms of waterproofing. It’s just a matter of them becoming more commonplace, of people being more educated and less fearful.

To me, the green movement is really about education — not necessarily in the classroom, but people talking to other people until it becomes a part of society’s vocabulary. Each individual type of business who has experience in their field has the ability to identify how the green movement can expand for them. If they follow through, they can help advance it step by step by talking to each other.

At these seminars I attend, there is always a contractor who is looking for the next big thing to make a buck on. At the pool seminar one skeptical contractor was trying to understand what kind of market there was for this product. I think that if you believe truly in what you are promoting and are doing your work sustainably, you will sell it. This man was coming to natural pools from a business opportunity standpoint and didn’t understand the importance behind the concept. Being compassionate and finding the best way to structure it, makes it easy to have a successful business. You cannot come at sustainable business concepts from a skeptical standpoint because your clients will figure it out pretty quickly that you are not being genuine.

LL: Is there anything else about Arterra Landscape Architects that you want Green Chamber members to know?

KS: I want to mention our philosophy with clients.  All our work comes through referrals — a friend who has seen their friend’s garden that we designed as well as architect and contractor relationships over the years. We pride ourselves in being really good listeners and translating our clients goals and wish lists. We design using what we call the “spirit of place.” Whether it’s a city garden or large estate, each place is completely unique. We’ve worked on many special places where we feel a real connection to the land. We value spending the time trying to figure out what that connection is so we can bring out the best in that particular place for our clients.

LL: Why did you join the Green Chamber?

KS: Every time we do a program, attend a seminar or lecture, the Green Chamber has been a great resource of information and support. It has also been helpful trading stories with other members about how they got started and what other support systems are out there. We found out about GCC from an architect we work with who told us it’s a great group we needed to get involved with. This is especially true in this current time when there is so much new information being generated. You gain contacts within and outside your industry. There is always something to learn form other businesses’ green practices.

Lesley Lammers is a freelance writer and green living enthusiast based in San Francisco. Prior to committing herself fulltime to journalism, she advocated sustainable agriculture, clean water and healthy fisheries at Environmental Defense Fund. Her writing focuses on finding the connections between the environment, food and social justice. Lesley has written for The New York Times as well as Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program blog, EDFish.


  1. Richard Stafursky April 27th, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    “To maintain the natural landscape and integrity of a site” you say? Well, natural landscape don’t have any human controls. That would have to exclude ornamental plants and invasives.
    Check out

  2. Frances Buttenheim April 28th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    This is an excellent article. Ms Stickley’s passion for sustainable gardens and architecture, as well as the new technologies that make them possible, comes through in a clear, articulate and client-friendly voice. It was a real pleasure to have so information conveyed in such a readable and accessible form—increasingly rare thesedays. I am an elderly, small-time, part-time, East Coast gardener, but thanks to Ms. Stickley, I will consider the issue of sustainability when I chose new plant material for my garden and will renew my efforts to reduce the amount of lawn I have. I envy her clients and wish that she had an East Coast office. Frances Buttenheim

  3. Green Chamber of Commerce April 2010 | Arterra Landscape Architects August 31st, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    [...] (link) [...]

  4. Green Chamber of Commerce January 17th, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Nice! Thank you, Frances.

Add your comments