In Part 1 of this case history, we described how a small Nebraska landscape architecture firm controls its costs and in Part 2, we looked at how it keeps its staff motivated and productive through sustainable business practices.
Frequently overlooked in sustainability literature, amidst all the noise about renewable energy, energy efficiency, water conservation and other resource productivity improvement measures, is the fact that more and more large corporations have adopted business strategies to bring to market new products and services designed to address the world’s sustainability challenges and create new revenue streams. High visibility examples include GE’s Ecomagination and IBM’s Smarter Planet strategies.
Big Muddy Workshop, Inc. (BMW) is an unusual example of a small company that used changing local climate conditions and concerns about the adverse impact of stormwater runoff to expand its expertise and develop new, green infrastructure (GI) services for its clients.
Over the past 30 years the climate of eastern Nebraska, where the landscape architecture and green infrastructure design services firm does most of its business, has shifted into a warmer zone (as defined by the USDA). During this time, more frequent and severe periods of drought have occurred in the region. In recent years particularly, this shift has been accompanied by increasing constraints on local parks and recreation budgets.
Planning for climate volatility
This combination has opened an opportunity for leading landscape architects to develop designs that include not only plants that can accommodate reduced rainfall but that also reduce maintenance costs for local governments in terms of pruning, watering and spraying to reduce insect infestations. For example, BMW stopped recommending the Eastern White Pine in its designs for parks or other landscapes where large numbers of trees are required for screening or shade purposes. Several years of dry weather, culminating in the driest on record in 2012, have gradually destroyed large numbers of these trees. As an alternative, the firm is now selecting other species that it believes will do better in what it expects to be an ongoing reduced-rainfall environment.
Again, some would argue that this type of adaptation to market needs is simply good business. And it’s certainly true that operators of parks and recreation areas look to the companies that design the plantings for reparations if they die, which can quickly wipe out profits on a project. So there is a significant element of risk mitigation in BMW’s strategy of continuously updating its knowledge of plants and trees that will survive and prosper in changing climatic conditions. Either way, awareness of emerging sustainability challenges is becoming an important source of innovation and competitive advantage for large and small companies alike. Co-owners John Royster and Katie Blesener describe the company’s strategy as designing resilient landscapes that will be successful regardless of inconsistencies in rainfall and outdoor temperature.
Managing storm water runoff
As in many other areas of the country, storm water runoff has become a major concern in eastern Nebraska. In urban areas of Omaha during heavy rainstorms, excess runoff mingles with sewage flows and can overload treatment systems such that large volumes of polluted water flow into local streams and rivers. In the case of Omaha, this is a major issue because polluted water in the Missouri River creates problems for drinking water plants in downstream cities like St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. Moreover, in a climate that is steadily experiencing reduced rainfall, it becomes important to treat heavy rains not as an expensive nuisance but as a money-saving resource.
BMW has increasingly integrated storm water management elements into its green infrastructure designs, in part through soil conditioning technologies. During the construction of a park or recreation area, much of the soil is compacted by heavy equipment — which reduces its ability to absorb even small amounts of rainfall. For a cost to clients of 40 to 50 cents per square foot, compost and other organic materials are plowed into the soil to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. Studies have shown that soil treated in this fashion can absorb up to 4.5 inches of rain before runoff begins to occur, whereas in untreated soils as little as one-thenth of an inch of rainfall can result in runoff — causing an overload of the sewer systems. Of course, the water retained in the soil acts as a reservoir that reduces the amount of irrigation required in subsequent dry periods.
The city of Omaha is spending $1.8 billion on a retrofit that will separate rainwater runoff from sewage flows. To the extent it can expand areas of the city in which landscapes have been designed to reduce stormwater runoff, the diameter of the pipes required to handle it will be reduced, thereby significantly reducing the cost of this retrofit. BMW has actively positioned itself to work with the city on the upstream end of this initiative. The company is currently working on plans for capturing rainwater from Basswood’s roof to provide a practical demonstration of ways in which it can be used to replenish groundwater rather than simply run off into a storm drain.
BMW has been around for 23 years, a small company that has achieved resilience in large part due to its owners’ relentless pursuit of the principles of sustainable business. To read the entire BMW case history please visit: www.sustainability4smes.com.
Stay tuned for Part 4, in which we’ll discuss how BMW has addressed the People and Planet components of sustainability.