Q & A with Denise Sidwell, Landscape Architect

Landscape architecture – far more than just ‘pretty plants’

fsb-2416-0371Beautiful buildings need an equally attractive setting to show them off at their best. Landscape architect Denise Sidwell is FSB’s “go to” professional in this vital area, and over a 30-year career she has created attractive, functional environments and innovative features for everything from corporate offices to military installations, and even the Oklahoma State Capitol building. In this brief article, she shares some thoughts on her specialized field and how it’s evolved over the years.

Q. Many people hear the words “landscape architect” and mistakenly think that professionals in your field do nothing but choose plants. What types of expertise are actually needed?
A. This is a common misconception. As landscape architects our role is very complex. We actually collaborate with virtually all of the architectural and engineering specialists who design a project. We work with other team members to design and determine the placement of buildings, sidewalks, plazas, trails, walls, irrigation systems, lighting, security systems, parking lots, utilities — even where future roads will be located. This requires us to work extensively with a cross spectrum of engineers, including structural, civil, electrical, mechanical, security and fire prevention. Once the site infrastructure and other parameters of the building are established, then landscape architects like myself are also responsible for selecting furniture, plantings and other outdoor accents.

Q. You have been in the field for many years. What are some of the trends you’ve seen develop?
A. Right now lighting is one of the things that’s changed the most, just because of the technology advancing. Lights are much smaller; they’re more efficient; controls can be placed in multiple locations; and timer systems are much more precise. We’re also getting away from high-pressure sodium lights, which produced the “orangey” look of years past, and clients are requesting accent and security lights in a wide variety of colors.

Throughout the entire architectural field there’s a real focus on quality of life now, and on creating environments that foster the well-being of everyone who uses them. This philosophy is one reason why access to the outdoors is being emphasized. In keeping with this trend, rooftop gardens are increasingly popular as a way to help connect people with nature. They serve a more practical purpose as well, since they provide a form of insulation that helps with the heating and cooling of the building itself and prolongs the life of the heating, ventilation and HVAC systems. You get these same benefits from green roofs, which are becoming very popular. The difference between the two lies in that green roofs are partially or completely covered with vegetation, which is planted over a waterproofing membrane and may include drainage and irrigation systems.

The increased focus on well-being carries over into fitness, which also impacts the landscape architect’s role. Bicycle and walking trails are being incorporated into more and more projects, as a way to encourage physical activity.

Q. “Sustainability” is often used as a buzzword, when in fact it’s actually a routine design feature. How does this focus on sustainability factor in to what you do?
A. Sustainability is a huge consideration in landscape architecture and in architecture as a whole. Some of the basics are to use trees, flowers and other plants that are native to a region, or that require less water and overall care. But other trends are emerging, and one of the major changes is in the way people collect water. A lot of commercial and even private buildings are using rooftop cisterns to collect rainwater, which is then filtered and used either to water the landscape or in some cases routed into the building’s heating and cooling systems.


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