Meet The Owner

Meet Ben Rush (see photo) who is the property owner and who was instrumental in bringing this pilot project to life. Like many other property owners, Ben was initially unaware of sustainable landscape treatment options.

He is, however, a very inquisitive character and continued to probe me (Marcus de la fleur) on my professional work in the landscape architecture field. We talked in detail about the natural processes and principles that guide my work in sustainable site design and engineering. Ben was very quick to connect the dots and understand the impact of our contemporary default landscape treatment and the detriment of our attitude toward stormwater and runoff. This led him to look differently at the property he owned. Ben has come to understand and appreciate sustainable options and has become a vocal proponent for sustainable handling of one of our most precious resources: rainwater. Here are some of his recent reflections on the pilot project and the subject of sustainability:

Ben's Perspective on the 168 Elm Pilot project

Did I (Ben Rush) intend to landscape around my 168 Elm Ave. property? Absolutely not. I considered "landscaping" to be either an aesthetically-pleasing and expensive luxury, or typical boring suburban flowerbeds. Either way, I had no idea that it could be appropriate – let alone necessary – for my properties. And I had no idea what options were available or even that options were available. To me, this yard was merely a year-long series of chores, with no benefit.

I've been a fan of architecture since childhood. (My mother says she was called in for a special conference with my kindergarten teacher, who was concerned about my "fixation" with houses. Apparently, I absolutely refused to draw anything else.) I appreciated the importance of designing buildings for how they will be used, but had never given that same thought to the landscape. I was stuck with the same boring, useless back-yard as everyone else and didn't realize what else I could have instead. Talking and working with Marcus helped me realize that the concept of choosing materials that are appropriate for the desired use applies to outdoor design as well as indoor.

Why the sustainable approach?

You may wonder what led me to take a sustainable approach for the yard landscape and the treatment of rain water. I was aware that our culture had brought a lot of impermeable surfaces to the area such as roofs, streets, parking lots and sidewalks. I realized that these lead to flooding when high rainfall has decreased surface area in which to infiltrate. But I had no idea there was so much water run-off from lawns. It had never occurred to me that the native prairie vegetation had done a better job of infiltrating water than our lawn grasses do. This was one of the first real surprises for me. It started me questioning a lot of what we take for granted.

Marcus and I started several projects around the property which didn't really have a "unifying theme". (Actually, they probably did, but I didn't realize it at the time.) After learning that some municipalities were discussing a fee per property for the amount of rainwater runoff they produce, I finally realized the absurdity of our current system. We landscape our properties, and we design our infrastructure (storm sewers) to get rid of rainwater as if it's hazardous waste, instead of a precious resource. And then have to BUY water for the lawn. It's completely inside out, upside down, and backwards, and yet, it's what we're used to.

At that point, reduction of rainwater run-off became the primary unifying theme. An additional goal was reduction of (municipal) water usage. With a grant by the DuPage Community Foundation that financed the green roof, outreach and education became a goal as well. It was especially important to Marcus that we not only practiced sustainable landscaping, but also that this project serves as an example to others.

The owner-tenant team...

We make an especially complementary team because of our different perspectives. It's important to Marcus to help people to change, and he often knows the right thing to do, but hasn't considered how to convince a skeptical but well-intentioned lay-person of the correctness of his approach. My constant questions helped him to think in terms that are understandable and convincing to non-experts.

Also, his motives are more purely altruistic than mine. I'm a "capitalist tree-hugger," and while I'm willing to do the right thing (the sustainable thing) even if it costs more, I prefer it when "the right thing" costs LESS. And usually, it DOES cost less. By re-using many materials, we not only keep them out of the landfill, but we also saved money. By planting native vegetation, we're not only doing something better for the environment (in numerous ways), but we're also saving money by needing less water, herbicides, pesticides, etc.

The economics of sustainability

There are numerous examples like this, where the sustainable choice actually is the economical choice. Too often, people mistakenly associate sustainability with increased costs. I, as an entrepreneur, force Marcus to consider these additional advantages more than he might otherwise, and I think this is important because some people will ONLY make sustainable choices if they also cost less, so I want those people to have this knowledge.

I have to say that I'm very pleased to have gone down this road. In addition to being more sustainable, we addressed several concerns. The changes we made at the back have completely ended the muddy flow down the basement steps that used to happen after a heavy rain. Also, the enclosed front porch with the green roof is far more livable year-round. The patio provides an outdoor living space that never existed before; the yard requires much less maintenance, is far more attractive... and is a source of conversation with the neighbors.

I own two other rental properties, and will definitely be incorporating some of these – and other sustainable techniques – at those locations too.

You can contact Ben Rush at: [email protected]


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