10 Unique Ways to Use Vegetation as a Design Element in Your Site

When you design planting layouts for gardens, campuses, residences, or communities, the approach is often quite the same. The main aim is to create usable spaces and enhance the overall character and feel of the site. 

It’s easy to get away with rows of trees and call it a day. But there are many ways of looking at vegetation as a design element in your site. 

10 ways vegetation can be used as a functional design elements in your site are:

  1. Slope and Watershed Protection
  2. Windscreen
  3. Overhead Space Definition and Canopy
  4. Framing the Space
  5. Backdrop
  6. Shade
  7. Ground Space Definition
  8. Plan Reinforcement
  9. Establish Scale of Space
  10. Ornamentation

1. Slope and Watershed Protection

If your contoured site has existing vegetation, keep them as they are. They are excellent sources for soil strength and slowing down water movement on site. Ground covers can be planted to retain soil and soil moisture. 

The Meericks House, by Atkis Architects, used the existing vegetation on the contoured site to retain soil and give stability for the building
The Meericks House, by Atkis Architects, used the existing vegetation on the contoured site to retain soil and give stability for the building

2. Windscreen

Tall trees next to windows can act as wind buffers and help protect buildings from excessive cooling during winter. If you’re planning game courts or outdoor activity spaces, then line your spaces with trees to act as a natural windscreen. 

The Arena House, designed by Alvarez Arquitectos, uses the existing trees as windbreaks and also for privacy purposes
The Arena House, designed by Alvarez Arquitectos, uses the existing trees as windbreaks and also for privacy purposes

3. Overhead Space Definition and Canopy

Canopy trees can be used to unify the site as they are the most visible. They can also be used to create a dominant neighborhood character. Canopies help filter excessive sunlight and provide a spatial roof or shading. 

Amdavad Ni Gufa by BV Doshi uses a thick line of trees to define the building from its overhead space taking advantage of its dense canopy
Amdavad Ni Gufa by BV Doshi uses a thick line of trees to define the building from its overhead space taking advantage of its dense canopy

4. Framing the Space

If you have great views from the site, establish the view by using trees as a frame. Short shrubs can be used as low level screens using trimmed hedges.  

Basis Architectural Bureau used the existing vegetation to enhance and frame the view of the space in their redesign of Malevich Park
Basis Architectural Bureau used the existing vegetation to enhance and frame the view of the space in their redesign of Malevich Park

5. Backdrop

Large trees can be used as a backdrop for activity spaces or open courtyards. Plant tall trees along the site boundary if there are trafficways to reduce noise and glare. When plants are combined with mounding, they can help hide parking and service areas.

Pinjarra Hills House by Sullivan Skinner Architects use the vegetation in the site as a backdrop for the architecture itself

6. Trees as a shade

One of the most important uses for trees in a site is for shading. Taller trees can be placed next to windows to filter excessive sunlight and temperature variations during day and night.

The Pergola House by Shizuoka Takayuki Kuzushima and Associates is covered by dense vegetation which gives natural shading for the entire complex

7. Ground Space Definition

Open spaces can be defined using vegetation on the edges, they can create outdoor rooms. Plants also help soften the ground plane. 

Villa Sarabhai by Le Corbusier defines and enhances the design of the pool area as well as the entire building complex using vegetation
Villa Sarabhai by Le Corbusier defines and enhances the design of the pool area as well as the entire building complex using vegetation

8. Plan Reinforcement

Vegetation can help reinforce ideas in plan into the three-dimensional plane. For example, a curved approach in a driveway can be reinforced using trees. Trees can be used to articulate paths. Use them to reinforce the lines and forms of plan. 

Safdie Architects used plants and trees to reinforce the pathways in the Jewel Changi airport
Safdie Architects used plants and trees to reinforce the pathways in the Jewel Changi airport

9. Establish Scale of Space

Trees help establish pedestrian scale in walkways and in open spaces. The scale of the trees should be carefully chosen to avoid hiding architectural elements in a frame or side. 

The Big Trees Small Plants House, by Read Studio, has plants much smaller than the building and trees bigger than it to create visual interest using the concept of scale.

The Big Trees Small Plants House, by Read Studio, has plants much smaller than the building and trees bigger than it to create visual interest using the concept of scale.

10. Ornamentation

Planting is an excellent way to create interest in a site. It is important to stress on quality over quantity. One perfectly and intentionally placed tree is better than 100 randomly placed ones. 

Tree House by Studio ACTE uses the century-old tree on-site as a hierarchical element instead of cutting it down
Tree House by Studio ACTE uses the century-old tree on-site as a hierarchical element instead of cutting it down

Before you decide on the kind of landscape planting, remember to consider maintenance. If you’re designing for a family where both work, they’d probably have little time to garden. You can consider container plantings and xeriscaping for low maintenance. 

Remember to intentionally place the vegetation and select each plant to serve its intended function in the site.

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