Promised Land

Whole Systems Design transforms landscapes into low-cost, productive spaces. Will your corporate campus be next?

As the sky purples over a terraced northern Vermont hillside, a caretaker paints young plum trees at Teal Farm with slaughterhouse blood. This ritual is not cause for alarm, just nontoxic deer control. It’s a sign of how Teal Farm, 1,300 acres of nut pines, sugar maples, berry patches, and plum trees, represents the forefront of landscape design. Its creator, Ben Falk, develops properties that integrate buildings, are aeshetically attractive, grow food, respond to the local climate, and save money by being low maintenance, making them the epitome of putting land to productive use and a leap beyond merely preserving trees, the current vogue in sustainable landcaping. If Falk and his firm, Whole Systems Design (WSD), have their way, you’ll soon be seeing a fruitful scene like this one out the windows of your corporate headquarters.


Falk, 30, is realizing his vision on educational campuses and nonprofit-owned land such as Teal Farm (run by the LivingFuture foundation) with the goal of one day seeing a majority of state and privately owned land converted to productive use. (The corporate-campus trend evolved from copying universities.)
Falk has landed commissions at Middlebury College and the University of Vermont and has taught his approach at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum and the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Vermont. At Lawrenceville School, a private prep school near Princeton, New Jersey, WSD created a design for a sloping lawn to be transformed into a garden that contributes fruits and vegetables to the dining hall. Its outdoor classroom and study space will provide shelter in three seasons for literature seminars. “Ben is elegant in the way that he’s able to push the envelope beyond sustainability to regenerative design and resilience,” says Josh Hahn, a sustainability consultant for private schools, who brought in WSD to do the work at Lawrenceville.

Falk’s process begins with a collaboration with clients on a detailed, long-range master plan, which combines mission statements, photos, drawings, and graphs — even menus. “The master plan helped us articulate key elements of our institutional memory,” says client Jack Kenworthy, who engaged WSD to help develop the design for an 18-acre property in the Bahamas that comprises a hands-on marine-ecology high-school semester program, a research center for marine science and sustainable development, and a for-profit renewable energy company. “The plan also helps us communicate to the larger world. It shows, graphically and with text, the deep linkages between our activities, people, educational curriculum, buildings, and spaces.”
Education is a driving goal of everything WSD does, including Teal Farm, its largest client project to date. Designed and built for a total cost of $6 million, Teal Farm is a prototype for sustainable, fossil-fuel-free energy consumption and food production. Falk gave Fast Company a tour, showing off such features as a constructed waterfall and nitrogen-fixing “green manure” plants, such as vetch, set at the base of nut pines.

Despite the mud boots and work gloves, Falk and his network of young University of Vermont graduates are not traditional environmentalists. In fact, he calls mainstream environmentalism, with its “nihilistic,” minimize-human-impact approach, one of the “largest hurdles we face toward being a good community member of the earth again.” He cites one of his influences, Berkeley architect Christopher Alexander, who asked, “Can a building be just as natural as a tree?” Adds Falk: “Or a beaver dam? … It goes beyond ‘Let’s pretend we’re not there.’ We’re here. Let’s make a good impact.”

To that end, Whole Systems Design aims for “whole human habitats” that provide beauty, refuge, and utility. One of the company’s guiding design principles is stacking functions. At Teal Farm, for example, a ponds-and-wetlands system will filter gray water from the house while nurturing wild rice, cranberries, and trout.

Cost can also be a big motivation for integrated landscape design. Falk’s firm has exploded from $10,000 worth of billable hours in 2002 to half a million this year, yet they still charge slightly less than a conventional landscape firm, about $50 to $150 an hour for design and site analysis. One of the prime cost savings in his plans comes from a climate-appropriate tree landscape, which cuts maintenance budgets. “After up-front costs, trees take, say, one-fourth to one-sixth of the maintenance time and cost that grass would,” Falk says. WSD also seeks multiple benefits from single expenditures: A stand of seaberry bushes provides food, a windbreak, and bird habitat.

In addition, a building that’s sited correctly with respect to sunlight and windbreaks can save significantly on heating and cooling. On Falk’s own 10-acre property in Moretown, Vermont, he’s constructing a two-story timber-frame design-build workshop. The biggest windows face south on a pond dug into the hillside, so the flat surface and water reflect maximum light and heat inside. By trapping sun and blocking wind, Falk says, “You can create a 60-degree outdoor space on a 20-degree day.”


Using natural know-how to create that kind of dramatic effect is Whole Systems Design’s competitive edge — and its ideas are spreading. The company was recently commissioned to create a new 70-acre demonstration farm and an associated nonprofit organization in Warren, Vermont, to teach best practices to aspiring farmers and landscapers from all over the country. “The biggest challenge is helping people imagine what’s possible,” Falk says. “Information is the limiting factor.”

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.