Interpreting Your Green Building and Infrastructure Projects

Written by Watershed Staff

Completing a green building project, regardless of whether or not you're seeking certification, is an enormous undertaking. Often, grant funding for stormwater projects includes a public outreach component, often fulfilled with interpretive signs. But even if you don't have grant requirements to satisfy, interpretive signs can benefit your green building project by promoting sustainability, gaining public buy-in to green methodologies, and earning credits for certification.

Below, we explain why you may want to include interpretation in your green building project and many methods you can use in your interpretive signs to highlight important components of your project design.

Interpretive sign explaining the function of a stormwater pond at a  green campus remodel  in Mountlake Terrace, WA.

Interpretive sign explaining the function of a stormwater pond at a green campus remodel in Mountlake Terrace, WA.

Why bother interpreting your green building project?

Walkers on this public trail in Redmond, WA, can learn about the stormwater wetland that cleans runoff from the parking lot of the large shopping center adjacent.

Walkers on this public trail in Redmond, WA, can learn about the stormwater wetland that cleans runoff from the parking lot of the large shopping center adjacent.

1. Draw Attention to Sustainable Design – and Why It Matters

People have noticed your green project as it’s been constructed – and, once it’s built, passers-by will notice any unusual features, like trees on the roof. Capture their curiosity to promote sustainable design. Using green techniques in your project benefits the environment – educating users about those green techniques can help them spread. Your project’s reach can extend beyond your siteif you can convince other people to use green methods in their future projects.

Sometimes green infrastructure projects get ‘lost’ once they’re built – people don’t realize that the pond next to the parking lot manages stormwater, or that this sidewalk is paved with a different material than usual. Interpretation can promote continued interest in the project and focus user’s attention on low-profile sustainable options.

You have lots of reasons you chose to build green. Interpretation is your chance to share your reasoning with the public and to teach them about the environmental benefits from your project.


2. Get Public Buy-In for Green Development

Building green is more challenging than using traditional building techniques – get credit for your hard work by drawing public attention to what’s different about your project.

Infrastructure projects are inherently technical and can be confusing to the public. You can use signs to educate your community about how these projects are enhancing both infrastructure and the environment. By incorporating interpretation and outreach into your projects, you can teach citizens while building support for future public works programs.


3. Get LEED and SITES Credits for Interpretation

Incorporating an interpretive program into your green building site can help earn a LEED Innovation in Design point for school projects (Credit ID4—The School as a Teaching Tool) or  2-4 points in SITES (Credit 9.1 – Promote sustainability awareness and education). The goal is to share the site’s sustainable features and encourage users to adjust their own behavior to be more sustainable.


Eleven Techniques for Interpreting Green Building Projects

95% draft interpretive sign for Odle Middle School in Bellevue, WA

95% draft interpretive sign for Odle Middle School in Bellevue, WA

1. Emphasize the Project's Context

Maps help users visualize the project's place in a broader context, making it easier for them to understand why a green infrastructure project here will affect the environment over there where they live.

Undergoing a complete redesign, Odle Middle School will be a green campus, using pervious paving, raingardens, and green building materials and energy sources. Students can see exactly where their school fits into their watershed on this broad scale interpretive sign, and why it’s important for their school to practice sustainability.

Interpretive Sign about Stormwater Runoff and Retrofitting, Kelsey Creek, The Watershed Company

2. Get Project-Specific to Explain Universal Concepts

Every project is a little bit different, but they share the same general characteristics. Use the specifics of your project, keyed with illustrations, to teach users about green features. When the sign is placed where users can see the feature at the same time, they can easily connect the explanation with the real world function.

A retrofit in Redmond, WA, routed stormwater from a shopping center parking lot through a new series of constructed wetlands designed to filter pollutants. A diagram details the water’s new path from the parking lot through the three ponds before entering the creek, while text defines stormwater runoff and explains why it matters for stream health.

Interpretive Sign of Raingardens and Bioretention Cells at Kitsap County by The Watershed Company

3. Focus on Concepts, Not Project Details

A different approach is to generalize the project’s elements, which can allow signs to be used at multiple locations with the same sustainable features.

Kitsap County’s Public Works Department staged a County-wide initiative to incorporate green features into streets, using interpretive signs to draw public attention. This rain garden interpretive sign illustrates a stylized rain garden, breaking down its function into steps, and calls out their benefits, uses, and restrictions.


4. Dedicate One Sign to Each Green Feature

Creating slightly smaller signs, focused on a single green feature, communicate that technique effectively.

Bioswales line the parking lot at Premera Blue Cross’ Mountlake Terrace campus and the landscape includes grassy swales, rain gardens, and wet ponds. Interpretive signs explain the many green elements of the landscape, educating employees and campus visitors about the company’s dedication to sustainability – one sign per sustainable feature.

Green Landscape Interpretive Signs by The Watershed Company, Premera Blue Cross

5. Highlight All Features with a Site Overview

When you have a large site with many green elements, or repeated elements, a site overview map keyed with those improvements can provide users with perspective on the project's scale.

Stormwater features at the Santa Barbara Golf Club in Southern California treat runoff from the golf course, improving downstream water quality and flooding issues. Golfers can follow the flow of water through the features along the course. 

75% draft interpretive sign for Santa Barbara Golf Club in Santa Barbara, CA

75% draft interpretive sign for Santa Barbara Golf Club in Santa Barbara, CA

Interpretive SIgn with Illustration of Stormwater Pollutants by The Watershed Company

6. Highlight the Alternative to Emphasize Project Benefits

Each of the signs we created for Kitsap County included a callout, explaining the “status quo” that would have happened to stormwater runoff, if not for the green street improvements. This technique forces readers to consider how things usually work, and helps them learn why green infrastructure is an improvement worth making.


7. Connect the Dots, Graphically

Playing with scale can allow you to make connections clear that otherwise might seem disconnected.

95% draft illustration for King County Department of Transportation in Redmond, WA

95% draft illustration for King County Department of Transportation in Redmond, WA

King County Department of Transportation constructed a new connector road in Redmond, WA, which incorporated low-impact development techniques to reduce stormwater impacts. Grant requirements included interpretive signage to explain the use of stormwater ponds, bioswales, and pervious paving. A stylized diagram draws an explicit connection between the street, stormwater runoff, and the stream nearby.


8. Use Different Angles to Explain Function

Fully explain function by taking advantage of different perspectives to highlight aspects of a site element.

Interpretive Sign Showing Stormwater Bioswale Steps by The Watershed Company

Both plan view and a cross section allow users to envision the function of a bioretention swale outside of Kitsap County’s Public Works Annex building. The cross section emphasizes the downhill flow, while the plan view provides a better indication of scale.

Interpretive Sign about Permeability and Stormwater Runoff by The Watershed Company

9. Compare Green Methods with Traditional Methods Visually

Comparisons, like metaphors, help people remember new information. King County Department of Transportation installed porous concrete and a rain garden at an intersection in South King County, WA. We used a graphic comparing water flow for four different surfaces to explain permeability.




10. Use Photos to Give Users a Mental Image

While illustrations are useful for simplifying features to explain how they work, there’s nothing like a photograph to show people exactly what green infrastructure looks like.

Photographs of green street features show viewers what to look for around the Kitsap County, allowing them to spot other green infrastructure.

Green Street interpretive sign watershed company

11. Encourage Action by Empowering Users

Calls to action aren’t just for the web – you can use them on your interpretive signs to engage users, and offer them ways to stay involved.

Interpretive Sign about Rain Gardens, showing a Call to Action, by The Watershed Company

Signs at the Premera Campus paired messages of WHY and HOW: why green stormwater infrastructure helps the environment, and how viewers can contribute at home.

What techniques do you use to teach others about green infrastructure?

This is part 2 of our "Green Building" series. Check out the other installments below.

Part 1: Choosing the Right Green Certification for your Green Building Project

Part 3: LEED V4 vs. LEED 2009: What it Means for Your Project’s Landscape