E-Landscape Specialty Solutions takes on sustainability

At Pender Village Shopping center in Manassas, Va., E-Landscape Specialty Solutions constructed the landscape that included 10,000 square feet of pavers, plantings, irrigation and lawns.

When Eric Drenner began his company a few years ago, he decided to call it E-Landscape Specialty Solutions, because he sees his Davidsonville, Md., operation as playing a pivotal role in marrying modern technology with nature. “I am very technology-based,” Drenner says. He likes to leverage technology as a way to add value for clients’ properties, whether it’s through a piece of field equipment; a construction management system for estimating, design, project management or purchasing; or through the use of the Internet.

The name also symbolizes the environment. “In this region of the Chesapeake Bay between Washington, D.C., and the Baltimore region, green is important, whether it be environmental runoff, restoration, reforestation, LEED or pervious pavement,” he says. “We recognize that some of our clients really want to embrace the green movement, and there are other clients who are mandated to, whether it be through EPA or government ordinances that require them to do reforestation or pervious pavement.”

Drenner earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Maryland, and then went to work for a landscape company. He moved up the ladder until March 2007, and it became apparent that his opportunities were limited, so he started his own company.

Eric Drenner’s company, E-Landscape Specialty Solutions, created the landscape at this new affordable apartment building in Washington, D.C.

E-Landscape Specialty Solutions serves an area that encompasses northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the majority of Maryland and Delaware. The company has a sustainability policy with stated practices that apply to both clients and its own workplace. Here are a few of the elements that it includes:

<0x2022> Encourage clients to incorporate sustainability in their landscape.

<0x2022> Promote and encourage natural processes and systems in landscape designs.

<0x2022> Specialize in green technology, such as green roofs and rain gardens.

<0x2022> Offer Chesapeake Bay-friendly land care services.

<0x2022> Take practical steps to minimize and mitigate any adverse effects of site operation activities that may cause environmental damage.

<0x2022> Encourage the use of sustainable construction materials, including plantation timbers, eco-timbers and recycled timber.

<0x2022> Reduce carbon footprint through purchasing high-efficiency vehicles and equipment.

<0x2022> Limit pesticide use and consider natural alternatives.

<0x2022> Address an increase in impervious areas by using green technology to reduce stormwater runoff, remove toxins from stormwater, lower the heating island effect of urban areas, provide insulation and lower energy costs of buildings, reduce noise and airborne pollutants, and encourage wildlife and biodiversity by reintroducing habitats.

Getting his clients onboard with environmental concerns means that he must show them that doing so is not only environmentally friendly, but will translate into long-term cost savings. “We’re trying to find ways to marry the two to promote that message,” Drenner says. For example, innovative products that are Chesapeake Bay-friendly can also be cost-effective because they may require fewer application rates. “Everyone wants to be environmentally sensitive,” Drenner says. “You have to find a way to translate that to the bottom line, whether it be for the CEOs or the stockholders.”

A finished project at Quake Hill Towns Homes.

Clients come from the commercial sector and range from small homebuilders that do semi-custom work to Fortune 500 general contractors and developers doing mixed-use projects. There also are clients doing affordable housing renovations in southeast Washington D.C. “The broad stroke of a client base we have – especially in this economy – is why we’re able to see what we believe is consistent growth in a time when many people are retracting,” Drenner says.

Some 85 percent of the land care work is derived from projects that Drenner’s company has either constructed and/or designed, with the land care solicited afterwards. The remaining is through word-of-mouth recommendations. “We tend not to go out and do cold-calling where we’re trying to competitively bid on projects,” Drenner says. “We found in this market that if we make price a leading factor, it’s very difficult to provide high-quality service and professionalism and still be able to have a small profit at the end.”

New construction at an affordable housing facility called Cambridge Commons in Cambridge, Md., with landscaping courtesy of E-Landscape Specialty Solutions.

When starting work for a client with an eye toward creating a sustainable landscape, E-Landscape Specialty Solutions employees first do a site analysis. “Sustainability means so many things to different people,” Drenner says. “Sustainability to environmentalists and people who really have a careful understanding of the environment means plant material can thrive in the conditions they’re being put in without the additional aid of fertilizer or irrigation. For others, sustainability is from an aesthetics standpoint, certainly for high-impact areas like the front of a hotel or office building. When we do an analysis for sustainability, we’re taking in both form and function. We take into consideration environmental factors such as full sun, moisture, shade or arid-like conditions with limited water and high heat.”

What most companies called landscape maintenance, Drenner calls “land care.” “Landscape maintenance, although an important element, is just one element of care on somebody’s property, be it stormwater management, drainage issues or parking lot issues,” he says. “We didn’t want to create an image that we just cut grass in that division.”

Drenner says that what differentiates his company from others is rooted in “showing up and doing what you said you would do, making commitments to the clients and executing them. It’s still that simple philosophy of good quality service and addressing the clients’ needs. It’s amazing how that simple philosophy really trumpets everything else,” he adds.

Drenner doesn’t want his company to be in a situation where price is the only differentiating factor. “It certainly will always be part of the decision-making process, but we want our credibility, our appearance and execution of service to be a larger part, and price may be one or two notches below that,” he says. “The only way you can do that is to bring tangible differences to the table.” Customers “know we’re coming, and we’ve got a plan of action,” Drenner adds. “We’re there when we say we’re going to be there, and we’re going to execute as expected.”

Drenner’s biggest challenge is finding skilled workers. His aim is to develop employees who can provide a level of service to which the customers have become accustomed. When he hires, especially for management positions, he makes it clear to the potential employee that he’s trying to build and grow a business. “E-Landscape Specialty Solutions started at the bottom. I’ve been associated with what it takes to get to a higher level, and we want to make sure any prospective employee understands that what that person is being hired for today is not the place where we expect them to be tomorrow. We want to bring in a person with the mindset that they’re not just being hired for this position, they’re being hired because they have a personality and a quality within them that we believe will allow us to use them in many facets along the way as we take our journey.”

Drenner’s favorite tools in the field are digital cameras and Droid tablets, which assist field workers in documentation and architectural changes. “As everybody knows, no project is always installed the way it is designed due to field issues,” he says. “We’re able to provide some feedback and some analysis in the field for the architects and landscape architects to utilize to help come up with solutions.”

Drenner uses social media to promote general awareness about his company, cognizant that not striking a balance in its use can be an annoyance to clients and a waste of his own time. “We don’t want to overwhelm our clients and potential clients, but are gently keeping ourselves in front of them,” Drenner says. He has integrated Twitter and LinkedIn and has intertwined Facebook and Twitter within the company’s website. “We’re finding if we utilize all of the different social media, one of our clients may like Facebook, another may like Twitter, and another may just want to look at the website,” he adds.

Drenner notes that rising fuel costs present concerns for his company. “Rising fuel costs translates into every part of landscape construction, whether it be transportation of our men, transportation of our materials, the petroleum that’s within the plastics of whatever products we’re providing, or the fertilizers,” he says. “Educating our clients on those things and limiting mobilizations for our men translates into fuel cost savings for the client.”

E-Landscape employees worked hand-in-hand with community volunteers during the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” Boys Hope, Girls Hope project in Baltimore. The company contributed the materials, design and labor for the project.

Drenner believes in giving back to the community, and his company was involved in the largest project to date for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” when it provided a landscape design and installation for the Baltimore-based Boys Hope, Girls Hope, a group home for at-risk youth.

Looking forward, Drenner sees opportunities to grow the company’s maintenance division and to continue to pursue new technologies such as pervious concrete, which has much potential in his region. “We certainly enjoy working in the affordable housing redevelopment market, not only from the revenue standpoint, but for what it does for the community and people who really are just trying to break out of a cycle and be a part of a successful situation,” he says. Drenner also sees opportunities to reduce chemical pesticide dependency in a way that will cut costs for the client and benefit the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He also wants to tap into other aspects of the urban environment landscape as they evolve, such as green roofs, specialty soil mixes and other technologies that were not available a decade ago. “Our challenge is to continue to embrace changes in the industry,” he says. “I think the minute you can’t change or learn, it’s time to find something else to do.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.