Turf Magazine - June, 2009

WEST FEATURES

Automotive Oasis

Headquarters features native grasses, reflection pond
By Patrick White
Photos Courtesy of KIA.
Kia’s U.S. headquarters campus opened in 2007 with a landscape that features extensive use of water-conserving grasses.

Kia is beginning its 15th year of selling cars (and, now, SUVs and minivans) in the U.S., and during each of those years, the Korean automaker has seen its share of the U.S. market grow.

Kia (www.kia.com) has also won accolades for the design of its U.S. headquarters campus, which opened in 2007 in Irvine, Calif. The 21.7-acre facility houses the company’s corporate offices and newly opened design center, where new vehicles for the U.S. marketplace are brought to life. The roughly 300 employees at the Irvine campus have not only a pleasant interior environment in which to work (lots of natural light streaming in through energy-efficient glass walls, a recreation facility and cutting-edge technology), but also can gaze out at a stunning landscape surrounding the buildings (which includes environmental touches such as bioswales near the parking area to collect and filter surface water runoff, water-conserving plants and a giant reflecting pool).

“We were renting a property before and the company has been growing quite quickly, so we needed a larger facility to get us all in one place so we could be more efficient,” explains Alex Fedorak, Kia’s public relations director, of the decision to build the new corporate campus.

The landscaping covers some 3.5 acres, while the two office buildings spread over 238,000 square feet and 110,000 square feet, respectively. “A lot of the landscaping here was dictated by the landscaping themes in the city of Irvine. For example, there are a lot of Jacaranda trees all the way down the street that connects to us, so there are a lot of Jacaranda trees on the property here,” says Laurie Stevens, facilities manager at the Kia headquarters campus.

The newest portion of the Kia campus is the company’s design center, where new vehicles are created for the U.S. market.

Valley Crest (www.valleycrest.com) installed the landscape and continues to maintain the grounds at the Kia headquarters. A four-man crew from Valley Crest is at the Kia headquarters facility one to two days each week. “We get the mowing done using mulching, zero-turn mowers, and then we turn to the general detail-type stuff. There’s a lot of weeding and some spraying,” says Pablo Santoyo, Valley Crest’s representative on the Kia account.

The one part of the outdoor landscape that Valley Crest doesn’t maintain is the massive reflection pond, which covers about 40,000 square feet and holds about 100,000 gallons of water. “It looks very cool, but I’m sure there’s a lot of maintenance involved. I’m happy to just maintain the parts of the landscape that grow,” Santoyo jokes.

While there are a few areas of traditional turfgrass lawns, much of the landscape’s appearance revolves around the extensive use of ornamental and native grasses. Fedorak says that the use of the grasses reflects the Korean heritage behind the Kia company. “It’s not really an Asian-inspired landscape, but it’s nice and simple and clean,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of manicured lawn areas.”

The grasses do more than provide groundcover, they’re an important design element in the Kia campus landscaping. “We sit next to a freeway, and there was a very unique planting done of native and water-conserving grasses. There are different colors and heights, so it sort of looks like a patchwork quilt, almost like a mosaic. It’s very impressive,” says Stevens. “For example, we have Mexican feather grasses. It’s very neat when it’s planted in large groups because it really waves in the wind.”

Santoyo says that the use of some five or six different species of grasses makes the Kia grounds stand out from typical corporate office complexes. “They loved grasses, so they wanted to integrate a lot of grasses into the landscape,” he explains.

Many of the grasses require only an annual renovation, where crews cut them down to the ground, usually in early spring. “Otherwise, they don’t require a lot of maintenance, we just keep the edges trimmed so they don’t overtake other planters,” says Santoyo. There are some high-water-using grasses, such as Caribbean red fescue, in the islands, but most are drought-tolerant or require less water, he says.

That’s important because there’s a big push toward water conservation in the Irvine area, says Santoyo. All water used for the irrigation, as well as for toilets in the office buildings, is reclaimed. A Valley Crest irrigation technician visits the site each week and calls the water district hotline to get the allocation for the coming week. “Then he crunches the numbers and reprograms the controller up or down depending on the need. Sometimes, we have to figure out which plants can live with less water during the coming week, so we turn those species down. Others need more water, so we borrow from others,” he explains. “It’s a lot of work to manage the water, but it’s important and it needs to be done.”

A 40,000-square-foot reflecting pond abuts the employee cafeteria, adding a peaceful touch to the workplace.

Santoyo says that the plants seem to handle the reclaimed water relatively well, but it does take a toll over time on the irrigation system components. “There might be some minor issues with some plants if they’re already struggling, but in most cases, the plants do fine. But the filtration and some of the valves in the irrigation system can clog and break down. But some of the major irrigation system manufacturers are now coming up with reclaimed water-resistant materials, so the valves last longer. In the past, regular freshwater valves were used in these types of systems and the diaphragms would fail prematurely, but now things are getting a lot better.”

He says that it’s still important to check the irrigation filtration every quarter or, at a minimum, every six months. “Sometimes you see a reduction in pressure when you turn the water on, and that’s often an indication that there’s an issue with the filter or that it’s clogged.”

Meanwhile, water management is also important at the headquarters campus in another regard: surface water runoff. Not surprisingly, there are large parking areas at Kia. “Each department has a certain set of cars. There are literally hundreds of cars here that are being researched or used for various purposes,” Fedorak says. Specially designed bioswales were added around the parking areas. The company says it was among the first facilities in Irvine to voluntarily install a bioswale system in its parking lot to remove silt and pollution from runoff.

Santoyo says he and his crews work hard to continually achieve a high standard of maintenance at the Kia grounds, but the attention to detail becomes even more heightened when the company’s chairman visits from Korea. “Everything is magnified for these important visits,” he says.

Members of the public are also frequently welcomed to the facility. “We’ve had carnivals here for employees, and we have a large gathering room with a stage that we make available to the community, including the local police association, fundraising events, chamber of commerce meetings and so on,” says Fedorak.

The high-visibility location beside a highway ensures that the grounds are always on display. “Every week, Valley Crest lets me know if there’s problem areas they’ve found, and I can tell them about any issues I’ve noticed,” Stevens explains. About twice a year, the two parties coordinate installation of annual flowers in select areas. “They love begonias,” says Santoyo of one of the annuals commonly installed. “We put them next to turf areas so they’re on the same hydro zones in order to make it work.”

For employees gazing out the large glass windows of the modern offices, or enjoying the regularly scheduled Friday outdoor barbecues, all of this hard work on the landscape creates what Fedorak describes as a “pretty serene” setting. “It’s very peaceful here, a beautiful place to work.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.