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High Desert Community

Landscape Performance Benefits


  • Maintains 50% of the site’s original juniper prairie ecotype by minimizing construction disturbance, cutting roads into the hillside instead of mass grading, and using a native plant palette for all public areas, right-of-ways and private areas outside of building envelopes.
  • Uses only 20% of the city’s annual water allowance in landscape areas, saving as much as 28.7 million gallons or $300,000 each year.
  • Increased critical bird-breeding habitat for two endangered species, the Peregrine Falcon and the Gray Vireo, by 3.7 acres and replaced an additional 3.7 acres of habitat lost in development.
  • Increased carbon sequestration on the site by 170,160 tons by restoring twice the volume of vegetation that was displaced by all areas of disturbance.
  • Preserves the equivalent of 15,230 trees a year, by using decomposed-granite mulch instead of a traditional yearly wood chip mulch application. At a ten-year lifespan, the granite mulch can save 100,000 gallons of fuel, and reduce carbon release by an estimated 617,600 tons.

At a Glance

  • Designer

    Design Workshop

  • Project Type


  • Former Land Use


  • Location

    12312-12390 Academy Road NE, 35.152331, -106.496939
    Albuquerque, New Mexico 87111
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  • Climate Zone

    Cold semi-arid

  • Size

    1,067 acres

  • Budget

    $1,075,460 in design and consultation fees

  • Completion Date


High Desert community in Albuquerque, New Mexico honors low-impact design practices of water conservation, wildlife habitat restoration, material recycling and cultural endowment. This project changed water-conservation and landscape planting ordinances at city and state levels. Through this master plan, Design Workshop pioneered the firm’s philosophy and comprehensive approach, DW Legacy Design®, which strives to balance environmental sensitivity, community connections, artistic beauty and economic viability with metrics that gauge the success of outcomes. High Desert’s demonstrated success is a model for sustainable master planned communities.


The designers were tasked with master planning a residential community in an area of sensitive high desert where concerns about disturbance of views, generation of stormwater runoff, and disruption of habitat connectivity generated significant controversy. The major challenge was planning a low-impact community that would support the area’s dynamic natural systems and services, while cultivating social and cultural well-being for a diverse community of over 2730 residences.


Master planning at High Desert followed the natural landscapes to determine the development’s form, density and materials. This approach conserved natural stormwater arroyos and placed all development out of the pre-existing hydraulic paths. Wildlife habitat was maximized by minimizing land disturbance and enhancing ecosystems through multifunctional open space. Clustering residential properties helped to buffer existing wildlife corridors and created a gradient that maximized connectivity to existing infrastructure and cultural resources and minimized impact closer to wilderness boundaries. The design incorporates locally-sourced materials, permeable hardscapes, native and onsite transplanted vegetation, and natural hydraulic recycling.

  • By using a Floor Area Ratio building envelope method rather than traditional zoning setbacks, the area of disturbance was minimized on each lot.
  • Designing for cross-site drainage between parcels, eliminating curbs and gutters, and pairing natural stormwater arroyos with conservation open space preserved over 62% (665 acres) of pre-development hydrology.
  • Rain gardens are fed and water-wise demonstration gardens are irrigated with stormwater harvested from arroyos.
  • The amount of critical habitat vegetation of the Juniper pinion ecotype was doubled with this project. Pre-construction biomass was assessed, plants in areas of disturbance were stockpiled and replanted, sensitive plant species were transferred from disturbed areas to open space, and additional species from local nurseries were added.
  • All public areas and open space are mulched with decomposed granite harvested onsite or with recycled dam sediments from downstream.
  • Boulders from disturbed areas of the site were incorporated into the open space landscapes as amenities instead of being hauled offsite.
  • Street lights are limited to intersections and cul-de-sacs in order to reduce night-sky glare.
  • A viewable “wildlife drinker” (a potable water-fed trickle pond) and planned corridor to the mountains beyond enhance habitat and human/wildlife connections.
  • Educational signage, local art installations and demonstration gardens throughout the development enhance communal stewardship.
  • High Desert influenced Albuquerque’s Design and Construction Regulations by providing its drought tolerant plant list to the City Planning Department. The project also spurred regional nursery sales of native plants by requiring large orders of native stock for both open spaces and residential landscape construction.
  • Water-efficient native plants and limited areas of irrigated landscape save as much as $300,000 in water costs each year when actual water use at High Desert is compared to the city’s annual water allowance.
  • Using recycled materials as mulch will save up to $2,530,000 over the next 10 years when compared to typical wood chip mulch. The decomposed granite from onsite and dredged dam sediments from downstream need to be reapplied every 10 years, whereas wood mulch must be reapplied each year.
  • Relocating 3,500 trees within areas of disturbance, instead of purchasing new trees, saved an estimated $496,000, a 73% cost reduction per installed tree.
  • Public involvement and transparency are crucial to success. High Desert overcame considerable opposition from adjacent subdivision residents. As public incentive, High Desert used all homes sales profit to support local educational scholarships as a means of demonstrating broad sustainable intentions to the community.
  • Pioneering sustainable features is highly dependent upon relationships with reputable manufacturers and contractors. High Desert originally planned all irrigation zones to run on solar-powered moisture sensors but nearly lost all plants because of defective equipment and subsequent default on product warranty. This feature was ahead of its time and will await time-tested reviews of the technology.
  • Design Workshop Legacy Design® metrics are founded on quantifiable measures of project accountability. Earlier portfolio projects like High Desert demonstrated the need for solid baseline data and pre-construction analysis in order for post-construction evaluation and learning to take place. Although extensive analysis was performed for High Desert, hindsight recommends that all inventories and analysis be documented in a quantifiable manner, in-house. Additionally, strategies and processes for calculating data should be evaluated continuously to check for validity. Design Workshop has since standardized these baseline inquiries to ensure proper evaluation of their work.

Project Team

Client: High Desert Investment Corporation/Albuquerque Academy
Master Planning and Design: Design Workshop, Inc.
Architect: Studio B, Inc.
Civil Engineers: Bohannan-Huston, Inc.
Planting Design: Sites Southwest
Environmental Consultants: SWCA, Inc.
Urban Consultant: Herbert M. Denish & Associates
Community Governance: Hyatt & Stubblefield
Economics/Marketing: Robert Charles Lesser & Co.
Public Relations: Strascina & Partners
Attorney: Hyatt & Rhoads
Attorney/Local Counsel: Sutin, Thayer & Browne

Role of the Landscape Architect

Design Workshop provided leadership for all phases of the project from master planning to design to construction management; led a multidisciplinary team of environmental consultants, civil engineers and architects; and collaborated with officials, students and teachers from Albuquerque Academy, involving them in the planning process and in conducting 3 public open houses and meetings. Principal-In-Charge: Kurt Culbertson. Project Team: Mark Soden, Keith Simon, Jeff McMenimen, Jeff Zimmermann.


Land efficiency/preservation, Water conservation, Habitat creation, preservation & restoration, Carbon sequestration & avoidance, Reused/recycled materials, Bioretention, Native plants, Local materials, Efficient lighting, Educational signage, Biodiversity, Green communities

The LPS Case Study Briefs are produced by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), working in conjunction with designers and/or academic research teams to assess performance and document each project. LAF has no involvement in the design, construction, operation, or maintenance of the projects. See the Project Team tab for details. If you have questions or comments on the case study itself, contact us at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

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