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Hang On, Is Artificial Grass Actually Chic?

May 23, 2023

By Bridget Moriarity

Is America ready to go faux? The answer may surprise you. Artificial grass—which traces its synthetic roots rather unglamorously to the athletic stadiums that first popularized Astroturf in the mid ’60s—is in vogue in certain landscape design circles. A clear indicator came this past November when model and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen published an Instagram selfie next to a swimming pool. The caption? "Just got turf in at the office! I’m allergic to grass, so this is very exciting for me. Tea parties and picnics abound!!"

One glance at the 800-plus comments, and it's obvious that not everyone shares Teigen's enthusiasm for an ersatz lawn, with one commenter writing, "I really hope this doesn't inspire others to get turf…say no to covering the earth in more plastic!" Scroll a bit further, however, and a devotee declares the product "life changing." Conclusion? The topic is polarizing—and not just on social media, which appears to be holding a zeitgeist-y mirror up to the landscape architecture community and its disparate POVs.

"I’m not a fan," says David Godshall, principal and cofounder of AD100 landscape studio Terremoto. Citing environmental concerns over the plastic composition of the product, Godshall also finds objection to its appearance: "To me, it looks unnatural."

Fernando Wong, of the eponymous Florida-based firm, begs to differ: "Artificial grass is absolutely chic. It's all about achieving a high-end look for not a lot of maintenance." And for Hollander Design Landscape Architects's Stephen Eich, partner and director of the practice's urban studio, faux lawns have a time and place—in a decidedly city-mouse context. "Given the limitations we’re often faced with in urban environments, whether it be light levels in backyards or weight constraints on rooftops, artificial grass has definitely grown in popularity."

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There are reasons for that ascent. By and large, traditional, manicured lawns featuring a single species of grass require a great deal of care. "Once you incorporate a living lawn into an equation, someone has to be out there growing, clipping, and maintaining it one to two times a week during peak growing season," notes Eich. For a faux lawn, a leaf blower and annual maintenance checks by the manufacturer for larger projects are the only requirements. The irrigation demands of grass, too, can be overwhelming for homeowners—particularly in drought-impacted states.

Reduced maintenance means prices for turf, though wildly varied, are competitive with a living lawn. "If you’re in Arizona the cost can be as low as $6 a square foot; in New York a rooftop can easily be $30 a square foot," says Rob Dant, senior director of sales for SYNLawn, the largest manufacturer of artificial grass worldwide (and the brand of choice for the pro-faux landscape designers AD PRO interviewed). In general, that range comes down to the complexity of the project at hand: "In New York you might be shutting the street down to crane it up," explains Dant, who notes that on average he sees projects stay in the ground for a 15-year lifespan.

Landscape designer Fernando Wong, who devised this green retreat in Miami, praises the versatility of artificial turf.

Since 2008, when Dant began his tenure with the company, SYNLawn has been using soy-based backing. "We believe it's the right thing to do—it's not a pricing or performance advantage," he says. "We are always looking to infuse our products with technology we believe will benefit the public." In addition, the backings of the product are treated with fungicide and algicide to protect from residue contaminating waterways; the blades are also treated with an antimicrobial and an antistatic ingredient.

Dant is especially proud of one line known as SynAugustine 547. Made with soy and sugar cane, it's what he refers to as a "bio-preferred product." "We’ve been able to use it for federal projects like the FBI Headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama and the Kennedy Space Center," Dant says. "We also had a beautiful residential project in Michigan for a private client, whose home abutted a wetlands area, and they were able to get it approved."

SYNAugustine 547, a bio-based artificial turf from SYNLawn, features blades of field green, apple, and olive in order to look like natural grass.

For many, though, an important question remains: How does it look? "In the beginning, synthetic turf was a derivative of an athletic fiber, so it was a little bit shinier, kind of what you’d see by your weird aunt's back porch," says Dant. "But we’ve spent a lot of time concerned about the aesthetics these days, and we have softer fibers that blend tan and multiple hues of green to achieve a very natural look."

And landscape professionals are taking note. "We’re moving into a new phase with this product," says Gareth Mahon, partner at New York City–based RKLA Studio. "It's much higher quality, and it's solving issues we’ve had with lawns. People are seeing it more—maybe they’ve been to a friend's house who has it, and now they’re asking for it." Mahon notes that while artificial grass may not yet pass for the real thing, it's looking "less fake."

Eich says that it's rare for his firm to use artificial grass outside the city center. "We have been working to educate clients that a healthy lawn has weeds and flowers, not just singular blades of grass throughout the entire summer," he says. And it's not just about enlightening clients, but policymakers too, as Amy McEuen, an associate professor of biology at the University of Illinois Springfield, implored in an op-ed for Next City, in which she wrote about the $150 fine she received from her hometown for planting tall grasses and native plants outside her house, a violation of an existing city ordinance.

AD PRO Directory listee Hollander Design used synthetic grass for this putting green in NoHo, Manhattan.

"Grass is kind of an addiction for people and their gardens," says Godshall, who advocates for thinking beyond the blade, whether it's real or faux. "People feel so compelled that they need it, and in California where we are realizing that we’re out of water, artificial turf is just feeding the addiction. But maybe we need to quit the drug." When asked if the latter is acceptable in any setting, Godshall provides a somewhat full-circle response: "Terremoto is a corporate sponsor of a soccer team, and in the context of a sports field in a public park that simply can't keep up with the maintenance of a real field, I think it's okay. Maybe a roof garden," he concedes, noting he was once charmed by artificial grass at a penthouse project by French garden designer Pierre-Alexandre Risser, where a smattering of weeds peeked through a plot of turf.

Meanwhile, SYNLawn continues to see double-digit growth year after year, particularly in the post-pandemic era. "We had an absolute banner year," Dant notes. "People started looking for synthetic turf in their backyard to create more solutions…. They realized they could add value to their home."

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