At first glance, you'd never guess that the lawn at Fairbanks Ridge Family Apartments in San Diego is synthetic turf. It's lush and green and is made of individual blades of “grass.”

“The new synthetic grass looks and feels like real grass; it's not the old-fashioned Astroturf that we're all used to,” says Jeff Justus, associate and head of production at Schmidt Design, the San Diego-based landscape design firm that worked on the complex.

The faux lawn is just one of the ways that the 14-building, 204-unit affordable housing development saves water—and water conservation has become a contentious issue in California. A state ordinance is on the books to curtail water use, and nearly every commercial and multifamily project is being forced to review its landscaping and irrigation.

“The largest water user is grass, so we often put in synthetic turf,” Justus explains, adding that the turf saves money and time because it doesn't require water (obviously), nor does it need to be maintained. However, such turf generally lasts about 15 years.

In addition to the synthetic turf, Fairbanks Ridge, which was developed by Carlsbad, Calif.-based Chelsea Investment Co., is landscaped with drought-tolerant, native plant species and low-water-use plants, according to Justus. “People often think native plants and low-water-use plants are all brown and gray, but that's not true,” he says. “These plants can also provide color.”

What little irrigation is needed at Fairbanks Ridge is delivered through a water management controller that uses sensors to determine when the landscaping will be watered rather than a conventional irrigation system that relies on pre-programmed schedules.

Chelsea Investment Corp.

Justus estimates that the smart controller provides water savings of 25 percent to 30 percent over conventional irrigation methods. “Water conservation is especially important from a financial standpoint because we're developing affordable housing communities,” says John Koerber, a consultant with Chelsea Investment Co. “Any money that we can save on water can be used to make our communities even better for the families who live here.”