Permaculture versus my lettuces.

For advocates of permaculture, this will probably make them bristle. Although secretly, they will admit (but only to themselves in the wee small hours) that sharing their lettuces with the pigeons, slugs, rabbits and anyone else that wants some is at best irritating and at worst – well let’s not go there. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking.

The three core principles at the heart of permaculture are:

  1. Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
  2. Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
  3. Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. Needs a bit of clarification perhaps? This is sometimes referred to as ‘Fair Share’ to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.
Plenty for all - come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn't get quite this bad.

Plenty for all – come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn’t get quite this bad.

The third ethic – fair share – is a great principle, and clearly life would be a lot better if we all lived like that. However, will somebody please tell the pigeons in my garden? They seem to think that ‘fair share’ means all my brassicas, lettuces and young pea shoots. This year, they have been kind enough to leave me the broad beans (although read my blog post from last year – ‘Badly balanced vegetables’ for other problems with broad beans). They have also pointed out to me on a number of occasions that I can also have the nettles and thistles. Negotiations are ongoing, you might say. Meanwhile, I have netted my lettuces to keep them off and also have some (totally ineffective) cloches over my kale and cavalo nero. This also seems to keep the other interlopers (rabbit and his friends & relations) out of the beds. However, this particular year slugs are taking their fair share. Unfortunately, they seem to take it rather unevenly – a bite here, a bite there – and also once they have eaten their fill, like to snuggle down for a little nap between the leaves. This does not go down well with offspring (or anyone else at the table, come to that).

These are my lettuces - complete with plastic slug collars.

These are my lettuces – complete with plastic slug collars.

My solution has been to use plastic soup containers (herein lies an admission that I sometimes don’t make all my own soup – but don’t tell anyone). I cut the bottoms off them and gently thread them over the lettuces. this seems to work, and it is even a bit permaculturey – I am recycling after all! You might notice in the picture mulching with grass clippings and my irrigation system, which runs off rainwater stored in an IBC (International bulk container). All a bit Bob Flowerdew, but it works! Ignore the weeds please.

Of course this acceptance of intervention is at the heart of gardening and of garden design. Indeed, it is what defines it (see my blog post from a couple of years ago – When is a garden designer a landscape designer?). By making interventions we clearly make conscious choices about what we will or won’t allow in our space. The natural world impinges upon that space; it is allowable if it works with or doesn’t directly undermine our choices. When it does, we define it as a pest. So I suppose what fascinates me about all this is that we are very keen as gardeners and garden designers to cater for ‘wildlife’. As long as it doesn’t eat our lettuces, that is. This same view pervades our view of plants as well. The difference between a wildflower and a weed? Well, the old adage is that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. So by extension, is a pest just wildlife in the wrong place? Squirrels are OK when they eat nuts from your hand in the park, but not from your walnut tree? Rabbits are OK in a hutch but not (as with us this winter) when they cause several hundred pounds’ worth of damage to newly planted trees – all ring-barked. Do I sound bitter and twisted? Maybe a little, but as least with my soup container solution, the slugs and I can live happily side by side! Maybe they will even eat the weeds…

Wild about Chelsea?

Confident Design from Andy Sturgeon at this year's Chelsea Flower Show

Confident Design from Andy Sturgeon at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show

The gates have closed on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, I thought that 2016 was quite a good year. True there were some ‘oddities’ – Diarmuid Gavin’s Great British Eccentrics Garden perhaps? Anyway, it was a pretty diverse bunch and a lot of really good gardens. One interesting theme which started in 2015 and gathered pace this year was the ‘reconstructed landscape versus designed garden’ debate. Last year’s best in show – Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth Garden – was a clear example of the former. It was a brilliantly skilful piece of design and construction, but there were mutterings amongst the garden design ranks that it was ‘not really design, but just a piece of landscape re-creation’. I think this undermines the skill and dexterity of the designer. How much of this was sour-grapes at not winning best in show themselves was not clear; nonetheless, there is a serious point here. The implication was that all other things being equal, original design should be valued more than re-creation.

James Basson's Provencal recreation at Chelsea 2016

James Basson’s Provencal recreation at Chelsea 2016

This year’s winner (Andy Sturgeon’s Jurassic garden for the Telegraph) was firmly in the ‘designed’ camp. It was a head and shoulders above the other serious contenders and was a supremely confident piece of design, down to the last detail. Interestingly, the other two clear contenders for the title (in my opinion) were Cleve West’s garden for M&G and James Basson’s recreation of a parched Provençal landscape for l’Occitaine. The three gardens together almost make up the spectrum from one end (James’) to the other (Andy’s), with Cleve’s garden occupying a deftly executed middle ground.

Subtle use of colour and form in Andy Sturgeon's garden

Subtle use of colour and form in Andy Sturgeon’s garden

There is of course a great deal of precedent for this in English Garden Design. In the C17th, garden design in this country had been largely pale versions of continental renaissance creations. The English landscape movement swept much of that away in favour of what was essentially the modernism of its time – based on simple natural forms and recreation of paintings of landscapes. However, what is more relevant to today’s ‘re-created landscapes’ is the picturesque movement that followed. This was based on an essentially romanticised appreciation of the savage side of nature – wild rock formations, twisted trees and magical woodland dells. To me, Dan Pearson’s 2015 garden speaks directly from this tradition. This is not surprising, partly because the garden was based on a piece of historical landscape design, but also because Dan has always had a great affinity with and appreciation with nature. This is evident in much of his work, but never in a cloying way. By contrast, Andy Sturgeon’s designs whilst rooted in the natural world are much more conscious design statements.

My own designs are also conscious statements of form where geometry plays a strong part, even if it is sometime distorted (Spokane) or curved (Pavilion Apartments). Recreations of natural landscapes can be subtle, beautiful and clever, but I wonder whether Chelsea Show Gardens shouldn’t be more about pushing the boundaries of design? Most of the great gardens that stick in my mind certainly fall into this category.

Or perhaps the two ends of the spectrum are equally valid, just different – what do other readers think?

The Lancasters – from genesis to realisation

 

View Looking east websize

As this project has recently received some press and won the UK Society of Garden Designers Award for Public and Commercial space, I wanted to share something of the design process, particularly as it is an unusual design.

We were approached by Northacre PLC in 2008 to advise them on proposals for a new property they had acquired near London’s Lancaster Gate. It was the surviving arm of what had originally been two identical terraces, and was divided from Bayswater Road by a garden approximately 120m long, but only 15m wide. The building had a fine stuccoed façade – said to be the longest continuous stucco façade in Europe – which lent a flamboyant feel. it reminded me straightaway of the grand promenade buildings in Brighton, where I had often stayed as a child. But here, instead of facing out to the sea, the stuccoed façade looks over Hyde Park.

One of the sea front hotels on the Corniche in Cannes that influenced the architect in the mid C19th.

One of the sea front hotels on the Corniche in Cannes that influenced the architect in the mid C19th.

When I began to research the history of the building, I discovered that the architect was a big fan of French architecture and had indeed been influenced by the grand hotels of the Corniche in Cannes. I discovered an early stereoscopic photo of the development, taken just after it was built and the street trees were planted in the 1850s. Before that, it had been pleasure gardens for a long time, so it seemed appropriate to recreate gardens there again. As well as this flamboyant character, the building had something of the self-assured solidity of the Victorian era: confidently decorated and built to last.

A couple of early sketches for the scheme showing the genesis of the patterns.

A couple of early sketches for the scheme showing the genesis of the patterns.

Pattern 2

An early sketch of the scheme.

An early sketch of the scheme.

A design started to emerge in my mind. I started leafing through books of late Victorian patterns – stylised leaf and flower forms in swirling motifs. We developed a design based on these motifs – cut up, blown up on the photocopier, twisted and repositioned so that they rippled down the length of the garden in an undisciplined, freeform parterre. to give a vertical link with the building, and as a nod to the Corniche at Cannes, I placed a series of 6-8m fan palms along the back of the garden, punctuating the façade of the building. The design was finished, now all I had to do was convince the client. I made an appointment and turned up at the developer’s office. I sat in the meeting room with the head of architecture, the chairman and the development director, and went through the presentation I had prepared, slowly telling the story before showing the final plan. A long silence. “Absolutely f@#*ing brilliant” the chairman said slowly in his strong Swedish accent. Then he called the whole office in (nearly 40 people) and made me go through the whole thing again. In the end, they based the marketing of the development around the landscape and used the palm trees as the logo for the development.

The final plan. The free form shapes of the Buxus hedge swirl down the length of the terrace.

The final plan. The free form shapes of the Buxus hedge swirl down the length of the terrace.

Preformed steel edges made it easier to form the shapes on site

Preformed steel edges made it easier to form the shapes on site

Getting it built was another matter. How on earth to translate a drawing like this into a scheme? Eventually after much discussion, we decided to pre-form all the complex shapes in steel, so that they could then be planted as a box parterre on site. This worked OK, particularly as there was some flexibility in actual positioning of them. The next problem was the build-up over the roof slab. To start with, we had a 300mm drainage blanket of gravel to act as attenuation. Then beneath the planting, following advice from Tim O’Hare, we had layers of graded washed sand topped with a layer of rootzone material. This was a sand-rich growing medium with good drainage properties and some added fertiliser and organic matter. The whole lot was free-draining, non-compacting and well aerated. We insisted on test certificates for everything. All the specimen plants were pre-tagged and we had a short-list of nurseries that contractors could buy the other material from.

The final result was just as we had envisaged it. It was a long wait to see it finished, but it was worth it. There was no doubt that the constant support of the client was a major factor in realising the scheme.

A view looking west down the garden

A view looking west down the garden

The lawn at the eastern end of the garden.

The lawn at the eastern end of the garden.

Has Cuba’s urban organic revolution stalled, and should that be a surprise?

Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana

Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana

We were over in Cuba a couple of weeks ago. This trip had been planned for years, but has only recently come to fruition. As it turned out the timing was interesting to say the least. We were there just before Obama’s ground-breaking visit (and that of the Stones). One might argue that Cuba is on the cusp of change, and I am sure the history books will mark Obama’s visit as the great change point, but the truth is that change has been happening at a remarkable rate for the last few years. The alterations brought about by Raoul Castro in 2010 onwards, such as deregulation of farmers markets and allowing home-run restaurants and guest houses to open are the most obvious manifestations of these changes to a visitor. The Cuban government is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act of maintaining ‘democratic socialism’ whilst allowing inward investment and motivating private enterprise by allowing individuals to keep profits. One can argue about the degree of democracy of course, but there is no doubt that broadly speaking the system has popular support.

Trinidad rural organoponico

These sort of out-of-town organic farms were established in Cuba during the special period and are still fairly common

Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.

Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.

Around twenty-five years ago, Cuba entered what is known as its ‘Special Period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cheap oil for sugar deals that Cuba had benefitted from came to an end. At the same time, the world oil price rose sharply. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. This caused major hardships for the population and a considerable rethink in the way Society operated, particularly with regards to energy policy and agriculture, as oil, pesticides and chemical fertilisers became unavailable. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. This is all well documented and probably well-known to many of the readers of this blog. And up until around 2008 or so, the system remained in place. One of the most interesting and unusual characteristics of the Cuban agricultural revolution was the widespread dispersed urban agriculture movement. Any free space became a food-growing resource – courtyards, rooftops, empty public and private plots were all turned over to communally cultivated fruit and vegetable plots. Check out this article from the Guardian almost exactly eight years ago for an interesting snap shot of where the country was in 2008. Oil and commodity prices were high and rising, the US blockade was still in full force (although the cracks were beginning to appear).

We went to Cuba expecting to see many ‘Organoponicas’ as they are known. However, over the last six years or so, a combination of lower oil prices and higher personal incomes has had some interesting side effects. The rise in roadside markets (on almost every other street corner in some areas) and the falling cost of growing food, coupled with more money in people’s pockets has meant that many of the smaller unorganised urban agriculture projects have foundered. Others are threatened by development although many of the larger ones survive. I guess this shouldn’t really be a surprise, although to many starry-eyed western permaculturists it may come as a bit of a shock. I suppose the real surprise is why they thought that Cubans were really any different from anyone else. After all, if you have spent ten hours at work, why would you want to stop by the community garden to tend the vegetables when you could buy them cheaply at the corner stall on your way home. Unless you wanted to that is. Because like anywhere else, there is a significant minority of the population that are motivated and interested growing things, but it is a minority. The legacy of the special period in Cuba has meant that unlike other countries there is an understanding of and skill-set in organic horticulture.

As well as Terrazas (a well known sustainable settlement dating from the late 1960s), we also visited a number of smaller local Organoponicas in Havana that have survived. Some of these visits were by arrangement and others just be looking over the fence!

So where does this leave Cuba and where does it leave permaculture? Well, the answer is certainly in a better place than it was before the agricultural revolution. But in the end it should be obvious that given the chance, people will specialise in what they do best and enjoy. That after all is how cities and indeed civilisation work.

As far as horticulture goes, our trip was exciting as we had expected as well as being interesting in unexpected ways. Plus we got to hear some really good music and drink a few knock-out mojitos.

Urban Havana School garden

Urban Havana School garden

These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.

These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.

Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.

Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.

These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

Perchance to dream…

Copyright PollyWyer https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer

‘Beginnings’ by Polly Wyer – https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer

I was listening to Yann Martel (the Canadian author of ‘Life of Pi’) on the radio yesterday speaking about his project ‘What is Stephen Harper Reading’. Over a four year period form 2007-2011 he sent a book every two weeks with a written recommendation to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. This started because Martel had heard that Harper had stopped reading fiction as he felt it was not relevant to daily life. Martel’s opening line was “I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow…” Martel went on to say that he felt it important that leaders should be able to dream. If they are leading us into the unknown, they need to be able to dream a future, to be visionary. He could see no better way of strengthening this than by either reading fiction, or travelling.

Surely much the same is true of garden design? We are constantly dealing with abstract ideas and unrealised futures, the more so as uniquely in design, landscapes change hugely with time. Our ideas are elusive and the best ones often come to us from unexpected sources or at surprising times (read my earlier blog post ‘Where do ideas come from?’). Many of the core ideas for schemes I have worked on have come to me seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they arrive like a thunderbolt, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t thought about it before. Once you have had an idea like that, you can’t ‘unthink’ it. On other occasions great ideas just sort of sidle up to me. There I am playing around with a felt pen and paper, and it seems to kind of emerge, to seep out of the end of my pen in a quiet sort of way, like a flower opening from a tight unpromising bud. And, just like a flower from a bud, you can’t pack it up and put it back in again. I love that moment when the idea starts to take shape (literally sometimes). It really is the most magical part of the process and I get the same buzz from it now as I did when I designed my first project.

This process of disconnection from reality, this ability to dream is at the core of what we do. If we were entirely rooted in reality, our designs would be very mundane. Imagine visiting a client and trying to describe how you have reached the point you have, but doing it without visual language, without atmospheric terms. Difficult isn’t it? Our ability to verbally flesh a scheme out is what makes it ‘fly’. I always like to present a scheme in person to a client and these days I insist on it. In the past, occasionally this has not been possible, either because diaries did not allow, or because someone else wanted to control access to the client. It is always a disaster for a third party to present your design because they don’t know the story – designs are all about the stories we tell ourselves and others.

This week I’m going on holiday and I will fulfil both of Yann Martel’s conditions – travel (to Cuba) and reading – I always read loads when I am on holiday, and 80% of it is fiction. I also think loads. So while I am away I will be recharging my batteries, but I will also be in my own private dreamtime. Let’s see how it affects my work…

 

Why do developers think that garden designers are sexier than landscape architects?

There have been a number of high profile projects in London recently where developers have employed garden designers. This is nothing unusual, you might think. But in actual fact it is a departure from traditional practice, and quite an interesting one.

Firstly, the projects are not ‘gardens’ as such (see my post on ‘When is a Garden Designer a Landscape Designer’ for more details on this and for definitions of what a garden actually is). Most of them are in the semi-public or public realm – parks, squares, pedestrian spaces between buildings, etc.

Secondly, this is traditional territory for landscape architects. In the past, the likes of Gillespies, Capita Lovejoy, Townsend and the like would generally have undertaken these sorts of projects. However, if the client wanted someone high profile, they would have perhaps engaged a ‘rock-star’ landscape architect such as Martha Schwartz, Kathryn Gustafson or perhaps even Eelco Hooftman of Gross Max – all from outside the UK, you will note (although many practice here).

The large (non ‘rock-star’) practices are still very much engaged in the public realm – more so than ever. One doesn’t hear much about them however. And perhaps therein lies the key to what is going on here. To use developer-speak, they are not ‘sexy’. Dan Pearson, on the other hand, is sexy (forgive me please Dan!); as are Andy Sturgeon, Christopher Bradley-Hole and Tom Stuart-Smith. All are gold medal winners at the Chelsea Flower Show, which receives more TV coverage than any annual event except Wimbledon and all are therefore household names, to a greater or lesser extent.

Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross. Photo courtesy of www.kingscross.co.uk

Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross; designed by Dan Pearson. Photo courtesy of www.kingscross.co.uk

So is it that developers simply want some of this ‘brand’, some of the glamour of Chelsea to be associated with their developments? That probably accounts for a lot of it. Branded ‘products’ are appearing more and more with developments. Interiors by so-and-so, architecture by practice X (although often only the concept) and so on. But if that is so, then perhaps a more interesting question is why are there no ‘sexy brands’ in landscape architecture. Why is it “Gardens by Dan Pearson” and not “Landscape by Townsend”. I would argue that it is a systemic problem with landscape architecture in the UK. Ever since landscape architecture emerged as a self-made idea, it has hitched itself to architecture. In the UK this meant mimicking the RIBA – copying its structure, professional values, procurement strategies – although inevitably always a step or two behind. However, as a result the public has failed to distinguish landscape architecture as a separate profession. It is almost as if the landscape profession puts on its dustiest jacket to go to the professional party. Even the name is confusing. the two individual words are perfectly understandable to people, but together they don’t really make a sensible meaning – is it really the architecture of landscape? Or perhaps it is just the landscapey bits of architecture (there we go again…). Now garden design, on the other hand, what could be clearer? To make it worse (or perhaps illustrating my point) many landscape architects really look down their noses at garden designers.

So what is it that distinguishes the landscape professions from all the others? The answer is that we work with plants. Paving, levels, external space, all of these things can be and often are done by other professions; though often less successfully in my view. Those Latin names though – that always gets them! Planting design is a specialism in itself, and one that most landscape architects don’t do often enough to excel at. Garden designers on the other hand often come into the profession through the planting door. Sometimes I think that this is exactly why landscape architects look down on them. To be fair, many garden designers are not very good at all the other stuff.

Of course the ultimate irony is that most of the garden designers who are taking on public realm work employ landscape architects in their practices to help them implement the projects – because they have a better technical knowledge. Sad then, that landscape architects are basically seen as good technicians, but not as creatives.

One question that remains hanging is that of aftercare. Perhaps you have already read my other articles about maintenance of public landscapes (‘The whole life cost of a Citroën‘ and ‘The great divide … north/south? or capital/maintenance?’), but if not, then my point here is that there is no point in designing something without making sure that the resources and skills are there to care for it. Dan Pearson is famously careful about this, as are Argent Estates, his ultimate client at Handyside. But it is a point to consider: garden designs need gardeners to look after them. So is it the case that if developers employ landscape architects, they get something boring, but if they employ garden designers, they get something exciting? Maybe, but it’s a moot point. However, the truth is that in most cases, what garden designers deliver is still garden design, which may be unsuitable for the public realm resources. It will be interesting to see how it pans out in years to come.

 

Roof garden Design: #4 – Planting for green roofs

Continuing in our series on roof gardens, this post is guest-written for us by Maggie Fennell of GreenSky, a nursery specialising in supply of plants and substrates for green roofs and which has joint research projects with University of Sheffield. Her contact details are at the end of the post.

All green roofs share certain challenges for the plants. From lightweight, extensive roofs to full scale roof gardens, they will be living in an artificial, sterile growing medium without the diverse soil ecology that supports plants in a more natural environment. Unlike ‘terrestrial’ planting, they have no access to the water table so they are completely reliant on rainfall and artificial irrigation. Add to this the extremes of temperature and wind exposure at roof height and it is clear we have a very challenging environment in which to plant.

Extensive, lightweight green roofs take on this challenge by using only the very toughest, most resilient plants which are naturally found in poor, shallow soils facing harsh conditions. This means wildflowers and hardy succulents such as sedums are most commonly used. At the other end of the spectrum intensive roof gardens provide increased structural loading and maintenance access to support a wide plant range from trees to turf lawns.

Biodiverse green roof at Sharrow School

Sharrow School in Sheffield is a world class example of a green roof that is both biodiversity-driven and visually stimulating

In between these two extremes there is growing interest in ‘semi-intensive’ green roofs which support a much wider range of plants than the extensive roofs by providing 150-250mm depth of substrate and a modest maintenance burden. Hardy perennials and some small shrubs can be used to create a variety of ecologically diverse and visually attractive ‘roofscapes’ without the heavy loading requirements of an intensive roof.

To maximise the effectiveness of this kind of planting it is important to consider two main differences from ground level landscaping. The first is the survival of plants in these harsh conditions – how can losses be reduced? The idea of forming a healthy community of plants that mimic a natural ecosystem is not one that often arises in the realm of aesthetically driven amenity planting, but on the roof it is more important. The second is the changing viewpoint. Often there is not a ‘front’ or ‘back’ view, as green roofs might be overlooked from various angles rather than from the same level.

Randomised plant placement is the normal planting method on extensive roofs requiring minimal maintenance

Randomised plant placement is the normal planting method on extensive roofs requiring minimal maintenance

The natural planting technique that results from both of these considerations is one that mixes up individual plants alongside different species in a mosaic-like form, rather than swathes of a single species. This randomised or ‘naturalistic’ arrangement of plants can seem quite foreign to landscapers used to working to precise planting schemes which carefully position plant structures and colours for a certain visual display.

One reason why the juxtaposition of varied species is helpful for green roof survival is related to how plants cope with the stresses of limited substrate depth. Different species have their own techniques for gaining the maximum moisture and nutrition from the limited supplies available on the roof. A sedum with shallow, fibrous roots will provide less competition to a neighbouring, relatively deep-rooting wild carrot. Plants can differ nearly as much below ground as above it, and the diverse root structures will exploit different levels of the substrate layer to the best effect.

This variation of plant performance also means that interspersed species show off their best colours in different seasons. The overall effect of a reasonably colourful carpet of vegetation is maintained throughout the year rather than having isolated patches that look great in spring but a bit bare in autumn.

Mixed planting on a semi intensive green roof

The wet summer of 2012 was excellent for alliums on green roofs

The wet summer of 2012 was excellent for alliums on green roofs

An extension of this idea is that species react differently to the fluctuations in annual weather patterns. A particularly cold spring, an unusually harsh winter or an unseasonably wet summer might each have an adverse effect on particular types of plants. By combining many plant genera, the chances are that whatever record-breaking weather statistic should be quoted in a given year, a proportion of the species on your roof will be performing well, or enjoying an unexpected advantage. If those plants are mixed fairly evenly across the scheme they will serve to compensate for struggling neighbours, who may get to return the favour in future years.

This demonstrates how a community of plants work together in a way that reduces maintenance while maintaining a pleasing visual effect. Another example of this is resistance to pests and diseases which might have a noticeable effect on a large mono-culture, but less impact amongst varied species.

This ecosystem approach does not necessarily conflict with a designer’s artistic aspirations, it merely recognises the increased horticultural and practical requirements of the planting scheme. Plants can still be arranged according to flower or foliage colour if desired, and deeper substrate areas can provide anchorage for taller, more structural species. It is always important to consider the client’s expectations concerning both aesthetic effect and maintenance provision when designing a successful green roof – as they can both differ greatly from a ground level garden.

For more details or advice, look on the GreenSky website at www.boningale-greensky.co.uk or contact Maggie Fennell directly at maggie.fennell@boningale.co.uk

We all need to make a living.

Some of this piece is specific to contractors, some to designers; but much of it applies to both.

Do we work in an industry which undervalues itself and if so, why is that? Our nearest ‘neighbour’ is the construction industry. These figures speak for themselves: look at these comparisons between the various corresponding jobs in the construction and landscape sector (source: www.payscale.com).

Construction worker Landscape Gardener

Landscape manager Construction project manager

 

Landscape ArchitectArchitectPay at site level seems to be linked more closely to agricultural pay than industrial pay. The higher up the management ladder you go, the bigger the pay gap becomes. Do we undersell our skills, or are they just undervalued by clients – is that the same thing? And what can we do about it?

Once we get locked into a price-driven market, various things start happening:

  1. Driving the price down is the main objective, so Margins are slim. This has various knock on effects:
  2. Pay is driven down. If pay is low then…
  3. Recruitment is difficult.
  4. And staff are Unhappy
  5. Slim margins mean Low Investment.
  6. Low investment and pay levels mean… Low Productivity… and
  7. More Accidents.
  8. Bad practices start to creep in: Sharp practices, hidden charges, commission, corruption, etc

Let’s look at the opposite process. If you are in a quality driven market, then:

  1. Quality is the main objective. The best way to drive up quality is…
  2. Invest more,
  3. Attract better staff, which means you have to…
  4. Pay better, and
  5. Train more, which means it makes sense to…
  6. Retain staff. To do this they have to be Happy.

The general view is that because of the tendering process, ‘cheapest is best’ is endemic. In fact, I am not sure that this is the case – it comes down to whether that market is price-driven or quality-driven. We regularly win both design and construction work in competitive tenders when we are not the cheapest. This is because experience, expertise, resources and general approach all play an important part in the selection process. The quality of the tender response is critical. Of course if the quality of the tender response is critical, then the quality of the request is equally important, or how else can a sensible appraisal be made? My impression is that over the last thirty years, tendering on the construction side has got sloppier. When I started in the industry, full Bills of Quantities were the norm in construction tenders, as were full construction package drawings. Tenders were delivered in unmarked identical sealed envelopes and opened simultaneously at a given time. These days they come in dribs and drabs, multiple extension of time are often the norm. What’s more, Bills of Quantities are a rarity (unless the contractor pays to have them done) and drawings have far less detail than they used to. One could view this state of affairs in two ways. Either it puts the contractor at a disadvantage because they are open to the sharp practices of their competitors – under-pricing tenders deliberately and then clawing back cost later – OR it puts the contractor in the driving seat because it allows them to deliver a higher quality service and work more closely with the client and design team. It all depends on the attitude (on both sides). John Melmoe of Willerby’s recently said to me ‘Price tendering is a thing of the past – it is dead’. Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but you can see where he is going. The bulk of his work is now achieved through partnering and negotiation. This achieves higher quality, shorter programmes, more profit and less conflict. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the end result isn’t cheaper as well. But how do you break into a market like that? If established firms clean up all the work before it ever gets to tender, what hope is there for the others?

How do you know how much to charge – or put another way, what are the signs that you are not charging enough?

1 You have no time to market because you’re too busy serving clients

If you are constantly busy, running around after clients, working evenings to catch up – then you are not charging enough. Charging more will increase your returns, your quality of life and improve the quality of your clients – ones who appreciate you!

2 Your prospective clients compare you to someone else

If your clients are price shopping then you’re a commodity, and they are not seeing the value of your service. You quickly get sucked into the price-driven market cycle – not good!

3 Too many ‘Yes’s from practically every prospective client

If your hit rate is pushing 100%, then you’re not charging enough. Everyone likes a bargain and that’s what you are.

But other than the generalised statement of ‘moving to a quality led market’, what are the practical reasons for why you should charge more?

Here are a few:

  1. Not all your time is chargeable. If you are a garden designer or landscape architect, then this is particularly true. Probably only half your time, at most two-thirds can be charged for. Here’s the problem – in a 40-hour week, especially starting out, you’re going to spend half that week pounding the pavement (or more). You need to network, build your site/portfolio, blog, make phone calls, write proposals, and on and on. Once clients come in, you’ve got administrative work to do – somebody has to send the invoices, pay the taxes, and buy the toilet paper.
  2. Feast or famine. While you’re doing all that work you’ve got, who’s going to be doing the marketing, networking and getting the next job? Probably should be you – which means you’ll then have to take more time out doing that.
  3. Bills, Bills, Bills. As well as the rent, rates etc., there’s all those hidden costs – software, insurance, accountancy, coming here! Etc. etc. etc.
  4. Setting your own value. I bet you have something that you buy regularly, but only when it is on offer. If you make a habit of allowing others to negotiate your price down, or always expecting a discount, then it sends a message about how both they and you value your service. They will always try it on. You set the price – you set the value. If you want to offer a better deal, then don’t offer a discount. Drive a hard bargain for a decent price, but then over-deliver. That way the client will respect you but also think that you offer a really good service and recommend you. Getting a good price in the first place also allows you to be more flexible over small things that crop up along the way.
  5. You can only sell each day once. Consultancy and service industries are like hotel rooms – you can only sell your time once, and if you don’t sell it then it is lost for good. Your charges need to take account of this in two ways. Firstly, you need to cover for the down time, but also, when you are really busy you should sell the last bits more expensively. When customers book a hotel room or a flight, they always get a better deal when they book in advance online. Leave it till the day they travel and they’ll pay through the nose. It follows that you can charge more for last minute approaches by clients – and this is not unscrupulous – last minute rushes and running around are always disruptive.

untitledLook at this graph – it sheds some light on the relationship between value, price, and how a client sees the service they are buying. At the top is ‘Nuclear event’ – which basically means when a client has no choice but to hire you. This refers to the sort of service that you don’t have any real choice about and are not in a position to quibble about price – the business equivalent of calling the fire brigade. Bottom right is ‘Commodity services’ where you will be hired purely on the basis of price. The further to the bottom right you go, the less there is to distinguish between suppliers of service. The sweet spot is about 2/3 of the way up towards the left – ‘Hired for experience’, although you will notice that trusted brands also make an appearance.

Along the way, let’s look at a few other practices that go on.

Commission

In the insurance industry, we are outraged when we learn that an insurer has passed our details on to someone else because they get a commission payment. What’s more, in foreign defence contracts and the like, such payments are classed as corruption. Why should it be alright therefore for a client to pay for a sculpture, piece of furniture or the like and the designer or contractor get a ‘secret’ payment? It’s not alright; it’s dishonest and lacks transparency. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with an honest commercial mark-up – as a contractor you buy the furniture and you sell it to the client. Their contract is with you. If you are a garden designer and you take such payments, then you are either greedy or you’re not charging enough. Charge a decent rate and then you are free to recommend what works best rather than being tempted by whichever supplier pays you the most. And don’t be fooled; if it didn’t sway specifiers’ minds, then suppliers wouldn’t make such payments. (If you want to read more about this, I covered it in an earlier post in more detail: ‘Should Designers Take Commission Payments?’)

Who supplies what?

Should designers supply plants and other products? This is a difficult one – although many of you will probably already know my views on this – I have hardly made a secret of them. To my mind the process works best when it is crystal clear. It should be clear which part of the process the client is buying from which person, and who is responsible. In many ways, design and build is the clearest in this respect – there is only one person to go to when something goes wrong. That is how the world mostly works – if you buy a car or a telephone and something goes wrong, the manufacturer cannot blame ‘the designer’. However, let’s accept that that is not always possible or desirable to procure everything on this basis.

To me it seems obvious that the next best thing is if the client pays a reasonable price for the design part of the process and gets clear unbiased advice. The contractor then does the rest. The clue is in the name – the contractor does contracting and the designer does designing. In some cases, perhaps because the contractor doesn’t have the skills, or perhaps because the job is too small, it can make sense for the designer to supply the plants. But to my mind, this only works when the designer procures, supplies and actually carries out the planting. They are in fact then acting as a contractor, but it also makes the liability envelope clear should something go wrong. Otherwise the responsibility chain gets very tangled. What if a designer supplies the plant, but a contractor plants them and someone else is looking after them? See what I mean?

Clawback

I’ve touched on this earlier. However, I’d like to explore it in a little more detail. At the point of awarding a contract, the client is in the maximum position of power. The (prospective) contractor wants the job and there is always the real possibility that if he doesn’t jump through hoops, then the client will go to the next cheapest on the list. It is of course not in the client’s longer term interest  to force the price down at this point, and this is one of the drawbacks of the tendering process when price driven. Because once the contract is awarded and the work is well underway, the boot is on the other foot. It is too difficult and expensive for the client to kick the contractor off site. Generally, he wants to get the job finished as soon as possible, which requires the co-operation of the contractor. At this point the contractor has the scope to make hay – charge more or less what he wants for extras and variations and claw back all that money he artificially cut from the tender in the first place. Both practices are short-sighted and unethical. How do we protect ourselves against this? Work with good consultants and reputable clients and don’t get drawn into these games. And don’t expect to win every job. It is always possible for someone to undercut you, but it frequently means they can’t deliver a good quality product or service, so the practice is not really sustainable in the longer term.

So… in summary it is best to be:

Clear

Quotations and proposals should be clear and unequivocal and make a good basis for any future variation. Drawings and specifications should be well defined, comprehensible and unambiguous.

Honest and fair

… even when there are easy opportunities to be otherwise. This is the only way to earn respect and build a business.

Compete on quality, not price

That way you get the sort of clients you want and a decent return for what you do.

(This piece was originally delivered as a talk at FutureScape in November 2015.)

Shark-infested waters? (or how to survive in the top end of the residential development market – and enjoy it)

The development market has a reputation for being cut throat and being populated by swaggering macho developers who only care about the bottom line. Is it really as bad as that? In the thirty years or so that I have been involved in this market, that hasn’t entirely been my experience. Sure, it has it’s share of predators like any other market. But despite that, I have found most developers to be personable and intelligent.

The stakes are high though – these are often for properties valued in the high millions. Because of this, sites are densely developed, which in turn leads to all sorts of technical and logistical problems. So this is not a market for the timid, but there is plenty of opportunity.

Croc

Typical developer? Not in my experience…

The first step is to understand the client. What are developers about? Are they all greedy, short-sighted individuals who only care about the profit? Do they all have enormous egos? Will they always go for the cheapest option? Of course not. Instead they are (mostly) ordinary people trying to build something of value, although admittedly they are perhaps more comfortable with risk than most of us! My first rule of thumb is:

  • Give them what they need rather than what they want. Most developers may not understand what is available –they may know more about property than you, but you know far more about landscape than them. They will probably base their expectations/ideas on what someone else did on their last project. This can be very frustrating, particularly if they act as though they know everything. However: this is your chance to shine and show how much better than the opposition you are. Go beyond their expectations – surprise them!
Pavilion, St Johns Wood. A scheme that met the client's brief, but exceeded his expectations.

Pavilion, St Johns Wood. A scheme that met the client’s brief, but exceeded his expectations.

But to do this, you must have a least a basic understanding of how the development process works. Let’s look at some of the background. First, funding for development.

  • Funding – how does it work? Most people have the idea that it is all a developer’s own money behind a project. In fact, it has always been the case that developers have sought the majority of funding from banks and other institutions. In the (good/bad?) old days, it used to be possible for developers to get funding for about 80% of a project. Often, this would be calculated on the basis of final value. Given that the market would be rising and that a developer might expect to make a margin approaching 20%, this would mean that he (for it is mostly men) could get all the costs funded by loans and pick up the profit at the end. And then came the credit crunch!
    It's all about the money?

    It’s all about the money?

    These days, it is a lot tougher. A developer may have to find a much bigger chunk of the land purchase costs himself. After that, he is still likely to be looking at having to find about 45% or so out of his own pocket. This means that on most projects there are co-investors, which can make the client a somewhat multi-headed beast. The bank will also have monitors in place (generally surveyors) who look after the funder’s interests and make sure the project progresses smoothly and with minimal risk.

A typical scheme for planning with clear simple graphics and plenty of green on the plan or as much as the space between the buildings will allow!)

A typical scheme for planning with clear simple graphics and plenty of green on the plan or as much as the space between the buildings will allow!)

Funding is only part of the story though; planning also plays a critical role (as with any development).

  • The role of planning. No project can progress without local authority planning consent. Although this may seem like a fraught process and just another headache, it is actually a significant business opportunity. Few schemes can expect to get a smooth path through planning without at least some landscape input, especially on sensitive sites. This means that a commitment to a comprehensive landscape scheme can be built in to the project plan from the beginning. It’s also your opportunity to dazzle the client with your design skills and understanding of the market! The first stage is generally before the application. Initial discussions with the planners (‘Pre-app’) will often include some landscape material. The main application will almost always include a landscape plan an other drawings. It is important to make proposals that are affordable here, but not driven solely by budget. You have leverage over the client here as he will want to get planning, but push him too far and you will not be popular. there will generally be other consultants involved in this process as well, often guided by a planning consultant. Once planning is achieved, the next hurdle is ‘discharge of conditions’. Normally when a scheme is granted planning consent, certain conditions are imposed, one of which is usually landscape. Before that section of the work can be started on site, the planning condition needs to be discharged with detailed drawings, samples etc. There is quite often a gap between consent and discharge, with the scheme having moved on in the meantime. The planners will be looking to make sure that there is no watering down of the proposals, but some deviation form the detail of the original is normally accepted.
The Lancasters - a good example of how we achieved quality in a difficult contractual situation.

The Lancasters – a good example of how we achieved quality in a difficult contractual situation. Stock was all pre-tagged, testing certificates required for all the fill materials and followed up by a rigorous site inspection programme.

Although the production and release of information is generally driven by the planning process, there will be other times when detailed information needs to be produced, mainly as a case of integrating the landscape design with other parts of the development. Perhaps the most important thing however, is how to ensure that your designs are translated correctly into a polished landscape. For a lot more detail on how we achieve this, best to read my blog post ‘How do you deliver quality in a project’ posted in March 2015. However – here is a potted guide:

  • Control of process and quality. Clearly the most important tool to ensure quality is good documentation. The quality of the drawings and specifications are critical. They should be clear and concise, as detailed as they need to be – that is they should have enough information for someone to build the scheme without improvising, but not so much that they become snow-blind! Once you cede control of the decision-making to site staff, you cede control of the quality of your scheme. That is not to say you can’t draw on their experience and expertise, but make sure you define the things that are important. Poor drawings and spec are the biggest complaint from contractors. Planting material is often difficult to specify accurately to achieve really good quality. for this reason, we often persuade clients to spend a little extra and pre-tag key items. Nurseries will generally hold stock for a period between detailed design and installation. The client does not own this stock, so there are no contractual complications, but all the tenderers have to go to the same source. Beyond this, we also use a rigorous process of insisting on samples of materials and workmanship, testing certificates (especially for soils), certified sources and so forth. We are terrier like in this, because it sends a message about the level of quality we expect elsewhere and means that contractors do not try and take short cuts. Finally, make sure you have sufficient fees for inspection. The client will expect you to visit the site on a regular basis during the construction process – indeed you will need to for your own sake to ensure quality.

Which brings me on to the final point – pricing. You need to be realistic on this. bear in mind that stages may be widely spaced – it is not unusual to have a gap of 2-3 years between enquiry and completion on these sorts of projects, sometimes longer. Your fees will need to take account of this as well as the myriad meetings you will need to attend. But in any case, in this market it is much better to compete on the basis of quality, not price; so don’t be shy!

This was first delivered as a lecture at the Landscape Show in late September 2015.

Roof Garden Design: #3 – drainage and irrigation.

Continuing with our (intermittent) series on roof garden design. I have tried to splice these between blogs on other subjects so that people don’t get too bored, but they are packed with detail so do have a read if you are new to this area of design!

B&W copyright

Part of an irrigated roof garden in St Johns Wood, London

The centrality of water to plant growth is something that it is often easy to forget in the mild temperate climate of the UK. Unlike some parts of the world water falls abundantly from the sky over much of the country, most of the time. Temperatures in the UK also rarely exceed 30oC, which means that evapotranspiration is not a major problem. However, on roof terraces the combination of increase exposure and lack of access to groundwater means that plants frequently risk drought. There are some ‘green roofs’ that can survive without irrigation and we will return to these in later posts, but for the most part irrigation is virtually essential. Irrigation systems on roof terraces fall into two basic types. There are the larger, more complex systems with a supply tank and control panel, and the simpler ‘temporary’ systems, which run from a tap, normally with a small battery-powered

A typical tap-timer irrigation set up

A typical tap-timer irrigation set up

timer.These are cheaper and easier to install (often by a landscaper), but have the disadvantage that there is a limited amount of planters that the network will supply, even if subdivided into zones. For smaller terraces however, they are usually sufficient. It is advisable to have a manifold so as to retain a tap for washing down the paving or hand watering of odd containers. In all cases (larger and smaller schemes), it is best to run the irrigation pipes beneath the paving or decking and come up through the base of the container rather than looping up over the side. We normally specify a hole to be core-drilled in the paving to allow drainage and access for irrigation pipes without crushing; the only disadvantage of this is that it limits the scope for moving the containers in the future. However, in some ways this is a good thing as it means that designed loads to the roof cannot be easily exceeded.

IRRIGATION_HEADFor larger irrigation networks, it would be wise to seek the advice of an expert. Most of these bigger systems will run from a tank (generally situated in the building’s plant room) with a pump set and a series of solenoid controlled valves opening and closing different zones. This means that the whole irrigation system is split up into zones on a geographic basis, which run in sequence. This has several advantages: firstly it allows fine-tuning of the individual zones to water demand according to local microclimate – sunnier zones might need more water for example. Secondly, it allows individual zones to be drained for repair or maintenance. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it reduces the amount of water demand at any one time. The advantage of this is that both the tank and the pump size can be reduced, as can the inflow – the relationship between the in and outflow is obviously the main determinant for the tank size. There are also systems which can run from a central ‘landlord’ tank with a series of ‘planetary’ sub-systems which can be either under local or central control – useful for apartment or office buildings with multiple large roof terraces.

All that water then needs to go somewhere – drainage is an important issue on roof gardens where the entire substrate is usually a concrete slab. On smaller terraces it is not such a big issue, as the roof usually drains beneath the deck or paving to a gully and downpipe at one side – you just need to allow for inspection access. I know from experience on my own roof terrace in London a few years ago that it is surprising the amount of debris that can build up underneath the decking. With that in mind it is best to either use a pedestal system or if using decking, build in some easy-access panels over key drainage positions. 

Sketch showing the different layers of build-up on a typical intensive roof.

Sketch showing the different layers of build-up on a typical intensive roof.

On larger roof gardens, it is not uncommon to drain through the slab to suspended drainage systems below, although architects generally try and avoid this where they can. However, the limiting factor is the size of the roof – or more precisely, the distance from the centre to the edge. There has to be a reasonable fall for below deck drainage to work well and over large distances this can become prohibitive. Where you are intending green build-up – lawns or larger planting beds for example – it is vital to make sure that the media used are free draining to allow water to move freely to the outlets. For extensive or semi-extensive green roofs, a drainage board (‘egg-crate’) is often specified. This allows an element of storage, particularly where the growing medium is thin due to weight or other restrictions. The growing mediums used with these drainage boards are different from other media – see the (upcoming) post on green roofs for more detail. Small intensive roofs tend to use containers. Aside from the soft areas, water will also need to be drained form the paving. Using pedestals, this will happen at deck level. There are also gullies which allow drainage water to be collected at both paving level and slab level. These are particularly useful in wet-laid paved areas where most of the water needs to be taken from the surface, but inevitably some will find its way down to the slab.

Washed sand and rootzone mix being installed over a roof slab at the Lancasters. You can also see in the centre how the path is built up separately in blockwork and type 3.

Washed sand and rootzone mix being installed over a roof slab at the Lancasters. You can also see in the centre how the path is built up separately in blockwork and type 3.

For larger intensive roofs the issues and solutions are different. Fifteen years ago we constructed a roof terrace using standard topsoil in layers up to 800mm thick. Within three years the profile was showing signs of poor drainage and soon we saw water in evidence at the base of the inspection tubes we had built into the scheme. As a result of this, on deeper build-ups (intensive gardens) we now use layers of graded washed sharp sand followed by sand-dominated rootzone mixtures. This allows a robust, free-draining growing medium that remains well aerated and maintains its structure. It also encourages deeper rooting ensuring that plants are less reliant on irrigation and more on water stored in the deeper layers of the build-up.

Buzon paving pedestalsWhere paving is required on intensive (or extensive) roofs, there are a number of solutions. First is to lay the paving traditionally on crushed stone and mortar bedding. Additionally, we quite often specify hidden block work walls beneath the edges of the paving. The advantages of this are threefold  it separates the hard and soft landscape build-ups, it supports the edge of the paving firmly. It can also create a handy void in which to run services. However, the more normal method is to lay the paving on pedestals. These are plastic discs which are supported on a cylinder and base. they raise the paving up to a given level – anything up to 900mm. They have many advantages, not least that they allow the water to drain freely beneath them, with easy access in the event of any future problems. They also mean that paving can be laid absolutely level.

The next two blogs in this intermittent series will look at planting on intensive and extensive roofs. The extensive one will be written by a guest writer, Maggie Fennell of GreenSky, so look out for that one. The intensive one will be by Bowles & Wyer’s very own planting specialist, Stuart Wallace.

As usual, drop in any questions below and I will get back to you.