Category Archives: Practice

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.

How do you deliver quality in a project?

A great question. The scheme always looks perfect in your head, or on your drawings. But sometimes on site, it doesn’t quite work out. What strategies can we use to ensure quality, and what does that even mean? On Tuesday last week, I delivered a talk (along with Pat Fox of Aralia and Mark Gregory of Landform) at one of the London College of Garden Design’s ‘Infoburst’ events. As always, it was an interesting evening; stimulating but with three quite different approaches to the subject.

I looked at case studies of three of our projects and how we went about delivering the required quality. Each of these presented very different challenges and suggested various solutions.

Pines with low sun
A dry site with a continental climate

The first of these was a garden we did in Spokane, Washington State, in the North West US. You can see more about the scheme here – Northern Exposure. The challenges were multiple. Firstly, it was nearly 5000 miles away, so any chance of popping to site to sort out a problem were out of the question. The environment was very unforgiving – little rainfall, a typical continental climate and very limited soil. What’s more, there was a low budget and partly because of this, the client intended to build the project themselves. Although they were enthusiastic and practical, they were possessed of few real landscape skills. Because of this, the normal framework of documentation and contract was largely irrelevant. However, they were open-minded in terms of design and eager to learn which made the whole process much more enjoyable.

First ideas for the frontThe starting point was a practical and achievable design – a simple

Gabion installation - a simple construction solution
Gabion installation – a simple construction solution

concept and simple drawings. In addition The materials were basic and local with the only exotic addition being wire gabion baskets. Engaging the client in the design process was a critical to the scheme’s success, so we took hikes together in the neighbourhood looking at local landscape formations and flora, as well as visiting stone yards and nurseries. One or two specialist areas were identified (such as the concrete path) and a local contractor was found for these elements. With a lot of emails and photos winging back and forth, the scheme was implemented. The result was a surprisingly beautiful landscape which trod lightly in its environment. The client was both delighted and amazed by their own achievement.

Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris
Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris
Early concepts for the Lancasters scheme
concepts…

The second project I chose was the Lancasters (more of this project here). This was about as different as it could have been – in scale, nature, location and design. The site was a long, thin garden for an upmarket development in Central London. The design was complex, with multiple hedges in intricate organic shapes and lots of specialist plant material. There were also demanding technical challenges to do with the underground car park. Finally, due to the size of the project the management structure was cumbersome and we had little control over the tender list.

The finished scheme looking east
The finished scheme

 

LowResCF018848The first stage was a really thorough design process, particularly at the technical stage of design. We worked closely with other consultants (such as engineers) and engaged specialist sub-consultant help where ever we needed it, such as irrigation and soil scientists. We arrived at a method of defining the organic shapes with pre-shaped steel edging. All the substrates and soils were painstakingly specified and test certificates were required form contractors. The specimen plant material was all pre-tagged and there was a shortlist of nurseries for other plants. Although there were problems with the construction, the rigorous process and documentation protected the design quality and the final result was an award winning scheme.

An early sketch of the scheme
An early sketch of the scheme

Construction drawingThe final project was a roof garden, also in central London. This was a minimalist design, so there was absolutely no room for error. Schemes like this are very unforgiving in terms of sloppy detailing, particularly at junctions of materials and planes. It was also on the 10th floor, with minimal working space. Every detail had to be thought about carefully – nothing was left to chance. As much as possible was pre-manufactured off-site. The design and construction method were drilled down to the last detail. The setting out information was precise, as was the programme. We were lucky enough to be using our own teams to build this, but the principle is the same for any site – find a good contractor you trust and can work with. Develop a partnership based on mutual trust and complementary skills. If you have done the rest – great quality will follow.

View from the finished roof terrace
View from the finished roof terrace

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As Pat Fox pointed out in her talk, there are many simple office procedures that can help standardise the delivery of quality:

  • Clear and legible drawings, with graphics and line-weights that contribute to the readability rather than get in the way. With working drawings the purpose is clear communication, not a pretty drawing.
  • Simple and concise specification. Pat argues for as much as possible on the drawings, and with small and medium sized jobs this is always a good idea. with larger projects a standalone specification will probably be called for, but clarity is still the key.
  • Good pre-construction process – contractor selection, pre-tender interview and a decent tender period.
  • Only have people on the list who you are sure can deliver a high quality project. And don’t always accept the lowest price!
  • During construction give clear written instructions where variations are required – and keep them to a minimum.
  • Keep good records of drawings issued – when, and for what purpose (information, tender, construction etc.)

Remember good quality is a stool with three legs: client, designer and contractor. It can only be achieved if all three are supporting the project.

A Bigger Splash – week three – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Vicky Wyer takes up the story…

Week three of the swimming pond saga and the garden still looks like the outskirts of a Welsh mining town.

Looking very deep now - swim area walls almost complete

The blockwork walls of the deep swim area are almost complete and now stand proud of the surrounding ground – although eventually they’ll be about 300mm below water level. As our garden is on an appreciable slope, we have planned this ‘perching’ of the pool in order to minimise the dig but also to redistribute what was in the hole around the garden.

So where our lawn was sloping it will be flatter, and beyond the pool the ground will need to be terraced to take it back down to existing levels. How this will be achieved when there are spoil mounds on almost every inch of ground remains to be seen…

Plans for our food forest

John has asked me to write a bit about our forest garden plans this week so here goes:

For those unfamiliar with forest gardens they are basically self-regulating, food-producing ecosystems designed to mimic the structure of a woodland edge – optimum light, shelter and layering of groundcover, shrub, understorey and canopy  to give abundant production.

Typical layers in a forest garden (unless you have chickens)

This is based on the principle that nature is always pushing towards climax vegetation (woodland in the UK) so why not harness that energy and work with it, adapting nature’s tendencies for our own ends.

How it should work

Briefly in an ideal forest garden all your resource inputs are minimised:

  • minimal weeding as planting or mulch covers the ground completely
  • minimal watering once established due to the woodland microclimate
  • minimal pests and diseases due to the biodiversity
  • minimal feeding as the design incorporates sufficient nitrogen fixers to feed the rest via microrrhizal activity. Potassium is added via comfrey mulches, etc

All of which is just as well as between us John and I are pretty rubbish at nurturing our own garden on the whole. Looking after three children, two dogs, a business, a community garden, a neglected house still in need of major renovation, four ducks, eleven chickens, some raised veg beds and a lawn that seems to be the mole-magnet of the county seems to fill most of our time…

Deckchairs on the Titanic? - where John and I will sit and laugh when this is all over (when we're done picking all the flippin forest garden fruit)

Factoring in existing ‘challenges’

And as with everything we do at home, our forest garden will be a bit of a compromise:  partly since we’re working with a set of existing trees, none of which fix nitrogen, partly because our garden is quite exposed with the sun and wind both coming mainly from the west, and partly because the forest garden is where our chickens roam – good for fertilisation, bad for growing a productive herb layer. Oh and then there’s the rabbits that pop over from the field next door for a little ‘silflay’ every morning…

Our Forest Garden plot - aka the chicken run - looking west

How it will work – we hope

The idea is to plant some Italian alders along the northerly boundary where they will add shelter and fix nitrogen but not shade the already dappled forest garden too much – luckily the existing trees are birches so there will be some sun getting through. An Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) planted for its flavoursome berries next to the southerly hedge, will also fix nitrogen. Altogether this should give us enough nitrogen to satisfy the existing trees and our proposed fruit layers.

The Forest Garden plot looking towards the house (showing open cast mine inbetween)

As our soil is very sandy and free draining, the terraces we’re planning will help to retain runoff in the forest garden. Along the edges of the terraces we’re going to use the bulky tree waste and hedge trimmings we’ve stockpiled at the bottom of the garden from the removal of numerous unwanted or elderly trees and shrubs. These tree waste bunds will be covered with the turf from the old lawn to create ‘hugel’ beds; the slow break down of the tree waste will release nitrogen over a long period and enhance the soil structure. Rebel farmer Sepp Holzer uses this technique on Austrian mountainsides to great effect.

As well as fruit and nut trees, we’re planning to grow some bamboo near the pond. This will not only act as a much needed shelterbelt but we hope to harvest the shoots for eating.

It’s all happening so fast!

The apricots, almond, hazel, quince, medlar, gage, damson, Mirabelle, plum, blue honeysuckle, cherries, fig and berries-too-numerous-to-mention, have started to arrive from Martin Crawford’s Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon and various other specialist nurseries, and we’ve been busy heeling them in until the areas are ready for planting. And before you ask not all the plants are going in the forest garden – some will go nearer the house and some in the front garden.

The chickens look warily at the heeled-in fruit bushes

And we haven’t even started on the planting plans for the pond itself and its immediate surroundings! Looks like a busy weekend ahead with another round of decisions and compromises…

Recommended reading on Forest Gardening and Permaculture in practice:

Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture

A Bigger Splash – week two – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

After a number of requests from readers, I have relented and am keeping a blog of the construction of a swimming pond in our garden. From now on I am a client…

Getting out of the ground

Ready for the concrete...
Excavations ready and waiting.

This has been an interesting week. We started with a very big concrete pump. Although not the greenest solution, we had decided to use hollow concrete blocks for the main part of the retaining walls. I say the main part, because it is effectively only the central section of the inner concrete walls – the ones that support the deep swimming area. The outer edges of the retention (for the marginal areas) are provided by Oak sleepers, sunk vertically into the ground – more on these in a couple of weeks. The lowest section of the pool drops down between the concrete ring foundations for about another metre, effectively unsupported by the retaining walls.

For those of you who don’t know, concrete pumps normally come mounted on a lorry and are available in a variety of sizes right up to something that will pump tonnes of wet concrete up a seven storey building. We had ordered a fairly small pump with a long hose. Unfortunately what turned up was a large pump with a short hose. The pump was too big to get into our driveway, so with a combination of the pump lorry and the concrete lorry, we managed to completely block the street. The hose j-u-s-t reached the end of the excavations, which meant that Glen, Glynn, Mark and Ben had to shovel all the wet concrete by hand around the foundations. Setting out the foundations for the curved walls of the pool proved a little challenging amidst the mud, but it looks great.

At last - a sigh of relief...
Concrete ring foundation finally in after a lot of hard work.

I am sure there was some under-breath cursing of designers and their crazy ideas. Straight would have been so much easier…

Epoxy fixing the rods

The next step was drilling holes in the concrete and epoxy fixing in the re-inforcing rods. With this done, the laborious effort of carrying the blocks down and laying them over the rods began. Even with the cold weather we have been able to continue laying blocks. We have a boiler to heat the water if we need to, but so far we have not had to resort to this. The ‘hole’ seems to have afforded a sort of microclimate and the

Protecting the blockwork with hessian.

blocks were not cold to the touch this morning. Finishing block-laying fairly early in the day and covering the new work with hessian to insulate it helps a lot, and we have had no failures so far.

Of course, all this has carried on with our garden still looking something like the spoil heaps around a mining town. Our neighbours came back from a three week holiday and couldn’t quite believe their eyes. The dogs have found it very – interesting. The garden had clearly become quite boring after six years, with only the odd rabbit to offer diversion. Suddenly, it is a whole new world. They have reacted differently to this. For one it is traumatic – she goes and uses the very small patch of grass remaining before scuttling back inside to familiarity. For the other, it seems to be a constant source of amazement and excitement – she can’t wait to get outside each day when the guys arrive.

The garden still looks like a bit of a disaster area...

On Thursday Glen went on a construction course on swimming ponds, perhaps a week or two later than we would have liked, but still timely. It allowed us to fine tune quite a few details of the design, but also made us realise we seem to have got most things about right.

Meanwhile, Vicky and I have been trying to sort out some of the planting. The lower part of the garden is going to be a forest garden with layers of different plants producing different crops. We are just putting the finishing touches to this (after a lot of ‘discussion’) and there will be a lot more detail in next week’s blog, along with some of the outlines of pernaculture principles behind the design.

What makes a really good client?

Clearly one who pays on time! Well now we have got that out of the way, let’s look at the issue in a little more detail. Our clients come from all sorts of different disciplines – architects, property developers, interior designers and private individuals, who are of course infinitely variable. Some things are constant though. Here is my (by no means exhaustive) take on the subject. A good client is:

  • One who gives you a good brief. Not all clients know what they want, perhaps most don’t. It is part of our job to talk to them and ‘tease out’ the details of what they want (and what they will want to spend). However, we have all experienced clients who don’t know what they want but when they see the project nearly finished they know what they don’t want. So I guess the key here is if a client can’t give you a good brief, write one yourself and communicate really well throughout the project.
  • One who doesn’t tell you what to do. This is of course an over simplification, but there is no doubt that it can be frustrating to have a client who constantly explains to you how you should design the job. Often, this is followed up with a deconstruction of what you have done. By this, I don’t mean a critique, more an unravelling through a series of alterations that mean the scheme no longer makes sense. At this point I always ask myself why I was taken on. I guess the key to this is that clients should give designers enough room to think creatively. Of course, we can all think of schemes that we have looked at and thought ‘that designer was given a bit too much free rein’ – or maybe it’s just me that thinks that.
  • One who understands the true meaning of value. Clearly what I don’t mean by this is someone who wants everything at a reduced price. As designers, we all know that cheapest is rarely best. Also that ‘whole life cost’ is an important principle – cheaper light fittings for example are rarely a saving in the long run. Cheap hedges grow quickly and – well it’s obvious.
  • One who understands the balance between programme cost and quality. To be fair, most clients do these days, but we do still come across the odd person who wants a high quality job quickly and cheaply.
  • One who respects your professional skills and experience. By this I mean one who doesn’t just expect you to ‘fill in the green bits’ but will give you the room to do a good job and will support you against the occasional forays into our zone by other professionals. Also, a good client will get you involved early on in the project, before all the essential decisions have already been made.
  • One who recommends you to friends. Obvious really.
  • Finally – One who enthuses! For me this is the most rewarding. I had a client a few years ago who was buying the garden along with everything else – pool, kitchen, interior design etc. By the end of the project two years later he was completely addicted to his garden. At the end of each day who he would come back home and go and sit in his garden to unwind before he went inside. Every time I saw him all he would talk about was how much he loved it. I would never have predicted this from our first few meetings, so it was an added bonus for me. Clients who really love gardens are a relative rarity but they always lift my spirits.

Perhaps this all sounds rather negative? Clients are actually what I love about this business, people in all their random variety with their foibles, likes, dislikes and baggage that they bring to a project. Our work could not function without them.

As long as they pay that is.