Category Archives: Contracting

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.)

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

view3

view4

view1 view2

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.

Are we tying ourselves up in Red Tape?

man tapeWe are all familiar with complaints about ‘red tape’ – needless bureaucracy that gets in the way of getting the job done. This is normally laid at the door of Government or ‘Brussels’ the point being that it is imposed by someone distant and unaccountable. But the truth is that in the construction industry we do a pretty good job of tying ourselves up in red tape with little or no help from anyone else.

Safety helmet - Copyright Polly Wyer https://www.behance.net/PollyWyerIt used to be that people complained about Health & Safety regulation in the construction industry, but this attitude has largely changed. Most people in the industry have become used to the regulations around H&S now and most do not find it burdensome. Few could question the aims behind the regulations or their necessity. The industry still causes more deaths than any other in the UK – 39 in 2013-14 according to the HSE. ‘The construction industry is the most dangerous sector in Britain. There is no trade like it. To put it in context, 448 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Over the same period, more than 760 construction workers have been killed on British sites.‘ (The Observer, April 14 2014).

Copyright Polly Wyer https://www.behance.net/PollyWyerFor some time, people complained about CIS – a scheme set up by the Government a decade or so ago to try and increase the tax take from the industry. The building trade had always been riddled with cash-in-hand subcontracting. By shifting the duty of collection on to the employer from anyone not registered, HMRC effectively ironed out a lot of the casual work practices. As it has matured the process has become (relatively!) streamlined, or perhaps we have just all become more familiar with it! In any case, although no one wants to pay more tax than they need to, it is difficult to complain about the Starbucks and Googles of this world and not expect one’s own industry to sort itself out.

ticked boxes - Copyright Polly Wyer https://www.behance.net/PollyWyerBut I didn’t start this piece to talk about those pieces of legislation. What annoys me is the whole direction of travel in construction management and contracting. Two events earlier this week prompted me to write this article. Acting as a landscape architect, I was asked to fill in a nineteen page form (for a commercial organisation, not a local authority) in order to get paid for my consultancy work – a completely unnecessary diversion of time and resources. It included questions about how often we review our equality and diversity plan, whether we produce an annual sustainability report, our anti bribery and corruption policy, what work we had done with this contractor before and ‘what we had learnt from that project’. etc etc. Should I really need to fill out 19 pages and send in three years’ accounts to get paid. The serious point here is that it works against smaller practitioners. I am all for weeding out the ‘cowboys’, but do we need to go this far?

The other incident concerned a job we were working on in Central London. There are multiple small roof gardens on this project, which is run on a construction management basis by a large firm. Over the last few months we seem to have been copied in to so many emails to do with every aspect of the job, by almost every consultant. Sometimes in these situations, people add recipients to the list to cover themselves – better be safe than sorry – but the result is that you end up receiving so much information, most of which is not relevant, that it is difficult to find the important bits that you do need to know. Despite this, the design was fully co-ordinated. Anyway, in amongst this avalanche of information, we had missed an update to the programme and had less time than anticipated to put the tender package for the landscape together. I was called in for a meeting with the management team to ensure I met the deadline (which incidentally we did, although it was an effort). What I found difficult to understand was that the landscape element wasn’t due on site for another two years – summer 2017. Programmes are clearly important, but two years? Funnily enough we only ever get about two weeks to price things…

Sometimes the bureaucracy is just an irritating but necessary task to carry out to complete the job. At other times, it actively gets in the way of you carrying out your job properly. As well as making the whole process more expensive, it also works against small firms and in favour of larger operators.  Instead of blaming ‘The Government’ or ‘Brussels’ for red tape, perhaps we should look closer to home. And this is something that our industry should be able to sort out itself, without government stepping in.

The question is, how do we achieve that?

If you have had similar experiences, I would love to hear from you.

 

Thanks to Polly Wyer for illustrations – Polly Wyer https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer

The Final Splash – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Finally finished! A view form an upstairs window - ignore the plastic furniture borrowed form the Triangle Community Garden!

So here we are. Sixteen weeks of mud, sweat and tears. Finally after all that, the pool emerges from the building site like an enormous butterfly, transformed from the ungainly caterpillar of the last few months into a fully formed swimming pond. Or it would have done if we had managed to get the planting in the surrounding borders finished – my fault, by the way. All those fine words about which plants we were using didn’t actually get them ordered on time. And although Rochfords and Provender did their best to get to site in time (and partly succeeded) there wasn’t actually enough time to plant them before the party.

After a mad sprint to the line (including Glen plumbing up the pump and jets on Saturday morning), the party is a great success. Lots of people go in the pool, including an inaugural swim by Vicky in her birthday suit (the new wet suit I gave her for her birthday, that is). We warm up around the firepit and watch the sun go down over the water.

Trees, water and sky

Despite the sixteen weeks of mess and mud, it is a thing of beauty. As Allan Pollok-Morris put it – “WOW, that’s not a pool, it’s a chunk of heaven!” As I sit on our terrace on the Sunday evening and look at it, everything seems very worthwhile. Watching the sunset reflected on the still water, the pool achieves exactly what we wanted. The reflection of the trees and the sky in the water stirs something very deep inside me. I recall Rick Darke saying that for him, Landscape is all about trees and water. To that I would add sky.

So what have we learnt in this process? Well, clearly a lot about the technical aspects of natural pool construction. Lots of people said we were mad to put so many curves into the design, but I am glad we did – it really makes the scheme – lesson one: ‘stick to your guns’. The curves made it more difficult to detail, to construct and more expensive. But without them the pool would feel inserted into the garden. As it is, it feels as though it merges with the landscape. Once the planting gets established, it will wrap around the pool.

We started the process without having thought everything through. So perhaps lesson two should be ‘plan everything thoroughly’. Although, as I said to my brother on Saturday night, had we known how much it was going to cost and what was involved, we would probably never have embarked on the whole process. ‘A bit like having children’ was his answer. Not that I have any regrets about the pond, or the children. Lesson two therefore – ‘Do what you want to do and don’t worry too much about the detail until you need to’. Not a good work lesson, but not a bad life one.

Once the planting is more established and everything has settled in, I will post some more pictures. In the meantime, normal service on a wide range of subjects (and gripes) will resume…

A Bigger Splash – weeks twelve to fourteen – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

 
Finally starting to look like a pond, although the water level will eventually be up to the top of the liner right the way across.
 

I know, I know – it’s been three weeks since an update. The principal reason for this was that not enough had happened after two weeks. And the principal reason for that was that some of the gang were pulled away on to other sites to do something a little more productive. But it never ceases to amaze me what a difference it makes to a site when the turf goes down. It suddenly changes in one go from a landscape site to a garden.

The molemesh being installed just below the turf.

As you can see from the photo, we incorporated the famous ‘molemesh’ as it went down – fingers crossed. This allows us to share the lawn with the local mole population on the basis that they agree not to make any molehills. We have a signed agreement with the moles to this effect.

The new line of the path

The line of the stepping stone path was ‘adjusted’ (that’s a great word for lifting and relaying 11no 115kg slabs of stone) to a slightly sharper curve, which we feel works a lot better. In fact we are delighted. Which is just as well, ’cos they sure ain’t moving again! The grass will be laid between the slabs at the very end of the project, once we have finished wheeling stuff down there.

We had a minor leak, which the liner guys came back and fixed for us. Note to self – make next pool a simple shape. The leak was luckily in the most accessible part of the pond, in trying to install the liner around the concrete buttresses for the metal edging.

Marginal planting underway

The planting of the marginals is happening at the moment – see photo. The beds are first filled with special soil, mixed with light expanded clay aggregate balls to bulk it out (LECA, or Coco-pops as my sons call it). The plants are then carefully planted and a sealing layer of clay is placed over the top. Finally, a thin layer of limestone grit (otherwise known as cat litter by my sons) is laid over the surface. We have positioned some slabs to act as standing points within the lower beds for maintenance access. The lower beds are planted with lilies and other nutrient hungry plants. The upper beds are mostly ornamental. When complete, the water level will cover all the beds to the top of the liner – the pool is still filling at the moment.

 

Finally, it is starting to look like a garden! The view from an upstairs window.

It is such a huge relief to see green things arriving after so long with just mud, concrete and stone. Even the dogs have cheered up with the lawn going down, although they can’t understand why they are not allowed on it.

And some of you may have picked up from twitter that during that really hot bank holiday weekend, we had an inaugural swim in the pool (only about one-third full at that point). It was freezing, but felt great!

Just two weeks left to go now, and almost there… (I keep saying that, don’t I?)

A Bigger splash – weeks six and seven – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Light at the end of the tunnel.

Swimming pond for a garden designer - The Oak sleeper edge
The oak sleepers that make up the lower edge of the pool. The marginal area is on the right, the deeper water plants in the centre and the deep swimming water to the left.

Despite the weather (and there has been plenty of that, if you know what I mean), we are nearly ready for the liner. In the two weeks since I last posted on this blog, it seems to have been alternately too wet or too cold to do anything! Luckily, we got most of the blocks laid before the really cold weather set in, but we still had to take our chances with the few remaining stretches, as well as concreting around the sleeper walls. The results, as you can see below are almost starting to look like something recognisable as finished instead of random piles of earth and the odd block wall.

Swimming pond for a garden designer
Almost ready for the liner...

 

Swimming pond for a garden designer - edge detail
The steel edge with its concrete buttresses that forms the upper edge to the pool. The intermediate block wall divides the marginals from the deeper water plants. The swimming area is to the right.

The money pit.

The costs have mounted up fairly alarmingly. By necessity, when we started on this, the design drawings had to progress pretty quickly leaving the finer points of the detailed design to be sorted out as we moved forward. As a result, although we knew roughly what the cost would be, there have been a few additions and we seemed to have forgotten one or two things…

 

Plants are people too.

Doing the planting plan for the big border to the right of the pond was a challenge. Plants are like people. They all have different characters. Some we have a sentimental attachment to and can’t help inviting to every planting plan. Others are old friends that we haven’t seen for a while, but bump into again. Planting plans for small spaces can be a bit like planning a difficult dinner party table! When its your own garden, it is even worse. I had to work really hard to keep reasonable sized blocks and sweeps of plants. My instinct was to try and squeeze in as many of my favourites as I could, but I knew space was limited. In the end, I limited myself to three grasses (not including the small patch of Helictotrichon I have sneaked in at the front): Muhlenbergia capillaris, Eragrostis spectabilis and Miscanthus gracillimus. This last is not definite but it was either that or Pennisetum

Pink Muhly grass. In autumn, this beautiful grass creates a spectacular, billowy of mass of pink, airy flowers on 1m-1.2m stems.

We are lucky to have a fairly deep sunny border, on a well-drained gravelly soil. Whilst this does not suit all plants, it does mean that I can finally plant Eremurus robustus with some hope of it succeeding! I can’t wait! I have also found room for two of my favourite large perennials – Cynara cardunculus and Crambe cordifolia which should punch up nicely amongst some of the lower herbaceous material. There are few places in the garden where we really have the right environment and space for herbaceous material, so it is a delight to have some freedom. Nonetheless, there is still a framework of taller shrubs towards the back of the border and through some of the deeper stretches.

With the end now in sight, the first celebratory party is already booked. I always groan when clients mention this – “We’re having a party on xx; can you be finished by then?” As before with this project, now I can see why they do it.

 

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

New Oak sleeper wall going into place.

I don’t want to bore you all with endless words and technical stuff on this. Goodness knows I’m getting fed up with having a mudbath for a garden week after week, so you lot must be bored stiff! So this week just a few quick pictures showing where we have got to.

New Oak sleeper wall going into place.
New Oak sleeper wall going into place.

A major milestone this week – the oak sleepers started to go in. We excavated a deep trench, rammed back fill around the sleepers and then concreted. We are using vertical sleepers in order to achieve the sinuous shapes those pesky designers have come up with. Actually, talking of pesky designers, I tried to draw a SketchUp model of the pool this week to try and get my head round some of the underwater decking (and because I thought some of you might be interested in it). But with all the curves, after three hours, I had come to the conclusion that building the full size model in the garden would be quicker! Whose idea was this anyway? The level of the top of the sleepers is just above water level by the way.

 

Although still muddy, at least it is level mud now!

The huge piles of earth have mostly gone now. The level of the lawn (I use the word loosely here) has been raised by about 600mm, and the remaining large pile of excavated material will be used as backfill around the sleepers. So I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that I am not not going to have to devise a landscape solution for a mini version of the the Alps in the garden.

No update on planting – I haven’t had time to do any planting plans. Proper work keeps getting in the way!

More soon…

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

The builders yard - a necessary evil?

Although the design for the rear garden is finally starting to emerge from the muck and bullets, the front drive looks like a builder’s yard. In addition to the bulk bags of sand and ballast, pallets of cement, glass filtration aggregate, plumbing fittings, geotextile, reclaimed teak decking, and mulch visible in this photo, there is a 7m long roll of liner and 75no new English oak sleepers out of shot.

One of the principal features of the design is a curved path running around one end of the pool connecting the lawn to the forest garden. This is made up of single 1.2m wedge-shaped slabs of stone. Of course, with two garden designers, selecting the material was always going to be a difficult process. We had recently come across a very interesting stone from the Forest of Dean, called Pennant.

The curved walls that will run benath the new Pennant Stone path

I had been vaguely aware of this stone for about ten years, but never really used it. We had selected it for a large project in Berkshire, and liked the subtlety of the blue grey and buff tones. As well as the quality of the stone, what really impressed us though were the go-ahead attitude of the quarry and the sustainability of the production process. All the quarried material is used and the production unit (which is under the same ownership) can process up to 1000m2 a week – not relevant to our garden, but very useful on our site in Berkshire! The stone saws are powered by the plant’s own hydro-electric power unit producing 13.5kW of power. The stone was supplied through Edward Tennant at Ashfield Stone, who was extremely helpful (www.ashfieldgroup.com).

The path swings on a single radius of 11.1m, so precision is absolutely key. Glen has been keeping a very close eye on the measurements, as there is no room for error. The individual stones (of which there are forty) weigh 106kg each, so laying them will not be easy. After looking carefully at all the possibilities, we decided on suspending the slabs from the end of the excavator arm using a stone lifter. This should allow us to rotate and position the individual slabs very accurately. They will be delivered in about two weeks, so we will see. The block-work support for this path is going in at the moment.

Selecting the timber has been equally tortuous, for various reasons. There are a number of locations which have different requirements hence a variety of timbers are being used. The retaining walls for the lower areas are vertical (new) oak sleepers laid in sweeping curves. Within the pool, the main walls are topped of with capping of western red cedar (which will be under water.) In addition to this, there is a deck about a metre below water level at either end. This is to be made of reclaimed teak decking on a network of larch beams. It is not possible to use any treated timber in the water, because the chemicals used in the preservative process are effective biocides. There is also a deck suspended above the northern end of the pool. This must also be of larch bearers. We wanted to use locally sourced FSC timber wherever we could. The sleepers were fairly easy as there are many companies supplying English oak sleepers, but the other timbers were more difficult. EcoChoice (based in Cambridge – www.ecochoice.co.uk) were particularly helpful. We managed through them to find some really good British grown larch and western red cedar. I had only come across Canadian or Russian WRC before, so this was a revelation to me. the timber is a little knottier than Canadian, but a lot cheaper and perfectly good enough for our purposes.

Blockwork starting to go in for the deepwater renegeration beds (before rain stopped play)

 

A spring scene: what is left of our lawn, with the pretend farmyard in the distance (aka the messy area next to my veg garden) and the edge of the new herbaceous bed in the foreground.

Although the end is in site, I don’t think we will be finshed for when my family descend at Easter. What’s more, inevitably other work is starting to clamour for the team. Suddenly I am feeling like one of those clients who says – “It must be finished for my party on Saturday Week”. I’ll start changing the design soon…

I am beginning to develop designs for the main herbaceous bed. Not that we can agree on what plants to use. And as always, visualising herbaceous plants in their summer glory in what still feels like the depths of winter is a cross between torture and therapy. More on this next week.

 

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.

A Bigger Splash – 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…

Sowing the seeds

We have been in the house six and a half years now. Two garden designers, two opinions, no progress. Well, not quite true. We had taken a lot of things out – conifers overgrown from the original intention twenty years ago, like cuckoos that never flew away. Delightful echoes of the past such as Choisya ternata aurea, Ribes sanguineum rosea and Potentilla fruticosa. Finally a plan starts to gel between us. It starts with a big curved border beneath the Mulberry tree. Then comes the notion of a forest garden on permaculture principles at the bottom of the garden. The fall on the lawn annoys me though, and gradually, the idea of a much larger pond between the lawn and the woodland starts to take shape in our minds. After a lot of wild sketching, we have the skeleton of a plan – a 14m by 4m swimming pond. And then unexpectedly, events intervene.  A team of Bowles & Wyer’s becomes free for a few weeks. I grab them!

Germination.

With Glen Brown, our hard landscape supervisor, I pore over drawings in the office. We discuss many different ways to build it – should we use concrete blocks, in-situ cast, polystyrene formers or timber walls? Lots of lengthy conversations and long email exchanges with David Nettleton of Clear Water Revival ensue. Eventually we go for perched concrete foundations and re-inforced hollow block walls for the main pool walls and new oak sleepers for the secondary walls. Will we be able to lose all the spoil on site? (actually that remains to be seen). Will the levels work out? (that also remains to be seen) How much concrete will we need? Can we get a digger in? All the usual designer/contractor questions. Except this time it is complicated by the fact that I am Designer, contractor and client.

“How Much?!” I find myself exclaiming; “Out of the question”. A myriad of decisions that have to be taken balancing method, size, layout, materials and of course a mass of technical details. One novel feature is that we only have to do technical drawings – no visuals or coloured presentation plans to convince a client!

The calm before the storm...

Finally, a date is set for starting on site, even though we have not yet bottomed out all the costs or details. Not exactly seat of the pants, but not quite comfortable either. On a frosty Friday in early February, the team arrive. First day is just preparation – hand clearance, draining the existing pond, making sure the route for the excavator is clear.

On the Saturday, I let our (four) ducks out as normal. three of them are Indian Runners, and true to form, they go tearing across the lawn towards the pond. Their eye level is quite low, so they don’t see that their pond has been drained until they get within a metre or two. They stop in amazement. I can almost hear the duck voices saying – “What the…where…I’m sure it was there yesterday….!” They wander back up the lawn, confused and disorientated. They will have to wait a long time for the new pond to be finished, but it will be worth it!

Week One – green shoots.

The 5 tonne digger arrives. after a quarter of a mile trek down the bridleway and a sharp 270 degree turn through the fence at the bottom of the garden, we are in! Work proceeds quickly – the lawn gets stripped, topsoil is scraped off and piled up separately. We rapidly get down into gingery coloured gravel subsoil and at the bottom of the excavation is a fine amber coloured sand layer, very free draining. By the end of Wednesday we have the bulk of the main excavation out. As a result, most of the garden is covered in large piles of soil. My 15 year old son asks me where this is all going to go. I furiously check my cut and fill calculations, cross my fingers and say airily that it will all get used up back-filling and making up the levels. Perhaps if we fill our pockets every day, like the great escape and walk around outside in little circles… 

Meanwhile, I am trying to sort out the final details with David Nettleton. PVC, Butyl or Polypropylene liner? Welded on site or off site? Do we need an Iron Reactor? As David explains: “This unit is not entirely necessary and could be added later. It’s a unit for emergencies; if the pond gets enriched with phosphorous or somehow you get a spike that encourages algae it will release Fe3+ ions into the pool to capture Phosphate Ions and precipitate them out. Very clever stuff!”. However having had our water tested, it is apparently ‘very good quality’ (which is reassuring), so for the time being we are passing on the Iron Reactor. We may live to regret it. For the liner, it is a choice between a whole roll of Polypropylene made in the UK, of which we will use about half, or the much less environmentally friendly PVC  which comes from Germany. Both are expensive (client in me speaking there) so we plump for the UK made, environment-friendly product. Friday is spent making finishing the excavation of the main pool and making everything safe. By tomorrow, we will all breathe a sigh of relief and I will not be alone in wondering where my garden has gone. On Monday, it will start all over again.

Now I know how my clients feel!

More next week…