Category Archives: Garden Design

Light, time and landscape

When I first started thinking about a career, I wanted to be a town planner. There was something about the scale of it that appealed to the teenage me – the ability to plan whole towns with a sweep of your hand. Later I moved on to architecture, before finally settling on landscape design. These days I am also much involved with garden design. Of course there is much in common between these fields – indeed, all the various design disciplines have fuzzy edges – they overlap and merge one into another.
However, I have long been interested in what sets landscape apart from the others. Clearly, the unique element is plants, but the simplicity of this statement belies its huge implications. A building or any other designed object generally looks at its best on day one. It is closest to the designer’s intentions when it is newly finished. True, with the passing of time buildings (as with most things) develop a pleasant patina of age, but this is incidental to the designer’s intentions. However, landscape architects and garden designers work with a different medium. Planting design is complex enough as it is – a bit like working with an orchestra. Each plant has different shapes, colours textures and requirements. But of course, plants are living things; they change and grow. They do so at different rates and with differing habits. This means that a landscape is constantly changing; it will never look the same twice. Planning for this can be a complex task, made more difficult by the huge number of variables involved. But whilst this makes the task trickier, it also introduces serendipity into the process. I am often surprised in schemes that I have designed by unexpected combinations of plants at particular times of year. Sometimes it is because one has grown more quickly or slowly than I planned or possibly migrated within the planted areas to a different position.
The real joy though is not the long-term changes, but the way a landscape changes month to month, day to day, even minute to minute. Being living things plants react to their environment. Their leaves and branches move with the wind or sag with the weight of rainwater.  And we have all had that sudden rush of emotion when walking through woodland or across fields when the sun suddenly comes out and transforms the landscape in a second, sunlight lancing trough foliage to pick out an area on the ground. Light is integral to how we perceive the world, not just in the obvious sense, but in all its subtlety. Landscape designers lay on this.

I often put tall grasses or lightly foliaged tall shrubs where I know they will catch the late low afternoon light. Early morning or late afternoon light can be very dramatic, but also lends a warmth and softness to a landscape because of its colour.

Good design with artificial light also makes use of this luminosity of foliage. It tends to accentuate both the high points and shadows, but it is the effect of light passing through leaves that gives glowing greens and yellows. This effect needs to be used sparingly, or the abundance of the jewelled colours dulls their impact. Artificial light can also bring a new perception and definition to form quite different to that of natural light. By doing so it adds drama, but the beauty of this is that it only works because it is such a contrast to the natural light we take for granted.

The ability of landscapes to change with time is what drew me to landscape design. And is that very seasonality and freshness that brings joy. We notice and react to change – bulbs bursting through the soil or leaves turning to autumn shades. And no matter how long I have been doing this, the capacity of landscapes to surprise me remains a constant source of delight.

[This post was written as a guest blog for Nulty+ lighting design – www.nultylighting.co.uk]

Anatomy of a sketch.

It’s been a while since I last posted. Other things intervened; you know: life, the universe and everything.

I have always been fascinated between the balance between use of digital and hand media in both design process and presentation drawings. The process is influenced by the medium, and in turn influences the output. Some people are adamantly pro-digital and others insist that hand drawings are the only way. Sometimes these positions are held with an almost religious fervour. Although I am old enough to have been trained with only hand media, I have a fascination for digital tools as well. I am a firm believer (there we go again – religiosity!) in the simple connection between brain/eye and hand when designing. Nothing works quite as well as a fat felt pen or a soft pencil on white detail paper. The freedom of movement and thought that this brings is unrivalled; digital programs tend to make designers focus on detail too early in the process.

There is also the question of what clients relate best to, which varies with individuals. I well remember a morning a few years ago when I attended two client presentations one after the other, both with quite polished CGI-style renderings with sophisticated light and shade. At the first, the client was ecstatic about the design and presentation, remarking on easy it was to understand everything. At the second, the client was almost monosyllabic, and afterwards the architect (who had been biting his tongue in the meeting) tore me off a strip for the method of presentation – “they’re alright for people like us [i.e. design professionals] but clients like hand drawings”. We used to get into similar muddles with plans, although these days we have a protocol for design plans. For initial presentations we use CAD layouts to start with, but generally trace over by hand before rendering in a watercolour style in Photoshop. This is partly because people react well to hand drawn plans, but also because at sketch design stage we want to give the impression of flexibility, of not every detail having been resolved. The same applies to planning applications. At later stages (such as discharge of conditions) the reverse is true and we always use CAD drawings in black and white.

SketchUp is an enormously powerful tool. It has been revolutionary in design as an accessible method of exploring three dimensions, in garden design in particular. However, its influence has in some cases become somewhat insidious. I have written about this in two previous posts, both worth dipping into:  I’ve been using it increasingly, but I never touch it, and Thinking Outside the [White Rendered] Box. Actually I think as a profession we are beginning to move away from this now. The last two ‘best in show’ gardens at Chelsea illustrate this: Dan Pearson’s 2015 Chatsworth Garden and in particular Andy Sturgeon’s 2016 garden, which demonstrates a move towards a more angular dynamic approach to geometry.

For perspectives, having veered between different poles, we have now developed a hybrid method which seems to work well. Schemes are initially designed by hand, as is mostly the way in this office, with CAD layouts following soon afterwards. But for areas for which we are producing perspectives – often those that need further exploration or explanation – we develop 3D digital models, usually in SketchUp (geo-located for accuracy).

Fully rendered SketchUp tends to be rich in colour, but this can often be distracting.

In the past we have prepared fully rendered SketchUp models, but these days they are generally in plain white. Occasionally we show these to clients, but mostly we just use them to explore the space and elements. If you show clients fully rendered models, they tend to take them too literally. Once we are happy with the design, we output a view before using it as a base for a hand sketch.

 

 

The line sketch. Note that this is really simple with no hatch, shading or detail. This is all added later.

These are simple unshaded line drawings, intended as a base for further rendering. We then scan the sketch and import a shadow layer directly from the 3D model, which adds greater depth and realism.

A shadow map layer, taken directly from the SketchUp model

Finally, the drawing is rendered in Photoshop using watercolour brushes. Although the whole process sounds laborious, it is actually relatively quick. Even so, there are often two or three people working on it sometimes with input or advice from others; we tend to work very collaboratively here.

The finished sketch – light and airy with plenty of atmosphere. It has the advantage of showing detail where you want it but without being too literal.

The final result is usually graceful and airy, capturing something of the mood of the space whilst giving a genuine feel for the scale and texture. It is not for every project, but for those when you get short, infrequent slots with the client in which you have to work hard, this method is ideal.

What top 5 things should you consider when designing a garden over a basement?

 

The first time I designed a garden over a basement (more than 25 years ago) it was unusual enough to be of significant interest (even bemusement) to colleagues. These days they are so common as to be almost ubiquitous in Central London. However, they pose considerable technical challenges which have the potential to really compromise the scheme if they are not dealt with. So what are the principal concerns to bear in mind?

  1. Drainage. This is the biggie (along with no. 2 below).
    Taken during construction. You can see the gullies as small black circles dropping through the slab.
    Taken during construction. You can see the gullies as small black circles dropping through the slab.

    If you don’t know the answer to the question ‘How is the basement slab being drained?’ then find out sharpish. It is really important to understand the drainage strategy and to design the landscape accordingly. There are two basic strategies: drain off the edge of the slab (often to land drains) or drain through the slab. The latter involves gullies in the concrete which drop through to suspended drainage in the space beneath. The former is more common these days, particularly as new basement guidelines form Central London planning authorities mean that there is generally 50% of the garden left undeveloped. However, it does raise issues: are there structures such as upstand beams which impede the drainage? Which direction do they run in? Another point to consider is whether there are any requirements for drainage attenuation by the local authority. These generally take the form of ‘drainage blankets’ which slow down the water so that it doesn’t all leave the slab and enter the public system at the same time. If the drainage is through the slab, then if possible, build in some form of inspection for the gullies from above.

  2. Build-up. It is really vital that you get the build-up right. If you do nothing else on a basement project, do this. Sixteen years ago, we were involved with a scheme for a 1,200m2 podium garden over a basement car park. We used a ‘drainage layer’ of about 150mm of clean gravel, geotextile and then topsoil. At its
    Another construction shot. Path with type 3 in the centre, black geotex over type 3 in the foreground, washed sand (buff) subsoil in the background and rootzone (brown) over on the right.
    Another construction shot. Path with type 3 in the centre, black geotex over type 3 in the foreground, washed sand (buff) subsoil in the background and top layer of rootzone (brown) over on the right.

    deepest this was 800mm, although much of the deeper zones were made up with expanded polystyrene (EPS) to reduce weight. 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. The use of EPS is also something we are careful about now. It acts as a block to drainage, so it is essential to build in sizeable drainage clefts between the blocks – around 100mm wide is normally sufficient.

  3. Interventions. This is the one that gets sprung on you when you least expect it. Just when you understand the drainage, you’ve got all your layouts sorted, someone announces that an intake vent (or worse an exhaust vent) from the swimming pool is needed, or a chiller cabinet enclosure, or an escape
    One solution for mechanical venting.
    One solution for mechanical venting. Plant containers sit atop a stone and timber clad cabinet.

    stair, or sometimes all of them! Big basements need a lot of plant and inevitably a lot of this will have a significant effect on the garden, so try and plan for it. Ask in advance what the likely requirements are and incorporate features into the design that they can be integrated into. Ventilation generally falls into two categories: mechanically aided and ‘natural’. The latter tends to only be used for car parking areas. The disadvantage is that you can end up with quite large areas of venting to hide, but there is no background noise and very little air movement, so they can easily be screened with plants. Mechanical venting is a different matter – particularly extract vents, which can desiccate foliage. With basement car parks, access needs to be considered. Except on the largest projects, ramps generally take up too much room so often the solution is car lifts, which can have quite an impact. These days regulations have changed and they frequently need an enclosure, so bear that in mind. Escape stairs are another thing that can sometimes make a late appearance; sometimes they can be incorporated into no 4:

  4. Lightwells. They can be irritating as they often tend to act as a division between the building and the garden. However, try and think of these as opportunities rather than intrusions. There is now a vast array
    Lightwells can be fun!
    Lightwells can be fun! Treat staircases as sculptural elements and be creative with different finishes.

    of wall finishes available to designers. Trellis or timber slats we are all familiar with. However, metal – patinated or acid etched zinc, copper, steel are all interesting options. Strip or textured stone are also available in a wide range of finishes. There are increasingly interesting polymer or GRP finishes – look at OltreMateria for example. Water features, mirrors, and green walls – both living and fake – (*gasp!*) all play a part here, but obviously you need to look carefully at lighting, both for effect and if you need to boost light levels for plant growth (Metal Halide lamps are far better for this – they emit more useable energy than LEDs in the blue and red wavelengths that plants need for photosynthesis). Try using different materials in combination and incorporate items like stairs as sculptural features.

  5. Rooflights. With big basements (particularly those for habitable space) these make frequent appearances.
    This scheme had circular rooflights as giant water lily water features.
    This scheme had circular rooflights as giant water lily water features.

    There are two approaches here: relegate to somewhere in the garden where they are a sideshow rather than centre stage, or alternatively make a feature of them. If you’re going for the ‘quiet’ option, try to agree long slots with the architect and engineer – these are easier to hide and can often be at the periphery of basement rooms casting light down a wall. Big square or rectangular roof lights are more difficult. If they are to one side of the scheme, they can look quite good. Alternatively, try using them as a water feature. Lots of technical issues to consider here, but we have done it a couple of times

There are plenty of other things to consider, but that is my top 5 list of things that you are most likely to come across. The earlier you can get involved in these sort of projects the better. If all the decisions are already taken by the time you are appointed, you will end up trying to sort out technical issues that may be les than ideal.

If you have had interesting experiences of your own you want to share, or if you have any questions, just add a comment below as normal.

 

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.

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.

 

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: #1 – Exposure and screening

Buildings and landscape are inextricably linked, especially buildings and gardens. Most of our work is on, in, surrounded by or surrounding buildings of one form or another. Because of the centrality of this relationship, I wanted to explore the relationships between buildings and landscape more, starting with roof gardens, but also covering living walls, courtyards and other built landscapes. So… here is the first of a series of pieces, the first few of which are on roof gardens and terraces. Do leave a comment if you have any queries.

Introduction.

view3Over the years we have done many roof gardens. I have also been asked to speak on the subject on several occasions, include twice in the autumn last year. The popularity of roof gardens has grown in recent years. There are several factors behind this, but one of them is the increase in property prices and density of development, which has put a premium on outdoor spaces in the city. When I bought my first property (a maisonette near Elephant & Castle, London), the only outdoor space it had was a small roof terrace. The first thing we did was plant it out. It was a magical space, only a couple of floors up, but fantastic to have a garden up at rooftop level. This was very much in my mind when I wrote the section on Roof Gardens on our website, which begins: “A roof garden can be one of the most exciting and unusual outdoor spaces – or, if you don’t get it right, one of the most unpleasant! A well-designed roof garden makes great use of extra space and offers a secluded refuge, high above the city below. It has its own microclimate and special consideration of sun, shade, wind and exposure is required.” These spaces present tricky technical challenges, but also offer unique opportunities. I intend to break this series of blogs into sections on the various aspects of roof garden design – design of small and larger spaces, exposure and screening, drainage, irrigation and water proofing, plant selection etc.

Exposure and screening.

This scheme (below) was one of the first large roof terraces that we designed, for a building in London’s financial quarter overlooking the Thames. It was never built, but for me it encompasses many of the key issues and values of roof garden design. Roof terraces are extreme environments – sunny, windy, dry – generally very exposed. Not unlike a seaside microclimate. The inspiration for this roof terrace drew on that further, with bleached timber decking, weathered oak raised beds, beach pebbles and a planting palette that was based on foreshore and seaside species – kale, allium, thrift, grasses, cardoon and others. There was even a coin-operated telescope! The point here is that the planting worked with the environment rather than against it. There is no point in designing lush woodland planting to go on the top of a ten storey building. I will go more into plant selection in a later post, but it is a useful starting point.

Slide1

The extreme exposure of some spaces means that the design is necessarily limited, and this requires some careful footwork in terms of design and detailing. Maybe clients do not want a beach theme? One can hardly blame them! However there are other alternatives. Firstly, look at mitigation. 56860007

Trellis fixed to balustrade (11th Floor)
Trellis fixed to balustrade (11th Floor)

On this roof terrace we incorporated pergolas and screens to lessen the effect of wind. These were designed in early on so that the shoes for the pergola could be incorporated into the water-proofing for the roof terrace. Even if this is not possible, it is always possible to fix screens in one way or another – sometimes by using temporary fixings to balustrades (U-shaped clamp brackets – see left), or by having freestanding trellis panels that are held by the weight of containers, using a steel frame. This is a trick we often use. Perforated metal or timber screens are much more effective at dissipating wind than glass or solid screens. This seems counter-intuitive, but it is true. A solid screen creates more turbulence. In terms of shelter, it offers something like 1 x height in front of the screen and 2 x height to the rear of the screen, measured at floor level. Beyond this is turbulent air, often with quite a sharp boundary between the two. With a perforated screen of something like slatted trellis, this increases to 2 x height in front and 5 x height to the rear, with the optimal permeability about 40% ‘hole’ to 60% solid.

View from terraceIf screens are not an option, try and keep everything possible below the balustrade. There are things that will survive fairly radical exposure – olives for example, or tamarisk. Beware of the ‘windsail’ effect of trees and make sure the containers are of sufficient size to stop them blowing over. This roof terrace in London’s West End has a strictly limited palette of materials and planting, but perhaps the most striking thing when you look in a little more detail is that there is virtually nothing above the parapet level in the scheme. Even so, this hasn’t stopped the planting below parapet level being used effectively to sculpt the space.

Shade options for roof terraces
Shade options on a Mayfair roof terrace

Shade options for roof terraces Shade is an important consideration. Roof terraces can be exceptionally hot in the summer if the sun is out. Consider designing some sunny spaces for lounging/sunbathing and more shaded areas for dining. This can be done with parasols, although be warned – these blow around in high winds. Alternatively, you could consider more permanent screens fixed to pergolas, or even boom mounted shade sails which retract when the wind is too strong.

In the next two posts, I will consider roof loading, water-proofing, build-ups, drainage and irrigation. In the meantime, if you have any questions just pop them in below and I’ll get back to you.

John

Chelsea 2015

I know, I know – whatever happened to ‘I don’t want to go to Chelsea’ I hear you all shouting!

This year as well as building a garden for Brewin Dolphin, designed by Darren Hawkes (see www.bowleswyer-contracts.co.uk/news for updates on this, or look at the live camera during build-up: http://bit.ly/1GHYVl5), we are also designing and building a garden for our old friends Gaze Burvill. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a big fan of their furniture, even having written a blogpost about it last year. Produced from English and European Oak, craftsman-made in Hampshire, it is simply the best designed, most comfortable garden furniture on sale.

1996-P01revB-LOWQWhen Simon Burvill came to me last year, I was interested in getting under the skin of what they were trying to achieve at Chelsea. The design of the garden came as much from this as the core values of Gaze Burvill – sustainability, craftsmanship and quality (which are closely aligned to our own). The plot is split into two areas, one about a metre above the other. The upper space is designed as a roof terrace and paved with a dark, slate-grey porcelain paving. A dark grey timber pergola sits above the central area in the rear corner, wrapped around by green walls on either side. The focal point in the rear corner is a beautiful water feature, designed in conjunction with David Harber. This is hewn from flamed granite, with a fissure exposing a jewel-like handmade glass panel, running with water. At night this will be backlit. The left hand side of the roof terrace (facing Main Avenue) features a sky-scape backdrop – the photo was taken from an actual roof terrace we designed a couple of years ago – with some of Gaze Burvill’s fantastic outdoor kitchen units in front of it. So you can cook and look over the London skyline (or dream!) These kitchen units are beautifully made and equipped with the best Wolf and Sub-zero appliances.

The lower part of the garden is reminiscent of an English country garden, with Purbeck dry stone walling and paving. on the corner of the site is a large English Oak tree – nearly 8m tall – which is a reference to the source of all the timber from which Gaze Burvill’s furniture is made. There is a second kitchen set in this section, with gently undulating faces to the units in contrast to the crisp lines of the roof terrace units.

If you are coming to Chelsea this year, do drop in – I am around quite a lot of the week and Gaze Burvill would be delighted to see you. Or you can just try out the bench facing on to Main Avenue…