Roof Garden Design: #3 – drainage and irrigation.

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

B&W copyright
Part of an irrigated roof garden in St Johns Wood, London

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

A typical tap-timer irrigation set up
A typical tap-timer irrigation set up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the point of community gardens?

John has invited me to write this month’s blog post as it is 15 years this year, since we started the Triangle Community Garden (www.trianglegarden.org) with a group of friends around our kitchen table in Hitchin.

Over the years, the question I get asked most often is: what is the community garden for? So I thought I’d try and answer it properly this time …

As many of you will be aware, the community garden movement started in the 1970s in cities, where plots of land lay undeveloped awaiting a better financial climate. High rise populations looked longingly at the waste land and sought ways to cultivate it and use it in the meanwhile. Once these ‘meanwhile gardens’ became established they took on massive importance to urban communities, as oases of usable productive green space and a way of bringing people together for positive ends.

Making a garden, as a community
Making a garden, as a community

At the Triangle Garden our tagline is ‘Connect, Grow, Enjoy!’ and it’s the sharing of the process of growing, creating, planning, gardening, harvesting, baking, making and just soaking it all up, that is what it’s all about.

Many people assume that community gardening is all about food growing, and for many projects it is, but the Triangle Garden has always been about the making of a garden, for everyone to enjoy.

That’s not to say that we don’t grow food – we do – but there are other, equally important, yields to be had. Over the years we’ve shared in the creation of a place of unexpected peace and beauty; a magical place between a busy road and a noisy railway line, with a magnetism for children and a time of its own … a secret garden.

Volunteers have come and gone, and as the Triangle Garden has evolved, so those involved have grown with it. We’ve learnt skills, like willow weaving, composting, pruning, mosaic making, peace-making, delegating, problem solving. We’ve shared wildlife adventures: the discovery of bats, hibernating newts, basking lizards, new froglets, bumblebees, butterflies, the creation of a wildlife pond, a bug hotel and a pollinators’ garden.  We’ve made mistakes, missed opportunities, suffered setbacks, had successes, been inspired, worked hard and had fun.

Volunteers picking this year's apples, and showing off a bottle of last year's juice
Volunteers picking this year’s apples, and showing off a bottle of last year’s juice

This month we’ve been busy picking and receiving donations of apples, to be processed locally into bottled juice, and sold to raise funds. We don’t make much money out of it, but it’s positive and fun, and makes use of fruit that would otherwise go to waste. People can’t wait to give us their apples or offer us their orchards to pick.

They say horticulture is a de-stresser because plants can’t talk back at you, but I think it’s more than that. Working with nature grounds you in a way that nothing else can: nature works to its own agenda and at its own pace – try and tame it at your peril! But when you observe it, try to understand it and work with it and not against it – then it gives back in spades!

One of our gardeners with some of the things she's grown this year
One of our Growing Ability gardeners with some of the things she’s grown this year

Our Growing Ability project for adults with learning disabilities, demonstrates that in abundance. In between the weekly sessions, nature is at work, rewarding our ‘gardeners’ for nurturing their plants and helping to achieve a small step towards a result they can be proud of, whether it be a crop of beans, a bed of strawberries, some bee-friendly flowers or a long-awaited and much-revered aubergine.

For those who attend, the project is a place where they can come together for a purpose and interact with the natural world.

Through planning their crops and tending their plots, our gardeners are learning and consolidating their literacy and numeracy skills, recognising cause and effect, and taking responsibility for seeing something through. From choosing and buying seed, to enjoying and sharing what they’ve grown, there is much to discover, learn and remember.

Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment
Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment

Observing and interacting with nature, even just being outdoors, can be therapeutic – individuals enjoy sharing their knowledge and feelings about the life around them: whether it’s birdsong, butterflies, earthworms, bees or the robin that frequents our allotment.

The social aspect of the project cannot be underestimated either. For some of our gardeners it is the only activity they do outside the house during the week. With no work, no spare cash and a limited circle of people who accept you, life can be very isolated. Sharing one morning a week in a supportive, positive, natural environment is a highlight to look forward to.

Our Growing Ability project has a sister initiative, born a couple of years ago from the desire of many of our gardeners to lose weight and get fitter. Growing Health provides a supportive environment where individuals can learn about weight management, portion control, and how to plan and cook healthy food on a limited budget, using the facilities available at home – usually a microwave and a kettle. The group share cooking and eating experiences, support each other in setbacks and successes, take regular walks together and play outdoor games in the summer.

Cricket with Growing Health
Cricket in the park with Growing Health

In the first year of the project, the group lost a total of 3 stone 12lbs, and this year another 14lbs was lost overall. As well as playing basketball and cricket, and walking together around the park during sessions, individuals are now choosing to walk into town instead of catching the bus and several have joined Hitchin library, making regular visits on foot. At break times in both projects, biscuits have been replaced by fruit as the snack of choice. Impressive stuff .. . and thanks overwhelmingly to our amazing staff team led by Project Manager Liz McElroy.

I must end now, having probably gone on far too long, but that’s what happens when you’re passionate about something…  (just don’t get me started on latin drumming).

Any questions on this blog, please drop us a comment below.

Vicky Wyer (landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, wife and mother to his children,  mad drumming woman).

If this has inspired you to find out more, please visit our website at www.trianglegarden.org.

Our community gardening sessions are on Friday mornings and the last Sunday of every month and are open to all. Our learning disability projects: Growing Ability, Growing Health and Growing Gang (a community-based work-experience project), run during the week from our allotment and the Triangle Garden.

If you’re in the area, come and find us at our next local event: Apple Day in Hitchin town square on 17th October 2015, 10am-2pm. Follow us on twitter @triangle_garden and Facebook: TriangleGarden

Badly balanced vegetables – diary of a well-meaning gardener

Badly balanced vegEvery year, I start off with the same good intentions. I’m not talking about taking more exercise, drinking a little less, losing a couple of pounds or keeping the bedroom tidier, although God knows I need to do all those things. No, I’m talking about the veg garden. This year (no exception) it ran something like this:

Boxing Day – sit thinking about how this year I will really get things sorted.

January 1st: decide to sow an early batch of tomatoes in the propagator before the end of the month.

February: sow mangetout and broad beans in the garden (the ones that I intended to sow in October). Look half-heartedly for propagator but cannot find all the bits.

March: discover mice have eaten the broad beans and peas I sowed last month. Sow some more.

Early April: actually sow first batch of tomatoes, along with courgettes, French beans, lettuces, gherkins and various vegetables that I don’t even like. There doesn’t seem to me to be a real argument for planting potatoes – I am infuriated by all the leftover potatoes that come up all over the veg garden from previous years.

Late April: despite misgivings I sow loads of seed potatoes, mainly because they looked a bit lonely sprouting on the shelf at the garden centre (plus I have a soft spot for Red Duke of York). Peas come up, but mice have eaten the broad beans (again). The pigeons have broken all the branches on the cherry trees eating the new shoots in the Spring.

May: after inspecting the seed trays every day or so for about five weeks, I discover that the lettuce seeds from two years ago that I sowed last month are no longer viable. This could have something to do with being stored in a non-airtight container in the warm conservatory, but personally I think it is just spite. Buy more lettuce seed and so that I will not be caught out again with dud seed, sow the whole lot. In desperation, buy broad bean seedlings and plant them out. Pigeons eat the pea seedlings. I think about how nice pigeon pie with peas might have been.

Early June: plant out about 400 lettuces. Discover that I have enough tomato plants to feed Italy, but not that bothered as I know they will all get blight before I can harvest them anyway. Courgettes doing really well! Discover a tray of climbing French beans at the back of the conservatory with a another seed tray on top of them. Amazingly, quite a few have survived (perhaps plants fare better with my neglect than my care?) I plant them out in the vegetable garden.

Late June: enjoying lettuces. Looking wistfully at stumps of pea plants. Broad beans doing OK, but showing signs of chocolate spot (they always do this, not normally too much of a problem if you pick them soon). Courgettes romping.

Early July: Getting a bit fed up with lettuce, which is also starting to bolt in the hot weather. Pick all my broad beans, and with great ceremony pick the first courgette. I always feel summer has properly arrived when I pick the first courgette. Mention airily when I am cycling with friends on a Sunday – ‘Oh, aren’t yours ready yet? I’ve started picking mine!’ All the raspberries seem to have ripened on the same day. I pick loads early one sunny morning, which would be a pleasant task if it wasn’t for the tall nettles which seem to have sneaked up between the canes, resulting in some nasty shocks when searching through foliage for just-reachable berries.  Also – a huge success with artichokes. In the winter I found some artichoke plants lurking at the back of the veg garden that I had forgotten about and transferred them down to a sunny border next to the deck. Not only do they look very statuesque, they have also produced about ten good-sized artichokes!

Lots of courgettes – but no beans!
Lots of courgettes – but no beans!

Mid July: Courgettes producing well, although beginning to get a bit worried that I have planted too many of them. I planted half of them in the vegetable garden and the other half down in the what we laughingly call the ‘forest garden’ – actually a bit more polyculture than permaculture. I think because they were in two different places I didn’t realise quite how many there were. Disappointed to see that the apricot tree at the Triangle Community Garden is laden with apricots whereas our own tree has none.

Late July: I can now barely get into the conservatory for tomato foliage. There is no sign of any tomatoes on these, although the outside tomatoes in the vegetable garden are heavy with trusses. I always plant some outside for the one year in ten when we get a dry end to the summer, and also because I pretend to myself that I like green tomato chutney, of which I seem to have rather a lot in the larder. We are now drowning in courgettes. I am picking them at the rate of about four a day (work it out – twenty-eight a week). The family are showing signs of courgette wilt. Potatoes now ready to harvest. I always think they look so sad at the end when they all collapse. I remember one year going on holiday and my daughter (who had stayed behind and was kindly doing some watering) thought she had killed them all. Genuinely disappointed (no, really) to hear that someone has pinched all the apricots off the tree at the Triangle Community Garden.

The remains of  a chocolate courgette cake
The remains of a chocolate courgette cake

Early August: Have a very successful courgette cooking session. I make a rather unusual courgette chocolate cake, which Vicky proclaims to be ‘a bit odd’ but to my surprise my elder son says it is ‘lovely’. Also manage to burn a load of courgettes while softening them for soup, which is great because I can bin them and use four more. I have also discovered the inevitable marrow which some escaped notice under the leaves of one plant. This is good news as it means I can make my favourite Zucha parmigiana dish, which is ridiculously rich, but delicious. Dip slices of marrow in egg and seasoned flour before frying and layering with Taleggio cheese and tomato sauce, then bake in the oven – Yum!

I will update this as the year goes on. Next year I might even do it month by month, who knows. Then again, I might be too busy gardening (and cooking courgettes).

Roof Garden Design: #2 – Loading and waterproofing.

Buildings occupy a central position in much of our work – most of what we do as landscape designers is affected in one way or another. I started this short series because I felt that whilst there was a lot written about the generalities (urban design, cityscape etc.), there is surprisingly little written about the ‘specifics’. Roof gardens seemed the natural place to start. In the last post – Roof Garden Design: #1 Exposure and Screening  – I explored the unique microclimate of rooftop spaces and what mitigation strategies are available to us as designers. In the next article I will look at another aspect of the cultural properties of these spaces – water; but before we get on to that, there is another more basic issue (literally) to deal with – the roof itself.

When I first started out practising in landscape design about thirty years ago, I was frequently asked to look at roof terraces on older, existing buildings. The first question I always used to ask was what the roof structure was made of (translating to what load it might be able to take). Clients frequently didn’t know and were sometimes a little dismissive of the necessity for care here. As we were generally standing in the centre of their roof space, I would conduct a simple test: I would make a small jump into the air. I weigh getting on for fourteen stone (about 87kg or 190lbs).

Typical beam and block construction  (courtesy of carter-concrete.co.uk)
Typical beam and block construction (courtesy of carter-concrete.co.uk)

The small jump allowed me tell instantly whether I was on a timber roof (which would flex alarmingly), a lightweight concrete structure such as beam and block (which had a small but discernible flex) or a loadbearing concrete slab (which would not noticeably flex at all). On timber roofs, a look of alarm used to spread across the client’s face, which was as good a demonstration as any other of the need to take load bearing ability of the structure seriously!

 

Typical timber roof construction (image courtesy of greenspec.co.uk)
Typical timber roof construction (image courtesy of greenspec.co.uk)

Of course, this is no substitute for proper calculation and advice from a qualified engineer, but it is a starting point in knowing what sort of load the roof is likely to be able to withstand. On new buildings, it is generally possible to get information from the structural engineer as to what load the roof has been designed for. This will generally be expressed in kilonewtons (kN). One kilonewton roughly translates into 100kg of force-load, so 4.5kN/m2 designed load approximately equates to a 450kg load per square metre. Engineers often make an allowance for live load on top of self-weight or dead load, to take account of the weight that people, furniture etc. exert. So in calculating paving weights this has to be maintained, but for larger freestanding planters, these can (with the engineer’s approval) include the live load allowance. Note that the calculations need to allow for wet compost and the weight of the plant itself rather than dry compost. Most structures can take more weight around the perimeter than in the centre, but be particularly careful on structures of a beam construction to find out which direction the beams run in. It is possible to safely load quite heavily across the ends of a number beams, but is dangerous to load along the length of a single beam, even if it is along the edge of the terrace.

The state of the waterproofing is also very important: there is little point in starting out on an expensive roof terrace if the waterproof membrane is old and in need of renewal. This needs to be tackled first by the client. There are many different systems of water proofing. On larger roofs it is common to use hot-melt continuous systems. On smaller roofs these are not always economic, although there are traditional asphaltic systems. I would also recommend that a root barrier is installed. Roots can attack organic compounds such as asphaltic roofing or mineralised felt. Even if the membrane is a continuous sheet, roots exploit weaknesses and joints which can cause leaks in the future. Chemical root barriers are therefore better than physical ones. Most roof companies have a standard product for just this sort of situation, but if not, lay a proprietary product above the drainage layer, such as RootX, which is copper foil sandwiched between geotextile (www.water-lines.co.uk/rootx) before proceeding with the rest of the build-up in planted areas.

Most roofs these days are ‘warm roofs’, meaning that the insulation is above the roof structure rather than below. On larger roofs it may be covered by a thin concrete layer, but frequently the insulation needs to be held in place by the layers above. In the next post, I will explore some of the options in terms of build-up, as well as looking at drainage and irrigation. In the meantime, as always if you have any questions (or criticisms!) leave a note below.

 

 

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…

How do you deliver quality in a project?

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

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

Pines with low sun
A dry site with a continental climate

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

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

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

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

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

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

The finished scheme looking east
The finished scheme

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Ambition a dirty word?

A couple of weeks ago, the subject of a talk by Oliver James attracted my attention – ‘The joys and perils of ambition’. It was staged as part of the Midtown Big Ideas Exchange, which has been running for a couple of months or more now. I was kind of interested in this. I have long been fascinated by the fetishism of leadership in the business environment. We are all encouraged to be proto-leaders. To become a leader you have to be ambitious! What makes this more interesting is that it tends to run counter to one of the other great pillars of modern business thinking – teams. Overly ambitious people just do not make good team players, as we all know from watching the slow motion TV car-crash in that is ‘The Apprentice’. So, the questions rattling around my mind while I was waiting for the talk to start were: Is ambition a taboo subject in teams? Are leadership/ambition and teams paradoxical? How threatening is ambition to leaders?

With thanks to InMidtownOliver James began by speaking about what motivated us all – why did we want to achieve? In the short term of course, each little (or large) victory makes you feel good. In the long term promotion brings rewards – we all do it for recognition and money. The funny thing is, often the perception of your contribution is often more important to success than the contribution itself. But why do some people really succeed in climbing the greasy pole, while others don’t?

James’s first answer to this was that the ruling elite set the rules…  Those who are successful in business/society map the criteria for those who follow. The downside of this is that over time, those who succeed are often those who are good at – well – succeeding, rather than at actually being good leaders. This is of course a well-known and worn political conundrum, but none the less true for that. He noted that many people who are successful come from troubled backgrounds – around a third have lost a parent before the age of 14 years.

This is the top image in Google if you search Psychopath...
This is the top image in Google if you search Psychopath…

He postulated that many leaders are towards the wrong end of a spectrum; most exhibit some (or all) of the dark triad of leadership qualities – Psychopathy/Narcissism/Machiavellian tendencies. The term psychopath carries a lot of emotional baggage and immediately conjures up images of a knife-wielding madman. However, there has been a lot written about this recently, and I suppose what we are talking about here is people who see everything in terms of how it relates to them and what they can get out of it. Ultimately, this leads to a certain disconnection from others and from reality .

Oliver James also talked about extrinsic and intrinsic goals. Most leaders (according to James) are driven by the former, whereas actually, there is more chance of success form the latter. He explored this in some detail, although the arguments were at times very convincing and at other times less so.

If what we are all seeking is ‘happiness’ what is that? He argued that it probably doesn’t exist and what’s more, if we try to chase it we will surely fail, like chasing rainbows. What we should be seeking is emotional health. This (he argues) is the best way to describe happiness – or perhaps to describe success? Six key behaviours demonstrate this:

  • Live in the present
  • Display Fluid two way communication – know when to listen (and learn) and when to speak.
  • Insight – spot what is about to happen
  • Playfulness – but not game-playing
  • Vivacity – enthusiasm is infectious
  • Authenticity (as opposed to sincerity)

It seems to me that we all demonstrate some aspects of all these behaviours – both the dark triad and the six healthy ones. I can certainly see elements of all of them in myself – as I guess others can. There are plenty of online tests of psychopathy, although how effective they are I have no idea! Try this one: http://www.playbuzz.com/gregs/can-you-pass-the-psychopath-test?

James continued by stating (somewhat depressingly) that we are all led by psychopaths. What I found fascinating about this was that he was speaking to a group largely made up of business leaders (or aspiring business leaders). We all, of course, lapped up every word.

His concluding argument was that our ambition should be emotional health. Perhaps this makes you a good team player? Of course (in theory) it makes you a good boss too, but would you ever get there to find out?

He finished – with a flourish – by singing a couple of phrases from a Bananarama song:

“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it– that’s what gets results!”

*Thanks to InMidtown (http:/inmidtown.org) for the use of the Oliver James illustration – and for putting on the series!

Why are the gardens of the Alhambra so important?

IMG_8250In 1989 I was blown away by a visit to the Alhambra. The scale of the vision and achievement, the huge variety of spaces and the subtlety and grandeur of the design was almost overwhelming. For several years it had a pervasive effect on my design thinking, both overtly and in less obvious ways.

After twenty-five years, Vicky and I decided to make a return visit this summer, this time with three (almost) grown-up children in tow. The experience didn’t disappoint.

I am sure many of you have been to The Alhambra/Generalife complex; I also don’t wish to sound like a travelogue. This is a departure for this blogspace, but the gardens are so remarkable, I felt compelled to share at the very least some pictures and (for those who can be bothered to read) a few ramblings. The Alhambra has been a constant influence on garden design and thinking in the last century and a half.

The Alhambra is a vast complex of gardens
The Alhambra is a vast complex of gardens

Part of this is due to its scale – it is a vast complex of gardens and thus the achievement is that much more impressive. The gardens probably represented the pinnacle of Arabic garden design – they incorporated the earlier influences of Persia and the Mesopotamian gardens, but escaped the overblown grandeur of some of the later gardens. I guess this is partly because they were designed for private rather than public use. However, their pervasive influence is also a matter of historical timing. They were conceived and implemented at the height of Arabic expansion into southern Europe. After the 1500s, the Moors were driven back into north Africa, but much of their thinking and many of their craftsmen remained in Europe. The influence was particularly noticeable in garden design. Whereas renaissance architecture has a clear lineage from the ancient Greeks and Romans, Garden design from the period is more identifiably descended from Arabic and Middle Eastern design. This classical layout of rills, fountains, trees and parterres continued to be the dominant force in European garden design until the mould was broken by the English Landscape movement in the late C18th. The roots were later rediscovered through the writings of travellers through southern Europe, such as Washington Irving and the Spanish-Arabic style became very influential again in the early twentieth century in the UK (through the Edwardian garden designers such as Lutyens/Jekyll) and US (particularly on the newly moneyed West Coast).

The perfect balance between formality and informality; between nature and human
The perfect balance between formality and informality; between nature and human

For me though, they capture something of the essence of what a garden is. Firstly, they are an escape; built in a retreat from the sound and bustle of Granada and the heat of the streets, the complex occupies a strategic hilltop. In virtually all cultures Paradise is a garden, and these get about as close as any I have seen. The sense of escape and retreat from the bustle of life is palpable. Secondly, they maximise the site. They take advantage of the hilltop position, funnelling the cooler air through the gardens.

Glimpses of the surrounding countryside are carefully managed.
Glimpses of the surrounding countryside are carefully managed.

The spectacular views are carefully managed. Glimpses are given here and there, only occasionally opening up into broader panoramas. The designs are artful in how they manage serial spaces. courtyards, terraces and walkways link one to another in a delightful and often surprising way. One is never bored and unlike some of the great French classical gardens, the whole design is rarely revealed. The hilltop location dictates some complex geometry, so axes kink and turn in a way that makes the design less predictable than one expects. Perhaps the most important feature however is the way in which the gardens perfectly weave together the essence of what a garden is.

Although formal, the culinary roots of the designs are clear
Although formal, the culinary roots of the designs are clear

Although these are very sophisticated designs, the origins from kitchen gardens is clear, with fruit trees abounding and the parterres as constant reminders of herb and vegetable beds. All gardens need limits – it is one of the things that defines a garden (see my blog on the subject from a couple of years ago: When is a garden designer a landscape designer? Indeed, when is a garden a landscape – or vice-versa?). Here the walls and boundaries are an integral part of the thinking: the enclosed nature of the spaces is the essence of the design. But the users of the garden are never allowed to forget the surrounding environs: the large trees echo the wooded hills and provide a pleasant balance to the symmetrical formality of the layout; the frequent glimpses of the surrounding hills and valleys means that one is constantly aware of the links with the broader landscape.

So for me, the gardens at the Alhambra capture that elusive idea of nature captured, of the reflections of a broader landscape. Woven into this are complex aesthetic references along with expressions of learning and cultural identity. Most importantly though, they are just a very pleasant and ever changing place to spend time, as all gardens should be.

If you haven’t already been there, make sure it is at the top of your bucket list this year!

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