Category Archives: Business, philosophy and ethics

A brief trot through what makes us tick and a reflection on how things ought to be done.

Garden Design and Exploring Space

I don’t know about you, but I get a lot more emails than I used to. What with that and phone calls, like everyone else, I frequently find myself typing or sketching something at the dining room table at 10pm in order to meet a deadline. It is even worse now that I am trying to train for this damn three peaks malarky – now I have to fit in 150 miles a week on the bike, as well! I say to myself how much more I could get done if I just had another hour or so… Just imagine what I could achieve if I didn’t have to sleep! And like other people I see on the tube and the train (where I am sitting right now) I use all those little bits of time to check emails, go on twitter, write a blog etc.

Which is why you may find it strange that I am arguing that we should make some space in our busy lives to do nothing. Some of you might remember my previous piece entitled ‘Where do ideas come from?’ (10 May 2012) In this, I argued the importance of the right-hand half of the brain in creative activities, such as design. In the article, I quoted Mattias Konradsson – “Creativity and ideas don’t come on command, they seem to spring up when we least expect it”. For me that is often when I am staring into space. Or sitting on a train. Or driving. Or (this one is the most frequent) standing in the shower in the morning. Perhaps this last is the most revealing: the fact that the brain has been completely disengaged from everyday tasks for a few hours may leave it free to chew away at some problem that it hasn’t been able to address during the waking hours. A bit like when my laptop runs short of RAM, except that it doesn’t seem to go on working when I turn it off! Perhaps we all need to make a bit more space in our lives for doing nothing? Shift into neutral and idle for a while. We might be surprised at the results.

So, if you see me on the train, gazing out of the window; or nursing a cup of coffee and staring into space, just remember that I might be working on my next project…

How do you find space to think in a busy life?

Do the banking scandals have any relevance to Landscape Design?

The revelations this week at Barclays represent the latest peak of a range of mountainous scandals in the banking industry. Each time, we think that all the worst excesses have been revealed, whereupon the clouds part to reveal yet another mountain. The final summit may as yet be hidden. What relevance has this to our industry, one might ask, other than the fact that many of our client base are bankers? There are few parallels. Perhaps the only one is that we, like bankers, operate in an area where the degree of specialist knowledge and skill required means that many aspects of it are beyond most people. But given the specialisation of modern life, that could be argued for most fields – getting your car fixed for example. Well actually, that is quite a good example. There are many reports of malpractice with unscrupulous garages. We have to trust them, we have little way of knowing whether they are taking advantage of us or not. What is more worrying about the Barclays (and other banks) scandals is the sheer scale at which the company culture has resulted in a failure to deliver in the customers’ interests.

These things do not happen by accident. Of course, all acts within an organisation are based on decisions taken by people, many by individuals and these individuals must take responsibility for their actions. But it goes further than this. How individuals behave in organisations depends on the prevailing culture, on what seems to be ‘acceptable’ behaviour. If the directors of a business are regularly seen to have their ‘hands in the till’, then employees will also consider it acceptable to partake in petty fraud and dishonesty. If managers place huge importance on hitting targets and say things like ‘I don’t care how you get there’ then they are sending the message that targets are more important than customers, and damage to customer interest is inevitable.

Many landscape practices and contracting firms are small businesses where the behavioural tone set by the leader/s of the business will have a disproportionate effect on the organisational culture. In the long run, it is pretty obvious that honesty will lead to higher profit levels, that the ‘quick buck’ may be tempting, but the slow bucks will be more numerous. Despite this, there is still a great deal of short-sighted dishonesty in our industry. Business owners treating their firms like an extension of their personal spending, over-charging customers where they can get away with it and bad-mouthing the competition whenever the opportunity arises are just some examples. There are also many cases of opaque charging – commission payments are commonplace. In a post a few months ago called ‘Should garden designers take commission payments’ (http://www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=197), this topic released a flood of comments on LinkedIn, all of them condemning the practice, which would make you think it no longer happens. I know for a fact it is still widespread. this raises a further interesting point. The issue of ethics and culture goes beyond single businesses into the relationships between businesses. In that way it affects all of us, even sole traders.

The same applies in our dealings with clients. We are often a little in awe of them, particualrly if they are rich and famous. We can get nervous when being questioned about our choices. I was listening to that former political bruiser John Reid on the radio this morning talking about what to do when wrong-footed in an interview. “If in doubt, tell the truth. If you’ve changed your mind, say you changed your mind. If you don’t know, say so. If you’ve made a mistake, admit it. If you do that, then you can move on to what you want to talk about.” Good advice indeed.

Famine & Feast – Hose Pipe Ban Lifted

So after a few months of worry about how we will manage without that lovely new power washer or multifunction trigger hose, we can dust them down and once again unleash our favourite garden toys, standing proud over our domain as we spray our delicate plants with gay abandon and jet wash anything and everything in sight!  Hose pipe ban? What hose pipe ban? After all we have had a deluge of rain haven’t we!  Buckets of it and those poor campers in Wales will vouch for that!  And whilst the rain was obviously welcome for a while, even in the landscape industry we are now praying for dry weather again so we can get on with some meaningful work!

Wet camping!

We have been told by the water companies that the reservoirs are at nearly 75% capacity, the norm for this time of year. So all can be forgotten for now and we can carry on as normal!  This is despite the fact that ground water resources that these very companies are so heavily dependent on remain significantly or even severely depleted, putting increasing strain on the UK’s water supply!

Surely the sensible thing would be to actually maintain the ban until we reach 90-100% capacity in reservoirs and ground resources have had more time to recover, that way if the rain does actually stop for long periods again at least we will have better reserves to cope when drought sets in again.

Dry Ground

You may wonder why I take this stance, especially being from a landscape industry that benefits from using hoses.  The thing is I do actually believe there should be special dispensation from the water companies for the landscape industry, especially as we contribute so much to the economy and educate whenever we can on sensible water usage, it seems odd to me that car washers are held in higher asteem and given special privileges by the water companies!  This aside my main point is that it seems half hearted to to impose a ban on the general public and then lift it so soon following a relatively short spell of rain, albeit one that has seemed constant at times.  This simply adds fuel to the fire for those against the ban and weakens its status when imposed again.

Water shortage has and will continue to become a major issue in this country over the coming years and we should all be doing more to prepare, conserve and re-use as much water as possible while we have it.   Why not do this when supplies of water are high rather than wait until it is all gone again and panic!  See B&W earlier blog http://www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=466 when the hose pipe ban was originally announced for helpful tips on how to use water efficiently.

The last drip!

If we prepare in the good times we can benefit in the bad.  If we are forced into using more water butts, installing drip irrigation systems, recycling grey water and walking back and forward with a watering can more often then so be it!  Like many things in our consumerist society we have taken water supply for granted for a long time and abused it.  It is time to buck this trend and the government and water companies should be leading the way in persuading us to change.

Money Talks

An interesting article in the Guardian Newspaper last week stated that The Institution of Civil Engineers is calling on ministers to introduce compulsory water meters with differential pricing.  This essentially means some water would be provided cheaply but we would have to pay much more for anything above that amount.  We may well bemoan the fact that prices will go up but at the end of the day money talks and will force many of us to take notice and be more prudent with water usage.  Whether this would impact the wealthy in the same way as the less affluent remains to be seen but it at least draws a line in the sand ready for other legislation to follow on.

James Smith

Where do ideas come from?

As landscape architects or garden designers, many of us spend a good deal of our time designing (though perhaps not as much as we would like).  This is probably the most important and distinctive part of our work.  Yet try to get designers to talk about how they go about this and one is confronted with blank looks of misunderstanding.  During interviews I almost always ask prospective staff – how do they design?  Blank.  What processes do they go through?  Blank.  What do they actually do?  Few people can even put one sentence together about the design process let alone come up with any coherent analysis.

At college most of us were taught the ‘Survey-Analysis-Design’ method, which grew from and is linked to the modernist mantra of “form follows function”.  This principle is so deeply rooted as to have become almost unassailable.  At its core is the idea that an object is inherently beautiful if it fulfils the use for which it was designed.  In other words by satisfying the first two Vitruvian principles of commodity and firmness, the third (delight) is automatically satisfied.  Whilst in many cases this is true (Mies van der Rohe’s buildings for instance) it is also flawed.  Do you suppose that the beauty in Calatrava’s work is purely an expression of form follows function?  I think not.

Photo credit Jonathan Choe
Calatrava’s stunning work in Milwaukee. Photo credit: Jonathan Choe (http://www.flickr.com/photos/crazyegg95)

 The essential inconsistency in ‘Survey-Analysis-Design’ (SAD) is the implication that it is made up of three equal and similar partners.  On both counts this is untrue.  Survey is a process of gathering information and although there is a subjective element in the filtering and recording of information, it is essentially a quantitive process.  Analysis on the other hand is essentially a qualitative process.  Nonetheless, both elements have established methodologies and rely on ordered and rational procedures.  At this point we are expected to make what Tom Turner calls “the creative leap”1.  The SAD method is taught as though the design grows naturally and organically from the first two stages.  If this were true, we would all (like first year college students) come up with the same solutions to design challenges.  In fact the creative process is quite different in its nature.  It relies on ‘ideas’ that are filtered and modified against a rational framework to make them work in the real world.  Thus the SAD method is a way of modifying ideas rather than originating them.

So where do these ideas come from?  To most of us it is a mystery.  As Mattias Konradsson puts it: “..ask a friend to think up something creative on the spot and he’ll look like he ate a bowl of ice cream in a hurry.  It’s indeed an elusive process.  Creativity and ideas don’t come on command, they seem to spring up when we least expect it”2.  Much of the writing on the subject of design theory intellectualises this process.  Methodologies, systems and theories have been put forward, but most post-rationalise what is essentially an intuitive process. 

Instead of trying to dissect and categorise the process of idea origination, it probably makes more sense to try and examine how the brain works.  Most designers are exposed to myriad cultural, spiritual and other influences that are clearly inspirational.  Nonetheless, most people still talk about ideas coming ‘out of the blue’ and we are all familiar with the way in which they can be triggered by unexpected sources.  One theory that looks at this in more detail is that of brain hemispheres.  The “left brain – right brain” hypothesis was initially put forward by Roger Sperry who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1981.  In simple terms, he postulated that the left part of the brain controls the rational, analytical, objective, and detailed parts of our thinking; generally in a conscious fashion.  The right part of the brain is responsible for the intuitive, random parts of our thinking.  It works on a subconscious level and focuses on aesthetics, emotions, creativity and subjectivity.  It is certainly true that the subconscious plays a critical part in the generation of ideas.

Perhaps it is impossible to successfully analyse creativity.  Some people are naturally creative designers, and others will never be.  For most of us in the middle, the ability to create and develop ideas that are the seeds of designs is something that can be fostered and refined.  This partly happens through practice, and partly by the adoption of specific strategies.

In my experience the most successful design strategies work by giving the subconscious parts of the brain more free rein to work.  The most effective of these is the deadline.  If I have all day or all week to work on something, most of it is spent in a state of constipated frustration.  Instead of producing something better I produce something worse.  The other strategy I use is to do something else.  Absorb the details of the site and then work on other things for a week or so before coming back and working ideas up quite quickly. Often just when I think I have things right, the client changes some parameter.  I reluctantly rework the scheme only to discover that I have come up with a better solution than the original.  All of these indicate that if we constrain our thought processes with too much methodology, we limit our ability to generate ideas.  Of course, these ideas are loose fluffy masses which must be clipped and beaten into shape against a framework of principles.  These may be site specific or more general and are part of the signature of individual designers as well as determining how practical their schemes are.

So where does this leave us.  Survey-Analysis-Design is not really a method at all.  The best ideas come while you’re in the bath.  And if you try to design things by a method you can’t do it at all.  Best not to think about it I say.  Now, about that deadline…..

John Wyer

This article first appeared in Landscape Magazine under the title ‘Finding the form’.

What are your favourite ways of stimulating the design process? Leave a comment.

  1. Tom Turner. Garden Design Journal Autumn 1999: ‘Timeless with delight’
  2. Mattias Konradsson. ‘The Creative Process’ A List Apart ISSN: 1534-0295. 12 March 1999 – Issue No. 8

Stop, Collaborate & Listen!

 As designers there are times when we become fully absorbed in our own work, and rightly so.  This happens frequently when projects are running at full tilt and we barely have time to sip that treasured early morning coffee, let alone pause for contemplation.

Ummm!

Whether you work in a small studio or large office it is important to take a step back to review work when the opportunities arise.  More often than not constructive criticism from our office colleagues encourages us to look again and consider alternatives available.  This often leads to better design development and the results are often more successful.   

Can we rely on our colleagues too much though?  There can be a danger that the criticism we receive becomes diluted or even too friendly if we are not careful.  This is where collaboration with other external professionals can be useful from time to time to refresh creativity. 

Elephant & Castle

Recently at Bowles & Wyer we were involved in a public realm design tender for an exciting regeneration project around the St Mary’s site at Elephant & Castle.  Lend Lease and Southwark council are working in partnership to transform this site as part of an overall £1.5bn, 55 acre development programme.  We were shortlisted down to the final two designers but sadly we were not awarded the final contract despite our best efforts.  The experience however proved beneficial.  

Jeremy Rye Studio were initially invited to tender by Lend Lease and approached us to work in collaboration with them.  Jeremy Rye worked previously for Kim Wilkie, recently setting up his own practice in 2011.  His key strengths lie in masterplanning and sustainable design and he felt this would complement  our own experience in detailed design of urban spaces, roof gardens and high quality residential developments. 

Brooks Drive Extension Concept

It quickly became apparent from our first meeting that we had similar ideas and values, helping us form a strong bond.  We made sure we communicated regularly and most importantly gave un-bias ‘outsider’ criticism of each other’s ideas.  The result was a robust response to the design brief and we were left convinced our ideas had the potential to be successful. 

Concept Masterplan

Criticism from fellow landscape practitioners is not something we all have the luxury of during design stages of projects but something that can prove useful with the right team of people.   Results can be surprising with exciting outcomes often different to those produced in isolation.  Maybe we should all consider the benefits of collaboration once and a while to challenge our thinking?  Certainly in tough economic times it is no bad thing to have allies closer to home.

James Smith

Should garden designers take commission payments?

Loadsamoney! - Commission? or corruption?

We were recently offered a commission payment by a firm that designed and built treehouses. We were recommending them on a large garden we are undertaking in Surrey. We did not take up the offer. Interestingly, shortly afterwards they put us forward for another job in the same neighbourhood and demanded a commission payment if we were appointed. We refused, saying that payment should be unnecessary. This resulted in quite a row between us.

We were against taking the payment on a number of different grounds. Firstly, it clouds your judgement. I want to be free to make decisions on a number of criteria, without the ‘size of the bung’ being one of the factors. Secondly, we should be free to recommend others (and be recommended ourselves) on the basis of competency, skills and experience. We work with a range of other experts and specialists – joiners, artists, lighting designers, etc. we choose them on merit. Finally (and most importantly) it is essentially dishonest. Not dishonest in the sense of illegal, but more in the sense of not being transparent. If you take such payments, do you tell your client? If not, why would that be? In other industries (such as the insurance industry), we all rail against similar opaque practices, calling them shady, dishonest or even corrupt. When it is us being offered the money it is a slightly different story. We either defend it saying it is an honestly earned commission, or keep quiet and take the money (which is what I suspect most people do). Even if one decides to take a stance on this, it is very difficult not to acquiesce when a supplier effectively gives you the money unbidden by inviting you to invoice them, as happened to us recently. Perhaps weakly, I didn’t invoice them, but I didn’t tell them I wouldn’t take the money either (although I won’t). I am not saying we haven’t accepted it once or twice in the past, but we have made a joint decision in the business to draw a line here.

In any case, most if not all professional associations frown upon the idea: it is strictly forbidden by the code of professional conduct of both the Landscape Institute and the Society of Garden Designers. I suspect that this does not stop the practice going on however. I also realise that I will probably unleash a flood of posts from other designers saying that this is the only way they can make a decent living; that it is alright for you lot in the SE etc. etc. My answer to that is that you should charge more. Again – ‘Alright for you lot in the loaded South-East’. But if you don’t try and charge a living wage for what you do, how will clients ever learn to value it? What clients pay for should be transparent and fair – to both sides.

John Wyer

Small acts can make big changes

I went to a funeral yesterday of a friend who had spent most of his too-short life campaigning on environmental and other issues. It seemed a cold, bleak moment as we stood by the graveside on the snow-covered ground. But then, something amazing happened. Brightly coloured bio-degradable balloons we handed around. We learned that each had been filled with a few wildflower seeds before they had been inflated. After a few words and a moment’s silence, all the balloons were released simultaneously into the winter sky. It was a beautiful moment as we all stood, each wrapped in our own thoughts, watching the balloons floating away.

I was profoundly struck by this. As always at such events, one is sharply reminded of the mortality that we all share and of how much for granted we take vitality. It also offered an opportunity to re-assess priorities and goals. Even in his last act, this deeply committed individual was striving to bring about change. The wildflower seeds were of course a quite literal interpretation of the parable of the seed sowing – those which fall on fertile ground would grow. But they were also a wonderful metaphor. Sometimes the best way to bring about change is not grand gestures, but small acts. We never know what effect each small act of change may be. A letter here or an email there; a name on a petition, a face at a meeting: some of these will fall on stony ground, but others may take root.

John Wyer

Why are Landscape designers different?

Landscape and Garden design are different from other forms of design. Why? Well, there are two reasons; firstly because we design with living things. This means our designs change with time. They are not ephemeral in the usual sense of the word, tending instead to improve with time. However, the other reason we are different is that we are always site-specific. This is sometimes true for other professions (architecture for example), but always true for landscape design. Sometimes I think that we do not sufficiently realise what a rare opportunity this represents.

A few months ago, we looked at a site in the Gade Valley in Hertfordshire. We already have other projects in this valley, notably at a grade II* listed manorial house called Gaddesden Hall. The new plot we were looking at was different because it was a greenfield site where the client was planning an application under PPS7, which allows new houses to be built in the countryside if they are of exceptional architectural quality. 

This new site really got me thinking about what it meant to be site specific in terms of design, and also how that related to the client. I suppose what defined it was not so much the views (which were fantastic) or the approach through the tree-covered lane, which I also really liked, but the way the site connected to the broader landscape. One of the things that I learned from working at Gaddesden Hall is that the Gade Valley has a rich history going back at least a couple thousand years, and probably longer. That is why the approach through the little lane overhung with trees was so important, because the feeling one gets walking up the track is of stepping backwards to something forgotten.

In landscape terms this would mean that our approach would not be to create a ‘garden’ as such. Neither would it be to try and ‘hide’ the house. In any case, in order to succeed the architect’s design would have to strike chords with its surroundings. In the simplest terms we would be looking at integration, but this works at a more fundamental level than a cosmetic or visual approach.

When we were standing on the site, I remarked to the client that although we were surrounded by classic English ‘countryside’, everything that we could see around us was a ‘manmade’ landscape. In effect of course this means a balance between human activity and natural forces. Ultimately any landscape that we would create would be the same – it would seek equilibrium between human activity and nature. How this will look depends partly on the activity – lawn, vegetable gardens, orchards, pasture, hedgerows, woodland and reedbeds all occupy different positions in the tapestry of the broader landscape and represent varying inputs of activity.

 The skill would be to weave different elements (however few or many they may be) together into a whole that feels right, that feels as though it has always been there. It will be neither a pure expression of the site any more than it will be a pure distillation of who the client is (or the designer for that matter), but a manifestation of how we interact with the land, how we live in the place. In this way it will not only be unique but will change with time as our circumstances change and with every decision that we make.

John Wyer

Should designers stick to designing?

I attended a BALI designer forum recently, which was intended not only as a networking session for BALI registered designer members, but also as a joint session between designers and contractors to talk through shared issues and to find common ground. It was entitled ‘Designers in a contractors’ world – a foot in both camps’. Ironically, this rather accurately describes Bowles & Wyer, so I was there not quite sure which hat I was supposed to have on. It was an interesting day. Quite early on, there was a list of ‘pet gripes’ that had been gleaned from designers about contractors and vice-versa. These were fairly predictable, although there were a couple of classics, such as: “why do you keep putting specification clauses in that you copied from a college spec , that have no relevance to this job?” (from a contractor); or “please read the documents I send you” (from a designer).
Following a breakout session, we came back together to discuss the roles of designers and contractors. There was a brisk discussion around the issue of designers supplying plants. This was partly sparked by one of the contractors’ comments that we had seen earlier. Pat Fox noted that when he was asked about this issue, Andrew Wilson had opined that ‘Garden designers should stick to garden design’. She was of a different opinion, that if there was an element of profit in the supply of plants, then why shouldn’t garden designers be entitled to that?
My own view is that in principle, Andrew is right – garden designers should stick to garden design; if they are struggling to make that pay then they should be charging more. I realise that in the fairly rarefied atmosphere of the upper end of the London and South east market (that I largely work in) it is easy to talk about this with the luxury of choice and that for many this may be the only way that they can survive. David Robinson put forward a spirited and well-argued view on exactly that point, saying that in the market that he worked (largely the West Midlands) the fees were not on their own enough to support a garden designer and that plant sales were a necessary part of the business model.
Of course, I am also aware that many people will take my saying ‘Garden designers should stick to garden design’ as hypocritical in the extreme, because I am engaged in contracting and design build. My point here is that it is better to strike a clear position rather than cherrypick the bits that suit you. Although this allows higher profit levels, I see a number of disadvantages. First off I think it offers clients a confusing situation. Either a separation of design and construction, or one organisation doing them all – these are very clear positions, with little left to chance. Secondly (and linked) is the matter of liability envelope. If a plant is supplied by the designer to the client, but the delivery is taken and the plant is planted by the contractor, then it is not exactly clear who takes responsibility if something goes wrong. Of course, if the designer takes full responsibility then this is not a problem, particularly if he/she also plants the stock. However, in my experience this has not been the case. Often designers want to select and take the profit on plants without the responsibility. Because contractors (like designers) work on a tight margin, in reality the contractor is likely to price in some attendances and loss of profit into the job, so the client will end up paying more in any case. Which perhaps argues the point that they should be paying realistic (i.e. higher) fees in the first place?