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?

The kid in all of us

I had a refreshing meeting with a client the other day and it was the last thing I expected. The client was a Russian businessman and his family; the location was a very exclusive private estate in Surrey. We have been involved in the project for a little while now, but this was the first meeting that we were presenting serious proposals. The first surprise was that top of their list on the brief was a decent sized vegetable garden. We had anticipated this and incorporated a quaint potager and fruit garden.

 

When we were going through the plans there was a lot of discussion (in Russian) before he turned back to me and said ‘This is fine for a few vegetables, but it is much too small – at the moment my mother in law looks after a kitchen garden of about 600m2 – where is she going to grow her potatoes?’Although I have quite a large vegetable garden at home, I was not used to this from most of my clients, and it was an interesting change. From there the discussion moved on to the play equipment for their three young children. ‘This looks a bit tame’ he remarked, ‘Can we have something a bit more adventurous? Also, will this trampoline take adults?’

I must confess that I never thought I would hear one of my clients say ‘Will this trampoline take adults?’ It just goes to show that you should never make too many suppositions or pre-conceptions about people. This was a client who despite all his wealth, clearly had his priorities straight! Nothing like a quick bounce on the trampoline after a hard day in the veg garden, I always find…

Hamamelis mollis

I was reminded of this plant recently when visiting a garden in Surrey. I bring it to your attention simply because I always think of it in terms of a shrub growing to about 2m or so. These were two beautiful specimens, each about 7-8m tall.

Not only that but they had unusually graceful, twisted stems and a low-branching form that most designers would kill for. They were tucked away in the corner of a somewhat overrun garden in Surrey. What attracted me initially was the pale haze of the flowers visible from some distance away.

At first I thought it was a Corylopsis pauciflora, it was only when I got closer that I noticed the familiar pale thread-like petals and the delicate fragrance, discernible even on a damp, cold, January day. A real delight and certainly a plant that will find its way back on to my ‘must use’ lists.

Winter Landscapes

This normally muddy footpath is transformed by the snow. Look how the pinks and mauves in the low sunlight are reflected in the snow

Why think about gardens now? The weather outside is terrible and the sun seems to set only just after it has risen. One reason to look forward to the spring is that it is a good way to cheer yourself up. This is of course famously the time of year to make resolutions and lists; clear one’s desk and mind of preconceptions, and move forward with fresh vigour (if slightly lower in the water after the Christmas period). It is perhaps for this reason that we often get new enquiries in January. It is not a bad time to start planning a project, if one can raise the enthusiasm. Getting stuck into the possibilities of what can be achieved is almost by definition an optimistic process which helps raise the spirits of all concerned.

I also find that one looks at landscapes and gardens in a different way at this time of year. In a sleepy winter landscape, the importance of what colour and life remains is underlined.

One becomes more aware of the contrasts between evergreens and deciduous plants; of coloured stems shining in low sunlight. Birds are suddenly much more noticeable, along with the need to cater for them. There is something particularly fascinating about the landscape laid bare at this time of year. Beyond the tiredness of the herbaceous plants and bumpy lawns, there is a leaner palette of colour and texture that gradually forces the casual observer to look more closely at a landscape.

 The combination of colour and texture of these rosehips with the frost on them is beautiful

The skeletal nature of the branches, and the tracery of the twigs can look very dramatic against a pale sky, and quite magical when picked out in frost.

Everyone enjoys the snow, but look how the contrast enhances the pattern of the twigs....

The snow underlines the structure of a landscape in quite a different way. The surface textures are all obliterated, the contours smoothed out and the colour palette reduced to a simple, elegant monotone. The reflective effect of the white landscape also gives a different quality to the light.

This normally muddy footpath is transformed by the snow. Look how the pinks and mauves in the low sunlight are reflected in the snow

The sun is often low in the sky which enhances the undulations of the landforms with subtle bluish purple shadows. All of these things allow us to look at the structural elements of the landscape with a detachment that is otherwise rarely possible, often revealing a hidden beauty and simplicity of form. There is also a stillness about a winter landscape that lends real serenity. Noise is muffled, but there are few leaves to rustle together anyway.

A landscape transformed by snow

So instead of moping inside, look at the landscape through fresh eyes and reassess it. You may see simple beauty that you hadn’t noticed before.

Garden Design for Small Spaces

 

It may seem perverse to link the words ‘small’ and ‘space’ together, but unfortunately for most people who garden in central London, this is an all too familiar conundrum. Even more perversely, it doesn’t seem to make much difference how big your house is, the spaces aren’t necessarily any bigger – you just get six of them. However, even the smallest external space has potential. The real joy is that with access to light and water it is possible to enliven the flatness of the urban environment. Few things are more cheering than spring bulbs bursting through soil, or an exuberance of foliage and flower on a hot day.

Unfortunately the gritty reality is that basement lightwells, balconies and roof terraces can be daunting places to try and establish a garden and you should use all the weapons at your disposal. Let’s start with some practical considerations. How is the space to be used? Can some or all of it be easily seen from inside? What is access like? The links with internal spaces are often vital and should be exploited as much as possible. Make the most of views from important windows by placing pots, sculptures, specimen plants or other features on the same axis. Try and draw the viewer out into the space by giving hints of something just out of sight.

Try and create drama in a small space. Mirrors can add depth and mystery, especially if partly veiled by foliage. Use lighting, particularly uplighting, to accentuate features such as pots or sculptures. Strong textures (which work well in confined spaces) are much emphasised by carefully placed lighting. Try luxuriant foliage or slatted trelliswork against white or brightly coloured stucco walls. Water and light combine well together. Water features can be very dramatic in confined spaces, and these days there are all sorts of possibilities that take up very little space. The sound of trickling water can add to the ambience of a small terrace.

Lighting not only adds drama, but also extends the period during which you can use a garden. We often use firepits to add a strong focus; they are a great gathering point on cooler evenings and allow use of the garden well into the autumn. For roof terraces or smaller spaces, there are options fuelled by gel or by gas. Hot tubs are worth considering too; there is nothing quite like lying on your back in a hot tub looking at the stars – we did a garden in London’s West End last year with a hot tub that had a view of Green Park! There are even wood-fired ones for the more adventurous souls.

Don’t forget the surface you walk on. If you don’t want the upheaval of lifting the existing paving why not lay timber decking or thin porcelain tiles over the top.

Planting will always do better if it is rooted directly into the ground, but in many situations this is not possible. Give some thought to containers, as these are an important part of the ‘furniture’ of your external room. Don’t automatically go for terracotta, we often get timber containers made up, or you could try lead or ceramic. If working to a tight budget, found objects such as old zinc galvanised baths, buckets, or even lavatory pans can be wonderful. We have also used sections of air-conditioning ducts before as planters.

Horticultural considerations are of paramount importance. Remember the three basic needs of plants: water, light and nutrients. Consider installing a simple irrigation system -many of these are available over the counter at garden centres in kit form or can be installed at a reasonable cost by a competent gardener. Drainage is also important. Light is at a premium in courtyards and deep lightwells so choose plants carefully. Generally speaking, green-leaved plants will put up with lower light conditions than variegated or coloured foliage types. Reserve silver and grey leaved plants for high light positions. In really dismal conditions, rely on foliage rather than flower and pick plants well adapted to such conditions such as ferns. Pockets of colour can always be introduced with bedding plants. Compost should be of good quality and, if possible, replaced on a regular basis (every 2-3 years for example). On roof gardens you will also have to consider exposure. Use permeable structures, such as a close mesh trellis of horizontal battens, for shelter rather than solid screens such as glass; the more solid a windbreak is the more turbulence it will create. Seaside plants are well suited to these conditions. Combine them with decking and beach pebbles for a maritime feel. All in all, remember that the more you put into a small garden the more you will get out of it.

How to create a perfect garden

A week or two ago, we were really thrilled to receive a bunch of awards at the annual BALI awards ceremony at Grosvenor House. We were particularly pleased to get the grand award and the design build award for the same project, a garden in Surrey. The judges were glowing in their comments, describing the scheme as ‘an exercise in perfection’. This is of course very gratifying, and it is great when everything comes together on a project. People often describe it as ‘everyone pulling in the same direction’. This got me thinking about how quality is determined. There has of course been reams and reams written about how to promote and manage quality – TQM, QA, ISO and all the rest. It struck me though that it really has more to do with an organisation’s culture than anything else. We certainly don’t always get it right in this respect, but everyone at B+W has a commitment to high quality that borders on the obsessional. It is difficult to achieve a really good result without staff at all stages of the project being focussed on the same thing. It doesn’t matter how many forms are filled in, how many checks are done or how much snagging. In the end it will only happen because people want it to.

This may seem smug and even a bit facile. But it strikes me that communication, training, camraderie and a relentless focuss on quality are the only way to produce consistently good results in the long term. The bottom line follows – not the other way around.