Next Gen - my afternoon with some future designers

On Friday January 6, before attended an ASLA workshop in Savannah, GA, I spent time at Savannah Classical Academy, a local charter school, talking about landscape architecture and conducting a design charrette with about 15 fifth through ninth grade students. Along with my new friend Katrina Majewski of the Northern California Chapter of ASLA, we gave a slide show describing how landscape architects solve problems, create beautiful places for people, and improve the environment. 

Members of our young audience were all from the urban neighborhoods of Savannah, and were excited to learn that the famous landscaped public squares of their city were a result of a deliberate planning process. I showed them pictures of successful projects where vibrant multi-use spaces have been created in other cities such as Chicago (Millenium Park).  For Boston, I focused on our Central Artery parks and Post Office Square (you can park underneath? cool!). They picked up very quickly on the theme of places for people rather than for cars.

We then ventured outside their own building to inspect an adjacent vacant lot that is owned by the school. In break out groups the students created site plans for the lot. They proposed places for sitting and eating, complete with water features and lighting.  One group even took security into consideration by proposing a card swipe system to enter the fenced park. One of my favorite moments, however, was when one group proposed a small “Sparkbucks“ (sic) cafe, changing the name so as not to be sued by the big corporation.

The kids were awesome, and it was an energizing way to start the weekend.  It should be noted that the students volunteered to attend a Friday afternoon workshop the first week back to school following winter vacation.  A big shout out to the school’s Director, Mr. Ben Payne, who played host to us for the afternoon.

2013 Housing Score: Builders 2, Towns 0

Today I welcome guest contributor Peter Feuerbach of Rubin and Rudman, LLP.  Peter penned an article recently on the state of multi-family construction in Massachusetts.  Thanks Peter! The stars continue to align for builders in 2013. As if low interest rates, pent-up demand, and the Governor's plan for 10,000 new housing units per year were not enough of a tailwind, along comes the Supreme Judicial Court and issues not one but two decisions approving affordable housing developments.

The recent SJC decisions continue to recognize the importance of constructing affordable housing (rental or ownership) under the "comprehensive permit" law, Chapter 40B. The decisions also remind local boards to not deny a project based on unreasonable concerns, because improper reasons will be overturned.

1.  On January 8, the SJC ruled that the Town of Lunenburg had improperly denied a 146-unit condominium project. The SJC rejected the Town's argument that the project would be inconsistent with the Town's master plan, because the Town had not actually created any affordable units under that plan.

The SJC also held that the Town's affordable housing stock for purposes of Chapter 40B consists of subsidized units with long-term affordability ensured by a deed restriction. Thus, low-cost market rate housing does not qualify as "affordable housing" under Chapter 40B.

2.  On January 14, the SJC held that the Town of Sunderland had improperly denied a 150-unit rental project. It was wrong for the Town to deny the project on the basis that the fire chief had alleged fire safety concerns (i.e., the Town did not have a ladder truck or a garage to store it in). The SJC determined that those concerns were not valid where the 3-story buildings would have an extensive, state-of-the-art sprinkler system, the Town had mutual aid from a neighboring town that owned a ladder truck, and the Town's zoning bylaw allowed taller buildings than those proposed by the applicant.

Importantly, the SJC also ruled that the alleged "fiscal impact" of the project was not a lawful basis for denial. The Town had argued that the project would increase the school age population and necessitate an increase in the school budget; require hiring additional police officers and firefighters; and, create additional maintenance expenses for roads, sidewalks and drainage, all in excess of the tax revenue generated by the project.

The SJC rejected the Town's argument, holding that a fiscal impact analysis is not permitted under Chapter 40B. The one limited exception is if the alleged inadequate municipal services were due solely to unusual topographical, environmental or other physical circumstances of the project, which did not exist in this case.

As a final exclamation point, the SJC ruled that the Town had improperly charged the applicant a $10,000 "filing fee", ostensibly to pay for the Town's attorney for general legal representation. Such burdensome "application fees" were prohibited under the affordable housing regulations.

3.  The affordable housing regulations of the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the Housing Appeals Committee (HAC) support proactive municipal efforts to create housing (e.g., adoption of "smart growth" zoning overlay districts to create new housing "by right" under Chapter 40R, commitment of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to construct affordable housing, etc.). However, as the SJC recently indicated, the local efforts and plans will not be credited if they do not result in actual construction of affordable units.

In December 2012, I circulated a memo on the Governor's housing plan and "5 Tips for Real Estate Development". Please contact me if you would like a copy.

Please contact me if you or a colleague has any questions regarding comprehensive permits, Chapter 40B, real estate development, or construction issues.

I also post this "Alert" on my BLOG, which you can use if you want to comment on this Alert or other subjects on which I have written.

Peter Feuerbach, Esquire 617-330-7136

National Housing Market Update

I sit on the Board for the Builders Association of Greater Boston (BAGB), and have been a member of the Association for a number of years.  It’s interesting to learn from my fellow associates about the local home building industry, and also to hob knob with the local builders.  But as a member of BAGB, I am also automatically a member of the National Association of Home Builders, and I receive the monthly glossy magazine that they publish, appropriately titled “Builder”.   Aside from technical articles about HERS ratings and advances in plumbing, the magazine gives me a broader view of the health of the industry nationwide. Here are some facts, figures and updates from the June edition of “Builder”.

  • In 2005, there were more than 73,000 active building companies in the U.S.  In 2011 there were fewer than 34,000, a decline of over 50%.  The average number of closings per year declined from 18 per builder in 2005 to 9 per builder in 2011.
  • Not surprisingly, the large production home builders such as Lennar, Hovanian, Toll Brothers and D.R. Horton take up the lion’s share of the largest markets.  These builders are not quite as active in New England as in southern and western markets.  For instance, the top 5 builders in the Houston market had 33% of the closings in 2011, and the top 5 builders in the Washington DC area market had 41.8% of the closings, while the top 5 builders in the Boston area market had only 25% of the closings.  Our market is dominated by smaller, local builders.
  • Despite the health of our local economy, eastern MA and southern NH (considered as one housing market), ranks 49 of 50 in a recent ranking of most active home building markets compiled by Hanley Wood Market Intelligence (#50 is Colorado Springs if you were wondering).  Our market had 1,436 closings in 2011.  The number 1 through 5 markets were:
  1. Houston/Sugar Land/Baytown, TX (17,158 closings)
  2. Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington, TX (12,840 closings)
  3. New York/Northern New Jersey/Long Island (10,391 closings)
  4. Washington D.C./Arlington/Alexandria/MD/W.Va (9,270 closings)
  5. Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale, AZ (7,710 closings)
  • The very factor that keeps the large companies out of New England; the scarcity of large tracts of developable land and the onerous nature of our permitting environment, is the thing that has led to retention of housing values in our neighborhoods (my comment).
  • According to NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe, home remodeling has shown a bigger bounce back than new home construction.  Owners are motivated to improve their properties for their own use (as opposed to preparing for a sale), with kitchens and baths as the most popular upgrades.  Whole house renovations and large additions however, are still elusive.  This may be good news for residential landscape architects, for as soon as homeowners get through their backlog of interior renovations, outdoor living environments will surely get upgraded as well.  Anecdotally, I am seeing more inquiries for small scale landscape renovations.


The NAHB website has a link to a blog that is a great source of information for those who want to get into the weeds of the national housing market.

James Taylor and the Lumber Truck

Last week we treated ourselves to a James Taylor concert at Tanglewood.  Although we have been to Tanglewood many times for classical performances, and despite my huge fandom of Sweet Baby James, I had never been to this now famous yearly event.  The place was filled like I had never seen it.  Folks camped out end to end, lawn to lawn.  It was a real festival atmosphere, and it took us a full hour just to exit the parking lot. During the worst of the recession, business was pretty tough for us, and I would not have dreamed of spending $75 for three of us on such a luxury as going to see a concert.  I take it as a sign of economic recovery that 30,000 or so (my guess) would drive to Lenox for the evening (times three nights!) and shell out the dough to be crammed onto that lawn for several hours.  By the way, the concert was great except that too many people talked through the whole thing.

The concert event is anecdotal evidence of course, of an economic recovery.  We constantly search the news for additional signs of recovery, picking apart the data.  We are optimists in my family, choosing to ignore the naysayers and tell ourselves how much things are improving.

Here is another anecdotal story.  I remember in the depths, sometime in 2009 I think, I attended a networking dinner at the Builders Association of Greater Boston.  At the time, this was a group of folks mostly crying in their beers every time we go together, but it was therapeutic, you know?  Someone then excitedly informed our small group that on their way over, they had witnessed a truck driving down the Massachusetts Turnpike.  And can you imagine, it was filled with lumber!  It was like seeing a ghost.

Such was the state of the economy three and four years ago.  Since I am in a design and planning profession and at the leading edge of the economic cycle, my business started to tank in 2007 with the collapse of the condo market.  It really turned around for good in 2011, with many new design contracts coming in toward the end of the year.  Now I drive down the major roads and view one construction site after another; builders and developers racing to get their projects in the ground to beat the competition to market.  Retail, rental housing, subdivisions, or office space, there is plenty of activity.

Yet reports of a dead economy are still coming from my colleagues in the central part of the state where little is happening, so the news is mixed.  And I certainly am aware of pockets of despair throughout the rest of the country.  As I was driving toward Boston on the Pike the morning after the JT concert, I saw a truck filled with lumber, and my optimism was rekindled.

Musings on the Interstate Highway System

We often visit downtown Boston and act like tourists.  Our usual routine is to drive downtown, park on one of the piers in the North End, eat Italian food and then stroll through Christopher Columbus Park, view the seals at the aquarium, circle through Quincy Marketplace, and then back to the car.  The place is packed.  With the removal of the elevated and maligned Central Artery, the sun now shines on large swaths of downtown.  People congregate in the new parks, ride the (temporary) carousel, play in the fountains and generally move easily across the lanes of slow traffic on the new surface artery.  It has become a place for children.  This begs the question, what if the elevated highway through Boston was never built? I highly recommend the recently released book “The Big Roads” by Earl Swift.  Mr. Swift takes us on a journey through the history of the interstate highway system, mostly focusing on the people and the process of its development traced back to the invention of the auto.  The idea of a national system of highways (or is it a system of national highways?) long predates the Eisenhower administration.

The author takes a balanced and objective approach to his analysis of the highway system’s impacts on the landscape and our social fabric.  While smooth, fast and well maintained limited access highways clearly provided the economic engine that fueled the growth of the U.S. after World War II, they also gave us sprawl and edge cities, dramatically increased air pollution, and tore through city centers, displacing thousands of mostly lower class folks who did not have the power or money to fight city hall.

To me, this is the most interesting part of the story as it relates to land development.  The engineers charged with designing the system decided to route highways into and through city centers.  As construction progressed into the 1960’s, public opposition to this strategy grew as did so many other aspects of social activism of that decade.  We take it for granted today that great public works projects will be reviewed in a reasonably open public process, but the role of the highway engineer used to be all powerful in deciding routing and design.  With the advent of the environmental movement and the anti-war movement, the country began to question our own blind faith in government decision making.  As a result, the engineers for the first time had to hold public hearings to vet plans, and then they had to work alongside planners, landscape architects, urban designers and grass roots community activists to achieve consensus.

The result is a blessing and a curse for the designers of today.  While the idea of being able to design a public space without input from the local community is attractive, I readily admit that public comment and review has resulted in the betterment of certain projects I have been involved in.  That’s democracy at its finest.  If you only want to express yourself artistically in a vacuum, become an artist, not an architect.  Even Frank Gehry has to go though the Zoning Board of Appeals.  But I digress.

The removal and burial of the I-93 Central Artery, otherwise known as the "Big Dig", through downtown Boston created a once in a lifetime opportunity for healing the fabric of the city, but the highway is still there (at great cost).   At the end of the book we are left to wonder if, in the 1950’s, the powers that be had decided to terminate the route at the north and south ends of downtown, what the social, economic and political impacts would have been for downtown and the inner suburbs.   San Fransisco is currently finding out.  After the Loma Prieta quake of '89, they tore down the part of the Embarcadero Freeway that cut off downtown from the waterfront.

What would the impact have been on traffic flow throughout the Boston region?  Would 128, our inner loop highway, be a continuous parking lot, widened to 6 lanes in each direction (sounds like L.A.)?  Would the mass transit system be twice its current size, with fixed rail reaching far into the suburbs?  With no central artery highway, would downtown Boston have died in the 1960’s or thrived?

A more pertinent question for today is, can we mend the fabric of city centers by removing these intra-city highways, and what would the impact be on the movement of people and goods?  The creation of the Rose Kennedy Greenway over the buried artery is the beginning of a decades’ long experiment in city building.  I am excited to be living near that laboratory so I can observe the results.

A Whale of a Good Time; Building a Natural Playground in Methuen

We have been working on a fun project in Methuen this year.  The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council (GLCAC) has built a new pre-school facility under the Head Start program.  Radner Design was called into action to design a ‘natural’ playground.  The natural playground movement has been around for a few years.  Conceptually, the idea is to limit the number of expensive factory manufactured play items and allow kids to dig in the dirt, get wet, roll down hills, play in sand and generally make a mess while using their imaginations and building strength. Here is an early site plan for the play ground.  Features include a trike path, a hill for climbing up and rolling down, an old fashioned water pump that discharges to a stream, a rope swing that leads to an island, slides and climbing rocks, and a tunnel made of pussy willow whips weaved together.

Anne D'Errico, the Head Start Director, challenged me to 'find my inner child'.  So I dug deep.  The genesis of the featured climbing piece was from my own childhood.  An undeveloped park near my house had this huge rock sticking out of the ground.  About 20’ long, 6’ wide and 4’ high (or so I remember), we called it the whale rock due to its shape.  Great for climbing right?  I wanted to replicate that rock for the kids.  The GLCAC hired Joe Montroy, a sculptor from New Hampshire to create his own version of the whale rock.

He came up with the idea of casting a solid aluminum piece of art.  Art you can climb on!  Here is a You Tube video showing the aluminum pour that happened just last week.  I am particularly happy that the artist utilized reclaimed aluminum; old engine parts and window frames, from a scrap yard.  I guess that makes it a 'green' whale.  Thanks to Max Thorpe who shot and edited this piece.

August 14, 2012 update:  here are some pictures of the completed project;


Springfield Reborn?

For the past year, I have been working on an interesting series of projects in Springfield, MA.  Up until then, my only exposure to Springfield had been driving through on I-93, past the Basketball Hall of Fame on my way to Vermont, or whisking through on my way to Six Flags or the Big E.  I knew something about the city.  Located astride the Connecticut River, it the largest metropolitan area in Western Massachusetts.  It was a former major manufacturing center, famously the home of Smith and Wesson and other arms and munitions producers.  Basketball was invented there and Dr. Seuss was born there.  Aside from those, I was ignorant.

Getting off the highway was eye-opening.  My project involved renovation of multiple apartment buildings in the City's eastern neighborhood in proximity to the historic Springfield Armory.  Upon first arriving at the scene, I viewed a series of 4 and 5 story brick apartment blocks, built in the early 20th century to house factory workers.  If you squint, you would think "hip, urban neighborhood".  The buildings are built close to the street line, forming a pleasing, well proportioned streetscape and sense of enclosure.  If they were in Boston, these apartments might be in the Fenway or Jamaican Plain and command $2-3k per month in rent.  Open your eyes wider and walk around a bit (but not alone, of course), and see a community ravaged by crime, drugs and despair.  The decay is stunning.  My client is the partnership of a developer and general contractor who buys, renovates, holds and manages these buildings, many of them already condemned by the City. 

But now a developer is willing to invest in these neighborhoods.  Through mostly government financing but executed by private companies, resources are being brought to the neighborhood.  I think it is a terrific example of a public private partnership. 

As I explore the area a bit further, I discover Forest Park, an historic neighborhood of fabulous Victorian homes within walking distance of downtown and adjacent to a huge city park.  I envision the captains of industry building these homes in the turn of the century, actively engaged in civic activities and supporting the cultural development of the city.  The neighborhood was even laid out in part by Frederick Law Olmstead, patron saint of Landscape Architecture. 

While some of the neighborhood is still in good condition, many of the houses are boarded up, abandoned and dilapidated.  Again, spin me around and drop me here without knowing I was in Springfield, and if I squint, I would swear I was in Chestnut Hill!  How does a city go from such prosper to such despair?  Obviously the decline in manufacturing has a great deal to do with it, followed by the flight of the middle class to the outer suburbs. 

While significant investment has come to the business district of the city, it seems to me that the neighborhoods close in to the downtown have been neglected.  Will the ongoing revitalization of downtown bring the middle class back to inner ring communities and foment a renaissance? 

The Urban Land Institute got involved in Springfield in 2006.  That year they landed in town and had a 5 day Charette to provide a vision and guidance for the City and neighborhoods.  The ULI Chief Executive recently gave a talk in which he described opportunities for development in inner ring suburbs.  The ULI report from 2006 and the talk given by Mr. Phillips just last month coincide in their call for reinvestment in inner ring neighborhoods.  Indeed, these communities are ripe for opportunity.  Let’s hope his crystal ball is accurate, as I see incredible potential for the “City of Homes”.

Student Housing Summit

I attended the Student Housing Summit put on by Bisnow on May 5. The panel discussion was informative and included representatives from Boston University, Northeastern and MIT, as well as a private developer, a representation from a design build outfit and one from the state dormitory authority.The participants noted the significant growth of construction of on campus housing in New England colleges. The state authority has added 40% more beds over the past 10 years and now total over 14,000. The private institutions reported that adding on campus residence halls increases student retention and enhances alumni giving. Obviously it is a revenue producer in the short and long term. In addition, studies have shown that students who live on campus for at least 1 year have significantly more academic success than commuters. Private sector development of student housing is becoming a more popular delivery method for institutions. Institutions are partnering with private developers to build housing on or nearby campuses. The administrations like these arrangements because they don’t need to access their own capital for the development. Developers like it because of the low risk of having a built in tenant base. Without partnering with the administrations, private developers are also building market rate units that cater to student needs nearby and adjacent to campus. Regarding trends in sustainable design, the demand for LEED construction is apparently driven by the parents (not the students, surprisingly) and the fact that sustainability for institutional design is the standard at this point. Colleges without LEED buildings are considered to be falling behind the times. The additional cost of sustainability is tempered by the long term energy savings achieved. It seems like many of the institutions are just trying to keep up with the Joneses in terms of amenities. Apartment style living, work out space, food courts and laundry service abound in today’s residence halls (God forbid you call them ‘dormitories’!) Asked to provide a take away message for the attendees, one panel member suggested ‘it’s all about the bathrooms’.

Campus Planning - Converting Streets to Landscapes

By posting a simple query on the SCUP group on Linked In, I generated an energetic response regarding examples of college campuses that have converted city streets into shared space or pedestrian only landscapes.  So much so that the SCUP blog summarized the conversation.  Here is the link.  I asked the question because I am exploring the conversion of a Town street into a pedestrian way at a local college.   The response was tremendous from across the country.  American colleges and universities have been taking control of public ways since time immemorial as they have expanded.  I have started a collection of images in this vein.  Please forward any pictures to me or post links if you have them.

Huffington Post/Charles Birnbaum article

There is a great post by Charles Birnbaum on the Huffington Post on the lack of coverage and critical review of landscape architecture in the main stream media (gosh, I hate that term).

"Currently, architecture criticism can secure precious real estate on the Times' front page, while landscape architecture is frequently shunted to the Times Home section. A decade or so ago, that wasn't so bad, but their editorial priorities have changed. Now landscape architecture is being crowded out by articles about reorganizing closets, new mops, heirloom gourds, the cult of garlic cloves, when to prune shrubs, or growing mushrooms at home (for the record, I have nothing against garlic, mushrooms or the pruning of shrubs)." 

See the whole article here

Historically, there has been a lack of coverage simply because of a lack of understanding of our little profession, but I think that as we go forward the challenge is going to be even greater.  The lack of funds for designing and building quality public spaces will be increasingly acute in the coming years, and won't improve until all levels of government are able to recover from their respective budget crises.  We will rely more on private sources of money or public/private partnerships for improvements to the land.  The lack of funding for basic maintenance has already started to show, resulting in shabby parks, even those recently constructed.

A crusade for more mainstream coverage of designed landscapes (preferably designed by L.A.'s) will help focus attention on neglected and money-starved parks and public open spaces, which I consider crucial infrastructure equivalent to roads and sewers.  The good news for L.A.'s is that increased public acceptance of environmental issues and sustainable design principals will continue to drive the profession forward from a moral, ethical and cost driven standpoint. Think green!

Planning for Spring Residential Landscaping

Happy New Year one and all!  With our holiday vacations now a distance memory and perhaps some of you gearing up for a few days of skiing this winter, landscaping is probably not foremost in your minds.  That’s unfortunate, because if you wait until the crocus’ bloom to plan your site improvements, you are missing out on opportunities to save time and money for the upcoming construction and planting season.  If you are planning site and landscape improvements for this calendar year, now is the time to engage a professional to allow sufficient time to plan, design, permit and bid the project so that when the ground softens and the nurseries open for the season, you can pull the trigger on construction.  That way you will be able to enjoy your completed landscape by the time the warm weather arrives.

  • Start the process early enough to be at the front of the line.

I advise clients to work backwards from the time they want construction to be finished in order to determine when to start the planning process.  Say your deadline is a Memorial Day barbeque.  That’s the weekend of May 28 this year.  Plenty of time, right?

If your project includes improvements to the back yard, like putting in a new patio, lighting, planting, some retaining walls, etc.  You probably want to leave 6 to 8 weeks for construction.  This allows time for the contractor to mobilize on the site and perhaps to order pavers or a special landscape light that are on back order.  Then there are always unanticipated delays such as bad weather.  In addition, spring is the busiest time for landscape contractors, so the longer you wait, the more your work will be competing for the contractor’s time with their other active projects.  That brings us back to April 4. 

  • Allow enough time to design and bid

Working backwards again, allow 3 weeks to interview contractors, bid and award the contract, and then an additional 4-6 weeks to work with your professional on planning, design and budgeting, depending on the complexity of the work.  (If your project requires local permitting such as site plan review, that can add months to the process.  We’ll address that issue in another post.)  This brings us to January 28. 

Scary close, right?  It’s going to take you a few weeks to identify and engage your designer which brings us to…well…today!

Note that the goal is to bid the project in early March.  The contractors are hungry for work at that time and they want to book as much work as possible for the spring.  Prices will be competitive.  If you wait until May to bid the work, you’ll probably have less interest because the contractors are already busy.  This will lead to inflated pricing and/or you go to the back of the line and have to wait until the fall to complete the work. 

  • Pay attention to the planting season

Here’s another reason to start the process now.  Planting season goes until about June 15.  After that, you are choosing plants (especially trees) that were dug in the spring and have been sitting above ground for a few months.  The best specimens will have been purchased and you are left with the scraps.  The nurseries don’t dig during the summer months because they don’t want to guarantee the material if it is planted in the hot summer months.  They will start to dig trees again in the fall, but even then, the palette of tree choices is reduced because many species, like Maples, most Oaks, Birches, Hornbeams, Cherries and Dogwoods don’t like a fall transplant.

To summarize

  • Start the process early enough (in January) to be at the front of the line
  • Allow enough time to design and bid
  • Pay attention to the planting season

Planting for Year Round Interest

One of the most important aspects of planting design is seasonal interest.  Too many designers don’t think about what the landscape will look like when the weather is at its worst.  I’m not talking about when there’s a fresh coating of snow over everything.  Snow can cover a multitude of sins.  I’m talking about those dreary, short, gray winter days like in December and late February through early April.  There are no leaves on the trees or the flowering shrubs, the perennials have died back and the grass has that grayish pall. Obviously, every landscape should have some evergreens, but too many will result in a boring landscape for the other 3 seasons.  I like to use ornamental grasses, evergreen groundcovers and shrubs that stay green or turn interesting colors, and even flowering shrubs that lose their leaves but have branching that has interesting texture or color. 

We completed a project this fall for a company that built a small conference center in an industrial area in Everett, MA (an industrial area in Everett; I guess that’s redundant). Anyway, this site is adjacent to a concrete plant, warehouses, and a metal scrap yard among other things.  The pre-existing condition consisted of a concrete slab when we started; the remains of a warehouse that had been torn down a few years ago.  Below the slab are contaminated soils that we could disturb only minimally.

We had little room for landscaping but it had to achieve maximum affect.  Grass was out of the question. Even if we had the room, it seemed pointless to have to irrigate and mow a lawn every week in this context.  Even planting trees didn’t seem right in this location.  It is an extremely windy site, so we had to carefully select our plant palette.

Basically, we went with a seaside planting palette consisting of a combination of groundcovers, perennials, grasses and some shrubs for massing.

Here is a picture shortly after planting in September; Blue Pacific Shore Juniper in the foreground, Big Blue Lilyturf along the road, Hameln Fountain Grass in front of the low retaining wall (already losing it’s green color), and Shirobana Japanese Spirea is visible in the middle around the flagpoles.


Below is the same view taken on December 15.  Note the interesting contrast of colors.  The Lilyturf retains is foliage all winter; the Fountain grass turns a pleasing sandy color, and even the spirea has an interesting purple tinge.  The groundcover junipers will grow together over time and cover the mulch.


Key to the design is the massing of species.  We would not have had nearly the same effect if we had not grouped multiple plants over large areas.

Here’s another view close to the building.  We used low groundcovers near the masonry so as to allow the architecture to shine.  Vinca minor on the left, and Catmint just behind the curb.  Sky Pencil Hollies are in the background providing contrast to the white architectural element on the building. 


There is an automatic irrigation system; an ultra efficient drip tubing system under the mulch so it is invisible.  As the plants mature and become acclimated over a few years, the watering regimen will decrease and eventually may only be turned on in times of summer drought.  There is also a French drain system underneath due to poor soil conditions.

Planted elsewhere on the site are Daylilies, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Salvia ‘May Night’ and Russian Sage (Perovskia).

The pavers are Hollandstone, Heritage Brown with an Il Campo finish and a wet look sealant by Unilock.  The lighted concrete bollards are by Architectural Area Lighting.

Project Team:

Owner:  Distrigas GDF Suez

Architect:  Ganek Architects

Civil Engineer:  McKenzie Engineering Group

General Contractor:  Berry Construction

Landscape and Irrigation Contractor:  Prime Landscape

Erosion Control with Benefits

Our client had an erosion issue in their side and rear yard.  Because their home is situated at the bottom of a slope, and because the large trees and rhododendrons around the house had matured so much over the years, all of the groundcover was crowded out and killed by the shade.  Whenever it rained, mulch and dirt would wash into their yard and onto their driveway, making a muddy mess.

In addition, their 30 year old landscaping in the front yard was overgrown, blocking views to and from the house.

We came on board with a mission to simply solve the erosion problem, but ended up revamping the entire yard in addition, and reconfiguring their driveway to increase yard space for play, reduce runoff and improve car circulation.   For the erosion control, which was in a shaded area, we considered regrading, installing drains and underground piping or some other structural solution, but came to realize that an intensive planting of undergrowth would likely solve the problem.  The foliage from additional groundcovers would absorb and diffuse the energy of falling rain.  We used such native shrubs as sweet pepper bush, leucothoe, and virgina sweetspire.  Groundcovers and perennials include Ajuga, Lirope, Cinnamon Fern and Solomon's Seal at anywhere from 12"-24" on center.  The mix of evergreen and perennial provides an interesting mix.  We also relocated several large rhododendron to open up space around the house and allow more sunlight to hit the new plantings.

To improve the look of the front of the house, we removed 2 overgrown flowering trees, beefed up the foundation plantings, adding variety in color and texture, and planted some red maples that would grow to match the surrounding natural landscape while keeping views open to the house under the maturing tree canopy.  We also solved a drainage problem by tying the roof downspouts which previously drained directly onto the ground, to an underground pipe.  As you can see, the house was painted as well, which brightened up and modernized the look of the house.  The driveway was reconfigured, adding a decorative accent strip of cobblestone paving around the edge, and a new front walkway was installed in clay brick pavers.

12 months later, the job is holding up well, plants are growing in, and we have a satisfied client.

The general contractor on the job was Phoenix Construction.  The landscape contractor was Wagon Wheel Nursery, the mason was McKechnie Associates.