A Conversation with...
...Stephen Suzman and Lisa Guthrie of Suzman & Cole Landscape Architects about how to work best with your landscape architect, what is important, and what isn't.
1. Is "voice" important when looking for a landscape architect?
Landscape architecture primarily needs to respond to the site. The landscape architect needs to understand the site, its opportunities and constraints, its microclimate, and the preferences of the client.
Planting a formal French garden that is not responsive to the site is not a valid solution. Voice is possible, voice can be a fashion, but the opportunities and constraints of the site need to guide you.
We do not specialize in a particular vernacular, what we are is perceptive, inventive, and resourceful. Our goal is to produce a hybrid design--a new response that avoids endless repetition and sterility. The Bay Area is an extremely conservative place (from a design perspective) where firms that provide only one voice limit their options.
2. What three questions should an Owner ask you when you first sit down?
- Are you available?
- Is this something you would be interested in?
- Have you worked in this jurisdiction before?
- Are you familiar with the microclimate?
3. What are the fundamental elements that you work with, in terms of complexity and cost?
- Water--extremely expensive to provide from a budget perspective. (Ted: $300 to $500 per square foot of surface area for custom pools and spas). Maintenance and room for pumps and filters is needed.
- Grade changes and retaining walls--retaining walls are very expensive (Ted: $35 to $70 per SF of wall) and steps and stairs need to be developed to circulate through the site. Rise and run of these steps are critical.
- Paving, parking, and tennis courts--paving can be expensive (Ted: can range in cost from $15 to $200 per square foot). The wrong surface can easily degrade in the environment. Grade changes for the automobile are difficult to manipulate without creating a bunker feel. Automobile turnarounds, fire department requirements on rural sites. Tennis courts can be a challenge.
- Drainage--more plants succumb to bad drainage than any other malady. Leaky pools. Drainage needs to be addressed by the civil engineer.
- Dialogue, early and meaningful, with the building architect to review site, grades, retaining walls. With the client, to make sure we understand their preferences.
- Safety--stairs and lighting. Providing a comfortable rise and run on steps. Stair and pathway lighting.
- Transplanting Trees--some plants will be lost, it is a fact, and something we can recover from. Trees need to be pruned for safety.
- Color--sample matches on pool plaster, hardscape, and paving are very important.. Samples need to be approved and archived and used to accept built finishes. There is a wider palette to work with today than previously--materials are sourced worldwide. No mica. Porous stones need to be dark to hide staining.
- Lighting--safety lighting is critical, pathway and stair lighting. Pool lighting.underlighting rather than overlighting. Avoid high contrast--transitions from inside to outside are critical.
4. How do you relate to the buildings existing or proposed on the site?
Site planning is a chicken and egg process between the Architect and Landscape Architect to identify opportunities and constraints. Sloping sites are particularly important to understand early on. Siting the building properly makes a huge difference.
Outdoor program should be an early product of the design process. Outdoor rooms are different--the solar aspect, the fact there is no ceiling, and they change through the day and the season. Interior space is much more finite.
Borrowing views in an urban property, minimizing views from offsite and maximizing privacy is one of our key tasks. Developing view corridors on rural properties comes out during our initial discussions with the architect and Owner.
6. And plants?
Owners usually start with plants, but that is typically the last thing you work through on a site. You don't really know what wants to go where until you have developed your grades, circulation, and view corridors.
7. How important is a site survey?
A complete, topographical survey with two foot contours is critical. A complete site survey is the best $10 to $20K that you can spend to understand grades. (Ted: AGREED!!).
8. What are the more difficult needs you have to respond to?
People want what they haven't got. Its never what you can, its what you can't. Flat sites want to be elevated, sloping sites want to be flat (Ted: see retaining walls, above).
Building Codes. Owners ask me to skirt building codes on their projects. Code compliance is very important and a reality that you have to deal with all the time.
9. What is the one thing that needs to be understood, but is tragic if it isn't?
Wind. People don't like it, and it picks up in the afternoon when you want to be outside entertaining. Critical in San Francisco, and on any high elevation site. Very important to design around it, but if not understood early enough, responses are too late and not effective.
10. What seems important, but really isn't?
Whether you have done this garden before is not an issue. It is understanding the site--not providing the same solution to different problems.