The Schematic Plan: Part Two

As promised, here is part two of the story of this landscape installation. The limestone terraces and wall caps were next up. I am very fortunate to have a stone mason that is as capable of building walls as he is installing flat work. That is not always the case. I suspect all of the trades are much more specialized than they were years ago. I have no doubt that the craftsmen that built this house to begin with had design skills. By that I mean, they could design their way past a problem to a functional solution. And they had a broad range of knowledge. I absolutely ascribe the visual success of this hard scape project to just such an old school craftsman, Mike Newman.

The contribution he and his crew made to this project is enormous. Their work is completely appropriate to the style and period of the house.  We had several discussions about the pattern of the limestone, and the sizes of the stone. Choosing 24″ square limestone tiles for the body of the terrace had a residential and more vintage feel. This smaller area, designated as the grilling and dining terrace, would have been overwhelmed by larger pieces of stone.  I associate larger pieces of limestone with commercial projects, and more contemporary projects.  The terraces would have a 16″ by 48″ border of limestone all around. The purpose of the tent? It was 92 degrees and sunny this day.

Mike did do this drawing for me showing the sizes and pattern of the stone. This drawing reveals that centered on both windows and the door are 48″ by 48″ limestone slabs. I like a client being able to walk out a door onto a solid piece of stone, rather than a mortar joint. The adjacent slabs centered on the windows gives visual weight to this detail. The large slabs as a group indicate the center of the space. There is strength in numbers. A house built on symmetry such as this one is asks for that kind of centering. Though Mike is a craftsman of the old world sort, he is perfectly capable of producing a CAD drawing to verify the pattern and dimensions. Verbal explanations can be misinterpreted.

The sizes of the tiles and the pattern is a very subtle detail, as the mortar color matches that of the stone. But those subtle details are what helps to make a landscape project visually believable. The size of the border tiles is repeated in the size of the step treads.

We brought a couple chairs out, so our client could sit up there, and get a feeling for what was to come. There is yet a long way to go to complete the project. I am sure some landscape issues that will have to wait until spring for completion. After finishing the flat work, Mike installed 32 concrete footings for the cloister pergola. They look like stools, in the lower left of the above picture. Once the soil in this area is brought up to the proper grade, these footings will not be visible. Each of 32 columns that hold up the cloister roof will be bolted to these 42″ deep footings. 42″ is the outermost typical depth of the frost in the ground in our zone in the winter. When the frost comes out of the ground, it can heave around anything that is not securely anchored below the frost line. A large steel pergola gone out of level would not be a good look, nor would it be easy to fix.

The next order of business in this area would be the fountain. That fountain will double as a spa, meaning it would be heated, and have spa jets below the water line. Decorative water jets will arc from the sides of the fountain towards the center, rather than having jets in the middle. The center of the fountain will be open, like a swimming pool. I know very little about the construction of a pool, except to say it is complicated and messy at best. A fountain that is a spa which is also a pool is even more complex.

The first step is to build a form which is deeper, wider and longer than the finished interior dimension. This assumes that the pool has been designed, and the plans submitted and approved by the city.

Once the form is in place, all of the plumbing work can begin. You can see in the above picture that each fountain jet will be operated by its dedicated pipe. Each water function is plumbed.  It was a little easier by this point for my client to see that the pergola would have a roof around the perimeter, and be open to the sky above the pool. Once the interior plumbing is finished, the inside would be sprayed with a thick coating of concrete and sand called gunite. This process insures that the pool is water tight.

One would think that once the concrete had been sprayed on the pool, all that would be left to do was the final finish and hardware. In fact, the process of hooking up all of the plumbing and filtration was just about to begin.

Once the gunite is finished, the process of running all of the pipes to the pumps began. This is the messiest and the longest phase of the construction. The small structure that had been added onto the garage from my previous post would house all of the pool equipment. A mini excavator was used to dig the trenches required for all of the pipes. The operator did an amazing job of navigating that machine around the pergola footings.  At this moment, I was relieved that most of what would be planted in this area is grass.

It is fortunate that most of the construction part of this project was confined largely to this area. We were able to begin the landscape installation in other areas not affected by this level of upheaval.

Once all of the underground pipes were installed, this area would be ready to back fill with the existing piles of soil. Great care was taken not to disturb the footings.

Hiding these pipes going into the pool equipment room would be a landscape issue. We have had worse to deal with than this.

Once the back filling was complete, and the area cleaned, the limestone pool coping could be installed. The pool coping was installed by the pool contractor, Gillette Brothers Pool and Spa, as opposed to the stone mason. Any element of the pool that touches the water is installed by the pool contractor, as he is responsibility for the warranty on that work. The best way for them to insure the quality and integrity of that work is to do it themselves. Once the coping was installed, the copper grounding wire that ran all the way around the pool had to be inspected. You can see that wire laying on the ground in the above picture, just in front of the pool wall.  Every pool has to be grounded, as the combination of water and electricity can be dangerous.

It eventually was time for my crew to come in, and bring the soil up to grade. A lot of the filling had to be done one wheel barrow load at a time, as we could not drive the skid steer over the footings. The difference it made to have the footings buried and the pool coping installed-considerable. Five months worth of work had been finished, and I am very pleased with how it looks.



Part One: A Schematic Plan

A great client with whom I have a close relationship called more than a year ago to say she had bought a new house. Her last house was built from the ground up on a lake property we landscaped five years ago. I never imagined there would be a second project. This new land locked house actually dates back to the 1920’s. A stately Georgian style house on a large piece of property captured her heart. Georgian style refers to the classical proportions established by the Greeks and the Romans, and a symmetry that is clear and satisfying. I was intrigued. My first visit a year ago July revealed a gorgeous and solidly built brick home. The front door entrance, porch, steps and keystones above the windows were limestone. The existing landscape was formal, but the yews had not been pruned properly, and were in decline.  The boxwood were flourishing. The driveway came alarmingly close to the front door. A deteriorated asphalt driveway would need replacing. These were my initial impressions out front.

She had told me she had a big yard in need of a landscape. As the house sits very close to the road, I was very interested to see the lion’s share of the property in the the back and side yard. The driveway to the garage lines up with the driveway across the street, as seen in the above picture, and is elevated 3 feet above the rear yard. Landscaped beds above and below a concrete retaining wall signaled the need to make a 90 degree turn into the garage. Though most of the property is enclosed by an imposing brick and limestone wall, a broken concrete dry stack wall on the north lot line must have at some point replaced a brick wall that failed. The rear portion of the house is more complicated, architecturally.

The garage features a small addition, perhaps for storage. A narrow group of concrete steps was the only access to the back yard.  Given that this addition was three feet above the rear yard grade, an iron rail was in place. A concrete balcony with an iron rail was most likely an addition after the fact. A house that is coming up on 100 years old probably has had several owners. This suggests that improvements from one owner to the next may not have made an entirely logical progression, although most of the brick and limestone details were consistent throughout.

To the south, a glassed sun porch off the formal living room immediately got my attention. I was sure it would prove to be a lovely room, with great views to the yard. Above the sun porch was a parapet wall/balcony off the master bedroom. The landscape plan would need to address both of these views. The grade dropped away dramatically from this porch and the garage wall to the left in this picture.

The dramatic existing drop in grade from the garage and sun room walls suggested the possibility of a rectangular sunken garden of some description tucked in to that L shape formed by the long wall of the garage, and the sun porch. Why not make something of that drop in grade?

I am embarrassed to say that the only plan I have now is my original marked up hand drawn schematic drawing. All of the finished drawings have gone out to my client, the large tree contractor, the stone mason, the irrigation contractor-and of course, my landscape superintendent. But it will do by way of illustrating my scheme. Identical limestone terraces to the east and west of the sun porch would provide an at grade flat space for grilling and dining to the east, and to the west,  a place designated for the cultivation of herbs and vegetables in pots. The terrace proud of the sun porch would provide a view to and steps down into a sunken garden. That garden would be enclosed by seat height walls. A pergola would surround the pool, with sets of columns and a roof 6 feet wide. A pergola of this style is commonly referred to as a cloister. In this application, a rectangular covered walkway will surround a central fountain feature. The area above the pool would be open to the sky.

My client was perfectly happy with a conceptual drawing. She trusts my judgment in a way that is rare, and I treasure her for that. I did not need to do construction grade drawings for her. And not for my stone mason either. We had a number of conversations about grade issues, and the number of steps we would need down into the pool garden. I trust him every bit as much as my client trusts me. Mike, from Mountain Pavers Construction, is every landscape designer’s dream come true.  He can translate a concept into a finished piece of work. He brought a concept to life.

The limestone walls called out in the plan, capturing the sunken garden, turned in to brick walls with limestone caps. That wall was determined to be seat height-22″ high. My clients very sandy soil made quick work of digging the foundations for those walls. Mike would eventually pour the footings for the cloister pergola, which would be manufactured at the Branch Studio.

My large tree contractor, Ralph Plummer from GP Enterprises was my first contractor in. He spaded in a number of large evergreens along the perimeter of the property, per my plan. We have worked together better than 25 years, and I can rely on the quality of his trees and his installation. As usual, he planted giant trees in perfect concert with my conceptual plan. Once those trees were planted, the construction of the brick walls that would enclose the sunken garden could be built. Mike determined all of the finished grades of the yard prior to building those walls. The concrete footings you see in the above picture would be covered with soil at the close of construction. By the time that this picture was taken, Mike had moved on to setting the limestone outside the sun porch.

The view from my client’s upstairs balcony illustrates how a landscape feature designed to be viewed from above would prove to be a delight for this client. In my opinion, a good landscape addresses the views up close, as well as the views from afar.

Once the defining exterior walls were in place, and the brick risers for the steps down into the pool garden, it was easier to see how a few lines on a piece of paper had become a reality.

Mike did a perfect job of matching the brick on the walls to the brick on the house. Adding an architectural element to a house of this age asks for matching materials, and style. At this point I could see that what I had intended to add to the architecture and landscape of this house would be believable. An awkward or thoughtless addition would always stand out in not a good way.

Make no mistake, you are seeing photos that do not reflect the time it took to get to this moment. More than a few months passed before these walls were in place. And the footings for the stairs.

Mike Newman – mason extraordinaire. Bravo!! There is a good deal more that has already happened with this project. We are ready to begin the installation of the cloister this coming Monday. I hope to post several times more by then.


The Branch Studio: Recent Work

It has been a while since I have written about Branch, so to follow are some snapshots of recent work. Pictured above is a 12′ wide by 8′ deep rose arbor.

rose arbor from the side

Custom made fountains with custom powder coat finish

rectangular fountains in place

Jackie box with a polar finish

custom fountain, shown in its galvanized state prior to a powder coat finish

garden arbor with traditional twisted steel bar

custom rectangular lattice box

custom table base for interior table. The vertical bars at the outside corners are support bars stabilizing the base while it is under construction. As a side note, the Branch work table top is a solid piece of 1/2″ thick steel, which is perfectly flat and level.

tapered box

custom pergola being assembled prior to galvanizing, to be sure everything fits properlyweathered Branch finish on the left box. Newly finished box on the right.

wood and steel gate designed by and fabricated for Zaremba and Company

round tapered Hudson pots for a rooftop garden

custom planter boxes

large scale custom Barry pot

custom pergola

quartet of low bowls

custom radiused set of lattice boxes

contemporary planter box

porch railing panels

custom obelisk

Four spout fountain

custom box and rail for the Foundation Hotel in Detroit, designed by, and fabricated for, Zaremba and Company

custom oak and steel boxes

The shop

The Branch Studio In Philadelphia

Jackie A is the outside sales manager for both Detroit Garden Works, and The Branch Studio. If you have ever inquired about getting a light hoop shipped out to you, or a custom pergola built, you have probably had occasion to talk with her. A talented landscape designer in her own right, she has a particular interest in sourcing and placing fine objects for the garden and landscape. In addition to handling a steady stream of sales and arranging for shipping for those sold items all over the US, she is currently managing the payments, collections and shipping to the US of several containers packed with goods purchased by Rob in Belgium, Germany, France and England during his September buying trip for the spring of 2019. She is a very capable member of our staff, and we are lucky to have her representing us.   We made a decision some time ago to exhibit at the ASLA 2018 trade show, which closed yesterday in Philadelphia.  The American Society of Landscape Architects sponsors a yearly meeting for members which includes seminars and tours of interest, and a trade show. Branch is one of 350 exhibitors at this show. It is worthwhile to take Branch products on the road, so designers can get a look at them in person. Pictures don’t tell the whole story. There is something about being able to see the design, material, construction and finishing up close.
Jackie planned every detail of the trip, from deciding what objects she wanted shipped out to Philadelphia, and how she would arrange them, to a lighting scheme for the booth. As she and David would fly out, a computer loaded with a slide presentation featuring custom work previously fabricated at Branch, catalogues and brochures would also have to be shipped. She gave herself several months to pull it all together. As she is meticulous in her attention to detail, everything arrived as scheduled. As is typical for most convention centers, the uncrating and set up was done by Pennsylvania Convention Center staffers. I was especially pleased about Jackie’s decision to take a fountain to the show. I am sure there was plenty involved in putting a working fountain on display. It had to be reviewed and approved by the convention venue. Planning the electrical was an issue. It was a very good idea, to include a fountain in our display. Branch manufactures a number of styles of fountains. They come equipped with a pump, so once the fountain is leveled and filled with water, one only has to plug it in to enjoy it. In recent years Branch has started fabricating covers for the pumps, so the interior of the fountain is as finished and polished as the exterior. Branch fountains are substantial, and can make a big statement in a landscape or garden. Our fountains are not inexpensive, but clients see the value of them. The action and sound of water in a garden cannot be overestimated.

Once all of the major pieces were unpacked, Jackie and David were able to fine tune the display. A bank of LED lights was attached to the underside of the Stuart dining table. That light made it easy to see the steel base and Ipe feet. The boxes of Branch catalogues, brochures and cards all needed a place to be. Jackie did a great job of designing this small space. She made sure there was plenty of space for people to linger, and engage. Our galvanized steel containers, pergolas, fountains and ornament are unique in the garden ornament business. I am not aware of any other company that hand manufactures heavy gauge steel planter boxes, pergolas or fountains such as these. Each piece is painstakingly finished in a two step process involving commercial hot dip galvanizing in a molten zinc bath – with a lifetime of service in mind. Our steel ornament is weatherproof, and virtually rust proof. A little spot of rust where the galvanizing did not take can be put to bed with a dot of cold galvanizing compound. The design and manufacture of fine ornament for the garden was a dream of mine that the Branch Studio has fulfilled, one beautiful garden heirloom at a time. Not familiar with what we make at Branch?     the Branch Studio

By Friday afternoon, our Philadelphia popup shop was ready for company. This is the fourth time we have exhibited at the ASLA show, and if the previous shows are any indication, it will take some time before we see inquiries. It can take a while before the right project comes along that would ask for our boxes or ornament. Designers have a lot of questions. Jackie was prepared with lots of answers.

Exhibiting on a national stage at a trade show attended by landscape architects was a meeting I welcomed. Branch is a grown up company, just barely hitting its stride. Ornament in the garden can endow a landscape with atmosphere. The Branch finish is very reminiscent of the look of that classic garden material, lead. Each Branch box comes with a reference to the history of garden pots, standard issue. That said, we have shipped out Branch products in their galvanized state, for those clients who favor the more contemporary finish that the powder coating process offers.

By no means is Branch an overnight sensation. We have 15 years behind us. 15 years getting our process, and our product line in order. This year, our lead times on custom orders have been at times 12 to 16 weeks out. Would that we could fill custom orders faster, but we work one project at a time. Branch Studio is busy. I am so happy about that. As for our pop up shop in Philadelphia, I thank both Jackie and David for their work putting the Branch Studio on the road. They will be packing up this morning, and heading home tomorrow.

And of course, many thanks to all of those people who have both expressed interest in the work, and spoken for it.