About Design…

From vision to reality
A design project follows a riverlike process, where it can eddy and loop back yet eventually manages to flow into something in dynamic balance. Starting with an idea, it’s sketched out, scribbled over, redrawn, rethought, sketched again, detailed, tweaked, overlaid, agreed upon, put out to bid, negotiated, adjusted in the field, added or subtracted, formed, poured, planted, trenched, illuminated, lived in, looked at, enjoyed, maintained, grown, trimmed, tweaked some more, pruned, replanted and remodeled over a span of many years.

That’s the interesting thing with landscape design: it’s never static. Plants grow, seasons change, flowers bloom. What was sunny in the beginning can become deep shade as the tree canopies expand in the sky, necessitating a planting change beneath.

Landscapes are maintained, somehow. Maybe it’s just cutting back once per year. Maybe it’s the intricate pruning and pinching required to shape a tree or shrub into a bonsai-like sculpture. Maintenance has its own time frame; some regular and short term like weeding. Other maintenance happens over years as plants mature. Some involves the soil, as where compost applied to the surface is carried deeper by earthworms, or where roots penetrate heavy soils to leave paths for water to enter.

Design is also style. There’s the style of its users: some prefer large gatherings, others intimate private spaces, others a mix. Should it be wild or controlled? To what extent should it mimic the architecture?

We like doing contemporary and Mediterranean-influenced landscapes. The first category encompasses minimalist mid-century modern to more textural and curvilinear creations marrying geometric lines with organic forms. The second brings us landscapes from areas of the world with similar climate to ours: Spanish, Provençal, Portuguese, Moroccan, Italian and Greek. These styles are rich with courtyards, mosaic or tile, metal work and color – all things that make them interesting and livable.

Designs should serve their users. People need space to walk, sit, pass each other. They can be expansive and outgoing settings for large parties, or private intimate spaces for relaxing. They might have special functions, like large cooking areas, bars, pétanque or bocce courts, stages for outdoor music and dancing. The maintenance required needs to fit, too – an avid gardener would consider maintenance part of the fun where a busy executive might want something that only requires periodic touch-ups.

An example: restaurant and winery landscape design
Restaurant and winery landscape design requires a lot of thought, since it needs to accommodate a range of functions including safety, aesthetics, wow factor, utility and maintenance. First, it should reflect the style of the food and the philosophy of the chef or owner. There should be a sense of entry, with some accents setting the tone before patrons enter the building – this can be from the style of pots, sculptures, gates, metalwork, paving and lighting. It needs to facilitate regular operations of delivery, waste removal, maintenance, employee breaks (why do they always have to hang out by the dumpster?). Circulation through the outdoor spaces needs logical patterns for guests and staff.

Restaurant landscaping can be functional, too. I like to see perennial herbs – at least rosemary and bay laurel – used instead of merely ornamental shrubs. It’s great to see small vegetable gardens, too. Most herbs – thyme, sage, lavender, rosemary, laurel – are perennial plants that grow well in California and don’t require much care.

Some parts of the garden may be purely visual, too small to create functional patios – but other small spaces might work well as outdoor grilling areas in full view of diners or waiting areas, elevating them to performance art stages.

Even a small space can enhance the dining experience if it’s in a main view area. Even a wall can become something interesting, especially at night. It can be tiled, graced with a sculptural piece, have plant shadows projected upon it, or be lit to silhouette interesting plant forms placed in front.

Circulation is important, too. Will the wait staff use the same route as the guests? Having a way for staff to quickly move from the kitchen to the patio improves efficiency. There needs to be room to walk behind people seated at bars, tables or on benches. Spaces need to be large enough to allow circulation even if people are standing in a waiting area. Vehicular deliveries should be able to park next to the kitchen to speed delivery and reduce the time that perishable foods rest outside of temperature control.

Things that aren’t seen matter, too. Dumpsters, delivery zones, service driveways are typically not the focal point of a design. Careful screening can make these areas disappear, and surface material selection can make what would otherwise be an ugly access road into part of an arrival space.

Equipped with heaters, a patio can function almost year round. The best patios are tree-covered, with a screened view of a pedestrian area outside the restaurant, perhaps with a cooking area to provide interest at one end (and become a demonstration space for special events).

Views can be local: a mural, tiled wall, specimen tree or other feature contained within the patio. They can be outside the space: a nearby river, mountain or plain. The best views are framed somehow in the design. An arched opening, aligned trees, a disappearing edge water feature or some other on-site amenity can make an average view into a great amenity.

The design considerations that apply to restaurants also apply to hotels – and residences. It’s mainly a question of scale and intensity of use. A typical backyard patio needs easy access, ample seating, interesting things to look at and circulation. A large estate that hosts frequent large functions may have identical requirements to a restaurant, even including a commercial kitchen.

Sustainable Design
Virtually any design can be made sustainable. All can be made more sustainable just by doing a bit more research and carefully choosing the materials and management processes that will be used. It doesn’t need to be black and white, all or nothing – changing one element to reduce runoff, eliminate toxins and reduce water use will have be more beneficial than doing nothing.

Sustainable design encompasses not only the physical design, but all aspects relating to where everything came from and what will happen to it in the future. Plants have various shades of sustainability, with locally harvested, on-site natives being at the top and anything requiring water and fertilizer at the bottom. Every bit of concrete, rock, wood or plastic should be evaluated. Recycled materials, as long as they’re non-toxic, are better than rock mined hundreds or thousands of miles away and brought to the site.

Sustainable design looks at chemical and energy energy inputs and outputs, since matter is not the only thing affected by a design. How much carbon can be trapped vs how much is produced, can the plants shade a structure to reduce cooling costs, can berms or color changes help heat a structure in winter, all should be considered.

Finally, sustainable design should be an integrated system. A patio can drain into a rain garden planted with native plants adapted to periodic seasonal flooding. These plants can include nectar-producing species to nourish bees and butterflies. A mound planted with sages can divide two areas of a garden, feed hummingbirds, and even supply incense if there’s a bit of white sage in the mix. Trees or shrubs can shade a building, provide habitat and even food for birds and shade an outdoor space to make it livable in summer. Walkways using pervious paving can collect water and if combined with a drainage system or careful grading, deliver it to a rain garden where it can infiltrate into the soil.

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