Friday, November 16, 2012

Oxford Lecture


Below is the text of the recent lecture I gave in England. At each lecture someone asked me how I could talk about sustainability when I use concrete in my designs because concrete production produces so much Carbon dioxide.

My answer was that it is a "permanent material" and "what is more sustainable than something that is permanent". Concrete is the most common and cost effective hard paving material we have In Arizona; I actually didn't have a clue how much CO2 it produced.

When I got back to my studio I decided to look at the Carbon dioxide emissions of concrete and compare it to other paving options and activities to put it into perspective for me. We found a study by the University of Bath on the CO2 produced to create different building materials. We also calculated the CO2 emissions of driving, my flight to England and the CO2 absorption of a single tree.

I decided to test the numbers on my house and studio, not only for my concrete paving but also for the concrete masonry site walls I have added since moving here as well as the existing ones. The results are as follows:

I have 3 courtyards and a driveway that are poured concrete. These total 3,442 square feet, which equal 38 cubic yards of concrete. The total Carbon dioxide footprint of the concrete hardscape is 3,671 pounds.

Next we measured all the concrete block walls, benches and structures I have built on my property. I have 2,358 square ft. of site walls. The total Carbon dioxide footprint of the concrete block is 9,305 pounds. 

Then we counted all the trees. I have 23 trees I have planted around my home and studio. These trees will absorb 20,953 pounds in their lifetime. 

By our rough calculation, when we totaled it all up the landscape is not only carbon neutral, but the trees will absorb about 16,000 pounds more Carbon dioxide than has been emitted by producing all the concrete I have in my landscape.  
Chart with calculations for my home/studio landscape's CO2

It appears that one tree balances out the carbon for 75 square feet of concrete paving. And that you should have 10 trees to clean up the air polluted each year by your car. You have to clean up after your dog in public, why not your car too?

The graph below illustrates these numbers. I think I will analyze CO2 in the projects shown in my presentations next.

Building Material CO2 Reference
Tree CO2 Reference

Oxford University
Cambridge, England
October, 2012
Desert Gardens

I am a landscape architect by title but I consider myself a garden designer. I’ve never had much interest in putting plants around buildings.

I am more interested in creating outdoor living spaces that make a connection between architecture and nature.

I think of garden design as an art form; it’s my art. I like to solve problems and to create interesting places that my clients love to be in and that are grounded to the natural processes of the site and region.

Gardens are an enduring concept. They reflect our ideas and beliefs about our relationship with nature and gardens provide the space to experience this relationship. This has been true throughout history.

There seems to be an interest in my work, that’s why I’m here. One reason is where I work, the Sonoran Desert.

Sonoran Desert in the southwestern United States. One of the world most beautiful and sensitive environments. It wasn't until the 1950’s that it's boundaries were set. We typically get between 5-7 inches of rain a year with contrasted nine feet of evaporation. That is the definition of a desert. The Sonoran desert is about120,000 square miles, approximately the size of Italy. About two-thirds of our desert are in northern Mexico.

Last year we had 33 days over 110 degrees (43 degrees Celsius). Gardens have to deal with high heat, low rainfall and blazing bright sunlight.

To me a garden is a man-made outdoor space that is created for personal enjoyment. I’m not interested in flower gardens or vegetable gardens. They are ok, but I’m not interested in them. I am more interested in garden's as architecture.

The minimum requirement for a garden or the basic garden unit is a tree, a wall and a chair with a little water. To expand the garden, add more trees, walls, chairs and water.

Two weeks ago I gave a lecture at the national convention for the American Society of Landscape Architects. The theme was sustainability. My talk was “How to Design Beautiful and Award Winning Gardens!” It was really about how to make your gardens environmentally significant, then hopefully win awards.

I typically don’t pay much attention to sustainability advice because I don’t think it applies to me. I invented sustainability. I read about how my projects were sustainable 20 year ago in Landscape Architecture magazine.

In the west landscapes are like terminally ill patients. They are tethered to IVs and monitors and need constant attention to keep them alive. If someone pulls the plug, the garden will die.

Kathryn Miller's  "Lawns in the Desert"
The only way I know of to break out this situation is to use native plants. They have less of a demand for water and fertilizer, which is much better spent on food crops. In the west, water guzzling lawns are the biggest culprit, along with air pollution caused by their continuous maintenance requirements.

My intern, Lora, was explaining the 3 tenants of sustainability to me: environmental, social and economic. I told her my definition of sustainability has always been very simple: when the power or water is shut off your garden should not die.

As I was preparing this talk, I came across a few things that I found disturbing that has made me think instead of just implying sustainability, I should be more direct.

The first was a documentary about the plight of the Koala Bears. They face many critical problems due to their shrinking habitat. The documentary focused on how development is endangering them by chopping their habitat into disconnected islands. They survive by eating the leaves of only 5 species of eucalyptus out of the 735 species. Development and bad planning has put their future in danger.

We see the ads that say Americans discard enough plastic water bottles a year to wrap around the earth 3 times.

The third was an article I read about sustainability and resource consumption. It said if the world consumed at the rate of an American we would need 5 planets to sustain us. If the world consumed at the rate of a European we would need 3 planets. We need 1.3 planets worth of resources to support everyone on the planet. I have been hearing this for a while

What is the simplest things landscape designers can do to be more sustainable? It’s not rocket science. Use natives – save resources for food crops.

Beauty isn't enough.

In order for a beautiful garden to also be significant it needs to accommodate the natural environment besides responding to the client’s needs and conditions.

When working with plants I had an epiphany and it side tracked my architectural career. It got me off on a pursuit of working with native plants that lasted decades. I’ll talk about that later.

Each of your projects has an opportunity to enhance or diminish the qualities of the site. it's your choice as a designer.

I have developed a very narrow definition of what is a good landscape design. I separate landscape design into two categories based on a project’s usefulness to the natural environment: native plants-good, exotic plants-bad. It’s that simple, It’s good for the planet or its bad. The following graphic demonstrates this.

How many of you are members of Land8Lounge? Land8Lounge is a good place to see international projects and see what people are thinking about the profession.

After seeing a project and reading old forum discussions on Land8 I’ve decided there is a subgroup of “evil” for artificial plants. 

I saw a discussion on the best ways to cool and clean artificial turf. It turns out it takes more water to maintain it than to grow real turf. An album showed how proud a landscape architect was of his ‘freeze dried’ or reconstructed palm trees and his warehouse of plastic plants

Then I looked at this diagram and I said “Oh Crud”! Where do my projects go? I try to do the right thing and use native plants but I also like to use natural stone: granite, travertine, limestone and crushed stone. Do you know where these come from? Mountains and forests are being demolished somewhere so we can use “natural stone”.

Since I’m making this up, I made a separate category for my projects and it’s called “not too bad”

You’re asking yourself:
How does this rating system relate to winning awards?

When it comes to winning awards:
            “Good” is a shoo-in
            “Not too bad” is good
            “Bad” is also good
            “Evil” never wins – I was just told that last year the Museum of Modern Art had plastic plants on the roof and it won an ASLA honor award.

Unfortunately, what this means that environmentally bad projects can win awards if they look good. So much for being “Stewards of the Environment”.
Historically, in the United States Landscape architects are very good at creating wonderful places to be in, but not too good at accommodating nature.

I want my gardens to say something about the site and its history. I’ve learned that native plants do this perfectly. They are the timeline of the site. They represent the “state of the art” of the evolution of a place. They are a perfect match for the site. The design not only needs to address the client’s problems but should be of significance to the regional environment, the street, the profession and your goals. Gardens can take on a bigger issues.  

You make your own projects and you should make them interesting.

I didn’t plan on being a landscape architect. I just wanted some landscape skills. I thought all architects should also be landscape architects. The site seemed too important to the architecture that I couldn’t imagine turning it over to someone else – luckily architects don’t think that way or we wouldn’t have any work.

I started out working against the grain by deciding to use native plants in my projects when they were commonly perceived as weeds. As a result, all my projects have had to be demonstration projects, not only to my clients but the public. I once read that "I had to build my stage before I could act on it."

Observations: Things you probably didn’t learn in school in somewhat chronological order. I’ll discuss some of them, the others will be on my blog.

1.   Nothing in the city was as interesting as the desert, especially the “Wash”. That is where the action is. This was my model for planting design.

2.   Landscaping is a situation where you can spend an incredible amount of money and when you are finished you could still have all the problems you started with. It can be only eyewash. In the desert we need shade and privacy.

3.   Don’t be satisfied with your first solution. Rework and refine until it’s perfect. The perfect solution is right in front of you – you just need to find it.

4.   Here we have plants and insects that have a symbiotic relationships. Native plants are a window to a parallel universe. 

Tell Tarantula Hawk story

5.   You make your own projects.

32nd St. House & P.V. House Lessons:
a.   Attention to detail
b.   An ambivalent client is an opportunity to do what you want
c.    Zoning Interpretations. This got me started

Arid Zone Trees Project:

Client just wanted an entrance wall. This project turned out to be a demonstration garden that addressed re-vegetating farmland back into desert land. It won a national ASLA honor award. It was a rare commercial project that got published in shelter magazines, Sunset, Phoenix Home and Garden, Dwell, Architectural Digest and foreign magazines. I got more mileage out of this than any other project.

6.   Vacant Lot story. What is wrong with this picture?

I’ve told this story a hundred times. At my first job in a landscape architecture office we were doing a townhouse project using a typical palette of Mediterranean plants. (Palms, bougainvillea, junipers, lawn etc.) and I noticed next door was a remnant desert lot with Palo Verde and Mesquite trees, Creosote and Brittle Bush. I asked my boss why we were using plants that would need constant monitoring to keep them alive when next door was a palette of plants that were growing on the rainfall only. My boss said “oh, those are just weeds” I thought this was curious.

For some reason that was good enough for the rest of the profession, but not for me. I went on a quest to learn all the plants on that site and then learn why they weren’t appreciated and used. This took a little longer than I thought I would because of the ingrained resistance to native plants.

7.   I started to use native plants to make the transition from a building to the adjacent natural desert. It seemed like a no-brainer as a technique to visually claim the adjacent land as part of your project. Classic borrowed scenery.

8.   Pollinators and Predators. After observing these desert gardens for a while I discovered that native plants bring along their entourage of characters to activate the garden. I call them “pollinators and predators”.

I found that if you use the right plants your garden becomes a habitat and you tap into the food chain. When I discovered this, my gardens started to become interesting and clients who experienced these desert gardens became advocates for the desert.

9.   Your projects are all demonstration projects if you want to sell an idea – mine was native plants. I wanted to show that they had value as landscape material. Historically native plants were viewed as useless vermin to be eradicated and anything you did to the desert was an improvement.

10.  In the desert sunlight is so strong it needs to be considered as a building material or it will work against you. It flattens forms and washes out color.

11. Garden design is similar to set design. You edit views, make connections and create spaces.
Original design park hidden by wall

View from yard over 6' fence

New design concept

12.  Use Zoning loopholes. ‘Stables and sheds’. Know requirements and limitations before you start. These are a design wild-card, I will show several examples of this.

13.  Native plants connect the project to the region & give your project  soul.

20 years ago I was at a conference where I woman researcher was talking about the public desires for park amenities. She said that people wanted songbirds more than they wanted benches and drinking fountains.

The next speaker was Kerry Dawson from UC Davis. He spoke about his research comparing native and non-native species on their relevance to the environment.

He started by saying songbirds eat insects rather than seeds. If you want songbirds you need insects and if you want insects you need native plants.

He said 70% of birds feed insects to their young.

Mr. Dawson went on to talk about native vs. non-native landscapes. He compared the California Live Oak with the Blue Gum Eucalyptus. The oak had 250 guilds of insects (I had to look up guilds) and 14 species of ants. The Blue Gum had zero guilds and zero ants. The problem with displacing native trees with exotic plants is that these exotics are of no use to the overall biotic community.

Design Process and Tools
25 years ago I went on a pilgrimage to the Alhambra. The place was fabulous but it seemed to me that none of the plants were 900 years old. I took 2 rolls of film in the Court of the Lions. A few years later I was thinking about the garden and I couldn’t remember what the plants looked like. I had seen photos of the courtyard taken over a 100 year span. My mind was blank, I could not remember any plants.

I got out my photos and there were some plants but they were insignificant against the architecture.

It made me think that plants were incidental to the garden. The garden needs to stand on its own as a space without plants. I think this is why I like ruins so much. They imply space and history.

Gardens are made up of two worlds, the man-made and the natural world. I try to juxtapose these two worlds. I’ve described my garden design style as “Weeds and Walls” – Nature and Man.

My approach to Garden Design is pretty straight forward problem solving. I look at design as problem solving “with style”. The better you are at understanding the site problems the more significant and better your designs will be because they are specifically grounded to the site. Site problems give you a starting point.

The Arid Zone tree project was my most difficult project because the design was totally arbitrary. The site was 400 acres of perfectly flat ground. I needed site problems to get a grasp on the site. After a few years of struggling with the design I decided that since the design was to be arbitrary I could do anything I wanted to so I made it my homage to Barragan and had fun with it. 

Garden design isn’t rocket science. There are only a few elements you need to arrange on a site to satisfy the client. Once you do that (solve the problems) you have free time to work on the project to shape it the way you want it.

I’m basically a set designer and I edit and manipulate elements to control views on the site. I find new projects have either a good space or bad space which is based on geometry and views.

Good space – Enhance it
Bad space – Overpower it with a new geometry

My Recession work, small residential projects.

2 types of gardens

            expansive - country

            enclosed - city

I am a fanatic about connecting indoor space with outdoor space

Basic tools I use to build space and connect the indoors with the outdoors are: the floor plane, wall plane, ceiling plane, forced perspective, receding colors, axis etc. It seems I try to turn my projects into walled gardens.

I start looking for opportunities  I’m a ‘site opportunist’ I start by saying what do the neighbors have that we can use?

I think I can sum up my approach to Garden Design in 3 lines
1.   Look for opportunities
2.   Make it interesting
3.   Give it soul

Start Slides
 To download a PDF of all the lecture slides on google docs click here