By Dani J. Winston
Using sustainable materials in a landscape results in a long-term decrease of energy consumption, conserves water, and serves to bolster ecological function by reducing environmental strain. This ultimately contributes to increased environmental services, and healthier, enduring landscapes.
In Designing the Sustainable Site, Heather Venhaus describes a series of benefits supported by sustainable sites. They include ecosystem services, such as regulating temperature and precipitation, sequestering greenhouse gasses, cleansing air and water, providing habitat, maintaining soil health and fertility, retaining and storing fresh water, controlling erosion, and mitigating natural hazards such as flooding, wildfire, and drought. Sustainable sites may also provide social benefits, such as providing recreation, producing food and other raw materials such as timber, medicine, and fuel, providing inspiration and cultural enhancement, and enhancing opportunities for mental respite.
Many factors must be considered when deciding if a material is sustainable. At the minimum, it needs to be long lasting and non-toxic, and created and transported with minimal energy. The material’s entire lifecycle must be considered, from the resources used in production, to the cost of energy and amount of maintenance required, as well as the options for eventually reusing, recycling or discarding. Additionally, consider if a material could improve site health, help repair damaged and disturbed sites, or manage the flow of water.
It is not always evident which products are the most sustainable options for a project and it is important to weigh all the above criteria on a case-by-case basis.
When wood is produced through well-managed, thoughtful, sustainable practices, it could potentially bolster all the aforementioned criteria.
As an example, wood is one of the primary materials in construction and each of these factors must be considered during the decision making process. There are no perfect solutions, but research and planning can help identify the best option.
In the case of wood, there are a number of products types and certifications to consider. The two major certifications for wood are FSC and SFI. FSC is the Forest Stewardship council. FSC’s objectives seek to protect at risk ecosystems, honor native cultures and economies, avert illegal logging, curtail clear cutting and pesticide use and monitor “the chain of custody” in order to ensure that the wood product purchased has actually met all the above criteria.
SFI is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. SFI’s criteria have become more stringent in recent years and basically mirror those of FSC. Nevertheless, SFI only certifies harvesting operations in the United States and Canada. For wood products sourced outside North America, SFI relies on foreign governments to set the benchmark. Even though SFI benchmarks have become more stringent in recent years, SFI certification practices continue to be less transparent than those of FSC. Hence, it is important to research the sourcing practices of foreign nations before choosing a product.
While certifications are a good starting point, it is important to consider the entire range of relevant factors when trying to determine the most sustainable wood option. For example, it would be better to choose wood derived from locally recycled street trees rather than a certified wood product that was cut and milled in a different state or country. Though the local source might not carry the FSC or SFI certification, the processes and practices related to its production are easier to verify. The energy and resources consumed in transport of a local product are much lower than a product harvested and milled elsewhere.
Thermally treated wood is quickly becoming a viable alternative to exotic hardwoods. Viewed through the lens of sustainability, the choice between thermally treated wood and exotic hardwoods seems obvious. Thermally treated wood is a domestic product that is both durable, beautiful and easier to work with then exotic hardwoods. Surprisingly, thermally treated wood, though sustainably harvested in the United States, is often shipped to Eastern Europe for the thermal process and then shipped back to the U.S., wasting energy and creating pollution through the shipping process. As demand for thermally treated wood increases, it is likely that more domestic processing facilities will be constructed, eventually yielding a viable alternative to exotic hardwoods.
Composite materials are another option fraught with contradiction. Composites are primarily composed of recycled plastics and mill waste, are highly durable, and require minimal maintenance. Unfortunately, there is a downside to most composites. At the end of their lifecycle most readily available composites fall short because in the process of creating a product made from both plastic (which is recyclable), and wood waste (which is compostable), the resulting combination is a product that is neither recyclable nor compostable.
There has been a lot of interest in composite materials lately, and we’re looking forward to seeing where the research and development takes us.
Here are a few products we’ll be keeping an eye on:
Modified wood resources:
Wood certification resources:
Designing The Sustainable Site- Heather Venhaus
Sustainable Landscape Construction-J. William Thompson and Kim Sorvig
Beronio Lumber, San Francisco
Truit and White, Berkeley
By Vera Gates
With the use of rhythm, we pull many variable aspects together and a design begins to vibrate and move. Through design, we compose a synchronized experience of movement through space, with greater and lesser moments of time.
We achieve rhythm through a thoughtful combination of geometric forms which are repeated and articulated. The effect is transformative and memorable as we, the viewer, perceive these rhythms and are engaged by them.
Garden rhythm can be playful, quiet, spicy, meditative or operatic. Many gardens are a combination of rhythmic themes, interwoven throughout the site.
For a small garden, a simple repetitive form, with perhaps just a beat of contrast will work well. A thoughtful precision of tempo, with an articulation and punctuation at just the right moment(s) will engage and delight.
For larger gardens, there is typically an overriding rhythmic order, which can be replicated to greater and lesser degree, throughout the garden. Momentum builds along a quiet journey and explodes in a crescendo, before finally letting go into the wild edges of the land.
It is helpful to establish the desired rhythm of a garden early in the design process. Such rhythm can be seen in early conceptual design studies, throughout the design process, and into the built garden.
Good garden design provides an orchestrated rhythm that is visually compelling, fully functional and memorable.
By Vera Gates
Asymmetrical design can be a very dynamic and responsive solution to real site conditions and natural aspects. This ordering system allows the design to respond to the site as it exists and balance existing features with new, proposed features. It is easy to incorporate focal elements where needed either functionally or visually, while maintaining a measurable overall form.
An asymmetrical design offers greater flexibility in response to the site and the program. It is well suited to a site that is odd or irregularly shaped. It allows the design to develop with features going where they work best. Over time, as plants mature, an asymmetrical design is much more forgiving of the whims of nature, and the fact that no two plants grow exactly alike.
The aspect of asymmetrical design is creating a balanced, harmonious whole. We are composing space.
By Vera Gates
There are two basic options: symmetrical and asymmetrical. The site itself, the architecture and the design intentions will inform which you will choose.
A symmetrical design is created around a central axis line, with everything on one side of the axis being mirrored exactly on the other. This works great if you have a symmetrical space and the architecture of the house is laid out in a symmetrical way. It can also work well if there is one great natural feature of the site, for example a perfectly matched pair of trees, that can be the central, ordering focus of the design.
Symmetrical design is the easiest to draw on paper and the most difficult to maintain long term in the garden. While it works very well for buildings, it can very difficult to mirror plantings from one side of a garden space to another, especially if sun and shade vary, the plants on one side will perform very differently than the other and throw off the planned symmetrical design. Because of this it is best to rely on built elements to maintain the symmetry, versus plantings.
The site will either lend itself to a symmetrical design or it won't. If the space is very regular and aligned to key site lines, a symmetrical design can work well.
It can be very difficult to incorporate existing natural features and often a symmetrical garden design requires removing just about everything on the site. This is not a problem if the site has already been cleared, but can be very costly otherwise.
The rhythm of a symmetrical garden is easily recognized and understood, but can quickly become repetitive and boring, especially if it goes on for too long. A better approach is to incorporate some symmetrical aspects, where they make the most sense and then interweave that symmetry with other aspects, as shown below.
By Vera Gates
The hardest part about designing a garden is knowing how and where to begin. The first steps for us are picking up a pencil and sketching on trace (tracing paper). All our design evolves from here.
We begin by generating a series of organizing site lines — sort of thought lines. These lines are gestural, and both straight and curving. They help us organize our thoughts and start drawing in a meaningful way.
These lines emerge from the site itself, for example: a curving ring of trees, a native creek or the angle of natural topography.
We also generate organizing lines out from the buildings and consider lines of sight, as well as circulation and connection from doors and points of entry.
These gestural line drawings are a starting place but not necessarily the ending place. It is a means of strategically plotting a series of ideas and exploring how those ideas might work. These studies get us loosened up and ready to dig into the design possibilities.
Once we have our bearings, we then start to look at the overall geometric form and whether we are going to do something highly symmetrical, crazy abstract or somewhere in between.
No matter the design intention or direction, from traditional to contemporary, design begins with drawing lines and organizing space with these lines.
Some of our gardens are symmetrical, at least in part. More often, we design asymmetrically, with a balance of features and elements, evolving along a series of site lines. The overall design is an orchestrated blend of ordering systems.
By Vera Gates
We have explored basic geometric form generation and shown how these forms manifest within garden design. We have looked at very simple forms and also more complex combinations. But now that we know how to begin, how do we know where to end? A foundational understanding of basic ordering principles allows us to design freely and create sophisticated geometric forms that work.
We know when we see and experience good design. It is beautiful, the space works well and we are inspired. How is such beauty of proportion and harmony achieved? We "know it when we see it" but how is "it" quantified? We perceive something as beautiful if the proportions are pleasing, the ordering system is comprehensible and the details enrich the whole.
Our ultimate goal in garden design is the creation of memorable place. To achieve this, we provide visual, physical and emotional movement through space, and create moments in time where one can linger and reflect.
In order for this journey through time and space to occur and the garden experience to be meaningful, the design methodology and ordering systems must be comprehensible. If we are comfortable and at our ease within a garden space, we can fully appreciate the experience and we will remember it.
Factors such as scale and proportion, rhythm and repetition, positive vs. negative space, balance and hierarchy all come into play. The resulting orchestration of form and volume is richly creative, within the bounds of basic organizational principles.
Garden design evolves in response to actual site conditions and the desire for beautiful, usable space. The form possibilities are limitless, especially because each site is unique, with both opportunities and constraints.
The following weeks will be a series of studies on combined geometric forms and the application of basic ordering systems that help organize our thinking and ultimately inform our design form. We will explore how we change the perception of space.
By Vera Gates
Throughout this series, we have been exploring garden design through the singular prism of one geometric form at a time, as discrete moments. Yet, great garden designs are a thoughtful orchestration of multiple geometric forms.
We are trying to create rhythm, interest, contrast and beauty amidst a highly ordered space. The varying geometries can be physically connected or dis-connected, interwoven or distinctly separate, according to our intentions.
Typically, the choices are made in response to some site or architectural consideration. We are often trying to either solve a problem, define a usable purpose or create an experiential moment.
As with basic geometric forms, the combinations have rules of engagement. Governed by perceptions of order and beauty, the design is an effort to interrelate and unify the whole into a comprehensible and beautiful sequence of space.
We know when we see and experience good design. It is beautiful, the space works well and we are inspired. The thoughtful combinations of geometric forms, and basic rules of ordering space help define beauty, proportion and harmony.
By Vera Gates
The spiral is one of the most amazing geometric design forms to work with, in all dimensions. It’s a mesmerizing and endlessly variable form. It is always so fun to stand at the eye of the spiral and comprehend the form, and for that moment, the magic. You can feel the generative movement of the shape.
In The Power of Limits, György Doczi introduced me to the spiral and to its naturally evolving, generative form. He talks of Dinergy as the pattern-forming process of the union of complimentary opposites and explores spiral patterning in depth.
In our garden design, we have proposed many spiral forms over the years, but built only a few. It’s a challenging form to work with, certainly, and in combination with the typical rectilinear architecture, it can be very hard to imagine such an organic form so near our homes.
But we come back to the spiral, again and again.
Often we combine the spiral with other forms, finding that these combinations make for some fascinating design forms. Straight lines, radiating out from the center of the spiral allow us to intercept, bisect and offset the spiral, effectively jogging it around site constraints. This creates a wonderful rhythm and playful tension that is comprehensible, engaging and interesting.
Alternately we work in combination with an arcing form, as it emerges from the spiral. This opens the form up and expands its reach. The effect is very much of an enfolding form, like the opening of a flower petal.
We often use the spiral as the basis of a design, without actually ever inscribing it on the site. It is there as an ordering principle, invisible but perceptible.
We'd like to say thank you to everyone who joined us on our garden tour on Saturday, and a very special thank you to our clients, who graciously opened up their homes and talked about the design process.
Our tour kicked off this year's Garden Dialogues series, a nationwide program that recognizes great landscape architecture and supports the educational programs of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. We were honored to participate and help the foundation in their mission.
By Vera Gates
The circular form is a geometric whole, arising from one point and one radius line, inscribing a visual volume. Seldom used, playful and magical, the circular form is pure pleasure to design with.
Of all the geometric forms, the circle holds the most embedded power. There is something primal in this form, with reference to mandalas, Native American circle dance and The Sanctuary of Athena in ancient Delphi. The circle has traditionally been used in the marking of time and creation of monuments to celebrate the seasons. Think Stonehenge, the Mayan calendar, sundials and your wrist watch.
The circle is a challenge to design with. It is perfection in closed loop, the eye and the mind tend to remain within, so it can be fairly static. We use the circle sparingly and quite intentionally, either at a grand scale for ordering space, or a design aspect where we playfully repeat the form or combine the circle with other forms to activate it.
For example, we often design using a series of concentric circles, bisected by lines and offset in their start and stop. This creates a dynamic but still very comprehensible form with a lot of play and movement. This gives an expanded sense of space and time.
In plan, we inscribe a circle as a design form. Lifting this form up and giving it volume, we create a sphere. The circle can also be one of the most playful of forms, as there is such whimsy in the reference to bubbles and big rubber balls.
By Vera Gates
The grid is one of the simplest of design methodologies and a great way to get a design started. Most gardens are laid out over an underlying grid. This is a great ordering system for organizing space and circulation. It is easily measurable and manageable as a design tool.
The grid is most interesting when not entirely visible and when it is articulated at varying scales. It can emerge and disappear throughout the garden. The form is comprehensible and interesting, but not boring. The design can take on an additive or subtractive quality, depending upon how the grid is interpreted.
Typically, the grid is offset and parallel with the house. We love it when there are structures set at various angles, as this creates opportunity for an offset grid and a dynamic shift in perception of the site. A shifted grid creates the illusion of a more expansive space.
The grid pattern gets very interesting when you take it into three dimensions. Forms become a study in ascending and descending forms. Such a design works well where there are grade changes to be made and connections to the interior space need to be made on a number of elevational levels. The forms can literally descend into the earth as a negative space and arise from the earth as articulated terraces and monumental planters.
Check out the show before Sunday to see some of these great pieces in person, as well as the works from the permanent collection that inspired the bouquets. (If that's not motivation enough, while you're there, you can check out the Oscar de la Renta Retrospective.)
We were not able to grab all of the artists names, unfortunately, but here's a list of what we have. Let us know if you can fill in any gaps!
By Vera Gates
At Arterra we frequently design with rectangular forms, inspired by the golden rectangle and the desire to create harmonious proportions. This geometric form is infinitely workable and easily repeated in endlessly interesting patterns. Our clients are drawn towards rectilinear designs, as they feel calm, quiet and Zen-like. It is a familiar, visually comprehensible form, which makes it soothing.
The idea here is that the perfectly proportioned rectangle will be infinitely pleasing to the human eye.
We are big fans of the humble rectangle and we use it a lot, both horizontally as a plane and vertically as a shape and form.
A series of rectangles can be stacked, offset, shifted and rotated. They can be rendered in varying materials of vary sizes. This is an infinitely workable form and easily reinforced with pre-fabricated elements like planters.
In garden design today, the rectangle appears to be having its moment. It is by far the most popular geometric form requested and for good reason. Our contemporary design lexicon emanates from computer drawings, and rectangles are easy to draw, replicate and repeat on the computer. It is readily available in many materials, and it is easy to build straight, rectangular shapes.
However, the rectangle does not necessarily play well with others. The curving forms, in particular seem to have fallen out of favor, because they tend to not work well with the rectangle. Occasionally we merge the two, and the results are powerful.
In a primarily rectilinear design, the challenge is creating complexity and design interest with such a simple shape.
We respond by manipulating the form in scale and dimension, lifting it up at times and replicating it at varying sizes, to create a sophisticated composition of forms.
We've collected Vera's Garden Geometries Series for easier reading.
We hope you are enjoying this in-depth view of her design process as much as we are!
By Vera Gates
Of all the garden geometries, the curving line is by far the most challenging and rewarding. A good strong curve is a magical thing and very powerful. People are drawn to this form like no other. Perhaps because it is so mesmerizing and visually engaging. Perhaps because it is such a comforting shape, enveloping us in the gesture of embrace.
We often use the curving form in garden design and find it works brilliantly for a number of reasons, and to solve a number of design problems. Of its own accord, the mathematically precise curving form is singularly beautiful, with a graceful visual movement. This movement guides the viewer’s eye around the space and directs attention to the intentionally important aspects.
The mathematics of the curve are nuanced and complex. Curves lend themselves beautifully to garden design and offer visual movement and spatial connection. A beautiful curve can define and carry a design. Interwoven with other geometries, a curving form can receive and order otherwise disconnected forms. The curve is very forgiving of past built transgressions and gracefully connects building and spaces that might not otherwise make sense together.
We also use curves at natural edges, where the built environment interfaces with the natural.
This is often as simple as a gently curving, planted edge, but at times we are actually called upon to redefine natural edges of land and topography.
Curving forms allow a graceful resolution to irregularly shaped parcels. Curving forms can also frame a view, destination or create terminus. Combining curves with other geometries creates drama.
A good rule of thumb for curving forms is this: if you can mathematically draw a beautiful curving form, then it can be built, and if it can be built, it will be very pleasing to the human eye. Conversely, if it does not look good on paper, it will look ten times worse once built. All curves are ultimately arcs, with radius points. There are no get arounds.
Very early in my career I was trying to design a “natural” pond form and it was not going well. Sketch after sketch resulted in various versions of ugliness. Finally an architect in the office handed me a book entitled The Power of Limits, by György Doczi. This book completely changed my perception of form, my interpretation of geometry and my understanding of proportion in the natural world. And it really helped with the design of curving forms.
In the preface, Doczi writes:
“In all realms of our experience, we are finding the need to rediscover proper proportions. The proportions of nature, art and architecture can help us in this effort, for these proportions are shared limitations that create harmonious relationships out of differences. Thus they teach us that limitations are not just restrictive, but they are also creative”.
A fearless use of curving forms allows us great flexibility and freedom.
By Vera Gates
The simple, straightforward line is so basic that we often take it for granted, yet the line is the foundation of all design.
The concept of line is one of the simplest and most elegant of design tools. Primarily used as a basic ordering system, the line typically evolves into a series of other forms to create a compositional whole. We tend to think of line as a journey, the creation of, not only form, but connection… from one point, one place to another.
The line is an endlessly hardworking, playful, functional and beautiful form, from with which anything can be designed. Line is completely manageable and comprehensible, easily ordering space and providing human orientation to both the natural and built worlds.
We begin design studies with a series of gestural lines, as a means of ordering space. We identify centerlines and sight lines, emanating from the architecture. Then we begin to reimagine the site and create connections from one point to another and from one place to another. We identify focal points, boundaries and even the lines of the sun’s axis. As the design evolves, the actual form varies and expands.
One of the most interesting aspects of the line in design is the power that it gains when it is repeated. The repeating line pattern offers so much opportunity to interpret and express ideas of material, volume and dimension. These elements may be repeated, staggered, shifted and offset, narrowed or widened, all of which create variety and interest.
The line, represented in plan view, evolves and becomes multi dimensional, rising up three dimensionally as seat/retaining walls, free standing fences, a water wall or fountain.