Get expert advice on your landscaping project this year.

Form Follows Function: This design principle, which most landscape designers are familiar with, originates from architecture. Since your landscape is an extension of your home, it naturally follows that this architectural guideline would apply to your landscape.

In essence form follows function means that for a landscape plan to be successful it must first take into consideration your individual functional needs. Once your needs are clearly identified, you need to consider your existing site conditions, the character of your home and its surroundings, your own personal style, and apply sound design principles to create a roadmap to produce your dream landscape.

If you’re looking to invest in a landscape project this year, protect your investment and hire a qualified designer or hire a design/build firm with qualified designers on staff.

A qualified designer will:

  • create a project that is more transformative and creative.
  • design a project that is reflective of you: reflective of your personal style.
  • design a project based on the latest materials and trends.
  • avoid costly project pitfalls in technical areas: ensuring proper drainage, proper construction practices.
  • ensure your landscape project follows local bylaws and provincial codes.
  • design a project you can be proud of based on sound principles in design.

In short, if your planning on tackling any landscape project this spring, save yourself a lot of time, effort and potential headaches–insist on a professional.

 

Doing it Right—The missing component!

In a recent Ottawa Citizen Article entitled DIY—not so simple, Mike Holmes, the undisputed king of home improvement, explains the pitfalls of the “Do-it-Yourselfer” approach to projects. He makes a sound argument that some projects really should be left to the professionals. In short, even if you know “how” to do something, it’s more critical to know “why”. You might know how to remove a section of water-stained drywall and replace it, the article goes on to say, but if you don’t know what caused the stain in the first place you’ll be patching the same stain year after year. “It’s like a doctor treating the symptom and not the disease.”

In my line of work, I come across many contractors—and some Do-It-Yourselfers—who know the “how” of landscape construction. The DIY may have read articles and conducted extensive research before tackling a project. A contractor may have gone further and participated in landscape construction courses and achieved accreditations. Quite popular among landscape contractors are ICPI accreditation coursess provided by the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute.  These courses teach interlocking stone and segmental wall installation techniques. While earning your education this way is laudable, it often focuses on the build side rather than the design side of the equation.

Harmony, order, unity, rhythm, proportion, functionality—these are some of the requisites of a successful landscape design. These precepts in design theory are the building blocks of proper landscape composition and properly understood and applied will lead to stunning landscape designs. Overlooking these principles, however, often lead to chaos—a mish mash of unrelated design elements and components that assault the senses. As well as being visually unappealing, poorly conceived designs are often impractical. They may have spaces that are too large or too small for their intended use or surroundings. Quite often elements of the design are scattered and lack cohesion or are improperly placed. A patio seating area, for example, may be positioned under full sun exposure rather than taking advantage of available shade on site.

A lot of residential landscape contractors currently in business don’t have a trained or accredited designer on staff. Many of the contractors you meet when soliciting bids for a landscaping project are operator-owned. They own and run their business, meet with customers, prepare the design and quotes and quite often work on the projects. They wear too many hats and often have only some of the skills necessary to perform any one of their roles effectively. Quite often their design inspiration is based on personal experience—what they’ve done or seen—rather than established design theory.

I am often amazed at some of the design-challenged projects that get the green light from homeowners. What’s more, it seems that some homeowners have no idea that the project that they’re so proudly showing off to their family and friends would horrify a trained designer—or just about anyone with a more critical eye. There are large, excessive garden walls that completely overpower entrances, massive steps that belong in front of a church or commercial building rather than adorning a residential home, patio areas designed too small for their intended use or functions, designs composed of a mismatch of unrelated or competing styles—the list goes on.

A properly designed landscape, one conceived and planned using established and sound theory, really is crucial to success. You should always look at a contractor’s technical ability to implement your landscape project, but of greater importance is a qualified design professional that can provide you with an overall vision. Hire a contractor that has a trained designer on staff or hire a trained or accredited designer to help in the planning process, then shop around for a contractor with the technical skills and experience to make your landscape dreams a reality.

On a final note, there are some successful landscape designers that have no formal training—they have a gift and style that shines through in their work. You may get lucky in your search, but going with an accredited designer is a much better option than leaving a project to chance. At the very least, ask to see a portfolio. Most reputable contractors and designers will have one handily available or will have an online portfolio to show off their work.

The Better Business Bureau–is membership relevant?

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has been an excellent organization serving consumers and businesses alike for nearly a century.  Founded in 1912 by the Associated Advertising Clubs of America (currently the American Advertising Federation), it started out as movement by industry to self-regulate and adopt truth in advertising standards. It’s now better known by most as a champion of the consumer—a place to file complaints and check a business’s overall service or performance rating.

For most businesses, deciding to join the Better Business Bureau is purely a marketing decision. Since many consumers assume members of the Better Business Bureau operate at a higher standard, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to buy credibility.  Do BBB member companies really operate at a higher standard? Unfortunately consumers are somewhat misled. Even the BBB website explains that BBB membership does not guarantee quality service or workmanship from an organization. Membership is simply an agreement between a business and the BBB; a pledge that the member business will operate under the Better Business Bureau “Standards of Conduct”, now referred to as “Code of Business Practices (Accreditation Standards)”.

The Better Business Bureau has come under fire of late for violating some of the very truth in advertising tenets on which it was founded. They have muddied the waters somewhat. Until recently, consumers could search for a business on a BBB website and get an impartial review of how well a company was performing. Today, if a company is not a dues-paying member of the Better Business Bureau consumer searches show the listing against a grey, drab and lifeless background and often with an NR rating (Not Rated). That, in and of itself, implies a company is too obscure to even rate–even if that business is well established and respected by consumers and industry peers alike.

If a company is a dues paying member of the BBB, however, you’re greeted with a bright and lively two tone blue listing and a company is immediately rated and referred to as “accredited”. Furthermore, the term “accredited” implies that member companies have earned some noble status when, in truth, all they’ve done is simply paid a yearly membership fee and agreed to operate under the BBB Standards of Conduct. Essentially they get preferential treatment for supporting the BBB.

A recent Smart Money magazine article goes even further and implies that the BBB is too cozy with the firms it monitors. The article goes on to say that paying members might actually be given higher ratings or more favorable treatment than non-paying members. The BBB is also under fire, and being sued in the U.S., for favoritism. Incorp Services Inc. is suing the BBB of Southern Nevada claiming BBB ratings are biased in favor of companies paying accreditation fees. There is mounting criticism that the BBB ratings standards are flawed, obscure and unreliable. Scott Jordan, a freelance writer in Mesa Arizona, also questions the reliability of the BBB rating system. According to his article the BBB simply doesn’t have the resources necessary to give any single business more than a fleeting glimpse, let alone a proper rating.

A few years ago we were dues paying members of the BBB and enjoyed an A+ rating on one of those beautiful blue banners. Given that we only ever get asked if we are BBB members about 10% of the time, we felt our dues and membership fees budget could be used more effectively. We made a strategic decision to put more money in training; training that earns us accreditations that are pertinent to our business and that, in turn, supports our industry association. Well, since we dropped our BBB membership we lost our beautiful blue banner. We are now listed as NR (Not Rated). Nothing was done to lose our A+ rating other than deciding to drop out of  the BBB program and not pay the yearly fee.

There’s a great irony here. Unless things change at the BBB, consumers will lose faith in the organization. If consumers can’t rely on the information they provide, The BBB itself could be brought down by the very tenets on which they were founded; the very same standards of conduct they have members swear to uphold–Truth in Advertising. 

I still encourage consumers to use the Better Business Bureau when vetting a landscape contractor. Chances are if a company isn’t flying right they’ll show up on the BBB radar. However, if a company is not listed on the BBB website, or listed and not rated ”NR”, consumers owe it to themselves to go even further in their research or risk disqualifying very qualified and capable companies. Ultimately, the better business bureau should only be considered as one of a list of things to take into account when hiring a contractor. You should at the very least: 

  • Check contractor references from current and past customers.
  • Check references from dealers and suppliers whenever possible.
  • Ask the contractor if they are part of any industry associations.
  • Ask for and check on any relevant industry accreditations.
  • A contractor should have a valid business license.
  • Validate that the contractor has Liability Insurance.
  • Confirm that the contractor pays into the Workman’s Compensation program–this can protect you from injury lawsuits from anyone getting hurt on the site.

Go ahead and check the Better Business Bureau ratings, but don’t let the drab grey listings or lack of “accreditation” mislead. Put a lot more weight in a full company vetting process. A company may well have simply made a strategic financial decision to support more relevant industry organizations and earn true and pertinent industry accreditations.

Come see what the fuss is about!

We strongly believe that creativity and quality of workmanship are what sets us apart, but don’t take our word for it. If you’d like to see what people think of the quality of our work, visit our testimonials page.

Fall is here but think summer–next summer!

With shorter days and gloomy weather it’s hard to think about lounging poolside in your newly created back yard oasis. Truth is, however, this is precisely the best time to think about putting your landscape dreams to paper.

Most landscape designers are winding down for winter and with little or no snow on the ground, it’s very easy to take all the necessary measurements and photos necessary to put a plan together for spring/summer implementation. A designer will have less time pressures and more time to focus on getting things just right for you over the winter months.

Most reputable pool and landscape companies are booked several months ahead. If you wait until spring to plan, your dream back yard may not come to fruition until mid summer. If you wait until late spring or early summer, you’ll be lucky to get a few days or short weeks before it’s time to close things up again. Don’t wait and miss a full summer of fun! Call to book a consultation now. You can have a full, working landscape plan and get a jump on the list of projects scheduled for spring.

New Home Driveway Failures

I know I risk ruffling a few feathers in the home construction industry, but something has to be said about the way driveways are prepared in new homes. Every year I meet customers that are trying to recoup costs from their builder for failed driveway bases. The home warranty has yet to expire and the driveways show signs of failure. This typically happens where the driveway meets the garage; the area with the most loose backfill around the foundation.

There are examples in older homes in Ottawa where the homeowner still has the original driveway and the driveway has sunk so much they have to put in a ramp to drive into the garage. Some have completely given up on parking the car in the garage and are using the garage as a storage room. Most people I talk to attribute everything to high levels of clay in our area. I often hear, “Oh well, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re on clay”. The truth is something CAN be done about it.

If you think about it, there are skyscrapers in Ottawa that are built on the very same clay soil that your home is built. Drive down a rural area and you’ll often see hugh power line towers standing perfectly straight in the middle of mud bogs and swamps. You can’t get more clay or unsettled soil than that! The truth is there are engineered specifications to deal with building all kinds of structures in all kinds of soil conditions. So why are new home driveways such a problem? What’s being done wrong?

To begin with, no amount of compaction will work on it’s own. You also can’t just let your driveway “sit for a year”, as I often hear, and hope it will settle more. These things might help your driveway last a bit longer, but if you’re sitting on clay soil the inevitable will still happen. The driveway will fail.

Clay is composed of a lot of fine particles. These fine, elongated particles are the main property of clay that causes it to retain moisture. Moisture in the clay expands and contracts during the spring freeze-thaw cycles. What’s needed to strengthen the base for a driveway, or any interlocking stone project, is a way to separate the base and the sub base. To stop the wet clay from migrating into the compacted base. That’s where woven geotextile comes in.

Many contractors recommend a woven Geotextile fabric for under the base, but a lot of contractors don’t even know why they’re using it. They’re doing it because they’ve learned that other contractors are using it and it’s associated with a quality install. I really get a chuckle when I hear a customer tell me that another contractor said they needed a woven geotextile fabric under the base of the driveway to combat weeds. A driveway in Ottawa is often dug to a depth of 18 to 20 inches. The geotextile is below that base. That would have to be some very powerful grass to push it’s way through 20″ of compacted gravel and poke through interlocking stone pavers. If they could make grass that strong I’d buy it and have a beautiful, lush lawn. Heck I’d buy the rights to it and be up there with Bill Gates as one of the richest men in the world–some people will spend a lot of money to have a lush lawn–but I digress.

Some contractors will tell you that woven geotextile is load bearing. Although a bit closer to the truth, woven geotextile does have one way textile strength, that’s not really the intention of woven geotextile. Woven geotextile’s main purpose is to separate the base from the sub base. It stops clay from migrating into the compacted gravel and eroding it over time. We’ve dug up driveways that were twenty years old and you’d swear there was no base there–it’s all mud. That’s because nothing stopped the clay from creeping further into the gravel year after year and eventually completely destroying the compaction in the gravel.

So. Is there a way for builders to build driveways that would last the homeowner more than the warranty? Hmmm….Can you build a hydro tower in a swamp? Or a skyscraper on clay? You bet. And you can bet there are ways to build a driveway base that lasts. It just costs more.

Now home builders are not necessarily at fault and may very well have the best of intentions. There are many home builders that actually follow the specs they have been given. Often times, however, it’s not enough. Often times these specifications are for optimal soil conditions, which are rare in our parts. The specifications for these bases are also designed for asphalt and not for pavers. Since a typical asphalt has a shorter lifespan than pavers (typically ten to fifteen years) it’s long enough to last for when it’s time to replace the asphalt. The idea is you then recompact the driveway and repave and hope to get another ten to fifteen years.

Driveways simply have to be built for the soil conditions they’re being built on and for the intended purpose. In my view, even an asphalt driveway in a new home should have woven geotextile supporting the base. It’s relatively cheap insurance. You still need high proctor density compaction, but it’s a step in the right direction.

So…Unless you live on a rock base in Kanata, you probably don’t have optimal soil conditions. The way I see it you can do one of two things. Ask your home builder if you could pay a bit more for a driveway that’s specified to your soil conditions, or you can move to sandy or rocky area in California where they don’t have clay or polar conditions to contend with and can get by with a six inch base that won’t budge for a hundred years. You’d probably miss the white Christmas, though. Ooops, excuse the political incorrectness–Holiday Season.

New Photos

We added a few more recent photos to the site. There are many more projects we’ll be including…when time permits.

More on the Tax Credit

Landscape Ontario released information outlining the tax credit in a bit more detail. I’ve included the PDF postcard here for review. It looks like the list of approved projects is pretty broad. It seems like the key words are projects that are of an “enduring nature”. That would include all kinds of Professional Lnadscape design and contractor services. The tax credit ends February 10, 2010. Since the landscaping season usually ends when the snow flies and most reputable contractors can be booked three to six months in advance, if you’re considering taking advantage of this tax credit, it would be wise to book an appointment as soon as possible.

You can read more about the tax credit on Landscape Ontario’s site here.

Federal budget recognizes value of green industry services

That was the heading of an email I received from our industry association–Landscape Ontario.

It’s long been known that the Harper government was working on a stimulus package for the economy. What wasn’t known until the budget was announced recently was what would be included in the package. Home renovations was widely rumored, but that’s a pretty broad field. How much of a rebate would be offered was also not clear.

Well the wait is over and we now know that the Home Renovation Tax Credit (HRTC) includes tax incentives for work outside as well as inside your home.

Here’s a short list of what’s eligible:

  • Building an addition, deck, fence or retaining wall
  • Painting the interior or exterior of a house
  • Resurfacing a driveway
  • Laying new sod

The Home Renovation Tax Credit means families can claim a 15% tax credit on work performed after January 27,2009 and before February 1st, 2010. The tax credit applies for purchases over $1000.00 and less than $10,000.00. In other words a $1350.00 maximum tax refund on work exceeding ten thousand. The refund is a tax credit to be submitted with your income taxes.

This is good news for those of you looking to have work done this year. It’s also great news for those of you whose projects got bumped last fall.

For more information visit department of finance website.

Interlocking Stone Ottawa

In 2004 we contributed to an article in Ottawa Life magazine titled “Buyer Beware”, an article about the horror stories some consumers have faced with nefarious contractors. Every year we get calls from consumers who have incurred financial losses from contractors who cut out on them, have had their homes and properties damaged by inexperienced contractors, or have had shoddy work done–work that doesn’t meet any interlocking stone installation standard. Unfortunately, such stories are far too common.

Here is a list of some of the situations we’ve come across:

Bait & Switch

A large part of the cost of installing Interlocking stone is base preparation. Some contractors sell their work as a proper installation–the right base depth for the application, optimal compaction, woven geotextile fabric, edge restraints, etc. While the the customer is at work, the shady contractor skims off the grass and a few inches of top soil, lightly compacts, grades and installs the pavers. The job is done in record time and the contractor walks away with a huge profit. However, the base is only sufficient to last for the supplied warranty, usually one or two years, and very soon after the warranty has expired the customer is left with a project that completely falls apart.

Always ask your contractor for installation specifications and, if possible, stay home during the first days of the construction phase or pop-in from time to time during the day to check on how the work is being done. If you simply can’t be home while the project is under way, then have a friend, neighbor or family member be your eyes for you. The most crucial part of interlocking stone work is the preparation; be there to make sure you’re getting what you actually paid for.

Options that are not optional

There are many components that go into a successful interlocking stone project. There is, however, only one way of installing interlocking stone that lasts–the engineer tested and approved way. Many contractors (some who have been in business for 20 to 30 years) routinely cut corners. These contractors know about edge restraints but don’t install them, they sell them as options. Edge restraints are NOT OPTIONAL, they are crucial to proper interlocking stone installation. Edge restraints are long plastic or aluminum strips that are spiked in along the open edges of an interlocking stone project. Without them the open edge pavers of your project will start to pull away. This is called “edge creep” or “brick creep”. The only way to prevent this is to have edge restraints in place.

Escalating Costs. Unethical?

This should be considered CRIMINAL! I’m amazed at how many people fall prey to this type of contractor. Although there may be certain situations that warrant altering the agreed-upon quote (finding a buried stumps, large boulders, or unstable ground in the excavation area), some contractors will routinely find ways to ask for more and more money. Insist that your contractor provide you with a plan, preferably one to scale, of what the finished work will look like. Understand your project scope, ask questions, and get the quote in writing. If you change your mind on some aspects of the project along the way ask for and sign a “change order” form so you can be fully and constantly aware of the project’s cost. If a contractor can’t provide you with a simple work plan and a solid quote, look elsewhere.

The large deposit

Some contractors may ask for a large deposit when signing a contract. You should NEVER give a contractor more than ten to twenty percent initial payment for work being performed! We’ve come across countless customers who have handed over up to 50% in up front project costs only to have their contractor mysteriously disappear or go out of business. A deposit is only required as an act of good faith; to secure your position on a contractor’s list of projects. On rare occasions, with large projects, it’s acceptable for a contractor to ask for small payments as and when project phases are completed. If this is the case, know ahead of time when your contractor will ask for payment and what, specifically, you’ll be paying for.

The Inexperienced Contractor

Many people fall victim to the “well intentioned” but inexperienced contractor. In fact, this is probably the most prevalent problem consumers are faced with. There are few regulations, licensing or skills requirements for starting a landscaping business. More and more, ill-prepared and ill-trained entrepreneurs take advantage of the loose regulations and blindly dive into this business. The uninformed homeowner is all too often subjected to the financial consequences of their inexperience.

These contractors improperly build large stone structures against your home without the proper protection or without following proper building specifications. Quite often this results in thousands of dollars in damage to your homes. They may build large retaining walls with little knowledge of the engineering specifications needed to ensure the wall doesn’t fail. These contractors often have little understanding of the limitations of the concrete products they use. They may use smaller garden wall blocks to build steps that are too high or too narrow to safely negotiate. They may build three foot high raised decks and retaining walls with smaller garden wall blocks–blocks designed to hold garden soil pressure only.

You can avoid the inexperienced contractor by doing a bit of homework. Visit www.icpi.org (interlocking concrete pavement institute) and look at the contractors section for valuable information. Learn as much as you can about how interlocking stone installation methods and ask prospective contractors how they would go about building your project. Armed with a little bit of knowledge, you can easily weed out the contractors that use six inches of limestone screenings (stone dust) or 3/4 clear crushed stone as a base–something that completely flies in the face of engineered specifications. The more you know about installation guidelines, the easier it will be for you to differentiate between inexperienced or ill-informed contractors and the professionals.

There are many contractors in this business who create beautiful and innovative designs and execute them flawlessly. Unfortunately there are infinitely more companies, some that have been in business for many years, that fall into the categories we’ve mentioned here. These companies will continue to survive and thrive on the uninformed and trusting consumer. Don’t be the next victim! Do your homework before you hire a contractor. Check references, check the Better Business Bureau and check contractor’s accreditations. Make sure your contractor has insurance in case damage is done to your home and check that they pay into Workman’s Compensation. You, as the homeowner, are the project owner and are responsible for the safety of workers on your site.

Remember, what these companies do is nothing short of CRIMINAL! They may not end up behind bars, but the more consumers are informed, the more likely these disreputable companies will end up out of business.

If you have fallen victim to some of these contractors, we’d like to hear from you. Please add a comment below.