Too Undecided to Hire a Pro

aloha2009June 18, 2011

After living with an unusable yard for 2 years, we still haven't come up with a solid design, grrrrrr!!!!

We have a wide but shallow lot upon a lake. With some hardscaping already in place (retaining wall and deck), needing pathways to the beach, changing slopes of the land, incorporating the neighbors topography, and the HOA restrictions, we've barely been able to come up with a rough draft of the layout. Even if we moved forward with that, we have to work with various materials that complement each other, but are different enough (ie concrete, sand, and stone floorings (might throw in some breeze and wood too from another nearby area). We need it to flow and not look like add on after add on.

We've have looked through hundreds upon hundreds of pictuers and are still too stuck to have someone hold our hands through (the consult fees would be higher then the end product).

We will retire into this home, so resale is not an issue. The issue is we have many, many years to have to live with changing lifestyles and needs over the decades. Pretty tall order to fill. Can it be filled?

I dread going through another summer with only dirt, mud and weeds when the potential is so great.

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It comes down to how much you value getting it done and how much help you need to get it done.

I don't know why you don't realize that you are in the situation where you are most in need of a design consultant (rather than waiting until you are not stuck). You need a facilitator that understands the landscape and knows how to figure you out and apply it all to your landscape. An hour with someone who is actually good at this will make you "unstuck". Then you can move forward on your own or have it designed.

The difficulty is knowing whether or not your consultant is capable of all of that or not. Many people are good at putting planting compositions together. Not many are so skilled in the facilitation. You really need a first hand reference from someone who has been through this who can give you first hand information on how well the consultant understood them, understood what fit their needs, and understood the media (site, plants, hardscape,...) that they were working with.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 7:58AM
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I had two designers come by initially to give me a quote.

The first one seemed very professional, but there were few questions asked as to lifestyle, budget, etc. His quote was reasonable ($300) and I thought seriously of going with him and still could. Perhaps it was the lack of feedback that I was getting, I was reluctant to hand over $300 hoping he would come with something good - no portfolio though.

The second "designer" gave me a quote of $36000 to do the hardscaping. He volunteered a rough sketch of what they were planning to do. Only would do flagstone (didn't want and had told him that). No problems not perusing that bid.

I got these two from narrowing down landscaper websites that at least had yards that I liked. Most seem very ordinary. I know I could have done at least as well as them (I've done it in the past). I figured that the pictures they had posted would be their best one.

Since we're trying to work with some of the elements we already have the materials is quite the problem. We have maple roots that would be a problem laying stone/concrete walkways, hence the likelyhood of breeze. Many steps (13?) which would transition from the breeze to ? Wanting a firepit with sand and a stone edge. Yet another patio that is 1/2 on the beach and 1/2 in the yard. Needing to have steps linked from the backdoor down to the beach with a beautiful dry stacked wall that we're going to have to alter somehow (but definately don't want to mess up). All this having a patio next to the house that would link everything together and bring cohesiveness to the entire yard. Someone has to REALLY be good at design to pull this off and I'm not finding anyone YET.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 1:22PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

What you're working with is not just design but also trade-offs and compromises. I've been through this process many times... you think you have several constants to work with that don't work together, and you do get stuck. What usually happens to me is that something makes me realize that one or more of the constants is actually a variable, and that I can change it. That unleashes a number of new possibilities, one of which then appeals enough that I find I am willing to trade-off on some other elements that I thought were necessities. Or something like that.

I'm not against hiring someone, but I am a pretty bred-to-the-bone do-it-yourselfer, designwise at least. What I do realize, however, is that if you are going to hire someone and hand them the same set of constraints that are making you stuck, you have to be prepared that there is very little design room for them. We lock ourselves in with this process; there is no point paying someone only to sit them in the lock-up with you. You need them, as Laag says, to help you get unstuck.

So if you are going to pay someone for their ideas and insights, you should be prepared to hear, for instance, that the stone wall to which you are adhering so tightly would maybe be better rebuilt somewhere else entirely, or that the trees that are flummoxing you should come down. You speak of being there for years and years, which is plenty of time for new (better) trees in better locations to grow in. Maples with troublesome roots are not good long term companions.

Whether it is an old sweater or landscaping, we tend to cling to what we see and be reluctant to let it go. But it's different if you go buy a new sweater; then the old one is suddenly easier to let go of. $300 is not such a big gamble given the scale of the landscaping you have in mind; I would go for it just so he can maybe sketch you out a new sweater that will enable you to let go of the old. If you have a new wall planned with the same rocks in a different location, it will be easier to contemplate the removal of the wall you have.

So ask him not only how he would design within the constraints of the landscaping already in place, but also what he would do if any of those constraints could be alleviated.


    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 3:04PM
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Lets run with karins sweater analogy: the old sweater is made from wool it is blue with a 'V' neck and long sleeves making it ideal for cooler days, the wool and the long sleeves make you feel comfortable in the fall. You want to replace it but you can't find another just like it so you are stuck with the old one. You decide that you need a custom made sweater and you tell the designer that it must be blue, made of wool with a 'V' neck and long sleeves. She then asks you why and you say "Because those things make me feel comfortable in the fall". Not wanting to sound too much like Uncle Remus but try designing or having someone design from the motivation rather than a list of must haves just in case some new ideas pop up.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 4:27PM
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Keep looking for the right designer.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 5:05PM
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I totally understand where the two of you are coming from regarding perceived requirements. It was when I "took out" the maple tree, the I was able to design the front side yard. By mentally removing it out of the equation (I wasn't opposed to removing it), the yard laid out wonderfully WITH it. Did this also in our previous home. I almost removed the aspen grove in our front yard but after removing it as a perameter, it actually went great, and passerby's would come out of their way to look at our front yard. The same thing happend with our kitchen that we are remodeling. We thought way out of the box and came up with a very different but wonderful kitchen layout that incorporates items that we never thought we'd have...large kitchen window and huge island.

Perhaps it's the magnitude of this project, the complexities of being on a lake, hillside landscaping, xeriscape landscaping, expansive soils, extensive backyard entertaining, HOA restrictions that complicate this project so much. I've "taken out" the rock wall and deck from our plans and ask "what would I do if none of these things were there?". The answer has been pretty close to what we are going to be doing.

We have found it a source of great contention by having the only current access to the beach on the corner of the land. We are changing the access to the backyard and installing french doors that open out into the middle of the yard. The natural flow for us would be able to walk straight out the middle, below the dry stacked wall and onto the beach. Believe me, we've wanted it to work perhaps the other way, it would be a lot easier, but it just doesn't feel right at all. From the back yard to the lake it is only 50' to the water. It feels crazy to walk 50' to the corner of the lot and back again to the middle to "spread out". Then again back for refreshments, bathroom, etc. If the steps are down the middle it would be so much easier.

We need a wall and the location is pretty close to what we'd have to have anyway to incorporate the neighbors walls too (something we can't change). The wall can be tweaked but will not be removed. The deck is of little concern other then we are trying to utilize the shade as much as possible.

The part that seems most difficult is trying to incorporate the different paving materials. We like the look of cement with "square tiles" incorporated into the expansion joints. It gives us the clean look we are going after. We would consider putting it up on the upper side that has the maple roots but we'd prefer a more casual look there anyway. When we liked the look that the breeze gave us (informal) and saving the maple tree was an added bonus. It was trying to mesh the informal with the concrete that don't seem to link. We'd also have to have several steps going from the upper side to the backyard. Concrete steps can take a pretty bad beating with the expansive soils. A breeze type steps seem pretty messy. Wood was a possibility.

It's like we're 90% there, we are just really struggling with the steps to get down to the backyard, and then to get down to the beach. It would be nice to have a "step specialist". We could throw a ton of money at this, but we'd like to keep it reasonably under raps.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 5:07PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Since you're wondering about types of steps, here are some I fell in love with.

Disclaimer: I'm definitely not a pro and I have no idea how feasible this would be with your soil or with the steps' location. There's also the question of how many steps you need, and how much space is available.

Anyway, have you seen the stone slab steps on this thread? You'll find those photos in the posts from this April and May (about 2/3 of the way into the thread).

You already have a stone wall. This is simply additional stone.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2011 at 6:21PM
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Missingtheobvious - - I am glad you like my stairs. I'll have final pics as soon as the grass comes in a bit more and I can mow. Its taken several seedings and it now looks real ragged at the moment.

To the OP, I couldn't sort my project out and hired a landscape architect. It was a real solid decision and I was able to get a much sharper design than my loose ideas had developed. I spent quite bit more than $300 though.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 12:06PM
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Well we had a long discussion about this lot in the spring and I found that you we not particularly receptive to ideas. My thought is that it may not be the landscapers, but the homeowner.

Here is a link that might be useful: old thread

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 2:06PM
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Thanks, drtygrl, for reviving that previous thread the OP posted on this subject. I am going to suggest a different approach in answer to the question. This project is basically hardscape. During my many years of working with stone masons I developed great respect not only for their skills but also for their design abilities. Suggest you make some inquiries, locate several of the best masons in your area and consult with them, your 'want' list in hand. I have a hunch one of them will be able help you work with the land and also steer you to a designer, if needed, with whom they work well. I have never done a major stonework project in which the stone mason and did not collaborate on the design to some extent.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 2:59PM
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Gotta admit, the whole "too undecided to hire a pro" thing makes me think of those people who get the house all tidy before the cleaning person shows up. That's part of a designer's job, making sense of what you want and what's possible.

I'm with laag, keep looking for a local designer to find the right fit. I think that second set of eyes could be huge, as could the ability to have in-person conversations with someone who has done these types of projects. I will say that the $300 figure seems crazy low for what you want help figuring out. The more hardscape you've already installed on your own, the more work we have making it all make sense with the next step.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2011 at 3:53PM
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Marcinde, I had to laugh as I think that's exactly what I've been doing with this project. We haven't put any of the hardscaping in, it was in here when we bought the property. There is a lot of $$$ in the retaining walls but nowhere else (inside and out).

Several of you have given me the push to look at getting a designer in here. I was timid and didn't want to take up someone's valuable time, and have them come up with all the ideas. With the one bid coming in so extraordinarily high (and not even what I asked for), we just put the project on the backburner.

I did find someone that had a lot of awesome pictures of mason/concrete work. I'm waiting for a call back to set up an appt with them. I've got a stretch off of work, so I'll put my time in getting the right person in.

I like to sit on ideas for awhile to see if they stand the test of time (at least a few months) but we've spent so much time on this project already, I think we'll know the right design when it's professionally layed out. A tweak or two here and there on a great layout, would be be just bringing in our personal touch.

Thanks for the push that I needed.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2011 at 6:00PM
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Have you tried Angie's List as a search tool? We're a member and have used it to find a number of qualified professionals. The website also links to the business websites where there will be pictures and references (in many cases).

    Bookmark   June 25, 2011 at 9:12AM
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I can't help but think that the broad scope of elements mentioned in the original posting would be best dealt with by a trained landscape designer or by a landscape architect.

Hiring a mason to do design work - no matter how skilled, and no matter how many pretty pictures the mason has - for designing a complex site is foolish. I wouldn't hire a plumber or carpenter to design a house. They might have very valuable input, but they have no training in sorting out all the competing factors that are stumping you right now.

Also, I'm wary of the idea that one should go out and "get quotes". This isn't like buying a pound of nails. More than anything you need someone you are comfortable with to put clarity and unity to your needs and concepts. The first step is talking to a few firms about your basic site issues and finding a couple of firms you feel comfortable with. Then seek price information to see which firm to go with.

That $300 quote was unrealistically low. Nobody can spend the time it takes to fully work out a good design for $300.

For the moment, stop looking at pictures and start calling design firms. A good designer will see the real issues and solutions and will clear the air for you.

Years ago, I had much the same problem. I was trying to design a major addition to my home. I'm a working artist and do design work all the time, but I couldn't crack the issues my own home presented. I had drawn hundreds of ideas and none worked. I beat my head agaist the wall until I finally spoke to an architect who put together a good basic plan in a few hours.

I'm pretty well informed on home construction - I was able to do all the detail design, do construction drawings and supervise the sitework - but I needed that trained pro to break the design logjam. He did in a few hours what I had failed to do in hundreds.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 2:42AM
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With the shallow depth of our yard, there aren't a whole lot of options. We will need to go wide or end up in the lake. We went to some gardens in the local area and even with yards that were smaller, the possibilities were much much greater because of more of a "balanced" rectangle.

My out-of-state BIL is a landscape architect so I could try and get some direction on how to find someone good to finalize a design. There are so many perameters that even the designer would have to work within, HOA, topography, easements, and expansive soil. We would throw into that equation cost and low maintainance.

Almost all of the neighbors have most of the same criteria we have to work within and our design is within that same look too (some are EXTREMELY nice). There just are the seemingly limitless options as there are for most lots.

Thanks for everyone's direction. It's time I do some more homework and get the right help in.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 1:27PM
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There are so many perameters that even the designer would have to work within, HOA, topography, easements, and expansive soil. We would throw into that equation cost and low maintainance.

This is what we are trained to do and what many of us do day in and day out. It is nothing new for a lot of us.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 10:33PM
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Same thing again

    Bookmark   May 23, 2012 at 9:02AM
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