pea stone courtyard

drtygrlOctober 18, 2010

I thought I would post about a recent project I did - that I am not super happy about. Its okay...just not exactly what it should be. I dont have pictures yet. I will post later in the week probably; but I can describe it pretty well.

We were working on a post and beam barn style house. The existing landscaping was extremely overgrown, but at one time it was nice. The fun part was ripping all the old overgrown shrubs out with the chain and the truck...thats always a good time.

The customer wanted a european farmhouse look (whatever that is) with a pea stone courtyard. Most of the design was given to me by the customer - hes an architect - so we were mainly installing his concept. I suggested some changes from a practicality stand point (such as leaving the existing walkway so one could shovel or snow blow in the winter). The courtyard was to have rocks around it and an urn in the center of it. Now the home has no shrubs or trees in front of it at all.

It ended up being a weird collaboration; I am not entirely happy with the results. Sometimes when a customer has ideas I am not completely on board with I end up being pleasantly surprised with the product, but that is not true in this case. I dont hate it, I am just not happy with it. The customer is happy, but wants to make a few changes. I dont think he realized how hard the landscaping would be as a result of all the stone, and perhaps I should have been firmer about that point. Faced with his strong opinions, I gave into a concept that I did not agree with.

I could elaborate more on the dynamics of the situation; but really its about the design and resulting landscape. Any thoughts?

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You gave the customer what he wanted and offered suggestions. If he wants changes now then it is up to him to pay for them.

The only trouble is that it will be a dint in your reputation as a designer. There is not much you can do about that now, unless there is a way to soften the landscape with a few well placed trees or shrubs or flower pots. Try adding odd planters like tin pail, an old wheelbarrow, a milk can or any other old farm tool that could be used as a planter.

The next time you run into a headstrong client stick to your guns. Acquire lots of photos of different landscapes that you can show clients to stress your points. Talk them around to your way of thinking. Being in any business that deals with the public, you must have people skills. If you don't have them then find it in one of your employees.

    Bookmark   October 18, 2010 at 2:02PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

First of all, consider the alternative. You'd have pressed your point as Oilpainter suggests, and the client would never have seen what his imagined plan looked like in real life. So he'd have yours, and he'd be running around saying how he wasn't happy with it, that you wouldn't listen to him, etc. Ick.

I'm as headstrong as your client except I'm DIY. Sometimes I have a thought in my head and I need to see it in real life. Once I've seen it, I can change my mind, but I NEED TO SEE IT. For example, after a long time of having a chaotic mess of a yard, we put in some proper patios, rock walls, and nice beds, and for the life of me I wanted a linear, geometric arrangement of plants. Order was a need I had after the chaos I'd lived with for so long. Once i had it in, I could see it was wrong and quickly altered it. But I could not overcome my need to try it. I'm going to guess that after the overgrown mess he was clearing out, your client was craving clean and hard to an extent that he couldn't be argued out of. It was a need, not an opinion.

My husband and I have these kinds of conflicts all the time, and sometimes he's right, sometimes I am. But what I know about myself (I'm far more vested in our house and yard as the housewife and the gardener) is that I need to try my ideas before I can abandon them. So he is slowly learning that we need not fight to the death over things, and I am learning that I have to present my ideas to him as the trials that they are. That might have worked for you and your client.

It might also have just been that he is not experienced at visualizing landscapes, but the same attention to process could have addressed that.

You could, for example, have put the rock down on tarps at first so it could be removed if he wanted to make some parts softer - at least just on the parts you thought should be dirt instead. Or, this being 2010 and not 1910, the two of you could have put some serious energy into photoshopping well.

In your present position, with the thing done, if you are concerned for your reputation, you could bill yourself as having done the installation only, not the design. If it is just your level of satisfaction at issue, consider what you've learned. And I really hope it isn't that you should have been firmer. What I do when I'm not certain, or when my husband and I are fighting like cats over a decision, is to defer the decision as long as possible. Even if you're sure you're right, the thing you have to do with a client is not to "win" but to enable them to make a better decision. The landscape may look the same whether you are pushy about doing it your way or whether you allow them the opportunity to see it your way. But the latter approach will leave all the people feeling much happier.


    Bookmark   October 18, 2010 at 10:56PM
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Every project is a compromise between your vision and the client's vision. Different people handle it successfully in different ways. It seems that the extremes are to be very assertive or just go with the flow. Most designers want to design rather than fight or "go with the flow".

I find that the thing that works best for me is to always explain what a benefit or concern is and WHY it is such. I rarely describe something as something that I like or dislike. Instead, I take myself ut of it and explain what affect the point of the discussion has on many people and what the mechanism is that drives that. This gives the client the opportunity to come to the same conclusion that you have without him feeling that you either shot down his idea down or displaced it with your own. I'm very much a nonconfrontational person (in person), so I find that it is much easier to explain effects of "ideas" in such a way that the client becomes more aware of more than the detail that he is attached to. When I do that, two things happen. One is that we are always working from their ideas and refining them. The second is that they begin to understand that I am more than a plant arranger and they pay a lot more attention to me than the next guy who says "I don't like that" or "this is what I would do".

Architects are typically very head strong, but they also are typically not stupid and will understand why something works or does not work if you understand WHY and can do a good job of explaining why - they will understand and come to the same conclusion as you, if you know what you are talking about. The key is that you have to understand WHY in a quanitfiable explainable way and not just accept that you are an artist and you FEEL hat this works or that does not. Yu can't convince anybody of anything because you FEEL it. You have to understand it and get them to understand it to some degree.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 7:31AM
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mjsee(Zone 7b, NC)

So... the customer is happy but wants to make a few changes. He's an he knows change orders are expensive. Sounds like a win/win to me. ;^)

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 10:14AM
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I'm curious to see pictures!
Did the client have any "inspiration photos" to show you before you started?

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 10:43AM
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Thanks for all the input!

LOL, mjsee, change orders are good for business!

Thanks for pointing out that all designs are a compromise between two or more visions. In this case, I am not completely happy with that compromise, but I guess that does happen sometimes. I am actually quite good at helping clients visualize designs; one thing that has led me to be successful is the ability to explain designs in several different ways so clients can really get an idea of what we are planning to do. I am also pretty good at communicating my ideas and justifying my reasons for doing things a certain way beyond a basic like/dislike premise. I am a bit more verbal so if I am not communicating well in my written comments, I apologize, but part of the reason for posting these concerns is because I am not quite clear on why this project is bothering me!

In reading the thoughts above, I have come to realize it was not the results of the compromise that I was unhappy with ; it was the basic idea for the landscaping. My opinion was that the pea stone was an overreaction to the overgrown landscaping. The overgrown shrubs were too much so he wanted to go to the other extreme and remove everything. Additionally, the idea of this european farm house courtyard is ill conceived. he actually said to me that this type of design is in "all the magazines". I couldn't find one example of it in any magazine or any book I own. I am very good at following design trends and I am very well read, so it took me by surprise. I did have some pictures in my library from a garden tour. They were of a pea stone courtyard with its edges softened by boxwood. Right idea on the courtyard, I was told but no boxwood especially if it needs to be pruned. LOL.

I believe the problem in this case was not so much the communication, but my inability to work with his design aesthetic. I have never had difficulty compromising and collaborating with customers before and as I said in my original post I am usually pleasantly surprised with the results.

I should add that this is a very public site, so my disappointment with the results is a bit more weighty than the average project.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 11:08AM
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Here's a pic of a a nearly-plantless courtyard in Europe - sure your client didn't mean that?

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 11:17AM
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heres the photo I mentioned:

Here is a link that might be useful: inspiration?

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 11:23AM
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Aha, replace those boxwoods with hydrangeas = no shearing, and guaranteed to look like France!
My upcoming job is to decorate a hotel for a theme party, so it looks "like home," and my client thinks I'm clairvoyant - or have exactly the same idea of "home" as her... so I can relate.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 12:31PM
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Heres some before photos too. I show have afters tomorrow...

Here is a link that might be useful: before photo

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 5:23PM
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ok - finally I have some photos. I am apologizing in advance for the shadows. It is the north side of this house and this time of year never gets full sun. Along the barn part of the house there are 7 grasses planted. they will be 4 feet tall, but have just been planted so they look less substantial than they will later. The walkway is the one I fought to keep (can you imagine snow-blowing a peastone path in the winter - some one would lose and eye!)

The house is undrgoing renovations also. It will be shingled, and be a light grey with white trim. They are adding two red barn doors, one on the L next to the front door and one by the triple window on the barn part of the house. The front door will be painted barn red. I think the house will look great when the renovations are finished - just not so sure about the landscaping! The only part I really like is the grasses that I added to the design...

Thanks in advance for your thoughts and suggestions.

Here is a link that might be useful: pea stone courtyard landscaping

    Bookmark   October 22, 2010 at 11:54AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Seems to me that the basic premise of the inspiration photo was missed. The crucial design elements in the photo with the boxwoods is, I think, the geometry and the edging. Whether the material is peastone or flagstone or anything else is actually irrelevant. It's about the shape and boundaries.

So I would tweak this by (a) adding big rocks and small plants at the foundation (Finally a house that could use foundation planting, and the owner doesn't do any!), (b) defining the edge where it meets the grass, and (c) maybe squaring the whole thing up and actually giving it an edge separate from the walkway, perhaps of grey brick or something... just free-associating here. Plants in between most likely, maybe snowdrops (although dang the foliage) and then some other to follow.

Mine may not be the answer, but you get my drift. Adding plants: sure, it's stark, and I would, but that to me is a bit less the issue. I look at the peastone and my brain goes "so what's the point?"


    Bookmark   October 22, 2010 at 1:42PM
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KarinL's last sentence states exactly my reaction when I looked at the picture. I'm not a landscape designer, so I thought maybe something was just going over my head, but I just don't see what purpose that area serves ... other than fulfilling the client's vision.

I could see it making sense if it were surrounded with some beds of roses, other shrubs, perennials and bulbs ... a place to stroll and maybe sit a while. Put a rake in it and make it a zen garden ... no, wait, that's Asian.

Never having been to "the old country" myself, I just asked DH, who has been, what he thought and whether he ever saw anything like that in Europe. No, he said, nothing that wasn't a work in progress.

[Sigh] Drtygrl, I'm afraid I haven't been much help, but I certainly now understand your feelings regarding this project. Sad thing is, it's a lovely site and looks to me like it has wonderful potential for a great many different "looks". But it's now so stark ... are you sure the guy's an architect and not an engineer? (My dad was the latter, so I'm very familiar with that minimalist approach.)

Please continue to share as this project develops. This has been a very interesting thread! (I don't post often, but I lurk, and learn, a lot.)

    Bookmark   October 22, 2010 at 8:04PM
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Thanks for your thoughts - which I think are right on target.

(I did forget to mention two things - there are two trees going in one on the corner of the barn structure and one on the right side of the courtyard in the middle between the house and the driveway. Also there will be some sort of perennials in the center of the courtyard. I woke up in the middle of the night realizing I forgot to say that :)

The courtyard is neatly edged - and at right angles, but it isnt quite apparent in the photo. In the spring we are going to fix the grass which was horribly run down and I think that will be an additional improvement. (It has snowed here already and the ground is starting to freeze, so this project will be continued into the spring). Karin you are right about the edge along the curved walk; it does look odd but I don't know what one could do about that without being completely impractical. A strip of grass would be odd looking also and difficult to maintain.

AGardenstate I love the idea of roses, and you make a great point about the area having a purpose. Its just a arbitrary design idea of which I never understood the point.

If you are interested I actually landscaped a house that was really similar to this house and I am pretty happy with the results. Heres the link to that picture

Here is a link that might be useful: same house my design

    Bookmark   October 23, 2010 at 8:33AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Oddly, I like the look of the peastone courtyard in this situation better than filling the space with plants. Perhaps that's because it reminds me of the forecourt of a stable. In that light, I'd have extended the gravel area all the way out to the foreground where it appears there's a path or road (?) The dirt and grass (bed+lawn?) look wrong to me, as to the rocks and urn in the center. What would look right to me is a stone water trough (which could be an ornamental feature in the center space) and a mounting block made of stone to be more ornamental. The most logical place for that would be in the foreground of an enlarged pea gravel area and to the right of the path. Look for images of a stable courtyard and I think you'd have more luck finding something that matches the image your client has in mind. I think you have to think of the space as a working farm courtyard, rather than a garden, to see the logic of it and then make it ornamental.

    Bookmark   October 23, 2010 at 10:11PM
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The final picture is taken from an odd position as a stand alone look at this landscape, but from what I can see it is a big improvement. I'd like to see more of what is happening in front and to the right of the house. The old pictures show a filled in landscape that grew out from the house and walk. The interim looks like a parking lot with some kind of structure for sacrificial offerings.

Yours looks like it creates space in front of the house and makes the entrance seem like the place you would want to be drawn to. I like that you are building volume in places that de-emphasize the house mass and that you built context for the location of the walk belonging where it is for more reasons than being the shortest way to the door.

I'd like to see a picture from the same angle of the earlier picture that shows the entire house. I'd like to see some kind of volume on the right to build the space in front of the house, if it did not conflict with other uses.

    Bookmark   October 23, 2010 at 11:36PM
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I do like the portico in your design. I kinda see what the architect wanted in the pea gravel was to balance out the asymetrical house mass and recenter some focus on the front door, as I live in such a house myself. The prior L shaped empty lawn space has now been replaced with empty space complimenting the house and balance. As is typical, we tend to think through the lens of our given profession when coming up with a solution... an architect wants to build something as a solution (like a huge patio). Understanding where your client is coming from does help with coming to a win/win solution; however, client directed change task orders are a win too!

I find myself drawn to the peastone area mainly as a foil to the two story mass, but once I look at this area I don't see any other purpose or connection to the rest of the area. The barrier rocks look like a good idea to stop people from parking there.

    Bookmark   October 24, 2010 at 9:19AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Where did your client get his concept of an European farmhouse look? Did he perhaps stay in a holiday home that was a converted stable? I'm not sure about the rest of Europe (although I'd guess it was common there too), but it is very common to find holiday homes in converted stables in the UK. I still think it might be useful to get a better feel for what/where the client's reference image originates. The link below has an image of what I'm 'seeing' as a reference. That one is in Europe somewhere (not sure where) and doesn't have a gravel courtyard, but it has the right 'feel'. This one in in the UK and does have a gravel base:

Both of those are too big for the client's space but I think they give a better starting point to find the unique feel and then work the rest of plantings etc. to enclose it.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   October 24, 2010 at 11:53AM
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My guess for why the courtyard in Karinl's picture works better: it is located centrally and is functioning as a traffic hub; while the one that Drtygrl's client got looks more like an ornament beside the main path. It needs to "do" something more than just be there, one example would be to have seating on the edges.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2010 at 5:08AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I'm not saying that the examples I posted should be the final thing for the client - I'm saying I think those are examples of what the client may be using as a reference point. Then take the 'feel' of that and work it to meet the other needs of the space. By 'feel' I mean a clear, simple (uncluttered) open space, likely with a simple but relatively large and geometric water feature and then build the rest of the more ornamental, domestic stuff/plantings around that.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2010 at 7:54AM
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Thanks for all the thoughts! IT really helped me to think of the courtyard as balancing out the mass of the house. not only is that an issue, the disparity between the barn part and the ell part that houses the front door is an issue.

I was reading Alexander's pattern language' again yesterday afternoon and there is actually a section on courtyards that was helpful. As you all have been pointing out there is an issue with the function of the courtyard space and that was addressed in this book. According to that book, courtyards that "live" are partly open and partly private. there is a view out , natural paths pass through the courtyard and a veranda. Additionally the book talks about about putting something ROUGHLY in the middle. REsist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

All of those things apply to this project. There needs to be clear paths across the courtyard, it probably needs to be a bit more enclosed, and the urn needs to be out of the middle. My instinct is to put it slightly closer to the walkway so it balances out the large rock for seating.

I also feel the need for the client to keep this space uncluttered, the wife wants to put pots all over, but that doesnt seem like the right solution to me either.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2010 at 4:12PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Dare I suggest that cobblestones might be a more evocative/appropriate path material than crazy-paving?

    Bookmark   October 25, 2010 at 8:05PM
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