Favorite Pictures, Favorite Projects

With this title, this could probably be one heck of a long series. Just the same, as I sit mending from my medical misadventures of recent vintage, “recollection” – history – is in the air. It just is what it is and I am a passenger on this “big blue ball”.

Play this here tune whilst you read. 😉

(I invite you to click on the pictures, most of which enlarge, sometimes dramatically. But it will kill the music if you do, ha ha. I am a diabolical DJ. Read first, then enlarge, that’s my advice.)

The accidental impact of my career in landscaping, which began as a diverting and hard-worked but somehow satisfying mode of making a living in 1970, has become much more than that, 45 years later. Through all of the years of partial regret at actually “working for a living”, the trade for me bloomed at various times into blossoms I would never have recognized at the onset. For example, who knew I would eventually design – and install – projects which would actually win awards? There were even a few which won awards I was not even aware of until much later. 001 The Best and Worst   The Best: Standing with a client and collecting the final check, listening to something like this is the best part: “Wow, Steve. I know it would be pretty but I never expected anything like this!” There are unfortunately, no pictures for this sort of thrill. Those are in our hearts and minds. 😉

Second Best:  Standing with my foreman after the finishing touches are placed. My Pictures0001 The Worst: (in picture form) 2009-mud-race-4 Here, in no set order, are those projects I am proudest of………….. AlenaandDad LOL, OK. I’m proud of my daughter. She was a major project that worked out well enough. Now teaching Yoga in San Diego. 😉 001Where was I?

Oh yeah………..A project we worried into existence over a few years was at my Reno Business partner Bill and Donna Hermant’s home. It began with us working over a frightfully bare and dusty failure of a landscape and was undoubtedly part of the appeal to Bill at the idea of having himself a partner in the landscaping business. oct1139-800   The very first thing we did was to install his wife’s most precious desire – a waterfall or two and a creek. oct1025   Having finished that – in between projects elsewhere, we worried his house into a fairly splendid landscape – one he was delighted to host parties at for his and my own crews. 001 Here are pictures “down the road a piece” in terms of time. 001 001 001 001 001 The transition from dusty, bare and foreboding to lush, green and welcoming is one of the rewards of the landscape building trade. Needless to say, the clients who receive all this excellent and totally focused attention usually feel pretty darn good about themselves after we leave. 3 This project was a 10 acre extravaganza we did for a home builder/developer who hand-picked his landscaper – me – and who gave “Carte Blanche” to design and install. LOL, those circumstances alone were enough to feel good about, but the artistic and engineering problems so rife with this project – (all water is from a well with a limited amount to be used for the landscape) – and the drainage issues which nearly wiped us out in mid-project (thanks to a careless neighbor) – made for some very serious concentration all the way through the 6 months we worked there. Doug-and-Ed-020 001 From this……. 001 To this……. 001 001 From this………. Picture8To this: 001 What began as a puzzle…………… 001 Sure enough worked out pretty well………… SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA 001 Bottom line on both cases – the clients were quite pleased. The very bottom line?  I was pleased as well. Later on, we’ll move on to some other faves……….. 001   SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

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Renovations Vs New Construction-The Ultimate Cosmetic

45 Which do I prefer? Renovating an existing place or working with new homes, set on earth and nothing else? In landscaping, it’s almost a tossup. Going in and facing this totally blank tableau of dust and flat or steeply-angled dirt has much appeal. So much appeals immediately – images form based on one’s experience and garden design logic based on the past. The very idea of wrestling something civilized and becoming out of simple bare earth has a rare fascination. (enlarge all pictures by left-clicking the image) part9rI have always depicted landscaping itself as an “Ultimate Cosmetic”. There are very few trades indeed who literally “finish” the expanses we deal with on a daily basis. I was told by the owner of this home, below, to “do what I wanted”. It was 10 acres.  😉  Sure enough, we did and he paid happily for the service. We began, more or less, right here:

212 And we ended up with these two views – for a microcosmic look at progress:

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Crystal Springs March 3 09 259

Panning out – we have this oft-cited photo from here: (big job on lots and lots and lots of dust)

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This has always been a favorite of mine..under the new construction theme:

With an interesting result:

And yet, we also have undertaken projects such as the one below by crashing our way back into the thickets of forestation and undergrowth, rendering it something else entirely.

bo-020What you see on the periphery of this pond and patio was what was at the exact spot that pond now lies. To even call this a renovation is almost funny because it involved such epic change and deconstruction first.

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Other types of renovations include the epic “Get my broken cement outta here!” Such as this one:

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Ending with this and a far happier client:

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And on and on it goes………. Truth is, they all have many moments of pure constructive joy, along with injury and accidental failures and successes. Landscaping itself is creating something from either nothing or recreating Nature with our own intervention.

Face it. It can get pretty wild going from this:

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To this:

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As for renovations, this is almost not fair. From this humble beginning:

We achieved this result:

And this:

Became this guy:

And this:

Running A Landscape Business – Part 1

Finally, I arrive at the nuts and bolts in my semi-autobiographical rendition of a life in the landscaping business. I apologize for taking such a long break in posting, but – hey – it’s my blog and I’ll blog if I want to.  😉

Another miscreant – John Bufton – and I were working for the largest maintenance business in Vancouver, BC in 1978 – now known as David Hunter Garden Centers. While together, we had long talks about the world around us and, among other thoughts, we found a mutual interest in trying to go off alone in a business. John, in fact, already had a few “side jobs” where he spent his “off days”, working his butt off for a couple of wealthy contacts, courtesy of his Mother who was in Real Estate. As we spoke, we realized we brought mutual strengths to the idea – John with a local connection and existing contracts and a deep history of lawn and garden maintenance, and me, with abundant experience in estimating and installing landscape construction projects. We made a business plan of sorts – believing a Spring start and the abundant work involving “power-raking” – the removal of thatch and moss built up through the cool, damp Winters of the Great Northwest – which was highly profitable – could supply our financing. From that, we would attempt to form a “base”, a ‘bread and butter’ aspect of the business in the form of maintenance contracts for homes throughout the city.

John’s mother co-signed for a loan to purchase a beater pickup truck, we invested our pay into purchasing hand-outs, prime for Spring labor, which we would distribute door-to-door to likely customers. In February we began, quitting at Hunter and venturing out on our own, dazed but explosively hopeful. Our handouts were a complete success – actually far beyond what we had imagined. In fact, John began complaining about the radical numbers of calls. Nevertheless, it was what we had asked for and so commenced a fairly robust season. After one day we were able to buy our very own weedeater and in ensuing days, we purchased all the maintenance machinery and tools we would need for the entire year. After a week, we were on our way! We were bursting at the seams, happy, tired and full of optimism.

It wasn’t long until we had some landscaping to look at. Over the course of the first month of business, we acquired a $28,000 contract to upgrade a series of apartments managed by one of our newly-acquired maintenance contracts. It required designing and a small hand-drawn idea of our intentions relative to the places and was impressive enough to please the client. Suddenly, we were a 2 crew operation and we purchased yet another beater truck. We entered the Federal and Provincial Era, where we began complying with the standards of employment in general, submitting taxes and deducting them from wages. Within 3 months, we had become “Bona Fide”. It was a heady period, to say the least.

We pretty much did everything right and we certainly could not be faulted for effort. We worked constantly. However, in this success, we encountered the beginnings of our eventual dissolution. The landscaping end of the business had encountered a subdivision of one acre lots during the period of serious economic expansion, house-flipping and people making humongous money as house prices skyrocketed locally. Fortunes were being made and lost over the housing bubble of the late 70’s in British Columbia and we experienced our first loss. Someone decided not to pay – or actually, could not pay. And this after an incredibly busy season. The timing was dreadful inasmuch as we had plowed our money into the business itself. Suddenly, the landscaping end of things realized its inherent risks, certainly compared to lawn and garden maintenance, which was sufficient unto itself, easily done and very predictable.

We found ourselves at odds over directions and John – who had 3 beautiful baby boys – was feeling pressure not only from his wife and family but from himself over realizing the inherent risks in the trade of landscaping. We became poor again, quickly enough, and John expressed his willingness to separate. Aside from it being a literal study in what can go wrong in business, it was somewhat heart-breaking. It felt sloppy and depressing, and this after a year where we were as busy as anyone in the entire town.

I spent most of that Winter in a funk. It was difficult resigning myself to going back to work for someone else, but it seemed the only way to survive. I felt alone and despairing. And then help came from a surprising source.

I got an offer from someone who wanted to help some small business as a silent partner. Our efforts had not gone unnoticed and he lived in the neighborhood of one acre homes which I had had such a difficult time leaving, since literally everyone there hired me as they moved in. He called a mutual friend who highly recommended me as someone who he might be interested in investing in. It was serendipitous, strange and relieving. As a former IRS (Canada Version) agent and an accountant, he was set up to be the most incredibly apt person to help I could have found. As we spoke, I suddenly understood he was dead serious. My heart was a’ flutter.

So with Spring approaching and a couple of small projects underway, John went onward to his life’s work without me. In a year, so incredibly much had happened no one had time to remind ourselves of the actual events – a miasma of happenings complete with small stories, a lot of success, some tragedies and an amazingly eventful series of events.

Ray soon showed up at my place with a brand new 1980, dual wheel 1 Ton Ford truck with a flatbed which raised and lowered by electric motor. It was a dream machine, the envy of the city dump! (Let it be known here and now that the girls liked it too!). Clean and sleek, it could handle the landscaping chores in ways which shot our productivity through the roof.

We moved back into the famous one acre lot territory, this time taking no prisoners and designing stuff like mad. We also acquired a couple of small commercial contracts which I had estimated for and with an eye towards moving towards a much larger commercial side of the business. There was big money there. Little did we realize we were attracting attention from larger fish. Well, we worked hard and met some amazing people.

(We did a project for Leslie Nielson’s older brother, redoing his entire back yard and fence, patio and raised bed planters. This was the pre-Airplane, pre- Detective Frank Dubbin Leslie Nielsen, whose other brother at that time was the head of the New Democratic party in the national capital – a major political player. I only name drop like this to mention that each man – who we met – was an absolute gas of a person – just nice as could be and warmly appreciative of our efforts.)

It became this sort of highlight of the season because the entire year was composed of such small successes and this project was a minor one financially but not without major fun. It was a great year and we did about $384,000 in total volume, in 1980 dollars. Extrapolated to now, that’s about $750,000. People were noticing and our reputation had become excellent.

Winter in Vancouver is a fairly bizarre thing. While I spent later years not missing one day of week day work, generally we shut down the landscaping during December to mid February. Say 2-3 months. It is actually welcomed by owners and planners as it gives a period to take a breath and assess directions and processes. Oh yeah – and have a beer.

During this down period, I got approached by another interested party who had money, bulldozers, back hoes and whose home I had worked on laboriously dynamiting trees, scraping 10 acres of land and then decorating it up in my own trademark ways. Mario – an Italian with toys and attitude – approached both Ray and I with a deal: Bid on the largest work in the Province and he would help finance the delayed payment schedules, provide machinery for the work and actually attend work every day like a working partner. Inasmuch as he was a home builder and a successful one, his record was pretty impeccable for profits. To Ray and I, it was a near no-brainer. Onward and upwards. So we two became 3. The only caveat was that we would need projects to work on, lol. If I could supply a contract, Mario would join. Suddenly my onus became clear. I had to acquire contracts.

For the next 45 days, I spent every waking hour in front of blueprints, estimating them. I would visit literally every major construction company in Vancouver and surrounding towns, asking to be put on their bid lists and begging for blueprints from which to draw and submit estimates. Finally, I got a call.

I visited this business – a $20 Million a year construction firm who was looking at new landscaping companies because of some unfortunate events with others. My price interested them but my approach interested them more. They allowed me to explain my history, assessed my principle partners and awarded us an $84,000 contract to begin in a few weeks. I drew up a contract, showed it to Ray and Mario and suddenly we were a viable business. We began the contract the day we could start, with Mario unloading his bulldozer and us pushing dirt which was partially covered in snow. For the next 60 days, no one took a day off and we put in 12 hours per day whereupon we finished to an immensely-pleased client. We hired one other person and no more, lol. We did it all.

In the meantime, I was still fielding calls and bidding projects. We were awarded another one – this one far larger – which I failed to even look at. In fact, the day we were to begin, as we were toting our equipment jobwards, I suddenly realized – along with my partners – that I hadn’t the remotest idea where it was! Both the other guys were shocked – I had been so thorough with the other ones. I became nervous, lol, as we approached the place. But as we arrived, the project supervisor came out and introduced himself. Word of our competence had spread and he was asking if we felt we could somehow manage to take on some extra work, prior to the landscaping.

“Duh”, was my reply. 😉

He wanted us to build retaining walls out of pressure treated 6″ x 6″‘s, at 5 different locations on the site, each of them over 100′ long. Each location required 3 walls of 3’ high apiece. It was an enormous undertaking. He asked for a price and we huddled. Between the 3 of us, we came up with a figure and he gave the go ahead after a brief call to his office. Suddenly, we had 3 months of very profitable work ahead of us. It was a dream.

 

Brick Pavers As A Product and Installation Issues

“Pavers”, in the sense we refer to here are compressed concrete bricks, perfectly formed to interlock initmately, forming a non-moveable structurally road strength surface. The “compression” comes from the manufacturing process, where the paver forms are filled, then shaken to void out air holes and to better distribute the cement itself. They end up being somewhere in the vicinity of 8,500 PSI (pounds per square inch). To get an idea of how hard that is, your standard concrete walkway downtown is about 4,500 PSI. A patio out back in your yard will usually be in the vicinity of 3,500 PSI. Thus, these are harder than ‘normal’ cement products. They are being used in many newer applications, including city streets. 5 million square feet of the Honk Kong Airport’s entire runway and general tarmac is composed of these little beggars, as well.

The concern in Hong Kong dealt with the massive rains of the Monsoon Season and the tendency to flood. Brick pavers offered a drainage solution which intrigued the planners, who still produced plans containing ample numbers of catch basins to conduct water throughout the airport’s tarmac. Later tests revealed the incredible infiltration of water between the actual cracks of the pavers themselves, producing very nearly zero work for the planned catchments.

Pavers, simply by their segmented nature, allow water to pass directly down between one another, as this picture shows in more detail.

(enlarge any picture by left clicking)

Another recommendation they carry with them is the fact that they are somewhat flexible. In this, I refer to the component factor: it takes a lot of brick pavers to contribute to a driveway. Whereas a cement driveway will develop cracks atop shifting bases, or can collect water underneath and thus heave, where the concrete structure will crack and split and then deteriorate further with time, pavers will heave just like the cement, but will not have some monolithic break. They will ride the heave and stay intact. Thus freezing and cracking may well be the least of worries. The actual fact is, those who prepare the base are the stars of this particular show. Proper preparation below any surface yields much less trouble, later.

PREPARATION

Under any surface, cement, asphalt, or brick pavers there needs to be a compacted base consisting of some sort of compactable material. Typically a mix of small rocks and “fines” from the same rock created at quarries do the trick. The fines do what we indicated above with the forming of pavers in the mold: they fill in totally and thus ensure, upon being squished with some titanic and compressing machine, that the subbase is going absolutely nowhere. When covered, there should be no voids to collect water where freezing can affect the ultimate size and cause breaks or heaving. A compacted base would also solve a lot of cement problems regarding breakage and deterioration but it seems not all contractors take the time for this hard and time-comsuming work.

Depending on the soils underneath, the base material should be at least 6 inches thick for drivweways and 4 inches for patios and walkways. In the absence of base material, or Class II Base as we call it, washed sand can actually be used as a base material.

In any event, for truly muddy or expansive type soils, one should overexcavate appropriately and add this completely new material. I once had a project, in Vancouver, B.C. where we were scheduled to install pavers aside a parking garage. The only problem was, there was this hole from earlier excavations about 12 feet deep and some 50 feet wide and it was full of water. This was exactly where the pavers were supposed to go.

I backed a line of trucks holding washed sand up and dumped them, pushing them in, finally, with my trusty Bobcat, bit by bit, allowing the water to escape from the rear of the hole, and succeeded in filling the hole in a day. Two days later, we were compacting and constructing and, 5 days later, we had made ourselves a brick fire lane, 20 feet wide, coursing over this former hole. It was actually sort of amazing, really, but I swear, that drive is at nearly the same level it was when we constructed it, today, some 22 years later. Here’s Nature’s bottom line: Nothing compacts like water!

SAND LAYER

For pavers, an extra step is typical at the end of the compaction drama: a one inch layer of sand is put in place at the exact level one desires the pavers to go. Eventually, this sand bed will allow a bit of movement as the pavers get compacted into place and grouted with yet more, and possibly other decorative, color coordinated, sand. What this achieves is some allowance for error, as well. Artists with a plate compactor can literally change a grade where necessary, by adding water and worrying a hump into submission by whacking it until it conforms. While this sounds inexact, the best operators can achieve a perfect grade. It’s what they are paid to do.

LAYING THE BRICK PAVERS

The job is almost done. I am being serious. There is some darn hard work, toting pavers over for placement and all, but establishing the base is always the big achievement. By the time your sand is screeded (levelled into place), laying the pavers is good old brainless work, in most cases. I advocate hiring the high school student for this phase, lol. (You know that saying, “Hire the high school student….while they still know everything?” oops, sorry, honey). I could not resist, sorry……now, where were we?

Establishing a laying pattern is mental. There are any numbers of patterns available, from Herringbone ones to Running Bond patterns and some extoic ones as well. Just the same, laying them becomes easier once the pattern is established and repitition becomes the norm. At this stage one fills in the blank area with bricks.

FINISHING

Finishing involves a few things: edges and retaining systems, grouting the pavers with sand and the final compaction. There is also sealing which I will also address elsewhere.

Edges and restraining: If curved, the edges of any paver edifice will require cutting. Many people use the “guillotine” method of pressing two sharp edges manually, thus cleaving the brick. I have seen projects done this way which worked well. Nevertheless, I always advocate cutting all pavers with a brick saw, using a diamond blade and water, thus getting a crystal clean cut at exactly the edge one desires. It just looks more professional, to me. Once in place, I restrain my bricks with either plastic or aluminum edging, complete with holes for knocking down some nice 8-10″ spikes and holding it tightly in place. The edges of all component structures are always the weak point, but with edge restraints, one can withstand tires and accidents alot better.

Grouting with sand: This implies spreading a layer of sand over the entire paver area, then sweeping and watering the sand into place inside the cracks of the pavers themselves. One also cleans when finishing with water. I like to compact the pavers one final time with a thin coat of sand over the bricks. The sand “lubricates” the passage of the compactor and the compaction process shakes the sand into those cracks. Then is when I typically wash, finishing the grout process and the project itself.

Essentially, that’s it. One can expect a lifetime’s worth of satisfaction from this stuff. Indeed, one may well expect generations to enjoy the fruits of this labor. Modern bricks are replacing city streets in many cities, especially those who experience rain problems, like Seattle, Portland or Vancouver, B.C. They add wonderfully to the resale value of a home, even aside from looking as good as anything out there can look. I will deal with the more artistic values of brick pavers elsewhere, but the color combinations, laying patterns and bricks themselves are mind boggling in their diversity and possibilities. They are a huge step forward in landscape technology and offer yet another wondrous and durable possibility for outdoor pleasure.