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.ย  ๐Ÿ˜‰ย  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:


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)


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.


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


Ending with this and a far happier client:


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:


To this:


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

We achieved this result:

And this:

Became this guy:

And this:

What To Look For In A Landscape Contractor

This bears mentioning as I reset this post owing to the time of year……

In rereading this I became struck with how the inherent ‘selfish gene’ can overwhelm a blog based on the author’s own life experiences. In describing potential contractors below – in more places than I care to edit – I have omitted the growing number of females in this huge field – and their unquestioned successes. Not just as designers but also as workers in the field, females produce some serious work. It’s topical and all these days, I realize, as we consider female roles in the military. Just the same, I guess there are reasons for both. I just want to somehow apologize and insert some good hypocritical golf clapping. ๐Ÿ˜‰ (Feb 24, 2013)

This is a re-posting of something I wrote as a very, very informal guide to assessing and choosing a landscape contractor. These sorts of articles I feel bear more forcefully on issues of merit – the meaty end of landscaping and finding out who is good and how most contractors wish or hope you will behave as a client.

I also believe stuff like this – the realities of the contracting profession – are why many people actually check in here.

As the economy recovers – sigh, no matter how slowly – there will be a few more folks who want to do landscaping around their properties. Indeed, there are commercial clients as well – local businesses – who decide to make their places more appealing by taking advantage of the newest technologies to update water features, lighting and a true myriad of startling technologies which have continued to develop even while our overall economy drooped. Incredible new pumps, LED lighting and the machines to install the work have had geniuses scrambling and producing amazing stuff. All somewhat cheaper, better and more “Green”.

It leads us back to the raging questions raised during the economic peak we endured just prior to the recent “collapse” and real estate nightmare. At the time, many potential clients for landscaping were searching for clues to who to trust and how to conduct a more thorough, value-laden relationship with designers and installers of landscapes who would be trustworthy and artistically able to provide the expertise and wherewithal to implement their hopes into tangible, rewarding results.


In busy periods, contractors are infamous for many things which become typical and almost, (in their defense) unavoidable. Time issues are among the primary worries they have. Notifying people that they might be late to an appointment, or maybe not coming at all is certainly one of the primary sources of exasperation for potential clients and, yes, it is unforgivable. However, Time, for the contractor, is everything and some handle it better than others. I was once told that by simply answering the telephone, it would be the best method of acquiring work. It turned out they were very nearly 100% correct.

I suppose I am beginning with a caveat which is probably not all that smart.

Make no mistake………… Promptness, for the record, is still an asset. It always has been and always will be. It ranks up there with manners as exemplary conditions under which to enjoy other people. It goes without saying – and particularly in this age of instant communications and cheap phones, that I – personally – would always try and alert someone to my progress on making an appointment. And especially an Initial Meeting. My charge here is to mention that violating the time issue for an appointment has some hidden value and a perverse sort of counter-intuitive sense.

If, for example, the contractor is busy, the chances are very good it’s because he is in demand. Furthermore, I know for myself that the client I now have and am working for absolutely precedes in importance the next client, no matter who it might be. Naturally, these are always a part of any businessman’s milieu – this little dilemma represents dealing with real problems on multiple levels. Needless to say, those contractors who, like myself, actually also do the work are more of what we are referring to in this example.

In short, if there is a thorny and intensely-involving problem, I do my best to focus 100% on it. This can include forgetting absolutely everything and making sure the current client gets satisfied. But enough of this.

(click any image to enlarge – even twice)


Here, then, are a few “for what it’s worth” rules, some etched in stone, some not, when you consider hiring a guy to come in, make a huge mess and completely take over the land around you:

1. In the states where it applies (and this is your very minimal onus to find out), make sure he has a state contractor’s license, first and foremost. Does he/she have references? From clients? Did you check them? You should.

2. Another rather primary consideration would be acquiring other bids, from other contractors. I say this although there are times when the eyeball test and a client’s intuitions can over rule this, based on many other factors, including reputation. But the standard in any industry is to get 3 bids.

3. Does he or she work with you? If a homeowner has ideas of their own, I always treat that as half the battle in terms of design. It makes my job easier, not harder, when someone has a notion and a concept of what they want. Plus, you can feel more involved, as a client, literally designing your own place.

4. Do you have a budget? This matters hugely. It does not pay to set a budget then try and work underneath it. What works best, ultimately, is to design a wished-for scenario/environment, have the guy work on it at home, then get back about what he thinks it might cost, ballpark. At least, that’s my normal modus operandii. If indeed, it appears your budget will work, and if, by some lucky stroke of nature or your own brainpower, your original budgeting leaves you extra money, Great!

5. Typical pay schedules: I typically do the following: 50% up front, 25% at the midway point on larger projects, then the final 25% at the conclusion of the job………when satisfied! Another approach I have used divides the contract by thirds. 33% up front, 1/3 halfway through, then the final 33% on satisfactory completion. There is a reason for all this. Typical costs for doing landscaping work involve enormous up front expenses. Soil, bricks, water stuff, pumps – in short, nearly everything except for plants and grass occur almost immediately upon entering the project. And this omits such other costs as payroll, machines/tool rentals and the rest, many of which are specialized to landscaping for most-specific tasks. Let me be clear – no one gains from stressing a tradesman’s ability to purchase products for your project by using his own money for your project. It happens, of course – far more often than people think – but when there is a level of comfort in all directions, a project proceeds about 90% smoother, faster and more professionally.

And who wouldn’t want to pay this guy?


A landscaper’s references will depend, in the end, on how happy or upset he left his client when all was said and done. At times, the gnarly little details can derail everyone’s satisfaction. Landscapers should meet this reality head-on. It’s why they ask for more than just what the gig costs, after all. Pleasing a finicky client is not a problem for the best at what they do. And – to any client or potential client – Do not be afraid to mention small things. They are also a part of the job. Being aware has never been a crime that I know of. The music to a landscaper’s ear, and, yes, I have heard this, is the following: “We knew it would be pretty, but we had no idea it would be this beautiful!” This is what happens when all things proceed with a relationship based on respect.

6. I have mixed some stuff together, but hope it becomes clear that professionalism is not an option in this trade. It is an absolute must. It is an expensive trade, often following the rules of anywhere from 5% to 15% of the value of a house. This is serious money. If you have a bad feeling about someone related to his professionalism or lack thereof, then do NOT use him. A person can be casual without being sloppy.

7. Sign a contract. No if’s and’s or but’s. Make sure the language is crystal clear and you should have zero problems.

8. Check progress. There is nothing worse than a landscape contractor realizing 90% into a project that the client is not happy with something. If there is an item missing, a troubled client needs to make it known. We expect, as contractors, to hear these things from clients. Alas, we are not perfect either. I wish I had a buck for every client who saved me by mentioning a problem he was having and, ahem, thought maybe I had forgotten about, say, the garden sculpture. Or the, um, grass, heh heh.ย  ๐Ÿ˜‰

Conversely, when a client realizes that perhaps the design they both agreed to does somehow just plain not work, a few words with the contractor right away might just rescue things. Landscaping can be very fluid – the realities on the ground can become problematic with some weird events – the discovery of underground cables, a huge boulder impossible to move, etc –ย  so do not hesitate to ask questions or offer opinions. The contractor may ask you as well, of course, about adjustments owing to these events. Be flexible and creative. In the end, as ever – The only dumb question is the one not asked.


9. Remember this: (I tell every single client I have the following words:) “Landscaping is 80% preparation and 20% finishing. ” There will be an unholy mess, with machines moving dirt all over and mud and seeming chaos. It is what we referred to as a ‘Beirut of the 70’s’. Fear not. We know what’s up. Longer projects can be exasperatingly dusty or dirty. Just remember how the final result will make one feel. A bit of patience here is called for and very much appreciated.


It’ll get there………promise!


In the end, we’re looking for something to feel wonderful about. It is possible, too.

Lopiparo 1


If you can somehow enjoy the process, you may have met someone you like. This is also possible.

More importantly, both you and the contractor can be equally thrilled at a good result. At the very best of times, people like him live for this stuff.


How To Find A Landscape Contractor And How Also To Be A Good Client – The Contracting Process

It’s that time of year, gearing up as we speak…………..
Let’s review what we expect from a contractor, shall we?
To be late?
LOL, it’s almost a sad expectation there, but it does happen and I am not about to forgive it. Bottom line – A good contractor either makes his date or gives a great explanation of why not. Time management is everyone’s problem, not just the contractor’s. But it is such a truism that they arrive late, it is almost, but not quite funny. Contractor jokes run the risk of becoming as popular, and as dismissive, as lawyer jokes. Now that would be a sad state of affairs!
OK, then let’s say you are wanting to have your property landscaped. You have a budget in mind and want to find a good, honest hardworking contractor to do the work. Below, I lay out some items to think about, prior to the project and then, during it.
Stalking The Elusive Contractors (apologies to Ewell Gibbons) ๐Ÿ˜‰
First things first – where did you get the names of those you might want to contact? If they came from friends or compatriots who recommend someone owing to a good experience, you are about 50% “up” on the rest of the field. And so should the contractor be, as well. Real references from real people are the single most solid recommendation ever in selecting someone to remake your gardens. Ask around, if nothing else. Typically, a good contractor leaves a trail as wide and as substantial as a bad one. Oh – and consider the “bad ones” too. Just don’t use them.
(most images enlarge by left- clicking)ย  ๐Ÿ˜‰ย  expect this
My recommendations are that anyone seek out 3 separate bids for any home – or commercial – project. Not only will this give an accurate read of what the value of the project is, in the professional trades, but it can also separate the more absurd bids which are ridiculously high or ridiculously low. Believe me when I say that an absurdly low bid compared to others can be an absolute nightmare. It is either inexperience or else desperation supplying motivations for low prices – both of which can see a project half-finished and a client holding the bag for all sorts of stuff we don’t want to talk about.
There is nothing wrong with using the Yellow Pages, either. But if one does, make sure of the “3 bid rule”.
One caveat I always use is to be aware of the fact that the person you speak with may “just” be a salesperson. Now this is not a bad thing whatsoever, in itself. But a client is wise to probe as much as he wants as to the amount of investment this guy or gal might feel towards the project. Just sayin’…….
There is also this for more verbiage on what contractors are all about from my view, from this blog……


The First Meeting

So, finally, a contractor – or, and this is important – a salesperson shows up and you discuss a project. Whether large or small, one should always try and ascertain the following before going further: (Note, I refer to “he” in every case below which does not mean I believe there are not some absolutely excellent female contractors out there. I know some and they are marvelous, if not a lot more particular and caring. Please excuse this usage in the name of brevity.) Once again:
1. Is he licensed? (Note, some states do not require a contractor’s license. In this case, a quick check at the Better Business Bureau is in order, prior to his coming. Inasmuch as the Bureau typically only records negative information, a clean slate there is a good thing.)
2. Will he give a list of references? (This should be a no brainer. And checking these references is merely smart.)
3. Does he seem competent to you? (Develop a few questions about your place or about gardening or landscaping. See how he does.)
4. Does he have enthusiasm about his work? (This may seem irrelevant, but I disagree. The chores in landscaping require motivation. There is hard work aplenty in the trade and it is all outdoor, complete with heat, cold, rain, and all. A motivated person simply gets things done, in inclement or questionable circumstances, as well.)
5. Does he have a portfolio or examples of his work? (A quick perusal of this may be in order and is not particularly time-consuming.)
6. Does he insist on using his own ideas and plans? (Many contractors suffer from a particular bias: they want to do things the way they want it, in terms of design and even construction processes. Sometimes, this is a good thing, but more often, this particular type can try and browbeat a client into accepting his particular vision of what a place needs. A smart and creative contractor will be more than glad to get input from a homeowner. Frankly, it saves him time and provides a base from which to continue.)
7. What is his schedule?
8. Once again – ๐Ÿ˜‰ – How many contractors did you interview and acquaint with your project? (I advocate meeting with 3 contractors. This way you get a cross sectional view of, not only personalities but of price. By the way, personality is of less importance than about any of the factors. A good salesperson may not put 5 minutes into the project on the ground and the larger operations have salespeople for just this purpose: sales.)


The Second Meeting

On larger projects, there will of necessity be a second meeting. Here you will discuss the fact that you chose a particular firm, owing to price or confidence in their professionalism.

1. Do they have a plan and, if so, does it meet your criterion for your own wants? (The plan should indeed reflect your own tastes and requests, with the caveat that some can be impossible or maybe impractical. Your contractor should explain in detail why this would be the case. You also tweak the plans at this time, to result in contract-signing at the third meeting, when satisfied.)
2. Does his estimate really meet your budgetary expectations?
3. You may be asked for a deposit at this time. You should expect to pay at least for time spent, meaning the plan and the estimate and, if the plan is to your satisfaction, then commit to the project.


The Contract

1. In plain words, read the contract, complete with the fine print. If it is too obtuse, then reject signing something which does not make sense. There are sometimes qualifications concerning “Acts of God” relating to problems later. These are acceptable and understandable, especially inasmuch as this work takes place outdoors. Floods, hurricanes, incredibly unique developments in weather such as intense and abnormal conditions of freezing, winds or snowfall are understandable caveats, frankly. He is protecting himself from disaster and rightfully so. It’s a rather compelling reason for the project to take place during good weather.
2. Make sure there is a warranty clause which should be for at least a year for all products, plants and structures.
3. Have the contractor insert his best estimate of the time it should take to complete the project. Naturally, weather and other conditions pertain, yet a reasonable expectation is worth asking for. If it is violated severely, this item can be used in court. “Reasonable completion time” is a judicial and a trade standard.
4. Make him commit to a starting time, give or take intangibles, once again.


There are many ways to go about this. I prefer getting one half up front and then 25% at the half way mark, the remainder on satisfactory completion. Now, bear in mind, this is for mid range projects. Larger projects require money up front, but not necessarily 50%. A “progress draw” scenario would be recommended on larger work, with money still up front, but pro-rated according to what get’s installed and purchased by the contractor, first.
Some contractors ask for 1/3 up front, 1/3 at the half way point and the final 1/3 on completion. These are the two typical scenario’s and there must be many others.



Typically, if the contractor is good, expect to be more than surprised at the result. These guys specialize in their work and their detailing at the finish should lead to some huge satisfaction on the part of any client. I have heard many wonderful things while standing with a client at the end of projects. They do not have to be painful at all. “I hoped it would look good, but I had no idea it would be this beautiful!”, is a quote I absolutely live for and have heard. This motivates everyone, believe me. This is the goal.


Be Patient – Be Happy

Don’t expect bad things. Clients can make new friends, respect new people, even enjoy life more from watching the science, the professionalism and even the faces of the workers who perform on their land. Prepare to enjoy a somewhat nerve-wracking process, lol, as your dirt transforms into a gorgeous butterfly. When these guys leaves – it’s all yours.ย  ๐Ÿ˜‰


Cool Local Project in Louisville

As many readers know, I also do a blog for Pond And Fountain World (linked there) where I expose my long-held passion for everything “water” in a landscape and in urban environments in general – world-wide, no less. I get a refreshing look at others’ work, too, exploring the water features they have installed for home owners and businesses, locally. It’s been a treat working there. I meant what I said about how I really do get to explore the fountains of the world, the good ones as well as the bad ones! I always felt design ideas and simple human wonder take off from starting points of history and the relevant notions artists and architects provide us all. There are some absolutely amazing fountains in this world of ours, let me tell you. For example…………not many of us have one of these in their back yard-

“It’s good to be King!”ย  ๐Ÿ˜‰ย  (this pic from Versailles, France)

(click any image to enlarge, twice for details)


I can also concentrate fully on all the good stuff Pond And Fountain World deal in as contractors and installers of the stuff they sell – including gorgeous retail/wholesale items listed in their home page catalog and presented in full physical glory at their headquarters. There are also other set examples of the installation of naturalistic water features abounding there, complete with plants they offer as well as some pretty amazing fishies.

The people, particularly the owners, George Davis, and his lovely wife Cara, are heart-warming people with ready smiles and those nicely nervous dispositions which give them away as business people. It has been a very good relationship and I have to think they like the “Face” I am helping them present to the world. Those who work there, shipping, answering phones, helping me hugely with the Internet angle of life – such as Rich and Lynne – also do so much to make it a very cool experience.

But they take also great pains to present their “Face”, all by themselves, here at the “world headquarters” of a firm which ships out quite a few products to designers and home and business owners the world over. I have always delighted in walking there and spending time looking at their monstrous supply of gorgeous Koi –

Bernheim Spring 110

Looks like feeding time!ย  True story, actually.

I could watchย  this large and gorgeous Yellow fish for days:

Bernheim Spring 013

Moving along now, these guys have begun a small renovation right at the entry to their premises which I particularly like. Naturally, the construction would always attract my attention, and so it is that I now pass by daily, boning up on my Espanol, taking pictures and asking questions. I honestly really appreciate what they are accomplishing.

Whereas before, the entry looked like this:

Bernheim Spring 046

Oops!ย  My bad!! This is not Pond And Fountain World!!ย  This is Quinn, my brother’s niece! How “pushy” of her!ย  ๐Ÿ˜‰ย  Well, she was thinking about going there, how’s that?

Ahem, back to the entry:

Bernheim Spring 096

Note the position (above) of the water feature and the composition of walking materials, then compare to this “progress picture” (below) of what is currently going on:

There’s a new surface in town!

Picture 120

Needless to say, the water feature went and moved itself.

Picture 125

And here are a few later pictures, representing what I am growing to feel is some very perfect surface work:

Picture 015

From a strict design perspective the polyglot mix of materials offers a retailer an opportunity to provide instances of various possibilities. The Blue Stone in the foreground may not always be indicated for everyone, especially for those with more conservative tastes. But the workmanship is the sort of thing a guy like me looks at. I love it all.

Picture 121

The cutting and fitting of disparate materials gives an overall very organic tone to this project. The preciseness of the cuts and the uniform sorts of tolerances between the fits makes it something more than it probably should be.

Picture 120

Pretty cool beans, all the way around. I’m a big fan of this stage of work! I know – there’s dust all over, saws operating, different languages singing out – all that stuff. Man, there’s always a ton of garbage too.

Heaven!ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

But for pure thrills, watching these projects come together is a highlight reel for me. I think they’re just nailing it.

Picture 011

Very nice work, George, Javier and crew!

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