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Doing Simple Well

December 7, 2012

Doing Simple Well

By Craig Karn, Principal, Consilium Design

In over 30 years of practice, we have seen trends come and go in planning and landscape architecture. In the 80’s we experienced times of great growth and some down times. In the 90’s times were good and growth was strong. Of course, since 2000, it has proven to be a roller coaster with much instability.  “The Great Recession” has made it clear that “over the top” has a price tag. We read about it every day. Americans are looking for ways to simplify in every facet of their lives. People want a return to quality that stands the test of time. At Consilium Design “doing simple well” has been our approach to design since we started our company. We create sophisticated, timeless designs that deliver the most “bang for the buck”.  In today’s world of tight budgets and timeframes, our clients appreciate simple design and construction techniques and being able to deliver a quality product on time and on budget.

Fredrick Law Olmsted and the origins of park and open space development

The “father of landscape architecture”, Frederick Law Olmsted believed that picturesque landscapes counteracted the crowed urban environment. The perfect antidote to the stress of urban life was a walk through a park. He discouraged all uses that compromised the pastoral nature and tranquility of the spaces he designed.  Simple, graceful spaces with scattered groves of trees were primary elements of his designs. His works are still some of the greatest open “places” inAmerica.

At Consilium Design we believe in this philosophy and that it still holds true today. Consider the following concepts for “doing simple well” as you outline your development program and begin the design process:

Preserve and enhance views and open space

Views are not something to be ignored or superficially addressed. Views are a “paid for” amenity that comes with the site. Remember the work of Olmsted.  In an ever more crowded and visually compromised world, views from within or to the site provide a sense of identity and visual calming. Make them a compelling feature of your design.

Open space should be more than a quantitative measure shown on a site plan-the focus of design should be qualitative. Well placed open space is critical to view preservation. Even when well placed in a design, the most important element of open space is often forgotten-“Space-the distance or area between things”.  There is often a tendency to hyper-program a design and fill open spaces with all the things we think we need-walls, shelters, pools, play structures, and even too many trees.

Respond to the cultural context of the site and its surroundings

People want to live where they are grounded in a sense of identity and individuality. Integrate the history and culture of a site into its design whenever possible, rather than just “skinning” it with the latest popular trends in design and architecture.

Simplify the landscape and amenity program

Not too many years ago, builders and developers would compete to see who could build the most “over the top” amenities to attract homebuyers. Times have changed and rarely are there budgets for this any more. Each project has it’s own identity and needs.  We believe amenities don’t have to be pricey if they are designed well and executed properly.  This concept this can benefit open space and view preservation. It also benefits the bottom line and responds to a market that is trending quickly away from “I want it all” to “what do I need to be happy?”   Do play areas need to be so programmed? Our thought is not always. We like to provide a natural play experience for kids when we can so they can make up their own games and be creative.

Ask these kinds of questions as designs are developed:

  • Do I  need an expensive stone seat wall when a bench will do?
  • Do I  need a large shade structure when a grove of trees will provide lots of  shade?
  • Does the park need an elaborate play structure or maybe just a boulder to climb on that can also be “home base” for a game of tag?

Well designed turf grass or native grass areas allow for a broad range of uses that can change with the seasons and needs of residents. Likewise, a well designed trail system with a range of surfaces and widths tailored to the site provide for flexibility in use.

Prioritize sustainability goals and objectives

Community sustainability is not achieved solely by a series of developments that represent microcosms of green design concepts. Every individual site design does not need to have every component of sustainability within its limits. We believe what makes a community development truly sustainable is when the design is integrated with the greater community development context. Understand what sustainability elements are already in place within the context of the site and don’t replicate them needlessly.

Don’t confuse “urban” with “sustainable”.  Alley loaded homes may present a nice street scene, but they don’t work well at all on sloping sites and by their nature and can be very inefficient and “turn their back” to open space settings. “Live/work” housing or residential over retail or a restaurant may seem appealing, but a flight of stairs or the sounds and smells of commerce and nightlife can be a negative for empty nesters or young families.

Ask these kinds of questions as designs are developed:

  • Does this neighborhood need a community center and pool when the city has a great facility just down the street?
  • Will a neighborhood retail center be successful or is the need being met with existing businesses nearby? Empty storefronts are never a good thing.

 Consolidate landscape areas into larger blocks and interconnect them whenever possible.

  • It’s more environmentally sound as interconnected habitat is more supportive of wildlife.
  • It is more efficient and cost effective to establish and maintain.
  • It reduces the need for multiple expensive water taps for several small irrigated landscape areas.

Design “from the back to the front”

This means designing a site, neighborhood or community so design inefficiencies are moved to arrival zones and entries and consolidated into larger areas for more visual impact. Often landscape areas end up in unseen, unusable locations at the “back” of the plan.

Preserve and expand native landscapes

Preserving and enhancing native landscapes is not only environmentally sound and “Green”, it’s economical

  • Water is money inColorado     and everywhere. “Save water-save money”. Use native, drought tolerant plants and grasses whenever possible.
  • Schedule landscape installations in the “traditional seasons” and limit or don’t use permanent irrigation. Establishment watering is adequate for hardy      native plants.
  • Long term maintenance is far less than highly improved non-indigenous landscapes.

Landform design should be a part of every landscape design.

  • Striking landform design has an immediate impact-it can add interest to any landscape and can function as a buffer at the same time.
  • Landforms are affordable to install and have nominal maintenance costs.
  • If you have extra fill on a project, use it to create interesting landforms, don’t haul it off.

Use Mulches as an element of design.

  • Create patterns in beds and edges and use more striking colors, textures and larger sizes of stones in high impact areas.
  • Much like landform, boulders and stone mulches have an immediate impact. You won’t loose a boulder in a drought.

Plant more, smaller trees

While big trees give a more immediate visual impact, in many locations the long term benefit is more important. You may be able to plant several smaller container grown trees for the price of one large B & B specimen. The establishment and long term survival rate will usually be better and in the long run there be a grove of trees in the park instead of a tree.

At Consilium Design we believe compelling, sustainable design solutions must be:

  • Contextual-the  design should be reflective of the character of the site and it’s surroundings
  • Adaptable-responsive to changes in the environment and patterns of use.
  • Temporal-emphasize quality solutions that will stand the test of time

Sophisticated design solutions are not accomplished by how much you do, but rather by how well you do it-“doing simple well”.