FIRST IMPRESSIONS…

July 26, 2011

Recently I had the opportunity to work with clients in Sacramento with a new Spanish-style home who wanted to create a private garden courtyard for themselves.  The client is a general contractor and so has the skills required to complete the construction of the project.    

As with all my initial meetings, I listened closely to what the clients were asking for.  If you have read any of my earlier blogs you will remember that this does not mean they were vocalizing their ideas as well as they might have.  What they were telling me was what they dreamed of having.  How to get there was the stumbling block.  To borrow from Thomas Church, our job as designers and architects is to interpret and come up with a design idea that goes beyond the clients imagination.  

My first task was to do some research on California Mission-style gardens.  This was the direction they wanted the garden layout to move in as it was taking shape.  The more I delved into the subject of Spanish gardens I realized that the “Mission” style didn’t really come about in California until the 1920’s.  The original Jesuit priests were too busy growing food and medicinal plants to be too concerned with ornamental gardens.  The commonalities that wove through all of the gardens was the same – the courtyard should be walled, a central fountain would be incorporated, it would have rough timber arbors with grapevines and the plant palette would be rather simple.

When I imagine a courtyard I see a space that creates a sense of privacy – both implied and physical – within the landscape.  Oftentimes this can be created by the clever use of existing slopes and elevations to give the visitor an opportunity to step down and descend into the new space.  In this instance using high walls may not be necessary as the elevation changes inherent in the design and construction will reinforce the feel and intent of the courtyard.

This site did not present any chances to excavate and play with elevations – the yard is flat.  So that brought me to the idea that the courtyard walls would have to be at least 6 feet high – possibly 7 feet high.  This would instantly create a room with little air movement and a claustrophobic feeling.  The answer was to plug in arched “windows” within the wall for views out and air movement in.  The arches would echo features on the home.  Spanish tile is the roofing material and I wanted this to be carried through on the top of the courtyard wall.  So now the wall is at  least 1’6″ thick to accommodate the size of the tiles.  Costs are going up!

As I developed the plan on paper (yes – I still draw with pen and ink!) I could see the new landscape perfectly clear – but would the client?  I knew I had to build this garden in 3-D otherwise they would never truly see what I was seeing.  This is where I do turn to computers and to SketchUp – Google’s 3-D program for doing just this sort of presentation.  This also takes me back to the title for this post – I was going to have one shot at selling this idea and I wanted it to be good.It took me about a day to build this garden in SketchUp and I did it pretty down and dirty – no layers, few components, one group.  But, since I wasn’t doing this as a full design within the program and probably wasn’t going to do much changing of the layout anyway it didn’t really matter.Bottom line – I had set up 12 scenes of the proposed plan within SketchUp (I show 3 of the scenes below) and took them for the tour that way, before I ever let them see the paper drawings.  Ok, we all know that the rendering within SketchUp is a little on the cheesy side.  A photo-realistic plugin would have been great, but I don’t have one.  Turns out it didn’t matter.   They were able to walk through their new landscape.  The 6 foot high walls were perfect – everything they had been asking for without knowing it.   There were no changes to this project and this was the first plan presentation.  And this courtyard is within the property that requires a 6 foot tall masonry sound wall to prevent traffic noise.So what’s my point in this article?  Pay attention.  Listen to your client and interpret what they are saying.  Don’t hold yourself back from doing the best you can.  When you have a project that really does do a major overhaul of the existing landscape, use a computer and build your garden in 3-D for the client.  Show that to them first and get them excited and on-board.  Budget may not be as big of an issue as you may have at first thought.
                        
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