Photo by John Swain
Next Saturday, June 14 a custom modular Kaufmann home will be open to the public in Santa Barbara, California. It’s a wonderful opportunity to experience firsthand what it’s like inside an MKD home. The open house is happening thanks to the Built Green Santa Barbara Expo, Conference, & Tour, which is organizing the tour to showcase green building in the area. This home is a perfect choice for the tour because the house itself is not the only green thing about it; the landscaping is also an excellent example of thoughtful, sustainable design.
I recently had a conversation with Margie Grace of Grace Design who masterminded the gorgeous, eco-friendly landscaping of this Santa Barbara abode. I love Margie’s work in general (her Zen Garden and Desert Pallet are two breathtaking examples of what she can do) but I especailly love what she did around this particular home. I wanted to find out more about the thinking behind her design and how she created such a beautiful, unique, and sustainable environment to surround this home…
Photo by John Swain
mk: Margie, I just love your work – the aesthetic as well as the thoughtfulness of it. So when it comes to your landscaping work, what is your basic sustainable philosophy?
MG: Use what’s on site to the fullest. I call it “site-inspired design”. Got extra soil from site work?: do some mounding! Got topography? Work with it vs. flattening it all out! Terrace or mound or retain and fill to get more usable space. Sculpt to your heart’s content! Got trees? Keep them if you can! Got a drainage challenge? Use grading to collect the water on site and grow bog plants! The key is to look at everything on site and ask: what opportunity does (blank) present?
Once you’ve got the most out of what’s already there, you cast your view a little wider. Look at the architecture, the surrounding neighborhood, the client’s personal preferences, the local climate, the available budget. Materials selection must follow the tenets of sustainability: local materials, renewable materials, recycled materials, enduring materials, fair trade practice materials, multiple use material (for example, a fruit tree can give you fruit as well as shade as well as consume carbon dioxide so it’s a better choice for providing shade than building an arbor out of wood grown, harvested, milled and driven from far away!). Finally, use “the lightest footprint possible” building practices and methodology to implement the design: recycling/reusing/repurposing waste, efficient staging of materials, workers carpooling to site, etc.
mk: That’s wonderful. So how did you implement that philosophy with regard to this particular project?
MG: All the boulders you see in the landscape? Those were excavated from the site while it was being prepared for the foundation work for the house! We just felt that if they’re on site they belong there - so we adapted the landscape design to accommodate them all. Same with the old stone blocks — they were there, so they went into the composition. Job site waste was sorted for recycling. Some of the Corten siding off cuts were used as raised beds at a local preschool where the kids are growing organic veggies for healthy snacks, learning about plants, water cycle, carbo cycle, etc. Another piece of scrap Corten lives as a fountain on another project. Everything that had more life in it was repurposed to a new use. The rest got recycled.
mk: The Santa Barbara environment and lifestyle is all about indoor/outdoor living. How did you incorporated that into this project?
MG: We’re really spoiled here: we can live outside 9 out of 10 days year round. You see a huge commitment to gardens and outdoor living in Santa Barbara. As a landscaper and die-hard garden lover, I think of home as a beautiful garden with a modest house that’s there in case it rains! In this case, the fire pit cum amphitheater seating brings this family outdoors all times of day - for a few quiet moments of sunning or gathering with friends. There are little “sweet spots” of varying degrees of intimacy tucked in all over the garden. I like the idea of drawing people outdoors with a beautiful scene then having them discover something even more alluring along the way - like the perfect little sitting niche with the perfect little view.
mk: What are your thoughts on the blending of buildings and nature in this project?
MG: I love the use of all of the natural, even elemental, materials in the structures. It seems as though the buildings rose up from the very earth. I am a fan of the Japanese way of thinking - where you see the hand of man in the structure, then a transition from natural-yet-influenced-by-manmade-materials then a soft feathering into natural, seemingly untouched landscape. The home sits so comfortably in the landscape and the landscape beautifully embraces the house. In turn, the garden fits so well in the larger Santa Barbara landscape - it all looks like it belongs there.
Photo by John Swain
mk: What are some of your favorite elements in landscape design? Your favorite plants?
MG: Water: every garden needs the movement and the life and the music of water. In southern California, we need the cooling effect as well. Now, my favorite plants? How can a mother say which of her children is her favorite? And like a mother with her children, some have favor over others at different times. Okay, I’ll give it a stab…
Japanese maples - beautiful! So sculptural and fine. Jacarandas - what could be more beautiful than the cloud of blue blooms and the blue “snow” blanketing on the ground. Throw in the quality of the shade they cast, the ease of growing them and their high degree of malleability and you’ve got a “10″! And then there is the “walking stick” (corokia), kangaroo paws, alstroemeria, lacecap hydrangeas…ahhhhh! There’s just so many to love!
mk: I know! So, what recommendations do you make to your clients who want their project to be sustainable?
MG: Think of the big picture: play God. By that I mean you want to create the garden so that it functions as a whole ecosystem. Work on soil health (lots of yummy composted amendments - the exception being really heavy soils). Grade to capture water on site then put it to use smartly (bioswales, “vernal pools”, water barrels at downspouts, storage tanks… whatever suits your inclinations, site, budget - there are lots of options out there). Protect the soil from erosion (with grading, plants, mulch).
Pick plants that work - you know, plants that are not horticulturally demanding. Plants that are well suited to your site, growing conditions, and climate. Pick plants for their mature size - why pick something that wants to be big and have to constantly cut it if you only have room for modest-sized plantings? Plant so that you have 100% ground coverage to conserve moisture, shade the soil, etc. Think about habitat for critters. Can you provide the proper shelter, food source, and water to allow local fauna to thrive? And mulch, mulch, mulch! Mulch with plant-based material if you’ve got plants that don’t need sharp drainage and with inorganic material (stone, gravel, glass) if your plant suite is best adapted to seasonal drought (e.g., chaparral species, desert species). Provide a high-efficiency irrigation system and manage your water to foster deeply rooted plants.
mk: Fantastic advice! Thank you so much, Margie. I can’t wait for people to see what beautiful, thoughtful work you’ve done with this landscape!