Improvement on the Home Front
Landscape Architects Say People Are Investing in Their Backyards
Last summer, Brian Campedelli sat in a client’s backyard, enjoying a lobster dinner, while soft music played and low-voltage lighting lit up the plantings, firepit, and other improvements made to the property.
“You could hear the waterfall in the background and the sound of the grasses rustling, and my client told me she felt like she was in Hawaii,” said the president of Pioneer Landscapes Inc. in Easthampton.
His comments mirrored those of other local landscape architects who say that, although the economy has not fully recovered, business on the home front is improving, and many people are investing in their own backyards and turning them into private oases.
“People want to be able to utilize their property every day, and by creating an outdoor room, they are extending their home into their yard,” Campedelli told BusinessWest. “Last year was a stellar year, and we couldn’t even get everything done, so we are carrying over quite a bit of work and are already running in many directions. I have three full-time estimators for residential work.”
Drew DeMay, owner of Fountain Bleu Landscape and Outdoor Design in West Springfield, agreed, and noted that people’s interest in transforming their backyards is growing. “People want a private area where they can enjoy themselves, relax, have some food, and sit by water, because they are staying home and not going out as much.”
In fact, his company “switched lanes” a few years ago when construction died down and businesses stopped spending money. He invented the Water-Vac professional-grade vacuum to clean ponds that hit the market about a year ago, and said the company is doing more residential work, with homeowners requesting improvements that include patios and shrubs.
“Last year was a really good year. People got tired of holding onto their money and started to spend it,” he said. “But last year at this time the weather was 70 degrees, and people already had their yards cleaned up, so we are at the beginning of what will happen over the summer. But people want to be able to come home and have a place to relax,” he told BusinessWest.
And the trend is so strong that William St. Clair said his company, St. Clair Landscaping and Nursery Inc. in Hampden, is developing a program called Beautiful Backyards, which will allow people to incorporate plantings, patios, walls, perennial gardens, water gardens, sitting gardens, privacy hedges, firepits, and more into their personal landscape.
He said the company has done some extravagant projects during the past decade, including waterfalls that cascade into pools, firepits, sitting gardens, and more. And although this is not the norm and many people have downsized their dream of what a backyard retreat will entail, they still want to create a place that is tranquil.
“We’ve done a lot of work for college professors who like to sit on a bench in their backyard and read,” St. Clair said. The benches can be put next to a water garden or pondless waterfall, or “an area that has been created where people can sit and relax.”
Bill St. Clair says homeowners want to build spaces that promote relaxation, whether it’s a firepit, water feature, or a pergola like this one — a structure that’s becoming more popular.
Firepits are extremely popular, and last year St. Clair installed 18 of them. “One was elaborate and had a patio around it that can sit two to six people,” he said. Other homeowners want walls to surround their firepits, which creates additional seating.
“There are a lot of really neat things that can be done,” he said. “People tell us, when they come home at the end of the day, they want their yard to look pristine and be something really special.”
Steve Prothers, owner of Amherst Landscape and Design Associates, validated the trend. As the economy regains strength, he said, people are willing and ready to spend money on their homes again.
“We’ve seen a resurgence in spending over the past two years,” he noted, “and people are doing things they have wanted to do for a long time; their goal is to be able to enjoy their outdoor space without having to leave town.”
Commercial business is also on the upswing. “We’ve seen some vibrancy in the last few years in terms of the amount of work and competitiveness,” Prothers told BusinessWest. “I have a small company, but there is a feeling across the board in our industry that things are looking brighter, which is a good sign.”
St. Clair said this past year was a “very, very good one.”
“Our forte is high-end residential projects, and last year we did several of them,” he reported. In fact, his business increased by about 32%.
But it has still not returned to what it was before the recession, and several years ago the company added maintenance to the services it offers, in part to fill the void, but also because people who spend a significant amount of money want their property professionally maintained.
“We used to have 18 people working for us, and last year we had between 10 and 13,” he said. “This year, we’re starting off with the same number. But we’re doing things to become more efficient — buying smarter and asking our employees to become more cognizant of waste.”
In addition, for the third year in a row, St. Clair’s employees are working four 10-hour days, which allows them to get more done and also gives them Friday and Saturday as makeup days in case of inclement weather, which can help them meet deadlines. Still, last year they weren’t able to finish up one of their biggest projects because the ground froze.
“And right now, we have enough work to take us through July 1, which is not bad for any business,” he said.
He attributes part of his success to the personal relationships he builds with clients. But the tornado of 2011 also resulted in work, such as a property in Longmeadow that suffered extensive tree damage. In addition to ripping out an entire row of pines damaged by the storm and replacing them with emerald-green arborvitae, the homeowners had their entire front and backyard landscaped.
“And right now, we have four jobs on the books to replace privacy hedges that were damaged by the tornado,” St. Clair added.
Drew DeMay says a slowdown in commercial work in recent years has coincided with increasingly strong residential demand.
Walter Cudnohufsky, owner of Walter Cudnohufsky Associates Inc. in Ashfield, is also doing more residential work. In some cases, people are buying property and fixing problems that were never resolved, such as drainage issues, but in others they are upgrading their landscapes. “But the first words we hear from everyone are ‘low maintenance,’” he said.
Cudnohufsky also handles a lot of commercial work and has been busy for the past two years. He said towns, like homeowners, want to make improvements that the community can enjoy. But he believes there is a real misunderstanding about the importance of design.
“People have grown up in houses and yards, so they don’t think they need assistance. But even if they get a short consultation, it’s an insurance policy against making a major error and spending money frivolously and needlessly,” he explained. “You want to be able to do as much as you can with your budget.”
For example, a granite countertop for a barbecue could equal the cost of renovating the entire landscape, when there are other choices, such as outdoor concrete, which are attractive and durable, Cudnohufsky said.
Although people are spending money, DeMay said, many have “downsized their imagination,” especially when it comes to water features. “Bigger used to be better, and we used to build a lot of large ponds and courtyards.”
But today, people are spending less and want to avoid the maintenance that ponds with fish and vegetation require. “Many prefer to have a small pond with a waterfall for the simple fact that it costs a lot less money,” he said. “They can still get the sound and the effect of tranquility, but want be able to come home and just relax outside.”
St. Clair agrees that people don’t want to have to work to keep their landscape attractive. “There is no such thing as no maintenance, but everyone wants to minimize it. They don’t want to be married to a water feature or their yard,” he said.
So many are opting for waterfalls. “The sound of tranquility that comes from water flowing is mesmerizing, and people can sit by it, relax, and contemplate,” DeMay said.
Campedelli said pondless waterfalls free people from liability, and can be enhanced by ornamental grasses that complement the soothing sound of the water. “They grow seven to nine feet high, and when they are planted around seating areas and waterfalls, they are beautiful to look at, and the sound is soothing whenever a slight breeze blows through them.”
Firepits are also enormously popular. “Everyone wants one. Their kids can sit and roast marshmallows, or they can have their neighbors over and put their feet up and relax,” Campedelli said. “Our clients want to keep their fires going during the summer, even when it’s really hot, because of the atmosphere it creates.”
St. Clair concurred. “We are also putting in a lot of firepits. They have really become a big trend, and we have clients who are using them throughout the winter.”
Some people choose gas burners, while others opt for the traditional wood-burning style, built with drains inside so the fire can be extinguished without having to leave coals smoldering.
“More and more companies are creating gas inserts, and some units are built to look like fireplaces,” DeMay said, adding that firepits and outdoor cooking have become so popular that some people are having outdoor kitchens built, a trend he expects to continue. “They are incorporating them into small courtyards.”
Another growing market is patios and walkways, which local landscape architects say are becoming more popular than wood decks. “Even the composite materials weather and need pressure washing or replacement,” Campedelli told BusinessWest, adding that the materials available today “are gorgeous and come in many different patterns.”
St. Clair said pergolas are also seeing interest. The structures are similar to a large arbor, and plants such as wisteria climb the sides and form a leafy roof as they grow to cover the rafters.
Lighting is another factor that plays a significant role in the ambience of outdoor spaces after the sun sets. Low-voltage lighting is being built into walls, hung on trees, or arranged to illuminate walkways or the entire perimeter of a landscaped area. It is also being installed around firepits, in sitting gardens, or on fireplaces.
“I’m also a big fan of torches,” Campedelli said. “They’re a key element in lighting. There is nothing like flickering light with shadows, so we create an atmosphere using a combination of torches and low-voltage lighting.”
Campedelli said some people are having outdoor areas wired for a TV, with speakers built into the sitting area. “It’s a theme-park type of feel with background music. Think of the worst day at work you ever had, then imagine coming home and opening your back door and feeling like you are on vacation or at the beach. We build that feeling.”
And once the work is done, families can stay home and relax in their surroundings. “People don’t want to have to drive anywhere once they get home from work,” DeMay said.
In short, the future looks bright indeed for landscape architects as homeowners take steps to create their own private refuges and places of relaxation.