Stack Rock Group might have the biggest collective personality of any Land F/X client.
Around our headquarters, they’re known as a bunch of lovable weirdos who crack jokes during tech support calls, and whose DIY company Christmas card makes us literally laugh out loud each year.
“We started out knowing we wanted to be different,” says co-founder and principal landscape architect Will Howard. “We definitely stand out from other architecture and engineering firms.”
Will started Stack Rock Group in 2013 with Krisjan Hiner, whom he’d known since his college days at the University of Idaho. In fact, the majority of the workforce attended college together. The result is a familial office culture where “we all hate but love each other at any given time,” Will says with a laugh. “We’re all big personalities, so sometimes the biggest thing for us to figure out is how to work together.”
The firm’s hardworking but casual environment takes much of its inspiration from Will’s extensive background in landscape construction. “I built projects for different landscape architects,” he says. “I saw what I liked and didn’t like during that time. I learned a lot about what people our age and younger didn’t appreciate in a workplace. At some of those other places, I thought, ‘Maybe your office isn’t a place where people want to work.’”
Given the opportunity, Will and Krisjan set out to establish a place where people do want to work. Stack Rock Group occupies what Will describes as “one big room with standing desks that we built” in an old industrial building in downtown Boise. The open layout is a fitting match with a casual and collaborative workplace where employees aren’t afraid to have fun and express their ideas and opinions.
Living in a place like Boise also helps. The fastest-growing metro area in the United States in 2018 (Forbes magazine confirms it), the city offers recreational opportunities ranging from skiing to lakes to hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails. “It’s a crazy place to be right now,” Will says. “People are moving here from all over, but it’s still a little city, and still safe. It’s a great place to live.” The firm has also expanded into Salt Lake City, having opened a small satellite office in an environ Will sees as similar in feel and opportunity to Boise.
Will Howard on Land F/X
Back in college, they were teaching us AutoCAD without Land F/X. Our student landscape architecture club reached out to the company, and Jeremiah and Krystal [Land F/X CEO and COO, respectively] came to our campus, bought us pizza, and taught us the software. So we were able to see two different ways to use CAD while we were learning the program. The old way just seemed clunky.
We love how Land F/X allows us to build our own libraries. Once you have your content set, it’s all there. You can just take it and run. The tools are all about efficiency and time savings – especially the verification tools and the automatic calculations. It cuts our work time in half.
As for the irrigation tools, they have literally changed how people design irrigation systems. I learned irrigation by working on construction sites, so I memorized what PVC pipes can carry, and I had to know valves, pipe sizes, and wires. I’m an irrigation nerd. Land F/X takes what really is a technical process and makes it simple.
I can’t say enough about what Land F/X has done for us. I plan on using it for the rest of my life, as it simplifies everything we do. I do hope, however, that none of my competitors find out about it because I feel it gives us a great advantage when it comes to completing work.
Want to hear Will Howard's take on the challenges you might face in expanding your business into new areas, and the benefits that await you when you do? See Will's guest webinar, The Challenges & Benefits of Growing a Firm Outside Your Comfort Zone.
Will grew up on a ranch outside tiny Bruneau, Idaho – no doubt an inspiration for his industrious, hands-on approach to design. He spent 12 years in the field as a landscape laborer, foreman, and project manager before he thought about studying to become a landscape architect – or even knew such a thing existed. “They gave me a pickup truck, so I was rich,” he laughs.
Will started down the path to his future career in 2003, when he was overseeing a crew of 10 installing the landscaping at a big-box store. One day, the landscape architect for the project showed up.
“I told him I wanted to change the specification of some of the irrigation equipment,” Will recounts. “He looked at me and asked, ‘Are you a landscape architect?’ I told him no. I was naïve and didn’t really understand what that was. I knew he’d drawn the plans, but that was it.”
“Well I am,” the LA told Will with more than a hint of condescension, “and you need to do what I say.”
“I thought, what a [jerk],” Will recalls.
He went home that day, googled “landscape architect,” and liked what he saw. He remembers reading that being a great landscape architect doesn’t necessarily mean being good at drawing (not exactly his forte, he admits). “I thought, That looks cool – I should try that.”
Before long, he was enrolled at the University of Idaho’s landscape architecture program – and his prospects were looking promising. “When I started college, the seniors in my major were getting hired several months before grad. They were even getting signing bonuses.”
Unfortunately for Will, he graduated in the 2009 economy, where jobs were scarcer. He found employment with a design-build firm but soon realized it wasn’t for him. “I loved the build side, but I wanted to get good at design. It’s just not possible to do that with only 12 to 15 projects per year. The construction aspect of the job took too much time – the balance wasn’t there.”
He continued to look for work, enlisting his buddy Krisjan for help. “I was sending out resumes and not getting calls back. I said, ‘Sell me, please.’” And sell him Krisjan did, helping procure clients one at a time until 2012, when Will was ready to “make the jump to full-time unemployment,” he says, tongue in cheek. He designed sites from a spare bedroom in his house until the pair were able to open their office.
After several years of running a firm, Will still hasn’t forgotten his roots. “I still get Facebook memories of me with a new dump truck at work,” he says with a laugh.
According to Will, Krisjan’s personality and work style make him the ideal business partner. “He has always known that I’m not the type of guy who wants to cold call people to drum up business. He’s 180 degrees away – he loves that kind of thing.” Krisjan continues to operate 180 degrees away, handling the firm’s business development and marketing while Will heads up operations and project work with partners Trevor Ball, Kiley Gardiner, and Jessen Jene Buster.
Collaboration figures prominently in the firm’s design methods. Each project starts with a “concept party,” where a handful of designers meet for a 10- or 15-minute brainstorm on how to approach the job. “It’s never anyone’s idea alone because we’ll look at the project from all different angles and bounce ideas off each other. Clients usually have a lot of feedback as well, and the most successful projects are the ones when the client collaborates. We’re always listening and taking feedback.
“Having more points of view really helps,” he continues. “Two designers will always be better than one. It allows us to critique and work out the kinks before we send it to the client. We have to work together and keep an open mind. Our team members are all individually good, but as soon as we’re together, we feed off each other. It’s a great way to eliminate bad ideas.
Learn more about the history of Stack Rock Group and pick up some insights on the business side of landscape architecture by watching Stack Rock Group Co-Founder Krisjan Hiner's webinar Marketing Techniques for Landscape Architecture Firms.
“We look at the entire site and see how it all interacts, even if it’s just a small residence,” he continues. “Our team brings all these different influences on the design of a project. One might focus on strong design intent, while another wants to add a focal element, like a statue. At the end, we may combine all the ideas – a focal element with a strong design.
Collaborative mixed with casual makes for a fun workplace, Will says. “I’ve always thought, ‘As a landscape architect you’re always going to have a job. Why focus on that all the time?’ Of course, we make sure we meet our deadlines and complete our projects. But we focus on being happy and healthy and enjoying what we do.”
– Jason Hilford
See the Stack Rock Group website for more information:
Answering the Call is a public art installation honoring the City of Tempe’s police officers, firefighters and police canines who have given their lives in the line of duty. Stack Rock Group collaborated with Boise artist Benjamin Victor to design the site, providing landscape architecture services.
Stack Rock Group provided the planting plans for the 200-acre HP campus in Boise using Land F/X and SketchUp. The project incorporated irrigated turf grass, active farmland, ponds that double as an irrigation source, hardscape, a 2-mile walking path, and more than 15 acres of prairie. The planting plan included the conversion of 33 acres of Kentucky blue grass to a native seed mix, and more than 5 acres to planters with native and adaptive native shrubs. As a result, annual maintenance costs decreased by 44% on campus, and landscape water usage fell by 81%. Having received a SITES Gold rating from the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the site is the world’s first SITES v2 Certified corporate and Idaho’s first SITES-certified project.
This 14-story high-rise in Downtown Boise is one of Idaho’s tallest commercial buildings. Stack Rock Group used Land F/X and SketchUp to create 3D renderings and interior modeling for the project.
Stack Rock Group provided both landscape architecture and 3D renderings for this mixed-use complex in Boise using Land F/X and SketchUp. The project, which the firm predicts “will change and positively impact downtown Boise,” incorporates ground-level retail and 159 condos into a seven-story building with a unique curved spline in its upper stories.
David Fox has been with Land F/X from the beginning. In fact, he was the company’s first client.
The Los Gatos, CA–based landscape architect discovered the software more than a decade ago at an ASLA convention, where he first met Land F/X CEO and developer Jeremiah Farmer. “Jeremiah gave a demo and I recall being especially impressed with the planting plan module,” he says. “I walked around and thought about it overnight. I came back to the booth and bought it the next day.”
David immediately had the company’s “undivided attention,” he says. “It was really easy to get tech support in those days for obvious reasons, but their tech support has always been and continues to be great.”
As the sole user of the software, David became a willing “beta tester” for new developments. “I gave a lot of feedback in the beginning, including input in how to work out any kinks that I saw,” he says. In fact, several Land F/X tools came about as direct responses to David’s suggestions. Jeremiah has done this consistently with many people through the years and part of the great strength of the program lies in his response to user input.
David welcomed the opportunity to be an influence during the Land F/X crescendo from prototype to tool used throughout an entire industry. “I tend to be an early adopter on most things,” he says. “As time goes on and the software has more users, the improvements become more of a consensus. There is nothing that replaces actual use in the field and feedback from users.”
Building was a genetic inevitability for David. “My dad’s dad was a general contractor, and my mom’s dad was a tool and die maker,” he says. “I was framing houses by the time I was 8 with one grandfather and learning to draw with the other. I grew up in a business environment but was also surrounded by people who were creative and practical.”
As a sophomore at Rutgers University, he started out in law and business but was looking for something more. A fraternity brother took him on a tour of the landscape architecture department, and the rest is history.
After graduating in 1978 with a newly minted degree in environmental planning and design, David made his way back home to Southern California to find work. His first real job at Hogan and Roy Associates led to a subsequent position at Closson and Closson. Eligible to take the licensing exam in 1980, he was fortunate enough to pass on the first try.
In 1983, he made his way to San Jose in Northern California and, after a short stint at a local firm, went out on his own in the fall of 1984. "I started out as a one-person firm and mostly remained that way for many years,” he says. “I have recently partnered with my son, and it has been the best business collaboration of my career. We work together in my prime practice and have also started a development company based in Tucson."
David's practice primarily centers on the design and building of private estates for individual clients. It is a very small market and takes close collaboration between the architect and a stable of nearly 30 contractors of all trades. “Budgets are very high compared with most projects,” he says. “I work for clients who are looking for a singular, unique, custom projects. It affords me a lot of freedom in my design work."
David counts among his influences architects Richard Neutra, Luis Barragan, Robert A.M. Stern, and landscape architects Roberto Burle Marx, Beatrix Farrands, and Thomas Church. He has had the good fortune to work on two of Church's estates. "I am also heavily influenced by the bungalow architecture from the ’30s and ’40s I remember from my childhood in Southern California. These are the homes that my grandfather built.
"I believe that success in landscape architecture is contingent upon being a lifelong student of design and designers,” he continues. “It’s important to deeply learn your craft and become a professional. There is no substitute for talent, but talent itself cannot be fully expressed without a strong foundation of knowledge, the understanding of history, and those that have paved the way before you."
David cites professional golfer Ben Crenshaw as an influence on this scholastic focus to the profession. “Crenshaw realized very early that his natural talent alone would not carry him very far, so he became a great student of the game. He also sought out the best teacher he could find, the great Harvey Penick. The knowledge he gained through the teachings of Penick and personal study elevated him to the highest levels of his field. And an approach that every professional should strive to emulate, in my opinion."
"Atypical for me, I was rather late to adopting AutoCAD into my practice, not doing so until the late ’90s," David admits, "But since then I have made it a point to track and integrate computer-based design tools into my practice on a yearly basis. This is why I pulled the trigger so quickly on Land F/X.
"The biggest change in my practice through the years was moving from pencil to CAD, and the most profound change since the move to computer based design has been the addition of Land F/X. The integration of this program into my practice has been as big a leap as trading a lead holder for a mouse. I am still astonished on a daily basis at the speed with which I am able to work and the gain in productivity. A planting plan that used to take me 36 hours now takes 12, an irrigation plan that could take up to a week can now be finished in a couple of days.”
The real value of the software is a combination of “all the very small things it does,” he says. “The Slope tool is a good example. It is a small tool that tells you the degree of slope between different Spot Elevations (also a wonderful tool). In a grading and drainage plan, it’s incredibly useful to have that information instantly and not have to calculate each and every rise and fall. It may be a minor feature overall – but outstandingly useful. And it all plays into speed and time savings. The software is full of tools such as this.
“Just like in AutoCAD, I don’t use all of the power that Land F/X has,” he continues. “But the tasks that I use it for are vital to my particular practice and my ability to be efficient. If you’re running a landscape architecture office and you’re not using Land F/X, I have to wonder why. My projects are all negotiated set fees. If I can work faster, I make more money on an hourly basis. So it is imperative that I am as efficient as possible while still producing a great product for my clients. My preliminary designs are more graphic, the construction drawings are tighter, and since I can do all of this in less time, my profits are greater. That is why I use the software."
Jeremiah is an immensely talented person, and he is taking that talent and maximizing it. A lot of people have talent and don’t use it. He is a bright, inquisitive person who also has the drive that many creative people lack. It is a winning combination. I am also very fortunate to be able to count Jeremiah among my closest friends. His wit and insight are a constant source of delight for me, and I very much welcome every opportunity that we have to get together.
I am immensely impressed by his knowledge of programming. At times, I’ve requested features, and I would get them later that day in an email. He cares intently about interface design, the interoperability of all of the modules that make up Land F/X and ease of use. This makes the user experience as easy as CAD design can be. His attention to detail shows up every day for me in my process.
Most impressive to me is that he is willing to admit the stuff that he doesn’t know. For example, he is more gifted in programming than he is in business, but he seeks out great business people to talk to and learn from. He’s committed to gaining knowledge. His success has been a result of a great product and his ability to learn business on the fly and apply it to grow the company. As with any successful venture, there has also been a measure of good luck, but as my father told me many times, "Good luck is infatuated with the well prepared."
I was instantly impressed by David Fox at our first trade show appearance. He immediately saw the value of the software, and had several very intelligent questions. Never grilling or accusatory – it was clear that he was very impressed, and was just confirming that it could do some key tasks. He returned the second day of the trade show, saying that it was all he could think about. He had more questions at that point, but I beseeched him that his office was less than 30 minutes from my house, and that I’d just drive over and show him the software in depth.
One key memory I have from meeting him is that he brought his wife, a civil engineer, and that she was an active participant in the conversation. It was clear that he very much shared his profession with her, and that she was also heavily involved in going to tradeshows with him, helping him make decisions like large software purchases.
So I was instantly in admiration that in addition to being an intelligent, technologically savvy landscape architect, he was also a great human being and a good family man. His style of conversation is vibrant, full of insights, with an incredibly engaging conversational talent. I felt myself extremely lucky to be within driving distance of him, and we soon began having lunch together every few months. It has always been an incredible honor to hear how he talks about my software – much the same as he might talk about SketchUp, Photoshop, even Apple. Here he is talking in the same vein about this little piece of software created by just one person, and holding it on the same pedestal of some of the most revered software creations. And then it didn’t end there. He would invite me to his occasional get-togethers – for instance, his fifth wedding anniversary party. It was not until I also attended his father’s funeral when I learned the amazing source of his unending amiable nature — his dear father had a way of bringing others into the family and treating them as a family member. The sum of his business advice is worth vast sums of money. But of course there has also been personal advice, and even just a patient and understanding ear. I have an extremely short list of very near and dear friends, those I would take a bullet for … you name it. And David Fox is there at the top of the list.
At the very least, Monique Anderson must be one of very few landscape architects who have had a truly "floating office" (her words).
Each summer, she spends the bulk of her time traversing the aquatic reaches of the Last Frontier. Along with her husband, Blain, she runs a charter sailboat company that transports visitors to familiar and remote destinations along the Alaskan coast. Charter season runs from May to mid-September, essentially splitting her year between sailing between ports and designing landscapes.
The charter business was the eventual by-product of a conversation the couple had more than a decade ago in Anchorage, where they met. "We were talking about one of my old bosses, who had sailed around the world," she recalls. "At one point, we looked at each other and said, 'Let's go sailing!'"
They bought a 33-foot pilot house sailboat and essentially learned on the fly. "We knew a little, but that's when we taught ourselves to sail," she says. Monique had quit what she describes as a "perfectly great" job as Anchorage Parks Superintendent, so she was ready for the next adventure. "We sailed all over the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, and Southeast Alaska."
Those initial voyages gave the pair a taste of what Monique describes as "not knowing where you'll end up" (in both the literal and employment senses). Still, the realities of the Alaskan economy had already prepared her for a piecemeal living. "Most people in southeast Alaska do several different jobs," she says. "I work with a structural engineer who's also a salmon troller."
"Of course I am inspired by the natural world, and I take every opportunity to explore the wilds of Alaska," Monique says. "Practicing landscape architecture allows me to give back some of the feelings I experience in the wilds by incorporating them in everyday experiences. I am also very practical and design spaces and places that function for both people and natural processes."
"I fell into landscape architecture because I was dissatisfied with my chosen forestry major at Colorado State University," she says. "I was wandering the natural resource college halls and discovered beautiful drawings tacked up outside a door. I went inside to talk with the professor and felt like I had won the lottery. This is all really ironic since I was sensitive about getting Cs in art class growing up and then to choose a profession that involves drawing!"
In fact, it was the maritime life that led her to start her design and planning business in the first place. "We ended up in Sitka on the boat, and we liked it, but we weren't sure if we'd stay. After a winter here, we saw that there just weren't that many job opportunities. So I launched my sole proprietorship."
It just made sense to start her own business – it would provide a living while giving her the flexibility to keep sailing. "My clients have some understanding that I have some limitations in summer," she says. "I can usually squeeze in some light-duty stuff to keep the ball rolling."
This winter, the couple has plans to take their charter vessel – a roomy Catalina/Morgan 50-foot sailboat named BOB – to the Seattle area for maintenance. There, Monique will keep designing as if she's back home in Sitka. "I'll have a portable office again," she says. "I'll just use my phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot and crank away."
Monique Anderson describes herself as "the least egotistical designer I know. My approach for all projects is to listen, listen, listen. I love collaborating with other professions and artists as well. I'm also attracted to projects for the greater good. My designs are functional and subtle – never super flash. It works for Alaskans."
It wasn't long after starting her business that Monique came to know the horror that many contemporary landscape architects will recognize: She'd have to start using AutoCAD again. Although she already had her license and had logged 14 years as a landscape architect – her first job upon moving to Anchorage – she hadn't used AutoCAD in nearly a decade.
"My experience with CAD had been creating my own blocks and doing everything the manual way," she says. "One of my first assignments as a professional was to start using CAD; I hadn't used it in college. Back then, we had to share drawings in the office by moving floppy disks from computer to computer."
She came across the Land F/X booth by chance at the 2011 ASLA conference and thought that maybe the software could help ease her reentry into CAD. "I didn't know what I was getting, but I knew this was what I wanted," she says.
It wasn't long before she began to understand what she'd gotten into. "I saw pretty quickly how it automates a lot of the mundane things you used to have to do with traditional CAD projects," she recalls. "I realized, ‘All I have to do is start drawing, and it will fit on my sheet!'"
Land F/X has turned out to be a great solution for Monique's somewhat sporadic design schedule. "Some people probably use CAD every day. I'm a more intermittent CAD user. I only take on a few projects a year. It's nice for me because there are so many things that make it easy – I can drop it for a month and pick it back up."
The software proved particularly helpful in helping her establish how her designs would look in general – the often-dreaded office standards. "When starting a design business, one of the first questions you ask yourself is, ‘What are my standards going to be?'" she says. "With Land F/X, I was able to just start out with default, straight out of the box. Once I got more comfortable with it, I started to make tweaks: I'll make my leaders look like this, for example."
Besides the automatic plant scheduling and all the other "automated stuff," Monique has found considerable value in the detail system. "Managing the details and automatic scaling is awesome," she says. "I just place a detail template and draw my detail. I don't have to figure out all the scaling calculations."
She also appreciates the fact that Land F/X technical support is just a phone call away. "This is a huge deal, when you are working all alone," she says. "It makes me feel like I am part of a larger office."
More recently, she's gotten into presentation features such as color rendering and the SketchUp Connection, which she describes as "powerful" in its ability to translate a simple CAD drawing into a 3D model in SketchUp.
As an example, she cites a project she completed for a group of clients who were in their 90s. "They would never understand a plan-view drawing," she says. Using the SketchUp Connection, she created a quick initial rendering to show them. They loved it. "It was a 20-minute meeting – super easy. They got it right away."
In fact, SketchUp models can be a bit too effective at times, she says with a laugh. "It can be slightly dangerous to show a design in 3D early on. People think you're already done and construction ready."
Harrigan Centennial Hall
I was proud to link the Sitka Sea Walk with the Sitka Public Library expansion, creating a flexible outdoor public space along the waterfront for locals and tourists as well as integrating the building expansion with the recently completed parking lot improvements. Other features include detailed paving patterns and amenities that highlight Sitka's rich history. The ‘Ovoid' is the basic building shape in Tlingit carving. The form is called ‘Salmon Trouthead' and was a collaboration with Master Carver Tommy Joseph. – Monique Anderson
Kodiak Public Library
I was the landscape architect for a new 16,000-square-foot public library situated on a hill overlooking the center of Kodiak. The site features a rain garden, incorporation of a historic agriculture experiment station barn and bicycle shelter. I collaborated with Alaskan native artist Sven Haakanson in placing petroglyph boulders highlighting Kodiak specific histories within the site. I also worked extensively to protect a historically significant spruce tree grove and designed low-impact site drainage. This community-driven project provided collaboration on art and architecture to meet the local desire for a truly Kodiak facility. – Monique Anderson
Sitka Fine Arts Camp
Sheldon Jackson School is a National Historic Landmark. Designed in 1910–11 by Ludlow and Peabody, the site is the only formal campus plan in Alaska. Now more than 100 years later, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp installed the walkways that were never built to match the design intent of the original architects. Extensive historical document and photographic research went into the walkway layout, as well as new features like the outdoor patio that are compatible with the historic character defining features. – Monique Anderson
See the Anderson Land Planning website to view Monique Anderson's portfolio and learn more about her work as a landscape architect.
The Great Recession literally turned Nancy Knapp’s career inside out. After her career in luxury interior design hit a snag, she seized the opportunity to trade couches and throw pillows for river rocks and water-wise shrubs.
These days, Nancy is riding high as the owner of Weeds Garden & Interior Design in Mar Vista, California. Although she still has the word “interior” in her company name and will design the occasional indoor space when asked, she’s triumphantly redefined herself as a sought-after landscape designer and contractor with a focus on water conservation.
In fact, the City of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment has brought her on as a consultant to help homeowners ditch their water-guzzling lawns in favor of drought-tolerant gardens and rainwater-harvesting hardscapes. “It’s my job to show people that you can have a pretty garden that doesn't use a lot of resources,” she says.
Necessity Begets Reinvention
Nancy’s chance to turn her attention outdoors came courtesy of a friend who was renovating a hotel in downtown Los Angeles asked her to take a shot at the exterior redesign.
At the time, she’d been running Weeds as a side business for several years. (That was well before the television show Weeds and its main character, also coincidentally named Nancy, whose nefarious business venture has since led to “a few strange phone calls,” our Nancy giggles.) She’d studied horticulture (and literature, incidentally) prior to completing a degree in interior architecture design, and she felt qualified enough to give it a go. Plus, she says, the two disciplines aren’t that different. “Landscape design isn't like putting pillows in a room – it’s more of a moving target,” she says. “But in the end, it’s all forms, shapes, and color.”
She completed the job with little trouble, “and guess what – I made money.”
“Weeds are amazing. They’re really tough, and they sustain themselves. If you look at a weed, it’s just the right plant in the wrong place.”
Nancy’s next job, a lawn rebate project for the City of Santa Monica, simultaneously put her on the map as a landscape designer, sparked a long-term professional relationship with the City, and made her a Land F/X user. “Santa Monica has very strict requirements – especially for irrigation,” she says. “I needed Land F/X, and didn't know I needed Land F/X.”
An online search led her to the Land F/X website, and she got in touch with CEO Jeremiah Farmer. She requested a trial and went to work learning the software while also learning how to design an irrigation system.
“I had a lot of late nights,” she laughs. “But it was amazing. I’d learned AutoCAD in interior design school, and I’d done some landscape design in CAD, but just linework. With a little help from Jeremiah and the tutorials on the website, I taught myself Land F/X and did an irrigation plan. The tutorials were simple, clear, and easy.
“It looked as if I knew what I was doing because Land F/X made everything so clean and nice,” she continues. “It was my first time doing this type of project, and I wanted to do it properly. It was transformational in my business.”
Nancy submitted her plan for the site’s planting, hardscape, and irrigation to the head of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE). His reaction set the tone for the next chapter in her career. “He said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this good of a submittal for a rebate project.’”
She credits that site plan with helping her build “a good rapport” with OSE, as well as get her foot in the door as one of its six lawn rebate consultants. (More than 100 people applied, she says.)
OSE’s lawn rebate program provides heavily discounted advice on what to do with a yard within the city limits after removing a lawn. Homeowners pay just $50 for a two-hour consultation with Nancy or one of the five other City-sanctioned consultants. It’s not a job the City hands out to just anyone – according to Nancy, the exam to become a sustainable landscape professional for Santa Monica was considerably more difficult than the landscape contractor exam.
Since her first immersion into irrigation design, Nancy’s business has grown every year. (“If you’re doing the right thing, that’s what happens,” she says.) She even has a project manager now – “Isabel, a farm girl from France who really understands plants” – along with hardscape and irrigation crews. “What’s a little scary to me,” she muses, “is that I’m supporting 20 people with my business.”
Location, Location, Location
Why is the company called Weeds? “Well, I’m a bit of a rebel,” Nancy says. “Weeds are amazing. They’re really tough, and they sustain themselves. If you look at a weed, it’s just the right plant in the wrong place.”
By the same logic (and somewhat unfortunately), a lawn may be the weediest plant of all in a water-starved locale like Southern California. “Grass is a monoculture,” Nancy says. “As such, with its root structure, it depletes and compacts the soil, which prevents it from absorbing water and nutrients. Once someone removes a lawn, we’re trying to build the soil biology from the bottom up and create a sponge that holds water.”
With calls coming in each day from Santa Monica residents interested in replacing a lawn with drought-tolerant plants, Nancy is happy to combine her dual passions for ecological responsibility and aesthetics. “I want to show people that they can replace their lawn with a garden that’s sustainable and looks great.”
Learn more about:
– Jason Hilford
Steve Cook didn't originally set out to work for a large, international firm like Stantec, but it certainly works for him.
His first official landscape architecture job was at a small one-office firm called The Pekarek Group. He then moved to Crosby Mead Benton & Associates. That firm sold to The Keith Companies, which Stantec subsequently acquired.
“I kept my desk and chair,” he quips, “and changed the company name on my business card.”
Stantec provides a wide variety of architecture and engineering services from offices throughout North America, including its original office in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Now a project manager in Stantec’s Southern California region, Steve says he wouldn’t choose any other career path. His positive daily experience is enhanced by his colleagues’ inherent availability and professional diversity. “You can simply walk over to a civil engineer and discuss the project,” he says. “There’s no big process. If you need to move a sidewalk for a project, you have a quick, informative conversation and move the sidewalk.”
“At a large company, there are so many professional resources to draw from,” he continues. “In the Irvine office alone, there are building architects; surveyors; GIS and mapping specialists; hydrology and hydraulic specialists; civil engineers who specialize in retail, community development, and transportation; as well as an amazing team of marketing professionals. This mix allows us to create opportunities to put our vision to work for our communities’ future.”
Steve was a hands-on designer from day one. At age 14, he began helping his father design the family yard in Mission Viejo, California. “We started with what were, essentially, undesirable areas,” he says. “I’d do a design, fill areas with plants – many that I grew from cuttings – and make them desirable.”
By the time he started college, he’d been running a “mow and blow” gardening business with a high school friend for several years. “We got hold of some mowers and edgers, and started making money. It was enough to pay for gas to and from the beach, anyway.”
“Southern California is an arid area, where water is a valuable resource. As a region, we were essentially wasting it and using more than we should have been [before the innovations discussed above]. We all know now that water is a limited resource and we need to conserve for the future – for our children’s children.”
He began working for a general contractor “with a shovel, wheelbarrow, and jackhammer” during his coursework at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Eventually, he obtained his landscape contracting license and started a business called Ritz Landscaping, which saw him creating and implementing his own plans. “We had masonry, irrigation, hardscape, and lighting crews,” he says. “We worked all over North County San Diego.”
Soon married with two children, Steve saw the need for change. “My family moved me from contracting to design,” he says. “I was running a business and missing out on time with them. Weekdays and weekends went to the business. There was no time for coaching and barely enough time to make it to their games.”
Steve reprioritized. Putting his family first, he entered an apprenticeship with a San Diego landscape architect. “I had to be an apprentice for four years before I qualified for the test,” he recalls. “I was making less money, but I knew it would be worth it.”
He passed his LA qualification exam on the first try. A year later, he was designing sites for a civil engineering firm.
Steve is an observably outspoken champion of environmentally responsible and regionally appropriate landscape design. “Southern California’s plant palette has changed significantly,” he explains. “As a California-native enthusiast, I’ve seen a lot more community acceptance, with nurseries supplying the plants needed [for drought-tolerant design]. Now, we have access to shrubs and trees that are more appropriate to the regional climate.”
This movement has hinged on a change in social consciousness, he says. “It took a while to convince homeowners and the community-at-large to accept something other than green lawns and hedges. Some communities have accepted the change faster than others.”
Innovations in irrigation design have also factored heavily. “We’ve seen so many technological advances and efficiencies,” Steve explains. “When I started, it seems the hardware was ‘archaic.’ Now, we have smart controllers, as well as matched precipitation rates of rotors, rotators, and spray heads.”
Steve describes this phenomenon as both economically and socially driven, emphasizing the importance of educating a public that “historically didn’t seem to care about irrigation, as much as having a green lawn.
“Southern California is an arid area, where water is a valuable resource,” he continues. “As a region, we were essentially wasting it and using more than we should have been [before the innovations discussed above]. We all know now that water is a limited resource and we need to conserve for the future – for our children’s children.”
Steve’s design philosophy also accounts for some often-overlooked Southern California residents. “Maintaining habitat for native wildlife is important,” he says. “When I have the opportunity to design from a clean palate, I design for birds and butterflies, using natives, as well as some non-natives, that the butterflies can use on their migration path.
“Designers who work with me share that philosophy,” he says. “A lot of the tenets of being good stewards of land are ingrained in landscape architects. We want to learn the best possible techniques so we can be better stewards of the land and then put those techniques into practice. It’s exciting to help make it better for future generations.”
“As a contractor, I did everything on tracing paper using straight edges and T-squares,” Steve recalls. “My brother, a civil engineer, told me about this new thing called AutoCAD. It came on 5.25-inch floppy disks. When I saw it, I knew it was an opportunity to get my foot in the door because landscape architects were not using it yet.”
He began teaching himself AutoCAD and LandCAD in 1987. Soon, he was training companies in CAD design.
This early embrace of CAD technology led to Stantec’s early adoption of CAD and, eventually, Land F/X. “Stantec was the second company to get a Land F/X license, and I helped make that happen,” he says.
Steve admits he harbored some initial skepticism upon meeting Land F/X CEO and developer Jeremiah Farmer at the Land F/X booth at a 2004 conference. “I’d already been well exposed to CAD as a landscape design tool,” he says. “I was excited, but not positive it would stay around. After talking with Dave (Farmer’s father and company co-owner), I learned he was a Cal Poly graduate. I realized, here’s an actual landscape architect running the company, with his son, who’s a tech head.” He describes Jeremiah as “one of the most interesting people I know.”
Implementing the software was easy, Steve says. “We were the landscaping department back then, so we controlled our budget. I thought, ‘This is going to save some time, make some money, and get a one-up on the competition.’”
Regardless, the prospect of other firms adopting the software was also attractive. “I’ve been in the industry a long time,” he says. “I know many landscape architects and irrigation designers. I figure the bigger base a software company has, the better it gets. That’s been the case with Land F/X.”
The software soon revealed its value. “It paid for itself on the first few projects,” he says. “Now, I can’t imagine designing without it. It’s such an integral tool. I used to ‘count water’ manually – memorizing the GPM for each Rain Bird head, for example. I haven’t counted water for years.”
As Land F/X grew into the industry standard, Steve became a welcome ambassador for the company. “Almost everyone I know is using it. I like to think it’s because they’ve heard me talk about it so much,” he laughs. “I get calls from people in Maine or Minnesota asking about it and saying, ‘Someone gave me your number.’”
Steve’s natural ability as a technology ambassador extends to his own company, where he serves as the organization’s de facto Land F/X guru. It’s a perfect mix – his laidback and endlessly optimistic personality, combined with a sprawling international corporation that can often take a while to implement changes. But with 57 licenses in 16 offices throughout 3 countries, it certainly seems to be catching on. And what a kindred combination: On the wall in every Stantec office lobby is the impressive timeline showing how Don Stanley grew his one-man engineering company into a world-class firm with more than 15,000 employees.
See the Stantec website for more information:
According to Jeff Hutchins, landscape architects tend to fall into two categories: design-oriented and technical-oriented. A principal at Mia Lehrer + Associates (MLA), Hutchins sees himself as the latter – in his words, the one who is “just trying to make sure the project gets built well.”
Being a technical-minded designer has perhaps made Hutchins an ideal candidate to test Land F/X at the Los Angeles–based firm. He started using CAD in the early 1990s. “It was pretty easy,” he says. In the ’90s and early 2000s, he began to create smart blocks for irrigation heads and plants, but “at the elementary level.”
Then, in 2006 or 2007, he recalls, an interviewee for a job in his office told him about Land F/X. “I’d seen it in the trade magazines before that, but I thought it was another bell-and-whistle kind of thing.”
When he tested the software, it appeared to be a perfect match for his workflow. “I noticed immediately that it took care of the mundane stuff,” he says. “It flows with my thought process with how to put together drawings and think ahead to the finished product.”
“It was a lot for me to learn at first, but the learning curve leveled out rather quickly,” he says. “It has so many options and things to do. I learned it first and taught it to everyone else in the office.”
“It flows with my thought process with how to put together drawings and think ahead to the finished product.”
Land F/X did away with the tedium of drawing and editing individual plants and irrigation equipment, Hutchins says. “When I’m going through schematic design and design development, I’m already using it. By the time I get to the construction documents, I’m finished – no need go back and redraw everything.” These days, he uses Land F/X for everything – planting, irrigation, construction, demo, and water use calculations. The software allows a more seamless flow between the design and construction phases of a project.
When asked to name his favorite feature of the software, Hutchins admits that he has yet to use them all. He then mentions the Nuke drawing-cleanup tool. “We made it an AutoCAD standard here,” he says.
“That’s music to our ears,” says Land F/X CEO and developer Jeremiah Farmer, who developed the tool to automate the cleanup process in response to the glut of tech-support calls that originate from corrupt CAD drawings.
Hutchins first encountered landscape architecture while attending Cal State Northridge. He’d entered college to study music. He continues to play bass and tuba to this day. His credits include the soundtrack for the videogame Falling Elephants (free download). His music major required him to enroll in an art class, so he enrolled in architectural drafting. “I never knew what landscape architecture was until I took that class,” he says. He transferred to Cal Poly Pomona, where he could major in landscape architecture.
His practical nature soon took over. By the time he graduated in 1990, he’d already worked at a small design-build firm for two years. He earned a C-27 landscaping contractor’s license and set out completing installations for a variety of clients.
The client connections Hutchins built as a contractor set the tone for what evolved into his relationship-based approach to navigating the industry. “I’ve never had to make a portfolio or resume,” he says. “I’ve done it all through talking to people and knowing people.”
Hutchins’ propensity to build connections also helped him weather the various downturns his industry has faced in recent decades. “I’ve survived some of the recessions just by talking to people,” he says, adding that working in an office that takes on a diverse range of projects didn’t hurt either. Although he wishes his industry could do more to embrace the relationship between irrigation and landscape design, Hutchins says he’s happy that landscape architects have become more integral to the design and construction processes. “In school, we learned about using drought-tolerant, native plants and responsible stormwater management long before this drought or recent requirements that stormwater be managed on site. Now those things are required by code.”
Hutchins’ intent focus on bringing design into the construction phase is well suited for the large-scale projects he oversees for Mia Lehrer + Associates. Examples include the proposed professional football stadium in Inglewood, the South Los Angeles Wetland, and Vista Hermosa Park – Los Angeles’ first new park in a century. (Keep reading for detailed descriptions of these projects.)
Hutchins credits Vista Hermosa as the impetus that helped him land his current position. He’d spent much of the 1990s contracting for a handful of other landscape architects, including Mia Lehrer, who at the time ran a much smaller-scale firm than today’s Mia Lehrer + Associates.
The project was taking place on Los Angeles Unified School District grounds and required review by the notoriously stringent Division of the State Architect (DSA). A mutual acquaintance suggested that Lehrer hire Hutchins to assist with the logistical elements of the site. Lehrer agreed, and Hutchins was on the job. Hutchins landed the job – and continued on as a full-time employee – largely because he had enough experience to “finish the drawings, handle the permitting, and get it built,” he says.
"I distinctly remember presenting Land F/X to Mia Lehrer + Associates in May 2007," says Land F/X CEO Jeremiah Farmer. "They had a great group of very energetic designers, and the reception was very warm and inviting. Particularly, they were just beginning work on a very large park project and were looking to Land F/X for assistance on it. They had heard of Land F/X from one of their designers who had come from Disney. I remember their desire to make this park as good as possible, and they had some interesting ideas. The park was was on the grounds of a former military base, so it really struck a chord with me. I really felt their energy in that this is the really the height of landscape architecture here in America – there are just not very many opportunities for such a historic moment, something that will be enjoyed by generations of families, but also emblematic of investing in our communities instead of our military. And I remember several things they brought up at that presentation, that Land F/X still couldn’t do. But I assured them that this park meant a lot to me, and anything they needed in the software would get engineered."
Here are a few flagship projects Jeff Hutchins has managed or helped design for Mia Lehrer + Associates (MLA):
This project epitomizes the need for Hutchins’ brand of pragmatism. The landowner is Stan Kroenke, the majority owner of the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League (NFL). Kroenke appears to have designs on developing a facility that will accommodate his teams return to the West Coast from its former home in St. Louis, Missouri. (The team had previously moved to St. Louis from its former home in Anaheim, just down the road, in 1994.) Hutchins' employer, MLA, is in charge of the project’s sizable landscape architecture component.
The 237-acre space, formerly the site of Hollywood Park, includes plans for streetscapes, parks, and now the stadium itself. Hutchins recalls when the project morphed all but overnight from a comparatively simple development project into the current incarnation when Kroenke purchased the site in 2014. The land lies within the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport. To meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s height requirements, the addition of an NFL-caliber stadium suddenly required a 100-foot excavation.
“We were already involved in the development on the site,” Hutchins says matter-of-factly. “Then the land sold, and we started over.”
Previously a municipal bus yard, this 9-acre green space in the city of Los Angeles combines an urban park with a manmade wetland and a stormwater treatment facility. MLA designed a site that allows for wildlife habitat and public access while also treating storm runoff from a 525-acre watershed. The constructed wetland collects urban runoff from an adjacent parking lot, treats the runoff, and then releases it back to the storm drain system, clean.
The first new park in Los Angeles in a century, Vista Hermosa occupies the site of an abandoned oilfield in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s designed to mimic the wildlife habitat in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains. MLA’s design features a stormwater system that captures 95% of runoff through recharge or irrigation. The system irrigates turf in the park from below while cleaning stormwater and recharging the local groundwater supply with leftover water.
See Mia Lehrer's website for more information: