Outdoor Design

Some people got it and some people don’t. Some people are naturals and others struggle. Some people have to draw it out and some go by the seat of their pants. “What is it?”  It’s the ability to visualize, to see the end result of an outdoor design, to know what is going to work and more importantly to know what is not going to work. After over four decades of being in the business of outdoor design I have seen great successes and miserable failures. Just to give you some visuals one of the best designs I have seen was a multi functioned space with an outdoor dining area nestled along side a water feature creating a natural setting and one of the worst was stone columns with the home address illuminated in red letters accidentally creating an eerie entryway.

Now lets get something on the table right away. Yes a lot of choices in design are about personal taste and you know what they say about taste – some people got it and some people don’t. Your taste may not be my taste, but in the world of design it is all about creating what is right for the property with the customer’s taste and style. Everyone wants their signature style on his or her designs but listening to the clients and having the flexibility to create something original that feels like it belongs on the property is the goal. For any of you that deal with the client directly and are in the consulting end of designing there are some struggles along the way to a successful end result. One of the biggest struggles is that the client can’t visualize the project. They can’t see what it is going to look like. This is why you were called in the first place – to help put the pieces together so the client can make sure they are going to get what they want. Not to throw a wrench in all of this linear thinking but there are many clients who have no idea what they want. They are nervous, frustrated and confused. This temperament will always affect every decision along the way, so I have some tips on how to work with this type of personality. We will get to that later on.

Designing and visualizing comes down to asking the right questions before you start creating. Without planning ahead you will be wasting time and money and your frustration level will get very high. So lets get that first meeting nailed down.

  1. What Don’t You Like?

The answers here are crucial. Customers always want to know if you are listening to them. When you remember what they don’t like and the final design reveals that to them, you will have a client for life. It is your attention to detail that always gets repeat business. I had this new client who traveled the world as an international lawyer. He wanted a 120 foot long double faced wall along the front of his home. He wanted Round Fieldstone mixed with other wall stones and Used Granite columns. He did not want the wall to appear brand new and too rustic. He wanted a laser-beam straight line on the front of the wall as he stood at the end of his driveway looking down the 120 linear feet. I must have tightened the mason line 10 times a day on that job. At the end of the month of work he stood at the end of his driveway staring at the front line of the wall gave us the thumbs up. He became my best client for repeat business.

  1. What is the function of this space?

How are you going to use it? Cooking? Dining? Relaxing? The answers here are the building blocks to every decision. Most of us don’t think about function but all good design is based on it. It seems very simple and most of the time it is, but every once in awhile you have to design a multi-functioned space. These spaces have cooking, dining and relaxing all in one area. You need to know how much square footage is needed on say a patio of a multi-functioned space. Also you need to know how many people will be using this space. There are yearly family reunions or summer open houses so this space has to be designed to accommodate these needs. Usually a multi-functioned space has to start around 500 – 600 sq. ft. of patio. One time I designed for a single woman who loves to cook but she would only have four to 5 people over at a time. Her patio was 150 sq. ft. and it fit her lifestyle perfectly.

  1. What is the budget?

This is the last thing that gets asked once the first quote is put together based on the questions above. At this point you will know the size of the area, the products the client likes and the needs of the design. Budget is the word no one wants to talk about until they have to. Or sometimes a client will start with budget and it gets in the way of you figuring out how to design something original that suits them. There are always other choices for products to change the budget. For example someone falls in love with Travertine for their patio. Travertine is in the upper end of pricing. If their minds are set on Travertine then the size of the area and all the other pieces to the design are based on that. So if the Travertine is pushing the budget then the idea of “Phasing the Project” can come into play. So much is done in the spring then the fall and over several months the overall design is completed. There have been clients who “Phase Out” a design over three years, but after three years they have exactly what they want and they didn’t strap themselves financially.

Of course along the way there are many more questions to ask so that you can complete the best design for the client, but I have found these three to be staples that never steer me wrong.

Having grown up in the stone industry in the 60’s and 70’s I have witnessed the changes in design and installation procedures to today. In our family stone masonry business I never heard the words “Outdoor Design” or “Outdoor Living” or “Hardscapes”. I knew each job by their simplicity – a patio, a walkway, a brick/stone grill, concrete pool decks etc…but little did I know that these simpler

projects were going to be the gateway into the multi billion dollar industry of Outdoor Design we have today. What is at our fingertips today is unbelievable. There are software programs where you can design on a computer and several of them are free. The visuals with photos on our phones, the internet, Pinterest and social media are beneficial for everyone involved. The concrete products that have changed walls and paver installations are endless in colors and textures. Growing up with all natural stone and brick was a far cry from what we have today, but that purist background has enhanced my designs where I blend the two worlds together. The world of Natural Stone, Brick and Concrete Products. So here are some Do’s and Don’ts in the designing.

Do not do everything in concrete. A concrete segmented wall with a concrete wall cap and a concrete paver for the patio and a concrete border for an edge …see where I’m going? It’s all concrete. I don’t care if there are great color blends and textures. All concrete makes a home feel like a display area at a store.

Do mix concrete products with other products. For example in the above description putting a Bluestone Cap on that concrete segmented wall and a Cobblestone Border along the edge of the concrete paver patio add just enough of natural products to enhance the concrete products. The two belong together and this example won’t kill the budget.

Do not have more then 3 products in one area. For example if you have a Granite Stone tread for your steps with a Stone Thin Veneer for the front of the steps and a front wall, then try to keep this overall design within 3 products. Granite for the treads and platform of the steps, a different Veneer Stone for the risers of the steps and you can do the same Veneer Stone for the front wall OR you can do a new blend on the wall with some of the Veneer from the risers of the step and blend in another Veneer Stone to create a Wall Veneer that picks up some of the step Veneer.

Do add more Hardscape products to your designs like Boulders for the look of columns at the end of walls instead of building square columns with stone caps, or add brick in a dry set for walkways, patios and borders. Sometimes us masons stay in the masonry world and the landscapers stay in the landscape/hardscape world …when the two meet together is when we see some incredible designs.

Whether you have the natural ability to visualize how a project will look in the end or you struggle with the whole process, designing is truly about you understanding what you have at your fingertips and how to use all of it to create something you and your client take pride in.

Words & Photos: Derek Stearns

About The Author:

Derek is a 2nd generation stonecutter and designer.  Growing up in the stone industry he was under the tutelage of his father Arthur Stearns. He also co-hosted DIY Networks “Rock Solid” and “Indoors Out” two national T.V. shows focusing on stonework and outdoor design filming over 200 episodes. Today Derek takes part of the management team at Plymouth Quarries in Hingham, MA., where his father started as a stonecutter in the 1950’s.