Bringing It All Back Home
Landscape Architects Say More People Are Investing in Their Yards
It’s a concept that gained traction almost a decade ago, in the wake of 9/11: the ‘staycation,’ the desire of homeowners to cut down on travel and instead invest in their homes. Well, area landscape architects are hearing that word again, but for different reasons, namely a lingering recession and high gas prices. In such times, they say, people are more likely to use their vacation savings on something more permanent. That’s good news for a landscaping industry starting to bloom after a couple of years in the rough.
Gas prices have been on the rise for months, with airline fares following suit. That has plenty of people on edge, from would-be vacationers who might stay home this year to the many tourism-reliant businesses in Western Mass.
But there’s a silver lining for one group — landscape architects, who are increasingly hearing that magic word ‘staycation,’ along with rumblings that homeowners might use their vacation funds this year to create a bit of an oasis at home.
“It’s not just the middle- to lower-income people; I think that applies to everyone,” said Bill St. Clair, president of St. Clair Landscaping and Nursery in Hampden. “Let’s face it, people are watching the dollars they spend, and they’re looking to get the most bang for their buck. And I see more people staying home this year, especially since they’re saying gas could hit $5 by midsummer.”
Stephen Roberts, president of Stephen A. Roberts Landscape Architecture & Construction in Springfield, is hearing the same chatter.
“Staycation is the catchphrase — stay at home and enjoy your house; have people over and entertain without the hassles of traveling. It’s huge,” he said. “We’re really focusing on that — creating a nice environment for people at home.”
The stay-at-home trend rivals what the industry saw in the years immediately following 9/11, St. Clair said, but it’s re-emerging for a different reason, namely lingering anxiety over the economy mingled with pain at the pump. These factors, he and others told BusinessWest, are persuading families to reprioritize their extra dollars, putting them toward something more permanent than a week at a resort or on a cruise.
“In the past two years, our industry has been hit as hard as some other industries,” Roberts said, specifically citing the struggles of general contractors and those involved in moving real estate.
“People aren’t purchasing new homes; they’re staying where they are and investing whatever money they have into their homes, for their personal enjoyment,” he continued. “I see that continuing to happen as long as the housing market isn’t doing much. And I see our industry benefiting from people renovating their homes and fixing them up.”
When it comes to outdoor spaces, some types of improvements have become especially desirable.
“Outdoor firepits and outdoor, built-in cooking areas are really big,” Roberts said. “Water features are still pretty popular, but people are going more toward urns and sculptural fountains as opposed to fish ponds, just as a way to add quality and the ambience of water without the higher maintenance of a fish pond. Outdoor lights and accent lighting are also gaining momentum with people.”
St. Clair has seen some of the same trends. “We did a good amount of firepits last year,” he said. “In talking to our clients and prospective clients, their outlook was, ‘we’re going to spend more time at home.’ That was helpful to us. People were staying home, and they wanted to fix up their palaces, so to speak. We were doing lots of firepits and water features. We rode that for a good part of the year.”
Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscapes in Easthampton (see story, page 30), also reports an uptick in homeowners asking for both water and fire features, mingled with hardscapes and different plant materials; he’s also found interest in audio installation outdoors to create additional atmosphere for staycationers.
One growing request, Roberts said, has a back-end economic — and ecological — benefit.
“Rainwater harvesting is another trend that’s hitting our industry. Instead of sending water down the street, you keep it on your property and use it for your irrigation system and general outdoor watering,” he said, noting that other ‘green’ trends are on the rise in landscaping as well.
For instance, some clients, mainly those with larger properties, are converting some portions of their yard to meadows instead of covering every inch with sod or seed. “By making them naturalized areas,” Roberts said, “you reduce the maintenance of the turf; you cut it a couple times a year and add groupings of native shrubs. That reduces rain runoff, and you’re not using as much ferilizer or chemicals.”
The Landscape Management Network blog (lmnblog.com) places such efforts in a general category called ‘ecoscaping,’ which involves making use of green solutions to improve the look of the landscape without sacrificing the health of the environment.
“Some examples of green solutions,” the blog explains, “include rainwater harvesting; a self-contained water feature that recycles the same water; decorative hardscapes, such as more patios, paths, and decks that reduce the need for water and pesticides; retaining walls, which work to reduce runoff; as well as erosion from household chemicals leaking into the yard.”
Roberts said he embraces these trends. “Landscaping makes a huge difference, and it’s up to us to promote these ways of being kinder to our environment.”
Work and Play
While the business of residential landscaping seems to be moving in the right direction, progress on the commercial side has been more sluggish, said Steve Corrigan, president of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare in Chicopee, which performs about 90% of its work in the commercial sector.
“We were down last year; we had projects on the books for one to three years prior to that, and once they wrapped up, we didn’t have a lot of projects to fill the bucket,” he told BusinessWest. “If you talk to any of us in the commercial trades, we’re all in the same boat. It’s the same story; competition is so fierce and margins have gotten very low, and it takes more to fill that bucket the way you need to.
“Entering this year, though, I’m cautiously optimistic. We have a bigger backlog than we had in 2010, and I actually have a larger backlog for 2012 projects than 2011 projects,” he added, explaining that landscapers are among the last tradespeople in on a new-construction project, so it might be two years or more between the bid process and actually performing the work.
In the meantime, Corrigan said, “we do some minimal residential design-build work, and we’re seeing a little uptick in that from last year. I’m not worried; I’m optimistic that this year will be better than 2010. But I still think it’ll be even better in a year or two.”
Roberts is anticipating a growth year, too, and St. Clair said 2011 is off to a busy start just based on calls from customers whose landscapes were damaged by the harsh winter, or who have discovered drainage issues. “I think the spring forecast this year is a little bit different than last year due to the winter we had.”
Overall, he said, last year was slightly better than the year before, when the recession was at full force, and he’s encouraged by what he’s hearing this spring from residential customers, even though he knows the industry is not moving at full speed yet.
“People are being cautious with their money because of the economy,” he said. “But you can’t get bored when you’re constantly being challenged. We have work on the books, but it’s been too wet to start. Spring is here, but Mother Nature isn’t letting us out yet. If we can get the weather in our favor, we can get rolling.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]