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Demand Grows for Low-maintenance Backyard Sanctuaries

Rick Miller

Rick Miller, president of R.J.M. Landscaping

When Cathy Hartley attended the 20th annual Four Chamber Table Top Expo and Business Networking Event last month at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House in Holyoke, she heard the same sentiment expressed repeatedly.

“People said they were tired of winter; they are starved for warm weather and fresh air and wanted to talk about gardening and projects outside,” recalled the wife of Dan Hartley of Hartley Bros. Landscaping Inc. in Westfield, who works in the business.

Dave Graziano of Graziano Gardens in East Longmeadow also believes that people are unusually eager to enjoy the warm weather they hope is soon to come. “The winter seemed so long. There was a lot of snow, and many people have cabin fever,” he said. “They want to get outside, work in their yards, and plan new projects, which may bring an increase in business.”

His brother, Mark Graziano, added that demand for custom-designed outdoor living spaces has increased in recent years. “People are sitting outside, entertaining, and enjoying their property. They’re spending money on their yards instead of moving,” he told BusinessWest.

They’re also looking for creative designs that reflect their taste and personality.

“People don’t want a typical deck or patio anymore — they want something different; they want to make their yards into an entertainment space with a seating area, bar, and firepit,” said Dan Hartley. “Some even have pergolas built so the area looks like an outside living room. They put their big-screen TVs outside and have low-voltage lighting installed around the steps.”

The trend has led to an upswing in the landscape-design business, and local businesses say the spring and summer seasons look promising. In fact, Rick Miller is already booked until June.

“I think we’ll be very busy based on what we have already scheduled and the calls that are coming in,” said the president of R.J.M. Landscaping in Westfield, adding that clients began contacting him in February. “But we’ll be backlogged because of the cold weather. We can’t work until the frost ends.”

Design work requested today ranges from removing old shrubs and replanting new ones to tearing down existing decks and replacing them with new materials; from creating patios made from pavers in a wide range of colors and shapes to transforming entire front and backyards into distinctive spaces. Many people choose to have the work done over several years, but fireplaces and firepits, sitting walls, outdoor kitchens, and unique plantings are in high demand. And although budgets vary, local experts say all jobs share two common denominators: the finished product must be low-maintenance and must be sustainable.

Dave, Chris, and Mark Graziano

Dave, Chris, and Mark Graziano (left to right) say people don’t want to spend their free time working on their yards.

“People don’t have the time to garden and don’t want to be a slave to their yard; they also want to go organic. They don’t want to use chemicals or plant anything that will have an insect problem. They want perfect plants,” said Chris Graziano, adding that new varieties of perennials, shrubs, and ornamental grasses, which require cutting only once a year, make it easy to meet the request.

For this issue and its focus on landscape design, BusinessWest takes a look at what has changed in this industry as well as some local projects that have transformed homeowners’ yards into restful retreats.

Sought-after Designs

Design plans often start with a place to entertain, and Miller said patios have increased in popularity in recent years. “Decking materials have come a long way, but you can do a lot more with natural stone and pavers in terms of flexibility and creativity.”

Mark Graziano added that patios are more permanent than decks, which don’t age well due to harsh New England weather. “People want to spend money on things that will last as long as possible,” he told BusinessWest.

But some homeowners do want to keep their decks. “Sometimes an existing deck has dried, splintered, and aged, and we have to remove the material and rebuild it,” Dave added, noting that they use composite materials that can be cleaned with a hose.

In addition, fencing is being replaced by plants, trees, and shrubs that don’t need to painted or repaired. “We do a lot of buffer plantings to create privacy, using a mix of evergreens, shade and ornamental trees, and flowering shrubs,” he said.

Dan Hartley said tall bushes and trees such as Little King River Birch, which grow to 15 or 20 feet, can be strategically placed to create the look and feel of a natural oasis. “You can create great scenery and cut down the noise from busy roads and glare from headlights with them.”

Dan and Cathy Hartley

Dan and Cathy Hartley say people are spending money to create attractive landscapes that allow them to relax and entertain in their yards.

Miller said the first step in designing a landscape is to ask the homeowner a series of questions, which include how the space will be used, how many people they expect to entertain, and how often they plan to use the area.

He typically presents the homeowner with several concepts, via blueprints or three-dimensional renderings. He said many clients request outdoor kitchens, which can be as simple as installing a built-in grill, or much more elaborate, with sinks, refrigerators, and storage space set into stonework beneath a pavilion or shingled roof.

“A lot depends on peoples’ budgets,” Miller said. “Some projects we’ve done have cost upwards of $50,000.”

The hottest feature, however, is fire. “Last year, every job we did had a firepit,” he noted. “Some clients opt for gas, but most prefer to burn wood. They like to hear it crackle and want to enjoy the sound of an old-fashioned fire.”

Cathy Hartley agreed. “Sitting and staring at flames is mesmerizing and relaxing,” she said.

Dan said many clients also request outdoor fireplaces. “We’ve built them with raised hearths and stone mantels, using concrete blocks or pavers in different colors. We’ve also done inlays with pavers that look like rugs in front of the fireplaces.”

In the past, many people wanted ponds installed in their yards. But Miller said the trend is diminishing. “We’ve removed ponds in the last few years because people are tired of the upkeep and maintenance they require.”

Still, water is soothing, and waterfalls that cascade into a bed of stone or bubble out of rocks have proven to be a viable alternative. “It all comes down to low maintenance. People don’t want to spend their time trimming bushes, weeding, or taking care of their yards,” he reiterated. “Most of what we put in is as low-maintenance as you can get.”

The concept even extends to plantings in front of a home and throughout the rest of the yard. Ornamental grasses in different colors and textures, dedicuous shrubs, evergreens, and a few perennials can create an interesting mix.

“We rarely do formal plantings with tightly trimmed shrubs that have to be constantly trimmed to maintain their shape,” Miller said. “Things have come a long way since the ’70s and ’80s.”

The use of pavers around pools is also more popular than concrete, due to the ease of repair if a pipe breaks, as well as the longevity of the product. “Plus, pavers also allow for more design possibilities, due to the variety of colors, textures, and bandings available,” he said.

Far Afield

Landscape designs sometimes include three-season rooms that lead to a patio. “The room becomes an extension of their home; people can sit outside, barbeque, and enjoy the sun, but if it gets too hot or buggy, they can move to the porch where there is shade and a fan,” Cathy Hartley said. “It offers homeowners the best of both worlds.”

But budgets are the trump card in determining what is done, and many homeowners are taking time to research possibilities before contacting a landscape designer.

“They’re spending their money wisely and are also spending more time thinking about what they want than they did four or five years ago,” Dan Hartley said.

A custom design can change the look of a home. Dan spent two years creating elements for a bungalow with a sloping yard built in the middle of a hay field. A retaining wall, trees, flowers, and perennials made it appear as if it was in the woods, and a native stone wall erected near the road added to the charm. “The wall looked like it had always been there,” he noted, adding that clients often have work done in stages because their ideas continue to evolve.

Mark Graziano said the younger generations are putting more focus on curb appeal. “They want their front yards to look nice.”

But although jobs are diverse and work may be plentiful, many landscapers in recent years have had to travel far afield to keep busy. “We go all over New England,” Miller said. “We were recently in the Berkshires, on the Vermont border, and in the eastern part of the state. Our work used to be more local, but in the past two years, we have to go farther to get it.”

Dan Hartley agreed. “We are definitely going farther west,” he said, adding that, since clients are more educated, more time is also required for the planning process.

His business has had its ups and downs in the last few years. “We had times where we were really busy, then would be slow for two weeks. But it leveled out during the past year, and I think this will be a really good year,” he said.

Cathy Hartley concurred. “We have a lot of clients who have already lined up work,” she said.

Chris Graziano said his company had a great fall, with jobs that included some large commercial projects. However, change has also occurred in that arena that involve environmental considerations.

“We’ve put in rain gardens to accommodate water runoff,” Mark Graziano said, citing an example.

The Grazianos take pride in the fact that one of the brothers is at every job site from start to finish. “But in the past two or three years, we’ve had to work a little harder to maintain the flow of business, and we are traveling farther and expanding our territory,” Mark said.

Sunny Forecast

Hartley Bros. will hold free demonstrations on April 26 that include how to properly install a patio and/or retaining walk, how to plant trees, and how to design container gardens.

But Dan, Cathy, and other landscapers say most homeowners want the work done for them and will line up for it. “People are really looking forward to spring, and there is a project that fits every budget,” Miller said.

The Grazianos agree. “People just want us to make their yards beautiful,” Chris said.

“Every house is different, and we like to get creative,” Dave added.

And with a growing array of hardscapes, low-maintenance plants, and new products, the options are endless, making it possible to design and build cozy, sustainable outdoor living spaces where people can relax, entertain, and enjoy the beauty of nature in their own backyards.

Landscape Design Sections
Ladies Landscaping Enjoys Steady Regional Growth

Ladies Landscaping

Women run the show and do most of the labor at Ladies Landscaping.

Candice Demers worked in real estate, but craved a change. And she loved being outside.

As it turned out, she was already helping two friends — Tiffany Brunelle and James Brink, who both worked for Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare in Chicopee — do landscaping jobs for family members and friends on the side. They liked working together and decided to launch their own business.

“I realized that I really enjoyed doing that more than selling real estate,” she said, adding that the skills necessary for each career aren’t mutually exclusive. “I’ve always been a visual person — everything for me is very visual. When I sold real estate, I could walk into a house and picture it all redone and figure out what it would cost somebody to redo it. I took that with me — but now I can design very intricate patios, things like that.”

The three partners — Demers and Brunelle are currently co-owners of the South Hadley-based firm, while Brink still works for the company — named their venture Ladies Landscaping. And for good reason.

“It’s primarily women, and a couple of men; women are doing the actual labor,” Demers said. “Tiffany runs all the equipment — bobcats, excavators. And we hit the ground running.”

Perhaps surprisingly so. In their first year, 2007, the partners picked up numerous clients right away, and they’ve tripled their annual revenue since then.

“When we started, we didn’t have any money; we borrowed money from a friend to buy our first pickup truck, and we paid him back in one month,” Demers said. “From there, we just grew. We have five trucks, two bobcats, four trailers. It’s crazy.”

At its seasonal peak, the company employs about seven people, most of whom have been around from the beginning, or close to it.

“We do patios, fireplaces, retaining walls, sprinkler systems, plantings, fence installs, lawns — we’re capable of doing just about anything,” she said, adding that Amherst College is the company’s most consistent client, accounting for about one-third of its work. It also recently renovated the outdoor space at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House in Holyoke. To stay busy in the winter, the crew typically flips a house. “They can do everything except plumbing and electrical. We also plow in the winter.”

Learning Curve

Demers took her new career seriously when she joined her partners in more than a side hobby. “They were both good at it — they were phenomenal — but when I became interested, I learned, I went to classes, just to get the structural things down, make sure I was doing everything correctly. I always had the visual part of it.”

So she has a particular satisfaction in seeing a job completed.

“For me, the best thing is the end result we get to see on a daily basis. Something as simple as going and pruning somebody’s shrubs, mulching beds — the difference from when we get there to when we leave eight hours later is substantial. Every day, we get to accomplish something we can actually see.”

Ladies Landscaping has one crew that does only construction and another that does only maintenance.

“The construction crew is always very busy, patio after patio after patio,” Demers said, adding that features like firepits and water structures have been, and remain, popular. And that scratches her creative itch. “I get excited when someone wants a waterfall — not for monetary reasons, but because building a waterfall comes completely from my mind. I can’t draw it; I can’t say this rock’s going to be here, and this rock’s going to be here. And every single one is different.”

Demers doesn’t do as much as labor as she used to, but she visits the company’s job sites constantly to make sure everything is proceeding smoothly. “I approach the job like I’m the homeowner — I check in the morning, then the afternoon, so I know what questions the homeowner may ask when they come home, and I can say, ‘yes, this will happen tomorrow, and everything is going to be fine.’

“I think that’s the difference with us,” she added. “Not just that we’re primarily women, but that I really will come onto every job. I might see something that could look even better than it was originally designed, and I’ll make a change for no other reason than the customer gets the best function and the best aesthetics in that space. That’s really the most important thing for me.”

Like other lansdscape-design firm owners, Demers has noticed a trend over the past decade toward people investing in their houses and yards, trying to create a getaway feel without having to leave home.

“People have lived in these houses 15 or 20 years, and they want to spruce things up, do a whole makeover,” she noted. “That’s probably my favorite thing to do — come in and do the whole thing, and a week and a half later, there’s a new lawn, a sprinkler system, new plantings, a new patio in back, and the whole house is kind of brought to life.”

That kind of transformation is worth it for a homeowner who might need several weekends to accomplish what professionals can do in a few days.

“A patio that may take someone a week takes us a day and a half,” she told BusinessWest. “The same crew has been working together for many years; they’re all paid exceptionally well, and they’re worth it. They work hard, and they’re all very skilled. Honestly, I feel like they could work anywhere. They’re fast, efficient, and then, at the same time, very detail-oriented.”

Lawn Order

Demers said she and Brunelle feel fortunate about how far Ladies Landscaping has come, noting that hardly felt the effects of the recent recession.

“At the same time, we work very hard to accomplish it, and we work for great clients. I can pick who we work for at this point; that’s how lucky we are.”

In addition to a commercial workload that’s dotted with repeat customers, like Amherst College, “we still do patios and residences constantly. We have a bunch lined up for the year.

“I feel like, if we keep doing good, quality work, we’re going to always be busy,” she added. “There have been so many points where I feel like, if I had four times the people working for me now, I could keep them all busy. But I’ll never do that. I feel like I’ll lose control of the quality. I see everything we do; I’m there every day, stopping by to check on everything.”

And she couldn’t be happier doing so.

“I couldn’t ever imaging myself sitting in an office job every day,” Demers said. “I want to be here, there, and everywhere.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]

Landscape Design Sections
Landscape Architects Say People Are Investing in Their Backyards>

Brian Campedelli

Brian Campedelli says landscaping is a way for people to extend their home into their yard.

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.”
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.”

Changing Climate
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.

Bill St. Clair

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.

“And right now, we have four jobs on the books to replace privacy hedges that were damaged by the tornado,” St. Clair added.
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.

Popular Features
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.”

Drew DeMay

Drew DeMay says a slowdown in commercial work in recent years has coincided with increasingly strong residential demand.

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.”

Worthwhile Investment
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.

Landscape Design Sections
Design Professionals Navigates Shifting Landscape in a Competitive Field

Peter DeMallie (right, with Ben Wheeler)

Peter DeMallie (right, with Ben Wheeler) says factors like ADA compliance and ecological concerns have made landscape architecture more complex over the years.

Peter DeMallie says some people have an image of landscape architects hauling potted plants and bags of mulch into a torn-up backyard.
“Landscape architecture is not just selecting plant species and outlining them on a map of the property,” said DeMallie, president of Design Professionals Inc. “That’s a very small component of what landscape architects do.”
Rather, the projects his company tackles tend to be much larger in scale, with significant elements of civil engineering, site planning, and land surveying, some of the other specialties of this South Windsor, Conn.-based firm.
“The crux of our landscape-architecure business supports our other disciplines, our civil-engineering and land-surveying business, and most of that work is for commercial and industrial clients,” said Benjamin Wheeler, a landscape architect and director of Operations for the company.
Design Professionals, which celebrated 25 years in business last year, has worked on more than 2,500 projects in more than 120 communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, encompassing residential, retail, office, and industrial sites, as well as schools, churches, parks and sports fields, and municipal facilities.
“We average 100 new projects a year, and that’s over all disciplines,” DeMallie said. “Not all those have a landscape-architecture component, but a large number of them do.
“We aren’t the type of firm that goes into somebody’s backyard,” he added, before correcting himself somewhat and detailing some relatively larger-scale residential jobs. “They’re primarily high-end residences looking for professional designs in and around the pool, associated landscaping, waterfalls … we can do that, but typically for the higher-end market.”
In fact, residential work used to be a larger portion of the business, before the housing market collapsed in 2008 and launched the Great Recession.
“The demand for services dropped off appreciably during the recession, and even after the official recession end. The economic impact to our business, to the design marketplace, was heavily impacted,” DeMallie said.
Many anticipated projects were backlogged, he explained, and residential work in particular suffered; “as for single-family subdivisions, we have worked on one in the last three years. Forty percent of our business used to be residential; now it’s probably under 20%.”
Still, Design Professionals has stayed busy with projects ranging from a Fedex Ground distribution center in South Windsor to the design of the Farmington Sports Arena, which features a mix both natural- and artificial-surface fields.
DeMallie and Wheeler recently sat down with BusinessWest to talk about how the company has grown over the past quarter-century, and particularly how the business of landscape architecture has changed over that time. It’s a complicated field, to be sure, even though the outcome is often fun and games.

Green Acres
One current job that is strictly a landscape-architecture project involves extensive work at South Windsor High School, bringing the grounds and athletic fields up to code, including handicapped access under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“ADA compliance is a component of every single project now, whether public or private sector, whether it’s an educational facility, police station, industrial facility, office space, you name it,” said DeMallie. “It’s one of the many challenges for every site.”
Another major shift has been the increasing prominence of ecological concerns over the past few decades, and the expanding maze of regulatory hassles that surround those issues.
“Environmentally, if you think back as late as the 1960s or even the 1970s, wetlands was not a major factor,” he noted. “But preservation of inland wetlands has grown — the recognition of those sites as important environmental assets. Wetlands on site or adjacent to the site have become a major issue. The idea is to avoid the impact of wetlands, but if it can’t be avoided, you must minimize the impacts and justify the impacts.”
“Erosion control and sedimentation control were an afterthought years ago,” he added. “Now it’s standard operating procedure.”
He laughed when he evoked the pre-1970 view of filling in a wetland as a positive thing — “you were just removing mosquitoes. It has changed a lot.”
Wheeler said “low-impact development” has become a watchword, and referred to a retail project in Easthampton, Conn. that was approved under new local parking-lot regulations. One component of those guidelines is that stormwater runoff is directed into ‘rain gardens’ rather than into underground systems. “The gardens are planted with material that’s appropriate and can tolerate both moist and dry conditions.”
The benefit, he explained, has to do with keeping runoff, which may contain anything from fertilizers to debris from the metals on cars, out of the municipal water system.
“Another trend in site design, also part of the green movement, is that you’re seeing more use of LED lighting for [outdoor] fixtures,” he explained. “The technology is those is rapidly improving, so much that I think, in a very few years, we’re going to see even more extensive use of LED lights for site lighting. We’re not quite there in all projects, but in certain situations, it does make sense.”
DeMallie noted that the costs of such amenities are coming down as well, and site owners are always looking to affect the bottom line.
“You can save a lot on energy efficiency,” Wheeler said. “You spent more on the install, but there’s a long-term return on investment.”

Breaking New Ground
The sheer range of the firm’s portfolio is impressive. “Every retail development has a landscape-architecture component,” DeMallie said. A good example is Buckland Commons in South Windsor, a two-building project in South Windsor that includes a bank, retail space, and offices.
“As a landscape architect, I worked to develop multiple concepts for the property, and after one concept was selected, we moved forward with the local approval process,” Wheeler explained. “The site design included signage, determining plant species and their proper location, also a decorative screening wall. I also helped determine the appropriate amount of lighting for the site and worked closely with soil scientists to come up with a wetland mitigation plan, because there was some direct wetland impact with that project.”
That’s a good example of the range of skill sets that go into many commercial, industrial, and municipal projects — it’s no surprise that the Landscape Architecture program at Ohio State University, where Wheeler earned his degree, is housed in the School of Engineering. “It’s a pretty diverse profession,” he said. “I’m constantly working with engineers and surveyors on projects.”
But, again, not as many residential projects as in the past. DeMallie said it’s not just the housing market that has impacted that side of the business, but inadequate long-term planning by communities, with plenty of McMansions and over-55 housing erected over the past decade or two, but not nearly enough affordable homes for young professionals.
“That’s one of the problems in the Hartford and Springfield area,” he said. “The farther you go out from Hartford and Springfield, beyond the heavily urbanized city and suburban areas, as you get into the exurban areas, there’s still land available — but most don’t have full utilities to support it.
“It’s no surprise to anyone that this region has lost some of its young workforce, and one reason is that we don’t have the housing projects to meet their desires and needs, as well as affordable mass transit. It affects our ability as an employer to attract and retain employees with the skill sets we want.”
Still, the company has navigated changes in its industry before, and will continue to do so as the impact of the recession begins to lift. After all, the landscape is always changing — and Design Professionals continues to shape it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]