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The Grass Is Greener

By Mark Morris

Brian Campedelli

Brian Campedelli says the pandemic has definitely contributed to a spike in landscaping business.

On his daily commute from Wilbraham to East Longmeadow, Dave Graziano has never seen lawns as green as they are this year — even with the recent lack of rain. And as project manager for the landscape division of Graziano Gardens, he knows a thing or two about green lawns.

“More than ever, people are working on their homes and their yards,” Graziano said. “Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

BusinessWest spoke with several area landscape contractors who say their residential business is booming this year. With people spending so much time at home, yard projects — both large and small — that were delayed in the past are now getting done.

“There’s definitely a correlation between COVID-19 and a spike in our business,” said Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscaping. “People are stuck at home and want to enhance their lifestyle, so they are improving their yards.”

For some homeowners, the scale of yard projects has gone far beyond replacing some shrubs or reseeding a lawn. Contractors are finding most of their business has shifted to hardscape projects, such as stone patios, stairways, and outdoor kitchens. Projects like these can cost around $20,000, with larger and more elaborate designs exceeding $100,000. For one project, Campedelli and his crew are working on a “massive patio” with an overhang attached to the house to shelter a bar underneath.

“We’re installing a TV with surround-sound speakers, as well as a firepit so they can chill out next to their pool.”

Where patios already exist, Campedelli said some homeowners want to rip out the existing structures and start fresh with new construction, while others enhance what they have by adding a firepit or accent lighting.

According to Gary Courchesne, president of G & H Landscaping, accent lighting has been in high demand in recent years. Also known as low-voltage accent lighting, it’s the subtle lighting that can enhance a home’s aesthetics, safety. and security.

“Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

“As important as the safety and security features are, about 90% of the time, people choose accent lighting for aesthetic reasons,” Courchesne explained.

Improvements like lighting help owners to better enjoy their property now, while boosting curb appeal if they ever want to sell. Real-estate website Homes.com estimates that, when homeowners install accent lighting, they can recoup about 50% of their investment to the eventual resale value of the home. The return on investment for patios and decks can range from 30% to 73%.

No matter what project homeowners choose, they all have the same objective: low maintenance. Courchesne said some of his customers have asked for “no-maintenance” shrubs. While those don’t exist, he and his crew design layouts with reduced maintenance in mind.

“For example, instead of filling around the shrubs with mulch, which needs replacing every year, we’ll use stones,” he said. “People are definitely leaning toward designs that look nice and are easy to maintain.” 

Graziano echoed that point, noting that, when he replaces old shrubs with new ones, his customers want landscapes that are easy to care for and do not require lots of maintenance. “Everyone has busy lives, and they don’t want to be burdened with spending too much time on yard care,” he said.

For many years, sprinkler systems have been an effective way to maintain lawns with minimal effort and continue to be popular this year, especially newer, more efficient models.

“People who did not have sprinkler systems are getting them installed,” Courchesne said, “and those who own systems but haven’t run them much are using them more this year.”

Growing Revenues

While landscape companies are busy with plenty of projects, it’s not exactly business as usual.

Each day starts with making sure workers have the proper face masks and other personal protective equipment they’ll need for that day. In the past, a crew might ride together to a job, but state guidelines now mandate one person per vehicle, and shared equipment must be disinfected in between users. Contractors have adjusted to all these extra steps because they are grateful to be considered an essential business.

That essential status wasn’t a given at first, though. Back in March, when Gov. Charlie Baker released the first round of essential industries that could remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape industry was not explicitly listed. The guidelines allowed for some interpretation that would include them, such as support of essential construction projects.

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

So a coalition of landscapers, golf-course superintendents, and related professionals formed the Green Industry Alliance of Massachusetts (GIA) and appealed to the governor to specifically identify landscaping as an essential industry. The group’s argument centered around the short time window that spring presents for fertilizing, as well as controlling mosquitos, ticks, and other invasive species. The GIA also noted that many homeowners who are physically unable to take on lawn care depend on outside companies to maintain their property.

Shortly after the appeal, the governor declared landscapers essential providing they follow CDC guidelines.

Courchesne said the initial confusion of whether or not they could start their season resulted in some starts and stops in the beginning, but his company is now up to full speed and adjusting to the new protocols.

“Normally, we start the day with our full staff gathered around a conference table,” he said. “Now, we’re meeting in smaller groups out in our yard, so even if there was an infection, it’s not spreading to everyone.” 

In early March, before the governor had ruled on landscapers’ status, Greg Omasta, president of Omasta Landscaping, temporarily closed his business over concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

“We closed for three weeks to make sure all our people were healthy,” he said, noting that this decision put his business behind in some of its early spring projects. “We’re scrambling now to get bark mulching done and plant seasonal flowers and such.”

Campedelli said his company also lost some work early in the spring due to delays caused by COVID-19, but he understands the changing nature of the virus and the guidelines. “We stay current on the latest requirements regarding COVID-19, and we make sure to share those with our workers as they happen.”

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

Since the go-ahead in March, Campedelli said his company is so busy, he would hire 10 more people if he could. Having enough workers is also a constant challenge for Omasta, who has 30 workers on staff but would like to add six or eight more.

Several contractors said one particular challenge in finding workers this year involves the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which allows unemployed workers to collect an additional $600 per week through late July. While they all agree the program has merits and is important to help those who are struggling, they also point out that the additional $600 a week keeps some people on the sidelines who would otherwise be working.

Sometimes, filling open jobs is difficult because of the nature of the work. Graziano said the industry has been the same for more than 50 years, and it’s not for everyone. “Either you like to put a shovel in the ground, move mulch around and install pavers, or you don’t,” he told BusinessWest.

A typical landscaping season can run nine months, with three winter months dedicated to snow plowing. As Omasta pointed out, the length of the season is always tied to weather, which determines how early they start in the spring and how late they can work in the fall.

Even when the season is in full swing, rain is a constant variable to consider, Courchesne added. “There was one week in May when, out of six work days, it rained four of them.”

Home Games

When the rain clears, people are looking to get outside, but they’re not ready to stray too far. Until there is more certainty about the coronavirus, many are choosing not to go away on vacation.

Because of this uncertainty, Omasta said, his customers have made the decision to stay put rather than spending a week at the Cape.

“They’re telling me they want to stay home and work on some improvement projects so they can enjoy their backyard this summer,” he noted.

It’s not unusual for homeowners to want a big improvement project and then procrastinate on making the final decision. Courchesne said this year seems different.

“I’m seeing people with less hesitation than normal in their purchasing attitude,” he noted. “They’re saying, ‘we’re home, so let’s do this.’”

Because more people are home, even working from there, he added, they are realizing their home is not such a bad place — and they want to make it even better.

And that has made this a different kind of year for this industry.

Opinion

Editorial

They called the event ‘The New Wave’ — and that’s an appropriate name for the annual update on Springfield’s business and civic projects.

Staged by the city in partnership with the Springfield Regional Chamber, this annual late-winter event, the latest installment of which was staged recently at the Basketball Hall of Fame, has had several names over the years, most of them rail-oriented — to coincide with the long-awaited revitalization of Union Station and also to provide plays on words such as the city being on the proverbial ‘right track.’

Most just call this the ‘update meeting,’ and they’ve been staged for maybe six or seven years now. That timeline coincides with Kevin Kennedy’s arrival as the city’s chief Economic Development officer and his more aggressive approach to telling the city’s story. It’s also a stretch when there has been a much better story to tell.

Which brings us back to the title of this year’s presentation. What’s been happening in Springfield over the past several years can truly be described as a wave — a $4.19 billion wave that is gathering momentum, and riders, as it moves.

That number conveys the dollar value of business and civic projects since that fateful day in 2011 when a tornado roared through the city. It’s an impressive number that, of course, includes MGM Springfield (almost a quarter of the total), CRRC, and several other nine- and eight-digit projects. But it also includes dozens, if not hundreds, of seven-, six-, and even five-digit projects that all add up — to a wave of positive energy.

“What’s been happening in Springfield over the past several years can truly be described as a wave — a $4.19 billion wave that is gathering momentum, and riders, as it moves.”

And while that number is impressive, perhaps the more meaningful one is $400.4 million. That’s the dollar amount for projects announced since the last of these update meetings, a number that reflects everything from Big Y’s $42 million distribution expansion to MassMutual’s $50 million in investments in Springfield; from the new $14 million Educare facility to the $14 million headquarters for Way Finders taking shape on the site on the old Peter Pan bus station; from the planned renovation of the Paramount ($41 million) to the soon-to-be-announced (we hope) plans to renovate the long-vacant Elm Street block. And we’re pretty sure it doesn’t include a host of cannabis-related businesses now in the talking stages and a planned hotel on the site of the old York Street Jail.

This is what happens when a city gathers momentum and the attention of the development community. People want to be part of what’s happening. People want to ride the wave.

It’s a refreshing change from a dozen years ago when people were talking about the lights going out in this city with doubts about when and if they would go back on.

They have gone back on — and in a big way. And there should be even more evidence of this at the next update meeting.

Architecture

Decade of Design

Kevin Shea (left, with Richard Morse)

Kevin Shea (left, with Richard Morse) says Architecture EL built its extensive portfolio of projects largely on direct-design work.

When Kevin Shea launched his own architecture firm after almost two decades working for someone else, it wasn’t exactly a great time to start a business — particularly one in a construction-related field.

It was 2008, actually, right at the start of the Great Recession, which would significantly dry up building activity for the next few years.

“We started at the bottom, but we got lucky, and we worked hard and delivered good client service — the things you want to build on as a new business,” said Shea, who has grown his firm, Architecture EL, from a solo practice to a six-person operation. “Now were seeing some of the firms that survived and hung on — some older, respected firms — start to close up or retire, which puts us in a good spot; we’re well-established at this point, and we can take on the work and fill in the gaps.”

As the East Longmeadow-based firm celebrates its 10-year anniversary in October, Shea can look back at an eclectic blend of projects, ranging from affordable housing to municipal work; from a children’s museum to a country club.

“We started at the bottom, but we got lucky, and we worked hard and delivered good client service — the things you want to build on as a new business.”

“We have a good, diverse mix of work,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve done some restaurant work locally; we’re looking at significant renovations to Elmcrest Country Club, which had a couple of fires last year; and we’re looking at more affordable housing and some private residential.”

For example, the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, a 75-unit affordable-housing project in the Mason Square neighborhood of Springfield, is being developed by Home City Housing. “We’ve worked through phase 1 with Home City on Twiggs, and now phase 2 is almost slated to begin at the end of the year, so that’s represented a lot of our office time lately,” he said.

Two of the residences in the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, an affordable-housing development in Springfield.

Two of the residences in the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, an affordable-housing development in Springfield.

“We’ve gotten to grow with some good work in housing, especially the affordable-housing sector,” he went on, citing other upcoming work, such as a project with Community Builders, a nonprofit that has become a significant force in the affordable-housing market from Boston to New York. “We’re in the early throes of conversations to do a 70-unit multi-family renovation in Western Mass. — it’s not contracted yet, but well along in the talks. That’ll be nice.”

While developing a strong base in multi-family housing, Shea said his firm has built a diverse portfolio in other areas as well, with recent and upcoming projects including a childcare center in Monson, a fire-station addition in Hampden, and an accessibility project at Hatfield Town Hall, following more extensive design work several years ago on that town’s municipal offices.

“You never know what we’ll be up to,” said Richard Morse, a consultant at the firm — and sometimes, the work can be very outside the box. Take, for instance, a planned project to design a veterans’ memorial on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, in front of the Pleasant View Senior Center, a stone’s throw Route 83 from Architecture EL’s office.

“That’s a relatively modest commission in terms of dollars, but it’s important to us here in East Longmeadow,” Shea said. “A veterans group came to us; they have an agreement for a piece of land in the front yard of the senior center, so we’re in the early stages of a design project for a memorial.”

Morse noted that the project is in the fund-raising stages, but there have already been conversations about what it will look like.

“They came to us with a shopping list, and we’re bringing to it a sense of space and respect and contemplation — and we have to do that in front of a building along a busy street,” Shea said. “We don’t just want to build a chunk of stone; we want to create a space where people come and reflect. That’s one that we’re really honored to have a chance to with these veterans. It’s a nice project, and we’re happy to be doing it close to home, right here in town.”

Unrolling the Future

Shea has always wanted to be an architect, having told the story on occasion of seeing old blueprints lying around his house as a child and being fascinated by what they represented. Architecture ended up fitting his personality, with its blend of hands-on and creative work, mechanical and artistic skills.

So after graduating from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, he took a job with a small architecture firm for 18 years before deciding in 2008 to strike out on his own.

Architecture EL — the acronym stands for Environment Life — was built on the idea of direct design. It’s more common than ever, in fact, to partner with owners and contractors in the design and construction of a building, whereas, decades ago, those elements were far more often bid separately.

The firm’s recent projects

The firm’s recent projects include restaurants, affordable housing, municipal facilities, and many others.

“I think the trend is toward more hands-on work, more design-build, more working with the trades in the field,” he said. “We see a little of the traditional drawing on spec and bidding to three or five contractors. But we see more of the construction-management side of things, where a developer wants to partner with us and a favorite contractor or builder and basically pull together architects, engineers, and contractors to get an efficient, affordable team.”

That has always been his preferred model, he added. “The nice thing is, you usually get to the point pretty quickly. The contractor is at the table, and you can move from design to construction pretty efficiently.”

With friendly cooperation among all parties, Morse said, “we can be the bridge between the client and the contractor because that gets kind of lopsided without our involvement. We’re able to have dialogue with the builder and come up with ways to control cost and schedule.”

The ‘EL’ in the company’s name doesn’t stand for East Longmeadow, as some may assume, but, as noted earlier, for Environment Life, concepts reflected in the types of work Shea takes on. Green building was on the rise when Architecture EL was born, but it’s become in many ways standard practice, reflected in both customer demands and Massachusetts building codes.

But Shea said he’s not interested in the bare minimum. “On the environmental side, we keep digging further into energy and good design, to deliver not just code compliance but a healthy, safe, well-constructed building. That piece never goes away.”

The ‘life’ piece is a more general idea, but it gets into the whole experience of a space and the specific ways it will benefit the lives of those who live in and use it, whether it’s residents benefiting from affordable housing; the kids who will benefit from an accessibility-improvement project at the Wilbraham Children’s Museum; or the employees of Marcotte Ford who work in that company’s commercial truck center, built in 2015, or its new headquarters, which opens this month.

“We don’t specialize in custom, single-family residential, but it seems that those who end up here need someone to help solve a problem. A lot of times, they have a house, a budget, a program, and can’t figure out how to put it all together.”

“Even a private residential project, that’s very intimate for the client,” Morse said. “You’re designing space where they’ll spend a good portion of their lives, so that always makes our work interesting and impactful.”

Shea agreed. “We don’t specialize in custom, single-family residential, but it seems that those who end up here need someone to help solve a problem. A lot of times, they have a house, a budget, a program, and can’t figure out how to put it all together. It’s nice to work with those people. Those projects can be fun.”

Answer Man

Whether designing a municipal project, a place of business, or a home — or a multi-home development — Shea has never stopped seeing his role as focusing on a client’s environment and life, and coming up with solutions that enhance both.

“We’ve been busy for quite a while, and we seem to be staying busy. Clearly the economy is moving along,” he noted. “We’ve seen a lot of smaller single-family projects creeping up, three or four at a time. These are people who aren’t just hiring a contractor, they want to make sure they get to a good solution. People are looking to invest in the design time up front.”

Morse said the team is cautiously optimistic that the good times will persist.

“We’ve been lucky, and we’ve been busy,” Shea added. “We’ve been growing steadily, though we’re not looking to grow too much. We just want to keep working hard for our clients. That’s what keeps them coming back.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]