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Fish Tales

200403MF0By Mike Farley

Watershaping can be so demanding a profession that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that what we do should really be fun and enjoyable.  That’s why I bring up two books this month that make a case for approaching your work in ways that encourage a daily sense of joy and adventure for both you and your clients.

The first is simply titled Fish!  Written by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen (Hyperion, 2000), it’s a modern parable about a woman named Mary who has taken over as manager of her company’s toxic-waste management division.

It’s a job with horrid potential, but as the story goes, Mary is helped by a visit to the famous (and very real) Pike Place Market in Seattle, where she’s captivated not only by the wonderful fish on sale, but also by the joy and pleasure she derives from shopping there.  What Mary learns is how to

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Illustrating Feng Shui

200402MF0By Mike Farley

This column must be prefaced with the thought that, for a great many of our clients, perception is reality.

That’s something I hold onto whenever I get involved in trying to understand and use feng shui, the ancient Chinese method for arranging harmonious, balanced spaces.  I am far from a devotee of the art (or science, as some would have it), but I’m aware that some of my clients know a thing or two about it – and that knowing something myself is essential to working with them successfully or at all.

There are literally hundreds of books about feng shui.  Of the half dozen I’ve read, none is better suited to the needs of the watershaper than The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui for Gardens by Lillian Too (Element, 1999).

There are a couple of key points that make Too’s perspective on feng shui so useful:  First, she

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A Playful Art

200401MF0By Mike Farley

When clients call me in to design their backyards, one of the main things many of them want is a safe environment for their children.  I’ve always thought of myself as a big kid at heart and also look at things as a father, so I’ve always felt confident and fully prepared meet my clients’ desires while creating spaces that really work for kids.

How little we sometimes know!

After reading A Child’s Garden:  Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents by Molly Dannenmnaier (Simon & Schuster, 1998), it’s now clear to me just how much more can be done in watershape and garden spaces to engage children of all ages.  Indeed, this book showed me that there’s much, much more to designing for children than

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Grand Prizes

200512MF0By Mike Farley

Awards, prizes and accolades can serve as a great way to learn about the top professionals in any given field.

As a case in point, I recently picked up a copy of The Pritzker Architecture Prize (Harry Abrams, 1999), a beautifully illustrated 200-plus-page tribute to the first 20 winners of this prestigious annual award, which is given to recognize lifetimes of achievement.  

Established in 1974 by Pritzker family (founders of the Hyatt chain of hotels), the stated goal of the prize program is to increase awareness of reigning architectural geniuses.  Most of the prize recipients are still alive and working, and the list of winners includes some of the most extraordinary designers of the second half of the 20th Century, including Philip Johnson, Luis Barragan, I.M. Pei and Tadao Ando, to name a few.  

Some I had heard of before, but several were new to me.  In all cases, this

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Choice Matters

200511MF0By Mike Farley

For many clients, the decision to purchase a watershape represents the second or third largest expenditure they’ll ever make.  As a result, understanding the psychology that drives client decision-making is an issue that cuts very close to the heart of what we all do for a living.

To gain a firmer grasp on what makes clients tick, I recently turned to Trading Up, an insightful book by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske (Penguin Group, 2005).  The 300-page text explores the issue of why people choose to spend more money in some areas of their lives while allocating less to others – a fascinating approach that sheds a great deal of light on the dynamics of making large financial decisions.

The premise of Silverstein’s and Fiske’s discussion is that most people have an idiosyncratic curve of preferences when it comes to making significant purchasing decisions.  Why, for example, will some people will set aside substantial resources to buy a Mercedes or Jaguar while spending (relatively) much less on

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Up a Tree

200510MF0By Mike Farley

When we think about tree houses, most of us we probably think of the ramshackle platforms built by kids and suspended precariously up in backyard oaks or sycamores.  (Those of us who are a bit older might also think about the amazing makeshift domicile in the movie “Swiss Family Robinson” or the wonderful “ride” of the same name at Disneyland.)  

Not long ago, however, my daughter guided me to a trio of publications that cover tree houses from an entirely different perspective.  In reading them, I was enlightened to the fact that, first of all, tree houses

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From Outer Space

200509MF0By Mike Farley

If you’re uncomfortable with ultra-adventurous design schemes, you can stop reading this review right now.

If, however, you find inspiration in projects that are completely original, then Diarmuid Gavin’s Outer Spaces is an amazing and rewarding book.  The 256-page text (DK Publishing, 2003) covers 25 mind-blowing projects by this award-winning Irish landscape architect and host of his own PBS series, The Home Front.

Gavin has become something of an international celebrity with a reputation for creating what might loosely be termed “contemporary spaces” that use materials, shapes, plant materials and water in extraordinary and surprising ways.  

In this book (one of several he’s published), he starts by

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Just Weight

200508MF0By Mike Farley

This is an unusual edition of “Book Notes.”

Yes, it involves reading a book or two, and those books have had a positive effect on my work as a watershaper, but they’re well off the path of our usual discussions of publications relating to design, construction or business philosophy.  Instead, it’s about

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Picture Perfect

200507MF0By Mike Farley

It’s unfortunate, but all too often watershapers and landscape professionals go to extraordinary lengths in designing and building beautiful spaces – then don’t take care of business when it comes to capturing those spaces with quality photographs.  

This is despite the fact that photography is hugely important to so many of us, if only to give us a worthy photographic record of our work to use in marketing and selling future projects.  

These images make up our portfolios, dress up our offices and showrooms and serve as

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Minding Maintenance

200506MF0By Mike Farley

In my work as a landscape architect and designer/builder of mostly residential swimming pools, I concede that I’ve never really given much thought to the subject of maintenance.

Sure, the watershapes I’ve designed have proper hydraulic and circulation systems as well as correctly sized filtration systems, the proper number of skimmers and so forth, but beyond that, the specifics of swimming pool care have been beyond my concern.  So I’ve let the terminology of water chemistry, for example, become a foreign language to me, and I’ve never known much about things like water testing, pH or sanitizer residuals.

Through the years, however, I’ve come to believe that this is not a situation for a designer/builder in which ignorance is bliss.  This is partly because I now work for a firm that runs a retail store with a service department and I interact with those folks on a regular basis; but it’s also because more and more of my design/installation clients are asking me

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Beyond Borders

200505MF0By Mike Farley

Back when I was still new to watershaping in the mid-1990s and working for a construction firm in Northern California, I was asked to review a project for a custom home under construction in Napa Valley.  

I was intrigued, partly because the identity of the client was a closely held secret and partly because all project information and bidding was flowing through an architect in Mexico City.  But what really grabbed my attention was the set of plans for the home and grounds – just incredible!

I’d never seen anything like it.  The modernist-style home was based on big vertical and horizontal planes in brilliant colors.  There were courtyard fountains, large rectilinear reflecting pools and a beautiful vanishing-edge swimming pool.  The design was so outstanding that even when we missed out on the project, I held onto

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Concrete Discussions

200504MF0By Mike Farley

Concrete is so essential to the work of watershapers and so pervasive in all forms of construction that it’s a bit too easy to take it for granted.  Using myself as an example, I’ll confess to having fairly thin knowledge of the material, its history and the myriad uses to which it is put to use – until, that is, I looked through Concrete: A Pictorial Celebration (published by the American Concrete Institute in 2004).

This wonderful, 260-page book offers a (mostly) visual tour of the fantastic and utterly essential applications of concrete that have indelibly marked the advance of modern society, worldwide.  It’s organized into several sections, each one chock full great photos accompanied by informative, albeit brief, textual passages.  

It’s not a technical discussion by any means; instead, it’s an almost dizzying tour of the

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The Art of Influence

200503MF0By Mike Farley

In this business, there’s no avoiding the fact that you have to be able to work with people.

That may seem an obvious point, but if you’re like me and tend toward the shy side, stepping out of your shell to work with others is not always easy.  I’ve always admired those with easy-going social skills, but I’ve never been one of them – and I know in this industry that I’m far from alone.

In my case, I’ve found my way around my basic tendencies by taking advice I’ve found to be incredibly helpful in my work with clients as well as in my relationships with sub-contractors and fellow employees.  That advice comes from one of the true classics of 20th-century American publishing, none other than Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.  

If you’re not familiar with this volume beyond its name, you might be impressed by the fact that Carnegie’s seminal self-help book was first published in

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