By Mike Farley
It’s painfully obvious that too many mainstream watershapers are satisfied to treat each site in basically the same way. By contrast, I go to great lengths to examine each space from a variety of perspectives, and the fruits of that effort are reflected in the design work that follows. In fact, if I had to point to a single aspect of my design work that most often sets me apart from my competition, it’s the detail I go into when examining a site.
Certainly the best book I’ve ever read about site planning and analysis is the one I first encountered during my second year in college. Written by John Ormsbee Simonds, a distinguished instructor at Harvard Design School and Michigan State University, Landscape Architecture: A Manual of Site Planning and Design (McGraw Hill, 1983) is one of the most complete treatments of the complex subject of site analysis you’ll ever find.
Fortunately, the text has been used in so many landscape architecture and design programs throughout the country that you should have no problem finding one either new or used, despite the fact it’s a good 20 years old.
The genius of Simonds’ approach – and the reason why it’s been such an enduring resource – is that he looks at the basic principles of site analysis across the full spectrum of possible projects, from entire communities to the smallest courtyards or patios. His writing is also remarkably clear, and the beautifully organized, 330-page text is filled with helpful graphics, sketches and photographs.
Much of the text deals with lines of sight, focal points and the use of views – material alone that can give you a huge edge in all sorts of situations. In my own work, for example, clients often remark how impressed they are at how visible the swimming pool and other elements of the landscape are from a variety of vantage points inside and outside the home. That doesn’t happen by accident, and frankly, I owe much of it to this remarkable book.
Simonds also goes into great depth on working with sunlight, shade and shadows, wind and such key issues (too seldom considered) as humidity and the seasons. He also devotes considerable space to practical issues, including working with utilities, concrete slabs and basic structural engineering issues as well as retaining walls and slope retention. He offers keen insights into working with existing structures and on designing decks, patios, terraces and balconies.
There’s a wonderful section on understanding and working with the way that people move within a space, where his eye for detail extends into such specifics as how to set up pathways and stepping stones – right down to how big the stones should be and how much space there should be between them. He even gets into the basics of setting up driveways and parking areas, including information about how wide they should be, proper radiuses and pedestrian access.
Best of all from a watershaper’s perspective, Simonds uses many pages to discuss water, from large bodies to small fountains. He covers streambeds, their width and depth; approaches to cascades and edge treatments; and a variety of other issues directly significant to most anyone who works with water as a creative medium. He also touches on the solid practicalities of drainage, runoff, irrigation and, of course, the water needs of various types of plantings.
If you had to give someone new to landscape or watershape design a single resource for site planning and analysis, this would be it: Simonds’ book is quite simply a marvel of a resource that this experienced watershaper has found himself returning to over and over again through the years.
Mike Farley is a landscape designer with more than 20 years of experience and is currently a designer/project manager for Claffey Pools in Southlake, Texas. A graduate of Genesis 3's Level I Design School, he holds a degree in landscape architecture from Texas Tech University and has worked as a watershaper in both California and Texas.