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Artful Ambition

In the course of expanding the boundaries of what he calls ‘themed construction,’ David Long has worked with lots of people who crave the truly special, from commercial clients to homeowners.  While his main focus is on artificial rock structures and water, he and the talented artists who participate in his Idaho-based company are all about delivering the entire package – complete, expressive environments marked by a wonderful authenticity.
In the course of expanding the boundaries of what he calls ‘themed construction,’ David Long has worked with lots of people who crave the truly special, from commercial clients to homeowners. While his main focus is on artificial rock structures and water, he and the talented artists who participate in his Idaho-based company are all about delivering the entire package – complete, expressive environments marked by a wonderful authenticity.
By David Long

To the casual observer, it might seem that what we do is all about artificial rock.  But if you look closer, I think a better description is that we work in the business of “themed construction.”  

While much of our work centers on the creative use of artificial rock, we do much more than shape that raw material in fashioning the archaeological replicas, exotic watershapes, zoological exhibits and grand-scale sculptures of which the rockwork is a part.  As we see it, what we do is develop whatever sort of tableau a client might want in whatever media might help us capture it.

As a consequence, our work at The Lakeland Co. (Rathdrum, Idaho) has brought us into contact with an incredibly broad spectrum of projects in a wide range of settings, from casinos, resort properties, store fronts and zoos to upscale homes, trade show booths, museums and theme parks – any location in which a client is after an environment that calls for the services of a company with the ability to work across multiple design and construction disciplines.

If, for example, you hired us to create a display about Neanderthal man, we would execute an entire diorama including not only geological formations, but also plant materials, water elements, the sky and the lighting.  (We might even get involved in robots and animatronics, providing a subcontractor capable of creating elements to complement a theme.)  We’ve done dozens of projects of just this kind in which we might become involved in a dozen or more specific design/construction disciplines all at once.

It’s great fun – and monstrously detailed work.

BASIC CONCEPTS

I grew up in the sign and display business, working with my dad from the time I was nine years old.  I managed to wander off course a time or two, spending several years as a rodeo bronc rider and selling pen-and-ink paintings on leather to help make ends meet, but I always found my way back to the display business for two simple reasons.

First, I find the work constantly challenging and intrinsically fascinating; second, I always saw an opportunity to push way past convention and operate a display business on the extreme leading edge.  I also like the fact that every project we do is completely different from all the rest, each possessed of its own set of rules and requirements.  

For all that, the process always begins the same way with an exhaustive sort of research I find incredibly interesting and stimulating.  The range of subjects we’ve gotten involved with is virtually limitless, and developing truly authentic displays means that, through the years, we’ve necessarily become well versed across topics including archaeology, geology, botany, history, zoology and meteorology as well as all the specifics of design, engineering, fabrication, installation and finish work.   

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The hallmark of our work is the fine texturing and coloring we impart to the surfaces of our artificial rock and other landscape elements (such as trees) that inhabit the settings we create.  This attention to detail consumes a great deal of time and labor; in fact, these fine finishes represent upwards of 95 percent of our work on any given project.

As an example, we recently built a replica of a portion of the Great Wall of China.  To do so, we had to find out everything we could about the structure, including the type of stone that was used, the way it was cut and laid down, and the way the material had weathered across the centuries.  Bottom line:  You can’t build a convincing replica of the Great Wall of China without knowing almost everything about it.

We use this sort of research to develop extensive conceptual drawings that help our clients fully visualize the outcome of our work – both overviews and fine details.  Such presentations are supported with information on material selections as well as the fabrication and on the construction phases right down to finish schedules.  If the installation is temporary (as for a trade show) we plan accordingly.  If it’s for a home, we lay out what it will take to have our work survive indefinitely.

Along the way, we look at the installation from every conceivable angle, considering location, size and the variety of elements we’ll be using before establishing the materials palette and construction approach.  For instance, we might decide we can make a particular structure more durable by filling the rockwork with solid concrete rather than working with a hollowed form supported by a steel armature.

The physical setting is, of course, a factor to be considered.  If, for example, we’re building a 20-foot-tall cliff/waterfall structure inside a two-story house, we would almost certainly not fill the rockwork with concrete because of the weight involved.  If, by contrast, we’re working outside on a waterfall structure that doubles as a retaining wall (a common scenario), we’ll build with engineered footings and a solid structure that does the job.

WATER FACTORS

About 85 percent of our projects include water of some kind, which brings us fully into the realm of sophisticated watershaping.  

Through the years, we’ve worked with a number of design and engineering consultants who define the details of our hydraulic and water-treatment systems – particularly the teams at Hobbs Fountains of Atlanta, Ga., and Roman Fountains of Albuquerque, N.M.  These professionals answer our questions and understand the nature of what we’re trying to accomplish.   Typically, we send them CAD files of our conceptual drawings and they’ll work up flow requirements, volumes, plumbing sizes and details of the equipment sets.

We deliberately overshoot in terms of the amount of water involved, usually specifying systems with 30 or 40 percent greater capacity than we’ll think we need.  We do so because experience has taught us that many clients will ask for greater flows once they see a system installed and running.  Obviously, it’s much easier to turn things down than it is to rebuild a system to hold more water!   

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Through the years, we’ve done a good deal of work creating environments in which zoo animals and aquarium fish feel comfortable enough to do what comes naturally.  At the same time, we’ve developed entirely artificial dioramas for a variety of clients that show wild and often shy creatures in their natural (and occasionally spectacular) contexts.

In those situations where water is included, we see our watershapes and our rockwork as being completely integrated with one another.  Whether we’re using GFRC-reinforced panels built to exacting ASTM standards or a technique known as “positive carving” where we use shotcrete or gunite that we form and texture in the field, our ambition is to make things seamlessly natural from every viewing angle.

If we’re creating a scene in the Los Angeles area that’s meant to mimic local rock formations, for example, our preference would be to use a positive-carving approach because the rocks in that area tend to be rounded – a situation that doesn’t warrant making molds and creating prefabricated panels.  When we do create panels, we take the molds ourselves and fabricate panels using a special laser-cutting system that enables us to create facsimiles down to the smallest detail.  

Generally speaking, the setting and style of the project determine the techniques we’ll use – along, of course, with the engineering requirements.  Budget is also a factor, although most clients who come to us are ready and willing to spend what it takes to obtain the very best.  

Even so, we’re always looking for smart ways to save our clients money on these projects, which can cost well into the millions.  In many cases, for example, we’ll mix natural stone in with the artificial rock to save the costs associated with fabricating every single piece of stone in a large display.

THE EYES HAVE IT

For all of technology we apply and all the custom construction techniques we use, the standard by which we work is really very simple:  The results must look right to the eye.  

We are always aware that, in the end, our work has to be driven by this sort of completely subjective evaluation:  If things don’t look right, we’re not finished – and we’ll keep at it until everything works visually.  As I see it, it’s entirely up to us to do the job right and to do it for the quoted cost.

With rockwork for streams, waterfalls or ponds, we please critical eyes by going to great lengths to recreate what one might experience in nature.  You don’t, for example, typically see knife-edge weirs in the wild; instead, you see complex cascades and random (but meaningful) rock distribution and, almost invariably, evidence of erosion.  

We’ll also set up formations that appear as though larger rocks have broken apart and you can see where one piece was originally part of another.  We arrange plantings and softscape around formations in natural ways that softens their appearance.  And we’ll insert details such as fallen logs or the stumps of broken trees to generate further sensations of an authentic, natural experience.  

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Some of our work appears in poolscapes, and as a rule these clients come to us seeking something truly unusual that calls on our special skills and experience.  In this case, for example, we established a salmon run as part of a large rock and water structure.

That level of detail requires a tremendous amount of formal research of the sort mentioned above, but there is always a need for constant, subjective assessment of how realistic our work looks on site.  To us, this means that our finish work is all-important.  In fact, I often say that the finishes represent 95 percent of our work on any given project – and sometimes more.  

Our staff includes a tremendous group of artists who do nothing other than color and texture our rockwork.  This can be an incredibly complex process of layering colors and shadowing crevices or areas at which stone appears to come together.  In some cases with large projects, the coloring process can take weeks or even months of steady, patient, focused work.

Not coincidentally, we’re constantly aware of the need not to overdo it.  I often say that we deliberately undersell the rockwork, favoring subtlety over grand statements in the same way nature does as a result of weathering and erosion.  Of course, there are situations in which we create extremely bold formations – but that’s always the result of a specific requirement of the design mission.

OUT AND ABOUT

It will come as no surprise that much of what my colleagues and I do is based on close observation of nature and natural settings.  In fact, I personally spend so much time looking at the ways nature works that it’s almost a sickness.  It’s all for the good, however, and I find that the closer I get to the source, the more complex and fascinating it all becomes.  

One of the truly amazing things about recreating natural forms, for example, is that you have to be careful in choosing a model because some natural things actually look really phony.  People will accept that “phoniness” in nature because it is, in fact, natural.  But in our work, we always have to be careful to use only those forms that people will unhesitatingly accept as “natural-looking.”

Another key point in our observations has to do with the fact that, in nature, there’s almost always evidence of movement, whether in the form of a lava flow or the process of water driving alluvium to the flatlands.  There’s also a similar sense of flow to the distribution of earth -- and of plant material and the way it grows, dies and deteriorates.

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Water is a major components of about 85 percent of our projects and we do all we can to integrate it completely and naturally into the artful spaces we create.  Our goal is always to make these compositions pass inspection close up, from a distance and from every conceivable angle – a talent we hone with constant, extensive observation of nature and the way it works.

All of these elements have to exist in complete visual balance, and actually achieving that balance is the result of constantly judging the work with a trained eye and responding in accordance with the research and the concepts provided.  

In other words, “believability” in themed construction is about successfully combining all project elements – which in turn means that everything we do is based on teamwork, constant communication and flexible adjustment of our progress.  On that level, our success is wrapped up in the success of general contractors and architects and anyone else involved in the greater tasks at hand, which is why we always work so hard to meet deadlines and get the work done in a sequence that enables other trades to get their work done on time as well.

And as much as the quality of our results sets our company apart from most firms in this field, another part of our success has to do with the way we go about our business:  We stay on the job from start to finish without interruption and stand behind our work.  As we see it, our fundamental commitment to service and accountability is something that sets us apart.

HARD FACTS

For us at The Lakeland Co., this dedication to being upstanding businesspeople may well be the ultimate key to our success.  We’ve always approached our work as art, but we know that it takes more than talent and skill to satisfy clients and therefore see timeliness, accountability and the professional approach to each project as factors in our ability to provide our clients with the best possible results.

Open Doors

Client discussions in our planning phase have much to do with maintenance.

Displays of the sort we design and build always require upkeep, and we spell that out in direct terms for the client.  Rockwork installed outdoors, for example, is always going to change in appearance as a result of exposure to ultraviolet radiation, no matter how we work to prevent it.  I explain this in detail and tell the client up front that they can either let the rockwork weather or invest in having us return every couple of years to do some touch-up and repair work.

In addition, creating realistic expectations for maintenance (and understanding the client’s attitude about it) is very much a part of the early project-development stage, because a client’s ability or willingness to take on the required maintenance can influence specific design decisions we’ll be making all through this period.

-- D.L.

I can’t count the number of times that we’ve been brought in on projects to correct substandard work begun by others, and in those cases we see ourselves as ambassadors for the industry:  We set out to perform at a high level not only to drive our own reputation to new heights, but also to show clients that this industry does have true professionals who care about working at the highest level of quality in all aspects and phases of the work.

This is exactly why we value our competent competitors and see them more as colleagues than competitors.  It’s a plain, important truth:  When any client is satisfied, the network of referrals and the inspiration others gain from seeing the work generates new business.

Ultimately, quality work is good for everybody in the business.  It’s as simple as that – and the driving philosophy behind all our endeavors.  What one can envision, another can create.

 

David Long is president and founder of The Lakeland Company, a Rathdrum, Idaho-based firm specializing in highly detailed, elaborately themed exhibits and constructions.  He established the company 13 years ago to provide nationwide design and construction services to zoos, museums, resorts, upscale residences, civic centers, parks and a host of other properties seeking elaborate artificial rock structures, zoological dioramas and historical exhibits.  Long began his career in the display business at the age of nine at his father’s side and has been associated with that sort of work in varying capacities ever since.  He also spent time riding Brahma bulls as a professional rodeo rider and worked selling pen-and-ink paintings applied to leather.

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