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The Small Job Blues
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The Small Job Blues



In my first WaterShapes column last month, I made the point that small jobs can and should be pursued with every bit as much creativity and energy as large ones.

No matter the size of the job, my task as designer and installer is to make all of my clients happy by sharing with them the value, joy and comfort of which watershapes and landscapes are capable. Indeed, making that happen is my charge from initiation of the design process right through any changes and adjustments and all the way up to the final washing of the driveway and topdressing of any damaged sections of lawn.

On any scale or level, what I’ve noticed is that the smallest projects are quite often

just as important to some of my clients as the biggest ones are to others.

With my large-project clients, in fact, I find that my clients are often less interested in results than they are in simple getting things done: They see the work is a necessary evil (especially on a newly built site) rather than an expression of heart and soul. By contrast, many small projects can actually be more significant to my clients simply because they have limited resources and went through a tougher process of deciding how they’d spend their dollars.


For me, I vastly prefer to work with clients who put heart and soul into what we’re doing, no matter the size or cost of a project. This is why I invite and encourage all of them to become fully involved in the design and installation processes, right up to where (in some cases) they actually help us when it’s time to install the plants.

As I see it, when a client is invested in spirit at least as much as in wallet, projects have a greater chance of success not only when we pack up and leave the site, but also for years into the future.

It breaks my heart, as sometimes happens, to drive past a project we installed years earlier only to see foot-tall weeds growing up through stressed planting beds. My first thought is usually a bit selfish – that is, “I sure hope I didn’t advise any potential clients to drive by and look at this!” – but frequently I will stop and leave notes letting the homeowners know that I can make my staff immediately available to dress things up again. This usually stirs some action.

But this natural tendency of homeowners to let things slip away several years after we’ve done our initial work and the initial excitement has worn off is one of the reasons I think smaller-scale projects are often set up for greater long-term success: Because the areas we worked on are more compact and focused, they are more easily maintained and managed for the long haul.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m not in this business for the before-and-after pictures – especially not when the when the “after” picture is taken upon completion. What I’m more interested is in seeing how things looks five or six years down the line, and my sense has always been that if I’ve managed to get my clients involved on an emotional (and occasionally a physical) level, the odds for my work looking good and the clients being happy years later are much improved.

And just as a smaller job can mean more to the clients, developing its design can be just as big a challenge as a large project – or even more so. After all, you’re asked to work wonders with a limited space and, most often, a limited budget.

There’s plenty of variety in these small packages as well. In some designs, for example, I may want to pack as much as I can into the space without making it a mess, while in others, simpler schemes are best. Ultimately and no matter the approach, I am always mindful that I want to create the absolute best watershape and/or garden space I can.


To illustrate what I mean in more specific terms, consider the fact that many of the smaller-scale projects in my area come up in condominium complexes, where private courtyards are set up for the needs of clients with small living spaces, small budgets and small outdoor areas they want to address.

Many of the challenges that come with these sites have to do with work that’s gone before. There may be an existing deck or patio, for instance, or, because of the density of the development, we might find unwelcome features such as high-voltage electrical lines, sewer lines or gas lines just below the surface. We also run into lots of decks set on simple concrete-block footings that have frost-heaved or settled. (Where we are, footings must reach to 42 inches below grade.)

Every situation requires its own solution, but there’s much in these places that’s hidden from immediate view. As a result, you need to be able to think on the fly and make repairs and/or changes quickly – and you won’t know what’s really going on until you start working.

There’s nothing worse than having to knock on the door and say the dreaded words, “Could you please come outside for a moment? There’s something I need to show you.” No matter how you say them, your clients immediately think it’s going to cost them more money – and they’re usually correct!

I do my best to anticipate these things and prepare for such possibilities, but on a site with an existing installation it’s impossible to know exactly what’s waiting for you until you break out the shovels. So even if I see nothing in walking through the site before we start working, I’ll mention the fact that we might find, for example, an elaborate concrete footing hidden behind the deck’s skirting that may need to be jack-hammered out before we can replace the deck with, say, a stone terrace.

These conversations can be are awkward, but I’d rather explain all possibilities before breaking ground: When these issues arise after the project has been signed, sealed and started, there is no going back: The homeowners must cover the additional cost – and I’m always aware that this puts a bad taste in their mouths.

It’s like real estate: First impressions are everything. If, by extension, there’s a problem on the site (especially one that translates to higher costs), then how do you think your client feels from that point forward? We counter this by anticipating as much as we can, but we don’t always catch them all. The key in these cases, we’ve found, is to redeem the process in their eyes by getting them as involved as we can in the rest of the project as it unfolds.


As this column is being written, we’re working on a fairly typical small-site project.

The Colonial-style home sits in an ordinary housing tract distinguished by the fact that the several properties are wrapped around a common pond. The watershape is actually the detention pond for the entire development, but it’s been done up in such a way that it looks natural, with plantings and lots of resident ducks and geese.

When our clients’ home was built, they had a simple deck installed beyond the rear entry to take advantage of their view. The deck is a single step down from sliding glass doors that offer access to the dining area. The view was shared by a number of small windows on the back of the house, but in the main there was little opportunity to take in views of the pond and its attendant wildlife.

To change that situation and create a new office space, my clients wanted to bump out a section at the back of the home by about three feet – not a big change by any means, but enough to allow for installation of a large bay window. Once the house plans were ready, I was called in to work on the outside spaces.

I visited in the middle of winter when ten inches of snow covered the ground and the temperature hovered in the teens. The house addition, I determined, would require an extension to the existing deck to allow the client to use the new exterior door that was included as part of the expansion. The old deck came to within a couple feet of the new door, but the clients wanted to give it a finished, integral look instead of just tacking on a new step or two.

To meet their desires, I designed an addition to the deck that would stand at the original level but would change the direction of the decking boards to create an inlay effect. All told, the added decking was just five feet wide and ten feet long, but with the changed angles it would look something like an exit “carpet” from the office that would eventually lead down to a small patio and garden space that would be the second phase of the project.

From the start, I had questions about the existing deck’s construction. In 95 percent of similar decks, the decking is tied to the house via a pressure-treated ledger board mounted with lag bolts either to the framing or the concrete foundation. This minimizes the number of footings needed for deck construction and hence speeds up production. In this case, however, the deck had been built separate from the house, with no ledger board attached. Instead, the installer had placed additional footings about a foot from the foundation.


The client supplied me with the original drawings provided by the carpenter, and I saw no obvious problems with them.

But it was winter and there was snow all over everything, so I did not check the existing deck for level – despite the fact that I had, in the past, seen settling in projects with this type of construction. This happens when carpenters put their footings in the foundation’s over-dig, which can extend out about three feet in many cases.

I did ask the client how long the house had been there before the deck was added, and their answer of three years gave me reasonable assurance that the old footings would be fine – until, that is, it was time to dig a couple new ones.

I had designed the addition to be free-standing like the original deck, but changed my mind and decided to put a ledger on the house: As we were laying things out, we discovered that our new step down from the house was going to end up being more than nine inches below the door – well above the code-allowed maximum of eight-and-a-quarter inches.

When I saw this, the first thing I asked the client was if the original deck had been inspected. They said it had, so I put a level on the original deck and discovered that it had settled about an inch and a half from its original position. I hadn’t noticed during my original site visit because of the snow (and we didn’t enter or exit the house that way again on subsequent visits), but what we knew now is that the four footings along the house foundation had settled in the over-dig.

So, before we’d set even one footing for the additional deck, we had a problem – a big one that meant we’d need to remove existing deck boards (which had been nailed down and therefore will likely not be salvageable), jack up the beams and re-bolt them to the footings, all at the clients’ expense.

This may not seem like much, but on small projects such as these, every little issue magnifies and multiplies. This is why we put a premium on foreseeing these problems and factoring them in before they reach a crisis point. And as I mentioned above, this is why we prefer it when our clients get involved and stay involved, basically because it makes working through these issues easier on everyone involved.

A couple columns down the road, we’ll explore this project in greater detail as a means of exploring the ways in which small projects can become big solutions.

Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky & Associates, Inc. a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y. Nationally recognized for creative and inspiring residential landscapes, Bruce also works with healthcare facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and local municipalities in conceiving and installing healing and meditation gardens – and labyrinths, too. You can reach him at [email protected].

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