Friday, June 21, 2013

Leaves of Three, Let It Be!

     Leaves of three, let it be!  Hairy vine, no friend of mine!  These are a couple of popular sayings I'm sure we all learned as kids, and that we all have in turn taught our own kids.  People grow up fearing and hating the fairly common native vine.  It is the subject of scorn, weeding and herbicide.  Yes, I am talking about poison ivy.  That unwanted scourge of a plant that can be a vine but can also become a shrub.  I have been on job sites that had poison ivy that was chest height and so thick that you could barely pass through it.  I have also see poison ivy vines that were so thick that I jokingly suggested that we count them for tree credit.  I would reason with the planning people that they had a diameter breast height that met their criteria and therefore should be counted (I might point out that these people are often not amused by this kind of a suggestion).

Early spring foliage
    Just what is it about poison ivy that is so awful?  It makes a great ground cover and often is one of the first plants to colonize a disturbed site.  It grows well in full sun but also can take a good deal of shade.  The leaves are actually quite pretty.  They are compound leaves with three leaflets per leaf.  In the early spring, they come out with a bronze color and they again turn red in the fall.  Plus the leaves have a nice shiny appearance.  They have pretty little white flowers and produce pretty little white berries that are highly favored by many kinds of birds.
     The real problem with poison ivy is a chemical called urushiol.  This is a clear oil produced by the plant.  It is most prevalent when the plant is broken or damaged, but is also present on the surface of the leaves and even the bare stems of the plant in winter.  This oil binds to the skin and to other items that come in contact with the plant.  For example, you could be careful to avoid the plant and then find yourself coming into contact with the oil because your dog ran through some and you reached down to pet him afterward.  You could have a towel or a piece of clothing brush through it and then become exposed when you accidentally touched that same piece of cloth.  You could even become exposed by breathing it in because someone placed it into a brush pile and burned the pile.
     Seventy five to eighty percent of the population have an allergic reaction to the substance and if you are one of those people, you are likely to fine that subsequent exposures cause more intense reactions.  So what do you do if you find it on your property?  First of all, don't panic.
     Poison ivy responds well to broadleaf herbicide treatments with chemicals like 2,4-D and Round-up.  It also responds well to being cut.  I usually suggest to people that they keep a separate set of shears to use for poison ivy cutting, but if you choose not to do that you are not sunk.  Simply make sure to clean your shears thoroughly with a detergent after each use.  As for the person doing the cutting; wear a watch.  Make sure that you wash within 45 minutes to an hour after an exposure and that you use a good oil-cutting detergent and scrub thoroughly.  Dishwashing detergent works well for this use.  The rash that you get a day or two after an exposure will let you know that you waited too long to wash or that you missed some of the exposure spots.  By the way, once you have washed the oil off, you cannot spread the problem even if the blisters that come up break.  That is a myth brought on by the fact that different quantities of exposure become a rash at different times.  Thus you might have become exposed all in one day but the rash might take several days to show up.
     Poison ivy is just a plant.  It is not something to be feared if you know how to handle it.  Wash in time and avoid the rash!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Consider the Angle of Repose

     So often people feel the need to fight the grades that are natural to their site.  They think that they should have a large flat area where the natural grade of the site is sloping, or they want a slope to feature some aspect of what they intend to plant or showcase.  They want to put natural streams into culverts, or they want to create a stream where one does not exist.
     Obviously, these changes can be made and are made on a regular basis.  Sometimes the solution to a desired flat area is to create a steep slope above and below the flat area.  Sometimes the solution is to construct a retaining wall or two.  Sometimes the solution is to remove the top of a hill and use that soil to fill a hollow.
     I have frequently seen the constructed solution  take the form of reshaping the land to create steep slopes on one or more sides of a site.  This can be a very effective way to create privacy, by creating berms, or to create a flat central lawn.  All to often I have seen this done, though, without the aid of a trained designer.  In fact, many 'garden centers' and 'landscapers' offer grading services.  Frequently these outlets have people who might know how to operate a backhoe or bulldozer, but do not have any design knowledge or training.  Although some equipment operators have an inherent sense of how to form the soil, many do not.  As a result, I have seen a good deal of disastrous consequences.
     So just what can happen if a mistake is made?  To the equipment operator, it can mean his life!  I have seen equipment flip and roll trapping the operator in the wreckage.  More often, though, the disaster occurs after the grader is done and has moved on.  The berm or grade change is completed and maybe even seeded and then a storm rolls in.  Suddenly the soil that was barely staying in place has the added pressure of saturation and begins a downhill tumble.
Don't let this happen to you!
     Designing the grading of a site requires that the designer know the soil type, the rainfall for the area and the subsequent angle of repose.  Without this information, slope failure is a distinct probability.  The soil type determines the angle of repose which is the key to most failures.
     All soils are made up of small particles of minerals - the result of the breaking down of  rock that formed the site millions of years ago - and organic matter - the result of the breaking down of plants in very recent times.  Soils are generally classified as sand, silt and clay (with a fourth classification of gravel that is not considered to be soil) based on the size of the particles that make up the soil.  Sand is the largest of the particles and clay is the smallest.  When these soils are built up to create a steep slope, they will naturally only stay at the steepness defined by their specific angle of repose.  This angle is directed by the individual particle density, surface area of the particles, their shape and the coefficient of friction as they relate to the force of gravity that acts on them.  Attempts to form a slope steeper than the angle of repose of the specific soil of a site will result in that soil reverting back to its natural angle.  That angle becomes flatter when you add water to the mix because water reduces the coefficient of friction allowing the particles to slide past each other.  For example, a dry sand has an angle of repose of 35 degrees, but a wet sand has an angle of repose of 25 degrees.  That is why the contractor can walk away from a completed site and the disaster of slope failure will not occur until it rains.
     Make sure you know who is designing your grades and how much training they have had.  It is also helpful to get a soil analysis if a great deal of grading is being proposed.  Clients that refuse to pay the 'extra' for a soil analysis often take the burden of failure on themselves and find that the 'extra' paid for that analysis might have been a wise investment.  Don't let a lack of knowledge about your site and your soil cause you to be the next person facing disaster.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Creativity Challenge - the Sequel

     Last week I challenged you to be creative and think beyond the easy and simple.  I showed you an example of my work in which I took a site that had a simple but less than desirable solution and re-designed it to have a more satisfying solution.  The end result was a completed project that has been extremely  successful as a built development.
     What about your individual site?  Can you make use of features on your site to enhance it?  Take a good look at your site.  Is there something unique about it that you have maybe overlooked?  You might have even seen it as a problem and missed it as a possibility.
     I had a client who called me out to look at their site because it had a creek in the back yard.  "What do I do with this?" she asked.  "It's so ugly and it takes up so much of the back yard."  The back yard was indeed ugly, but it was not ugly because it had a creek.  What made the space ugly was the fact that someone had cleared to the edge of the creek and was trying to grow and mow grass in an area that was clearly wet a good portion of the time.  The grass was growing, but was thin and not holding the banks in place.  Undermining had occurred in a number of places and left large holes in the lawn as well.  I asked her if there was some particular reason why they were trying to have a lawn in this area.  Did they have children who liked to play ball there, or did they need to have the space for lawn parties.  As it turned out, they were growing grass there because that is what they thought was the thing to do.  All of their neighbors had large grass lawns.  With a bit of imagination and some work, they transformed this area into a paradise with small, flowering trees, sweeps of colorful plantings and areas of ground covers.  They no longer had to mow; although they did have to do some weeding and they had an amenity rather than an eyesore.
     I had another client who wanted to remove a good number of the trees on his site because he felt that the house was too dark.  His wife also wanted more light in the house but did not want to lose the trees.  The trees were an obvious advantage on the site and their removal would have seriously adversely affected the site.  They were amazed when I suggested doing some strategic limbing of the trees and even more amazed at the airiness that they obtained after the job was complete.

   Most recently, I have watched as a neighbor struggled with a large and quite dead cherry tree.  They cut off the limbs and worked their way down to the trunk eventually stopping at about three feet from the ground.  At this point they began to have trouble cutting it further to the ground so they left the tall stump.  Recently, they came up with the perfect solution.  They chiseled a hole near a crotch in the stump, filled it with soil and planted it.  Now a gladiola is blooming there.  Problem solved!  A stump became a very unique planter.
     Don't be afraid to be creative.  We all have creativity as a part of our makeup.  Let your imagination rule for awhile and challenge the conventions of the people around you.  So what if all of your neighbors have a grass lawn and a row of Japanese holly neatly hedged across the front of their houses.  If you don't find that to be pleasing or if it does not work with what you have on your site than feel free to do something different.  The people around you might not understand at first and they might criticize, but I would be willing to bet that eventually they will come to value your creativity and maybe even follow your lead.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Take the Challenge to be Creative

     My son completed and turned in his final project in his cabinet making class yesterday.  The project entailed clearly stating his intention, designing the intended project and then executing the design.  His intention was to make a chess board, reasonable considering that he is the president of his high school's chess club.  Furthermore, this chess board was to be made entirely out of wood from the scrap pile.  In other words, he intended to use what he had at hand rather than bring in new material.  This made the project a good deal more complicated, and the final product a good deal more interesting.
     I have clients who choose to take this route on a regular or on an occasional basis.  They choose to rehab existing structures or use sites that have had previous uses other than vacant ground.  This always makes the project a good deal more complicated.  I have in the past had to deal with sites that could not meet setback, buffer or easement requirements because existing buildings were placed such that they were in these parts of the site - sometimes because the site had been subdivided and sometimes because the zoning had simply changed.  This often leads me to have to file re-zoning requests, special use permit applications or requests for variance.  All of these are legal hoops that I had to jump through, but are not really physically hindering.
     I have also had sites in the past that had monitoring wells (wells placed on the site to monitor soil and/or ground water contaminants) and buried extras (one urban site had a number of 1950's cars buried under it and one had a deposit of medical waste).  I have even had a site where past foundations were discovered under the current foundations that were being removed to make way for the new use.  These very physical issues can create a good deal of extra work as my client, sometimes the contractor and I work to figure out how to deal with them.
     At the design level, physical aspects of the site should most definitely help to define the design of the site.  It is very easy to design the location of a building, associated parking, vehicle and pedestrian access and any additional amenities on a flat site with nothing larger than grass growing on it.  The designer is basically then working with a blank piece of paper, a clean slate.  It is much more challenging if the site has a major grade change or a rock outcrop, or a water feature like a stream or a pond, or a vegetative feature like a champion tree or an area of woods.  To obtain the owner's desired use out of these sites, the designer is challenged to be considerably more creative.  The end result, though, can also be considerably more interesting and desirable.
The entire site was utilized and a pond for fishing and swimming was added as an amenity!
     I was brought in on the design of a site, for example, in which the initial preliminary design showed a single double loaded parking lot (parking spaces on either side of a single 24' wide aisle) placed in a straight line and a row of townhomes placed along the length of either side.  The whole thing was to be raised up with fill soil to meet the requirement of placing these units above the 100-year flood line which added to the general ugliness of the design.  This design was boring, but it did meet the client goal of X number of units on the site and the local planning requirement of X number of parking spaces per unit.  I was privileged to have been allowed to re-design the site, with of course the same parameters, and to complete the design and construction drawings.  My design included a pond in the center of the site that allowed me to obtain the fill needed to raise the buildings but also accessed the clean water table near the surface of the site.  Encircling the pond were the townhomes and encircling them the drive and parking.  Thus each townhome had a public entrance to the loop drive and parking and a private interior entrance to the walks encircling the pond.  Ironically, my design actually cost less to construct than the estimate for the initial design and produced a pleasant place to live.  Residents got an amenity that provided them with swimming, fishing and walking recreation as well as aesthetics. It did, however, take a good deal more design time and creativity.
     Don't take the easy way out when designing your site.  Take the challenge.  You might really like the results.  Work with what you have on the site rather than ignoring it.