Excellence in Craftsmanship
High-end landscape work is a whole different universe. Contractors who work with clients for whom money is no object get to see breathtaking visions take shape, and they have the privilege of being the ones who shape them. At this level, it’s not just landscape construction. It’s art.
This is the story of two unique and highly innovative landscape projects, and the two very creative contractors and perfectionists who built them. The projects are in vastly different settings—one on the coast; the other in the desert.
One landscape project cost $2.1 million; the other, $840,000.
One is modern in style, the other more traditional. Both won top awards for excellence in craftsmanship. But it wasn’t the size of the projects that won them the recognition—it was their attention to the details.
STEWART J. SPERBER MEMORIAL SWEEPSTAKES TROPHY WINNER
Scott Sohn, president of Sohnco Landscape, Inc., in Rancho Mirage, California, won the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) Stewart J. Sperber Memorial Sweepstakes Trophy for the Skyridge Estate, a residential project in Rancho Mirage, California.
“We were brought on board by Wayne Connor [of Wayne Connor and Associates, Palm Desert, California], the landscape architect who was responsible for the overall design.” Sohn and Connor have worked on many projects together over the past 25 years.
Sohn started out in 1979 as a landscape maintenance company, receiving his landscape contractor’s license in 1984. Now licensed in California and Nevada, he has worked on projects as far away as the Fiji Islands. His work has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, The Robb Report, and many trade publications. He has 30 employees overall in his installation and maintenance divisions.
Sohn and Connor began this project with a blank slate. The two-acre site consisted of three adjacent vacant lots. Sohn and his crew began working on retaining walls prior to the foundation for the 10,000-square-foot house and 3,500square foot guest house being laid. It would be two-and-one-half years before they would finish the project.
Connor had an overall plan that changed and evolved with the input of their deeply involved client. “We were very fortunate to have nice clients who were open to our changing concepts and materials as we went along,” said Sohn.
However, this project was not going to be like simply taking a computerized drawing and implementing it. “The house and guest house were going to be very contemporary in style, so we knew that we would be going beyond mere decoration to create a landscape that would be a work of art in itself,” said Sohn. “At the same time, we’d be fashioning useful spaces throughout a central location.”
The landscape alone cost $2.1 million. Much of this was for the cost of the 750 to 1,000 tons of stone and boulders used, which came from quarries all over the U. S., and had to be trucked to the desert. Sohn traveled to each quarry and hand-selected every stone.
There was also the difficulty of the task. The boulders and other rock had to be packed carefully so they wouldn’t be damaged. Purple slate from northern Montana came in slabs 15 to 18 feet long, and you couldn’t stack more than a couple of them, for fear of damage. Six flatbed semis were required just for those.
When asked about the cost, Sohn replied, “Large dollar amounts have nothing to do with quality. We are very well known for our attention to detail. That’s what we do. We lavish the same care on a $2,000 job as we did on this one.”
“Connor had quite a vision,” said Sohn, “and it was up to me to make it a reality.” The architect would give Sohn an idea of what he was thinking, and the contractor searched until he found the particular stone that fit the bill—something he has a talent for. “I tell my clients that stone talks to me. I can look at them and see how they fit together.” He personally set each stone himself.
The genius of the design is in the way the outdoor spaces flow together, though each retains its own individual flavor. “We gave names to all of the separate spaces, or gardens, said Sohn. “For instance, the area where we placed the large pieces of purple slate (intended to replicate the purple desert mountains in the background), we named ‘Purple Mountain’s Majesties.’”One of the highlights of the landscape is the visually stunning “Fire and Ice” garden. On the ground, serpentine waves of black lava and softball-sized chunks of sapphire glass point toward the centerpiece, a commissioned sculpture of polished, intertwined metal that rises up in a stylized interpretation of flames. It also functions as a giant wind chime. Underneath this is a fire pit with gas jets. When the wind blows, or the gas flame is lit, creating its own wind force, the sculpture moves and ‘chimes.’ When lit, the effect is that of flames moving over ice. In another area, Sohn created a ‘Zen’ meditation garden, a Japanese-inspired space with more than 200 tons of boulders and custom-carved stone lanterns. The boulders tower ten to twelve feet, creating a stone ‘room’ which you step down into. There’s also a bamboo bench to sit and enjoy the atmosphere.
One of the most dramatic features came almost as an afterthought. Browsing in a nursery in northern Arizona, Sohn came across a couple of crates in the back. “I was curious, so I started digging around in them. Inside, I found several stalagtites (stone formations from cave ceilings, formed by minerals in dripping water over many centuries) from China.” (It’s illegal to harvest stalagtites in the U.S.) Sohn took a couple of photos and showed them to the client, who immediately ordered Sohn to go back and get “the nicest one.” He selected a spectacular nine-footer, estimated to be over 350,000 years old.
Sohn might have been sorry he’d ever found the tooth-shaped forma- tion. The first problem was getting the fragile stalagtite from Arizona to California in one piece. It was care- fully crated up and strapped in. Saw- dust was poured in around it to absorb road vibration. It was then placed on a flatbed truck. Once it got to its new home, there was another problem: they had to figure out how to get it into the backyard, onto the patio and under a large overhang that had already been built. “This was more nerve-racking than setting a 20,000 pound boulder,” said Sohn. “I can’t replace a 350,000-year-old stalagtite if it breaks.”
But get it in he did; the spectacular stalagtite rests on a custom-built Lazy Susan. The client can rotate the platform to create a different view from any of the windows that look out on it, or to get the best effect from the play of sunlight across it throughout the day.
Sohn and Connor have worked together for twenty-five years. Rather than a top-down relationship of, “I draw it, you build it,” they sit down and discuss ideas in a creative collaboration. In this case, Connor “had an overall concept for the landscape that evolved and developed as we got into different spaces. With the Fire and Ice Garden, it was idea and concept, but there was no sketch. Once we saw the space that was left, we just started playing with it. “ Another result of their collaboration was the “Bamboo Wave,” a fence made of thick bamboo stalks fitted closely together at varying heights, giving an undulating effect. Neither man had ever created or built anything like it before.
“We were trying to come up with something unique for that space, whether it was going to be plants or stone or whatever, and Connor happened to come up with the idea of a bamboo fence. He just had a thought, a pencil sketch. Then it was up to me to figure out how to do it.”
Each bamboo stalk had to be cut separately, at an angle, then put in the ground. To give the feature longevity, Sohn sleeved the bottom of each stalk in four-inch PVC perf pipe. This shielded the stalks from moisture, but also allowed drainage, so water wouldn’t just collect next to the bases of the stalks and rot them out over time. The sleeves were then cemented into the ground, sticking out an inch. Then, stone and lava rock were added to hide the PVC pipe. “If we hadn’t done this, a year later the whole thing would have fallen over.”
This kind of craftsmanship is why Sohn won the Sweepstakes Award. He gives a lot of credit to his crew, men who have worked and trained with him for more than 20 years. “They are a large part of why we’ve been so successful.” He’s retained good employees by giving them not just good salaries and benefits, but also “the respect they deserve, so they have a sense of pride in their work.”
JOHN R. ALSDORF MEMORIAL AWARD WINNER
Richard Cohen won the California Landscape Contractors Association’s John L. Alsdorf Memorial Award for the Roche Estate in Newport Coast, California. The cost of this was $840,000. He also received the CLCA’s Orange County chapter’s Sweepstakes Award for best residential project over $750,000, as well as awards for special effects, landscape lighting and water features.
Cohen is president of Richard Cohen Landscape and Construction, Inc., based in Lake Forest, California, a full-service company with a maintenance division. He started the business in 1976, the same year he started working, and has never worked for anyone but himself.
Cohen was introduced to the project through a real estate agent. A couple in Texas wanted a retirement home in California. They purchased an oceanfront home that was built in 2008 but was never landscaped. The clients wanted to add an outdoor pavilion or “great room,” a pool, spa, and water features.
Cohen brought in landscape architect Mark Scott, of Mark Scott Associates, Newport Beach, California.
He’s worked with Scott off and on over the past 25 years. Cohen had such a rapport with the couple that they put him in charge of the project, coordinating even the design work. He thinks it’s because “I listened to them really well, and had a real sense of what they wanted. We’re still friends today.”
The budget for the half-acre project was originally estimated at $500,000. “That seemed like a reasonable starting point,” said Cohen.
As costs looked like they were going to exceed that, Cohen kept talking to the couple, and plans were discarded or modified as they went along. The owners still lived in Texas, so most communication was by phone.
Once a month or so, the clients would come out, and that’s when trees and materials would be selected. Cohen was fortunate that “They were very good clients to work with, willing to pay reasonable costs for extras that we suggested or thought were necessary.”
The clients wanted a very simple, formal-looking landscape. Cohen and Scott gave it to them, “along with a lot of variety, and some contrasts,” says Cohen.
Some of the features include an elegant 10,000-foot swimming pool “in a natural environment to give the feel of a beach in Tahiti.” The pool is lake-shaped, with rock work going down into the water, and is surrounded by plants. A European-style fountain spouts water into the pool. Four 34-inch fire bowls sit at the fountain’s apex. Flames shoot from the fire bowls with the flick of a switch.
The entrance to the home is very close to the sidewalk, so Cohen created an offset entry with a very clean foundation, a water feature, and trees. Upon entering the house, there is a downstairs patio with a fireplace put there by the homes’ original builder.
Cohen dressed up this area by adding paving treatment to the floor and wrought-iron accents to the fireplace. Looking out the back window, the formal fire bowls are visible.
The covered ‘great room’ includes a built-in bar, barbeque, fireplace, and seating areas.
In addition to installing all the plantings, trees and shrubs, Cohen and his crews built every bit of the hardscape, including the pool, spa and all the water features. They also installed the lighting, built walls— including some small retaining walls—and the covered pavilion. The size of the crews varied, from as many as fifteen men to the usual number of six to twelve. Working continuously, it took eight months to complete.
The project went smoothly, for the most part, except for a couple of special challenges. Since the house was already built, there was limited access along one side. This was where a large Phoenix Canariensis palm tree was supposed to go. Placing it, however, turned out to be an engineering feat. The weight of it was much more than the crane could handle, and a larger crane wouldn’t fit in the space they had to work in. Cohen’s men had to trim a few thousand pounds of dirt off the rootball so they could get it into the backyard.
Scott found a beautiful fountain for the side yard, hand-carved in Bali, on the Internet. It took much longer to arrive than expected, and when it finally did, it was held up in customs at the Port of Los Angeles. “We had to hire a customs agent just to get it off the boat,” says Cohen.
When they finally retrieved the fountain, they discovered that it had arrived damaged. “There were a whole bunch of chips in the flowers and leaves,” said Cohen. He was afraid that ordering a replacement would take too long. He also concluded that if it arrived damaged the first time, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening the second time?
In the end, Cohen and his crew decided to repair the damage themselves, carefully mixing special cement compounds to match the color, then hand carving the replacement flora themselves. “There were quite a lot of repairs we had to do.”
But if you look closely at the photo, you can’t tell where the repairs were made.
These are examples of the sort of attention to detail both contractors are known for. “We make sure the quality is there in everything we do,” says Cohen, “even in the things that don’t show.” That extends to how the drainage and irrigation is put in. “We make sure that the masonry slabs have plenty of steel in them, and that they’re thick enough so they’re not going to crack, and many, many other little details that another contractor might overlook, or let slide.”
Cohen and his crews make certain that even the routine, day-in, day-out work is done absolutely right. “Quite frankly, it’s not uncommon for me to see something I don’t like and make my guys tear it out and redo it.” For instance, the precast concrete cap on the side fountain, the one from Bali, had a slight sag in it, so Cohen made them take it off and reinstall it.
Both Richard Cohen and Scott Sohn are true craftsmen. They take tremendous pride in their work and go beyond the extra mile to make sure every detail is just right. It’s why both men richly deserve the recognition they’ve received, and will, without a doubt, continue to receive in the future.