Excellence in Craftsmanship
|By ELIZABETH LEXAU|
When clients step into Scott Cohen’s office, they get a small taste of what’s in store for them if they choose his company to design and install their landscape. The office itself is a work of art. Sculpted of recycled lumber, tree stumps and branches, it feels rustic, yet elegant, streamlined yet warm and inviting, avant-garde, yet old world. This inspired workspace is a reflection of the designer’s creativity and serves as a symbol of the craftsmanship that goes into each of his projects.
Cohen knows that excellence in craftsmanship is pivotal in building a successful firm. A designer with a background in ceramics and sculpture, Cohen is president and supervising designer for The Green Scene, an award-winning outdoor design and construction firm in Canoga Park, California. Cohen’s leadership has helped grow the company into one of the most sought-after firms in the Los Angeles area.
For The Green Scene, craftsmanship means creating landscapes that truly reflect the personality of the owners. “I believe it’s very important to get into the heads of my clients,” says Cohen, “to find out what makes them tick.” The time and effort that Cohen invests in understanding his clients results in projects that reflect their distinctive tastes. It gives them outdoor spaces that feel like comfortable extensions of themselves.
These spaces, which often feature spectacular pools, ponds, and fountains accented by Cohen’s unique sculptural work, have earned him a Master’s of Design Award, along with recognition from national media including Home and Garden Television and Sunset Magazine Pool and Spa book. Needless to say, they’ve also led to tremendous growth in business volume for the company.
The Green Scene started as an offshoot to a chemical lawn care firm. As a landscape designer, Cohen wasn’t always getting what he wanted from the contractors he worked with. His frustration led him to become a licensed contractor in landscape, pool, and general construction. This enabled the company to take projects from design to completion with as much in-house staff as possible, ensuring that each is built according to the original vision of the designer.
A recently completed project in Calabasas, California, offers an excellent example of the inspiration, teamwork, and craftsmanship that goes into each Green Scene creation. This intimate setting for luxurious outdoor living includes a kitchen with cast stone counters, a fireplace, a sound system with faux stone speakers, and a tranquil pond bordered by naturalized stones and plantings. The highlight of the property is the pool, featuring an inviting pergola supported by four graceful columns. From the top of the pergola curves an elegant swim-behind rainfall.
“One of my primary philosophies is that your next job always comes from your last job,” says Cohen. “Therefore, you have to make sure the work you take on is work that you want to do now and something that will take you in the direction you want to go.” He filters every project through this lens. For Cohen, this means that a project must have the potential to challenge his creativity and provide an opportunity for unique artistic expression. “I’m always looking for new ideas. I’m not interested in doing the same thing twice.”
The Calabasas project definitely provided that challenge. Topping the pergola is a huge and delicately crafted wrought iron dome from which a curving apron of water emerges. “While this was very easy to draw,” says Cohen, “it turned out to be very complex to build.” Cohen knew the pergola itself could not bear the weight of the iron dome. So he turned to his vendors to provide structural engineering expertise. “We acknowledge that we’re not experts in everything,” says Cohen. “We rely on our vendors as part of our support team whenever we can.” In this case, they challenged their vendors to come up with a system that worked for this structure, and they did. The effect? The twelve-foot diameter iron piece appears to balance effortlessly atop the structure.
The project faced other challenges, including an ever-changing budget as the owner added major elements along the way. “We would arrive at the site and ask ‘Okay, what are we going to be doing today?’” laughs Cohen.
But Cohen and his team understand that projects often grow in scope as customers gain confidence and realize the possibilities. “When you first start a project, a client hears what you say but really doesn’t have an appreciation of what you can deliver,” says Cohen. “Once the project is underway, there’s a confidence that grows. They feel more comfortable with your abilities, see more possibilities, and want to take advantage of your skills while you’re on their property. There’s an economy of scale for both the builder and the client that makes it more valuable to make these additions while you’re already on site.”
Needless to say, major additions have the potential to cause logistical difficulties with other clients. But Cohen uses what he calls “restaurant style scheduling” to keep clients satisfied. “At a restaurant, you might not mind waiting twenty minutes for a table, but as soon as you sit down, you want great service right away.”
If the table is at your favorite restaurant, you might not mind waiting a bit longer, if you know it’s worth it. You know that when it’s your turn, you’ll get undivided attention, and the experience will be absolutely fabulous. This is what Cohen’s clients expect, and what The Green Scene delivers. “We have jobsite trailers,” says Cohen. “When our staff reports to work, they report at that jobsite, and we work there until we’re done with that job. We don’t do a little here and a little there. That’s elevator music scheduling, and it’s very frustrating to clients.”
So, while the budget grew from $300,000 to $400,000, and the landscape took six months and 14 employees to complete, the results of the Calabasas project were well worth it. The homeowners received exactly what they wanted, and knew that their own individuality and creativity was respected and valued throughout the project.
Craftsmanship from the ground up
He takes his goal of getting “into the heads” of his clients very seriously, and uses a lengthy “Getting to Know You” questionnaire to help him do just that. If the home is owned by a couple, he insists that both be present. “I ask them their favorite hobbies, their favorite vacation spots, their favorite movies, even what their friends would say about them. If they have art work they want to incorporate, I want to see it. I also ask them to give their landscape a theme. Then I ask what that theme means to them, because everyone interprets things differently. The word ‘tropical,’ for example, can mean very different things to different clients.”
“All of the time we’re discussing this, we’re looking at pictures,” continues Cohen. “I ask them what they really like and what they really dislike.” This process gives him an organized system to use with each client, so when he sits down to draw up designs, he’ll know exactly where to find the information he needs.
During the consultation, Cohen begins sketching preliminary ideas based on what he’s learning about the clients. These sketches give the clients a feel for what will come next in the process. They also build confidence that Cohen is developing an understanding and appreciation of the clients’ wishes, values, and tastes.
“We do charge a consultation fee at this stage,” says Cohen. “We’ve found that by charging a fee, we can ensure that we’re working with clients who value our time and advice. They’ll show up for meetings on time and take their commitment to the process seriously. This also sets up the expectation that we’re more professional than other firms they may be considering. Free advice is worth just what you pay for it. We sell 85% of the work we see in those visits,” says Cohen.
After the consultation, they create one to three concepts for each project and render a variety of perspectives. “I feel very strongly that perspective renderings are extremely important,” says Cohen. “Many clients have difficulty visualizing. This sets up expectations. Not only are the perspectives a fabulous sales tool, but we also use them as part of our work orders during installation. We can also use them for our “Coming Soon” sign which gives us our next job.”
At that point, “the devil is in the details,” according to Cohen. And to guarantee that those details are met according to everyone’s expectations, work orders must be very specific. “Ours include a detailed plot plan, a detailed contract, a line item price list, and several detailed perspectives, so that when anyone is on the site, they can look at these and know exactly how the project is supposed to come together.”
Details are checked and double-checked throughout the building phase. The company sets up a regular schedule of weekly or bi-weekly on-site meetings with the homeowners, foreman, and designer to double-check details, make sure all decisions are going as planned, and confirm that everyone’s happy with the progress of the project. “Continuing with the restaurant metaphor,” says Cohen, “this is when the waiter comes back to the table and says, ‘How are you doing, can I get you another Scotch?’”
Regular meetings help ensure that time is used productively, says Cohen. “It reduces the number of phone calls to our office and the number of times we need to contact the homeowner. Everyone knows there’s a time scheduled for asking questions. They make a list ahead of time and get them all answered at once.” Not only does this make staff more productive, it shows clients that their time is respected as well.
To ensure quality control, employees are given the authority and responsibility to make corrections at their discretion. Each level of staff is given a dollar amount that serves as a guideline for independent decision-making. “For example, a foreman can make decisions up to $250, senior foreman up to $1,000,” says Cohen. “This way, if they see a quality issue, they can address it right there on the spot.”
Cohen knows that this attention to detail takes time. “Don’t ever allow your staff to be pressured into completing a task in less time than they need to do it right,” Cohen advises. “The client will forget how long it took but will always remember how well it was built.”
Employees can easily recognize the value that their own craftsmanship adds to the company’s success. “Each staff member draws a base salary, but also earns a bonus with every letter of referral,” says Cohen. “Our staff knows that in order to earn a bonus on a job, we have to earn a letter of referral.” The fact that the walls of the office at The Green Scene are literally papered with letters of recommendation gives testimony to the effectiveness of this strategy.
While this bonus system provides a unique incentive for employees,
the real incentive lasts longer than money. Cohen’s dedication
to craftsmanship is contagious and is evident in the work of his employees.
Their primary incentive is the satisfaction of seeing a magnificent
project come together and knowing that their own skill helped create
a place of lasting beauty.