Learn from the Experts: Petro Design Blog


Kathleen Litchfield President of Petro Design/Build, Inc. Kathleen Litchfield
President of Petro Design/Build Group, is one of the Washington area's leading landscape and garden design experts. Her insightful advice on landscape design, construction, and practice has been published and quoted innumerous regional and national magazines. She has developed and taught accredited courses in horticulture and has lectured for garden clubs, the National Association of Remodeling Industry, the Landscape Contractors Association, the Smithsonian Educational Series, the George Washington University landscape design program, and the Washington Design Center.

Kent Richard Abraham, Principle Architect with Abraham/Petro Kent Richard Abraham,
Principal Architect with Abraham/Petro a division of Petro Design/Build He is a member of the US Green Building Council 2006. His education includes Bachelor of Architecture, 1970, University of Nebraska, With Honors (Cum Laude),Awarded the Faculty Award, Outstanding Senior Student; Master of Architecture, 1971, University of Pennsylvania, Studio of Louis Kahn. He has served as Chair, Thesis committee school of Architecture and Planning, The Catholic University of America Washington, DC since 1978.


Author Archive

D.I.Y. or NOT

When it comes to doing something myself; either for the adventure of it, as means to create a healthier product or just save some money, I’m interested. Sometimes my efforts and time prove to be worth it in the short and long term. Other times, things have not gone as smoothly as planned or promised and end up costing me much more in time and money.

Because of these experiences, and what I have seen the average homeowner implement over the years, I’m more than happy to direct my clients on practices and/or projects that would make sense for them to do themselves. In landscaping and landscape construction, this means leaving the initial ground work and design to someone who has either the right conditioned muscles or design or horticultural experience. I believe that I have ‘fixed’ as many D.I.Y. projects for homeowners and property managers as I have implemented anew. Sometimes just having a new perspective by someone, not intimately involved with your site, can help you with the details and the whole picture.

I’m always very careful about asking who was responsible for the existing work, as I know that I am sometimes dealing with embarrassment, pride and even marital conflict. Once I had a very motivated client decide that he would build the 6’ retaining wall that we designed to level his rear yard and provide more space. He was semi-retired and had the time. The wall construction seemed to progress well and then, just needed to be backfilled. He rented a machine to backfill and compact the wall – himself. The long and the short of it is that the wall blew out with the weight of the machine sending the machine over the wall and into the woods below. I met his wife a few weeks later and inquired about his progress. She just started sobbing.
This is certainly an extreme example but sometimes even a small patio set incorrectly can cause extensive problems later.

So; what is a good DIY project when it comes to your landscape?

Obviously, everyone is capable of planting trees, shrubs, groundcover, perennials or annuals. Just remember that the big stuff always takes longer than you think and, if this is not something you physically do on a regular basis, be ready with the Advil.
Good bed preparation is necessary grunt work. Access to a rototiller may not be available or manageable for the average homeowner.

Assisted DIY Gutter Cleaning

A few Do’s and Don’ts on basic maintenance:
Do:
• Clean your gutters
• Resecure downspouts that may have become detached
• Watch drainage patterns within your yard for possible amendments
• Remove or cultivate excess mulching
• Cut suckering from trees (*make sure your pruners or saw is sharp and sterilized)
• Prune old growth from flowering shrubs (*) Timing is important for both above items.
• Acquire a soil analysis for your beds and turf areas

DON’T:
• Clean second floor gutters without assistance
• Assume that it is necessary to mulch your beds just because everyone else is.
• Use a chainsaw if you are not experienced
• Add chemicals to your yard or plants – in untrained hands, these can lead to deadly personal and environmental hazards

Nothing can help you budget your time and money better than a well thought out design. Even a 1 hour on-site consultation can save you hundreds in possible misplaced plants, structures or drain lines.
Once you have a game plan, or some experience advice, the areas should be tackled according to priority – which is different for everyone.

To get you started and working towards a landscape plan:

DO:
• Create a base sheet of your site or area(s) that you would like to renovate or enhance. Scale this on a piece of paper using a minimum of 1/8” = 1’0” scale. (1/4” = 1’0” is better).
Include:
      o Existing features (patios, walkways, spigots, etc)
      o Existing trees and vegetations (and whether you want them or not)
      o Window heights along our foundation (if this in an area of interest)
      o Storm water patterns/paths
      o Utilities (a call to a utility marking service will identify the main lines)      o Where the sun is at different times of the year (sun set/rise)
      o Views you would like to hide (look from the inside of your home as well)
• Make a list of how you would like to use the space(s) – Entertainment, small parties, play, sports, gardening, etc.

DON’T
• Assume that your plot plan is accurate. For new construction and/or fencing, a site survey is necessary.
• Neglect elevations in relation to your desired and existing structures and or your neighbor’s site

Site mapping is a time and cost saving DIY.
Site analysis and design should be implemented or, at least, consulted on with a professional.
The step-by-step or phased approach will follow in a DIY and assisted schedule.

More to come….

The 'Game Plan' for a successful DIY or staged project

The ‘Game Plan’ for a successful DIY or staged project

Hide and Seek

So; here I am again at another newly purchased home where the previous homeowner has implemented additions that have compromised the safety and structure of the home and left the new owners with unexpected cost.

As the Washington, D.C. population continues to grow, I’m dismayed to see so many young new homeowners having to deal with these issues.  Typically, children are already living in the home - which makes the amendments even more immediately dire.

Exposed brick and block under 'original' porch

At this particular home the front entrance was moved from the middle of the house to the right front. Fine – Nice – Makes sense.

The original front entrance porch was correctly tied into the home with a concrete ledge extending from the foundation of the home itself.  The foundation of the original porch boxed in an open space between the outside of the porch and the foundation of the house so that, when the porch base was removed, it exposed brick and block that, at the time, were not exposed to the ground and did not need to be waterproofed.  The previous contractors ignored this detail and filled the open cavity with soil hence, exposing open celled concrete block and brick to soil moisture.  To make matters worse – the new stoop was not tied to anything!  It doesn’t even have a footing.  Hidden underground mistakes often don’t show up until the ground water seeks it’s way into the foundation.  It’s an easy place to initially cut cost on a project, especially if you are planning to move.

So; although I’m sure that this saved the previous homeowner a bit of cash,  the stoop is now settling which will allow even more water infiltration and eventually need to be removed and replaced correctly.

I’m not suggesting these construction errors are always intentionally done.  Rather,  just another ’heads-up’  for the new homeowner as the inspector and agent will not pick up on this.

If this looks familiar and/or you would like to see more examples that may relate to your particular site and home go to www.storm-water-professionals.com.

Settling Stoop

Settling Stoop

 

Steve Tayman liked this post

Beware of the “End-of-Season Nursery Sales”

The weather has cooled, after a record hot summer, and what a perfect time to get your yard back in shape.  It’s always the best time to plant (warm soils with cool air) and the nurseries are desperate to reduce their inventory before winter sets in.  The sales are irresistible!

Specimen plants with a canvas of mulch do not 'frame your home or guide you to the front door'

Specimen plants with a canvas of mulch do not ‘frame your home or guide you to the front door’

A confusing, high maintenance bargain.

A confusing, high maintenance bargain.

Nurseries are inspiring places and you can easily lose yourself in the end of season energy and crisp oxygen high.

For some, finding something unique could be the very thing to enhance their; well… “I’m not sure where I’ll put it but “IT’S JUST SO COOL!” 

Remember, plant material is not furniture or accessories.  They are living, growing and sometimes invasive, disease/fungal carrying, damaging long term additions to your real estate.   They are not something you can easily move to a different location or re-cover if you change your mind about their color to coordinate with the new color of your shutters.

Landscape design is most cost effective when considered on paper first.  There are lots of questions to consider that start with your basic premise for wanting plants in the first place and end with how much maintenance you are willing to commit to.  As a rule of thumb; your front plants should frame your home and guide you to the front door.  Flexibility can be used in the rear yard extending the views from the inside – out.

Before our initial meeting we request that the homeowner complete a 5 page questionnaire to help them organize their thoughts, needs and desires, on paper and provide us with the background information we need to guide them in the right direction for their site and personal taste.   Even a one-on-one consultation on site with an experienced professional landscape designer and/or horticulturist could help you avoid costly impulse buying at the nursery this fall.  Yes, nurseries do have horticulturist and, sometimes, landscape designers but remember – they need to move their stock.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Petro Design Build liked this post

Experience Matters

Alvin and Me

Alvin and Me

About 25 years ago I was called to provide pricing for a rather extensive drainage project in Bethesda, Md. The homeowner had consulted with an experienced builder and drainage expert who had provided recommendations for keeping existing underground water (springs) away from their home. I was asked to review their site and then talk directly to the gentleman who had made the recommendations.

This was my first introduction to Alvin Sacks. Since this initial project together, through numerous other collaborations on storm water and site drainage over many years, Alvin has provided me with a wealth of information, advice and sound common sense when it comes to hydrology. To know that water flows down hill is simply not enough. Alvin says you must understand the “science” and how it relates to the structure of your home and site.

Approximately 10 years ago, Alvin invited me to be a member of a group of professional business people in the Metropolitan area whose purpose was to help each other in business through information and leads. Alvin is one of the founding members of Metronet and, as far as I know, has rarely missed a meeting. I learned more about Alvin at these meetings and, the more I learned, the more interesting he became.

Here is a man who has been a consultant for innumerable civil, geotechnical, structural, material and transportation engineers as well as architects, builders, home inspectors, governmental agencies, real estate agents, property managers, schools, lawyers and homeowners. His published articles and periodicals include everyone from the Washington Post and Remodeling Magazine to the New England Builder News. The National Association of Home Builders requested that Alvin write a book on “Residential Water Problems” and even published and sold it! He is qualified as an expert witness in several courts and was even consulted in a sting operation for a local television station to expose a dishonest waterproofing company.

Several years ago Alvin’s was awarded a “Life Membership” by the American Society of Civil Engineers; say’s Alvin “for a total of 85 years – they add one’s age plus years of membership” and yet, Alvin is not an engineer himself

The reason he is so respected and sought after in his field, and even certified by the ASCE, is because of his experience.

Alvin was a builder for most of his working life. Among other partnerships, he had his own home building business and had the opportunity to see, first hand, what worked and what did not – over time.

As business owners, we all know that you must stand behind your product for years and years. Alvin was certainly a leader in this field. If you met Alvin, you would know that ‘he-means-what-he-says-and -says-what-he-means’ and has little tolerance for less than quality work. Don’t even try to tell him or show him something that is not right! He has a strong baritone voice and is not shy.

After a semi-retirement from building, he continued as a building inspector and consultant. He has since written structural and drainage related articles, too numerous to name, and continues to consult in this regard.

Alvin and I have seen many blunders, when it comes to construction and storm water amendments; certainly Alvin has more than I, as he has a few years on me yet.
What I’ve learned and accept is; while certifications, degrees and diplomas are important, when it comes to working with someone that “knows” what is right, because they’ve done it and stood behind it over time – I will pick the experienced business person every time!

Mulch Mania!!!

It is truly amazing every single year how we continue to pile on the mulch.  I’ve tried to analyze the mentality of this manic practice (specific evidently to the Washington area) like I’ve tried to get my mind around why someone would throw a piece of trash out a car window.  What chronic disorder would possess people to invest hundreds of dollars and time on a seemingly ritualistic annual self-imposed duty?

Is it because the neighbors bought a truckload of mulch and are doing it? In other words ‘sheep syndrome’ or ‘neighbor envy’?

I know that nurseries make huge amounts of money encouraging the practice. So; great marketing, but on what basis? Granted that over-mulching is a number one contributor to death and decline in plants so it makes sense for a nursery to encourage this practice.  It’s a win- win for them!  Nurseries also sell a variety of edgings to hold your mulch in the beds!!  Brilliant!!

A few years back I designed and installed a landscape for a stone yard to draw attention to the use of stone within a planted area.  About 6 months later I went back to see how it had matured and was shocked to see that all the groundcover had been removed and the natural shapes of the plants had been tortured into tight balls; your typical gas-station variety.    I asked the owner ‘What the   ?”  His reply was that no one could see the MULCH!!!!??  So; it IS about the mulch itself?  Maybe this is really the reason as you can purchase a variety of interesting colors to display.  So, why buy plants if it’s about the mulch?

Mulch is a by-product of the lumber industry.  They had a problem disposing of the bark.  Someone came up with the idea of redistributing it instead of hauling it away.  This initially might have been a good idea but, somewhere along the line, it got way out of hand.

My understanding is that developers encourage mulching as a way to redistribute the clear-cutting methods they used in development.  Piles of chipped trees were costly to remove.  Why not make a profit with a campaign for necessity?  Once I saw a Cadillac pulled over at a construction site on a Sunday with the driver shoveling a pile of left-over wood chips into the trunk; but I digress. Anyway, we’re now talking about wood chips which are even more detrimental to plantings.

Love the smell? Could it be a great way to get your hands dirty without getting really all that dirty? What else?

Let me tell you what the over-use of this by product DOES do.

  1. Over- mulching encourages surface rooting.  Think about it.  Roots are starved for air and water and climb, gasping to the surface, in an attempt to survive.   Winter comes and the roots are in a loose medium that cannot protect them from winter freezes
  2. Mulch acts like a wick. In dry periods it sucks the water away from the roots and in wet periods it wicks water and holds it, providing an environment which encourages the growth of root rot, stem canker and a variety of other fungal organisms.  Have you ever noticed a pile of what appears to be “dog vomit” on the top of your mulch?  This is truly what it is called in the trade. I’ve seen it covering the branches of an azalea which, by the way, is one of the many fibrous rooted plants that suffer terminally from over-mulching.  This “dog vomit” is the product of high humidity levels, irrigation systems or rain with mulch and can be deadly to plants. Plus, it’s gross.
  3. Over mulching raises magnesium levels in the soil causing a collapse of the structure of the soil leading to its inability to absorb and drain water.  When the soil becomes wet it expands and when it dries out it gets very hard.  This expands and contracts the root system.   Rather than mulching year after year; cultivation would alleviate this condition.
  4. Mulch is anywhere from $25 – $50 per cubic yard.  Plus labor and/or your time x 2 times per year…adds up over time.

As a contractor, I shouldn’t discount the business potential of mulching.  I could get myself a truck-mount mulching rig and certainly reduce my recession stress.   As a horticulturist, a recent graduate of the Watershed Academy (which included 6 months of sustainable awareness training), and as a responsible contractor, I won’t do it. In fact; once the initial planting installation is completed and  mulched with 1” in  groundcover areas and 2” in planting areas I can assure my clients that, as the groundcover establishes, their maintenance and watering will be reduce considerably, as will their maintenance cost.

If weeding is your concern; weed seeds root much easier in loose mulch than in soil and typically even arrive in the mulch.  Groundcover helps hold water in the soil, chokes out weeds and is considered a ‘sustainable’ practice.

Here’s the depressing but unavoidable bottom line; the nurseries are jammed with people filling their trunks with bags of mulch. Homeowners, encouraged by the reasons above, are having truck loads of mulch delivered and installed this very moment.  I have lectured, written and pleaded with homeowners about this topic for close to 30 years and those very same people will be the ones with over mulched beds yet another year.

To me; mulch mania falls in the same category with plant shearing, Round-up® mania and possibly, littering.  People are still going to do it regardless. But, at least, I’ve made yet another attempt to reduce this practice.

What difference does 1 Lousy Rain Barrel make?!

Through a series of coincidental meetings (the third being a clear indication for action) I enrolled and was accepted into the Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA).

For the next several months I have/will attend evening classes at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Severn, Md. along with weekend intensive trainings in various locations throughout the County.

“The quintessential role of Master Watershed Stewards (which I intend to be one of) is to organize community action toward the restoration and preservation of our watersheds” and, in particular, to learn, in depth, pollution source reduction strategies – Capturing water at its source is still the best way to reduce the pollutant load it carries to a stream.

During one of the first evening lectures Stephen Barry, the coordinator of the Outdoor/Environmental Education, told us future Stewards that we would be getting our very own rain barrel.  I thought, great, 1 barrel – how much good will that do; I don’t even have gutters.  Don’t get me wrong, I know the value of water and never take it for granted; turning the shower off while I soap up and the like.  I’m incensed when the media refers to rain as a ‘threat’ as if it is some terrorist when, if fact, it’s our life source.

For those of you who have read my previous blogs and articles, you know how involved Petro has been,  in addressing homeowner’s drainage concerns.  Typically, when someone is experiencing a wet or moldy basement they want the water as far away from the house as possible.   Pollution source reduction includes keeping the water on-site. Sometimes, depending on the soils, topography of the site and the homeowner’s maintenance involvement, this can be accomplished through rain gardens.   Alternative,  adequately designed buried dispersion systems are lower in maintenance but not quite as organic or attractive.

Rain barrels, on the other hand, can be used by everyone immediately and with relatively little cost.   But what good is just one? A couple of years ago we distributed our own eco-friendly tote bag that can be folded in for easy carrying.   I always have one in my purse or clipped to my belt for use wherever needed.   A lot of people bring there re-usable bags to the grocery.  I noticed that nearly no one used them in drug stores or other non-grocery shops.  In using my bag everywhere I’m hoping to encourage others to do the same.

One of our residential analysis projects this past weekend included an opportunity to assess and present ways that a particular homeowner might keep his water on his site. With little or no yard and the access areas at a minimum, one of the stewards suggested a rain barrel at the front driveway downspout.  The homeowner immediately said ‘not an option’ as it would not be aesthetically pleasing. This particular home was located on a prominent corner in a waterside community that was in much need of pollution source reduction for the good of everyone.  I thought, what a great example this one rain barrel would make prominently placed in the front yard; sort of like using my own bag everywhere!

So this one rain barrel, that I will get, will make a huge difference as an example to others of what little it takes to help maintain our planet.

This Holiday Season:

One of our assignments was to read The Chesapeake Watershed: A Sense of Place and a Call to Action by Ned Tillman. It’s a great geological and historic account of how our watersheds developed and declined with specific action plans available to individuals, corporations and government; inspiring, depressing and a critical assessment of our immediate watersheds.  We were fortunate to have the author at one of our evening seminars.  His first question to the group was, “Do you remember a specific outdoor location/space that you felt connected to as a child?” There were warm memories from Maine, Indiana to Florida mostly inspired by family outings as a child.  “This is why you’re here” Mr. Tillman said, “…these fond memories of your life in the outdoors having inspired you to take action to preserve it.”  Today our children are inside on electronic equipment, what memories will inspire future preservation?  This is where I’m heading.  This Holiday Season we will send out a 2011 guide to 3 local outdoor destinations per month where you and your family can experience the best of what is available in outdoor activities and locations. One trip per month can have a lasting effect.

First Impressions…

AFTER

 

BEFORE

As Spring approaches let Petro Design/Build getcreative and design a custom “First Impression” for you…

The new entry seen below practically beckons you to enter.  The doorway is highlighted by beautiful Upright Hornbeams, while the rest of the architecture is softened by the additional plant material.  The previous gravel drive was transformed into a drop-off area for guests.  A garden bench is tucked into the perennial garden for a visitor’s respite.

 

Proper Insulation Can Save your Plants!

This past snow was exciting, beautiful, and for some, provided much needed time indoors.  For others, the snow and subsequent colder temperatures cost much more than they anticipated.

Attic spaces that are not properly insulated can allow heat to escape.  Melting of the snow/ice will ensue (in our case from this storm, up to 3 feet of snow in some areas!!!) thus creating an avalanche of destruction on the foundation and plants below.  In some cases, it will bring the gutters with it!!  Additionally, trying to shovel the snow off your plants will only make it worse.

Properly insulating your home not only saves you on your direct energy cost but will avoid potential subsequent repair cost and is the MOST COST EFFECTIVE amendment you can make to your home at this time!

Petro lends a helping hand…

designingFor the last few years Petro has worked closely with the staff at Pecometh Camp & Retreat Ministries.  Petro donates their time and design eye for the development of the group’s most recent undertaking: the new Adult Retreat Center!

The volunteer designers at Petro became an integral part of the design team providing valuable suggestions regarding layout, grading, drainage, and material selections during the design/development phase.  To start, the designers at Petro spent time facilitating workshops with key staff.  They worked together to select building color schemes, re-align driveways to ease circulation, evaluate species for the Storm Water Management area, among other various tasks as well, all to provide the most efficient, sustainability, and aesthetics for the center.

The building phases are now complete, and the ribbon cutting was held last month.  Currently, Petro is donating time to help with the courtyard design.  The Retreat Ministry will be looking for Donors to create the pavers for this area.  Petro has connected with Increte, a contrete contractor who will ALSO donate time, materials, and installation of over 2,000 square feet of concrete to the project!

The new retreat is located on the Eastern Shore in Centreville, Maryland, with beautiful tranquil views to the water.  What better place to have a retreat!  It has been Petro’s pleasure to work closely with the wonderful team at Pecometh to help them attain the best design possible

For more information on Pecometh Camp & Retreat Ministries, visit www.pecometh.org

 

Lessons from Hurricane Lee – continued ‘Surface Drainage’

I recently saw a ‘grab’ line in an advertisement for a drainage company that stated “The most common solution to drainage is a system of French drains”.  No! This is wrong.   A French drain in the wrong location can be a costly mistake. Here are a few basic rules for handling surface drainage:

  • If the area can be graded to divert the water, this should be the first approach.  A minimum of 2% slope on turf is sufficient to move water.
  • If grading is not an option a surface drain, or better yet -a catch basin, could be an option.  The inlet point must still be 2% higher than the outlet point.  Excavation and distance are key financial considerations.
  • For standing, percolating ground water a French drain system is a viable option.  Water takes the path of least resistance so gravel surrounding an open perforated pipe draws the water in.  The pipe still needs to be diverted to a lower elevation in order to remove the water from the area rather than just gathering it.

A turf swale is a good conductor of water

A turf swale is a good conductor of water

Catch basin with atrium grate to intercept surface water

Catch basin with atrium grate to intercept surface water

French drains should not be located next to a foundation of a home for any reason.   You would think that this was common sense but I have been on 3 projects in the last 4 months where a contractor had done just that hence, drawing water into the foundation of the house.  On one project the downspouts had been tied into this foundation French drain – diverting water into the home and providing the food source for molds.

A drain tile system installed at the base of a foundation during construction is designed to divert ground water into a sump or storm water system.  This is a building code and has nothing to do with surface water.

A drysteam can be used to divert surface drainage and include a French drain system as seen below.

A drysteam can be used to divert surface drainage and include a French drain system as seen below.