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.


Archive for the ‘Sustainable Practices’ Category

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

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!

Melting Snow and Molds

OK, it’s going to melt….we hope.  This is when the saturation starts along the exterior walls of the foundation. If the gutters have pulled away from the house it’s only going to get worse.  I don’t know about you, but my mold allergies keep me vigilant year-round for water seapage.  It’s easier to prevent than fix.  I’ve been in many homes where the residents are living with and breathing black mold everyday!!  They just got used to it and yet they only buy organic foods!!!  It’s like my painter telling me his health concerns about lead-based paints and how he takes a meter with him to check the levels before sanding; (which is a important and necessary), but meanwhile, he is puffing on a cigarette!!!

Fortunately, my body tells me when mold is around.  I can feel it immediately.

My mother-in-law died 5 years ago from pulmonary fibrosis.  When she was sick the doctors could not figure out what was wrong with her.  She remembered that in the house she used to play in across the street as a child, every member of that family died from pulmonary fibrosis.  She mentioned this to her doctor who tested her and confirmed that she did, indeed, have the disease.  She and her brother remembered that the house smelled moldy.

Mold spores, when breathed in, remain in your lungs.  Good health and a good dose of anioxidants will prevent illness.  As we age,  our defenses may decrease for a variety of reasons (stress, pesticides in foods, hormone depletion…to name a very few)  This is when the spores can attack.

So, check your gutters, crawl spaces and foundations.  If you suspect mold, don’t disturb it yourself. Call a professional immediately.

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.

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!

Chicken Gardening – Sustainable Landscapes

What better way to ensure that you have fresh, organic eggs than to have your own hen house?  Today’s site development plans are no longer limited to vegetable and herb gardens, berry cages and compost bins; they include ‘designs’ for a family run hen-house. Yesterday’s hobby of water gardening is today’s producing chicken garden.

As a child growing up on a few acres, my father raised 45 chickens, several ducks and honey bees, seemingly to help sustain our family of 11.  I’m sure, though, he enjoyed the challenge, variety and fun of this endeavor.  He even grew mushrooms in our cellar!   These practices have come full circle as families, again, try to sustain from within.

It’s more than a personal interest;  reducing reliance on mass produced eggs and chickens reduces the waste run-off into critical waterways, eliminates the energy and fuel consumption necessary to transport and refrigerate, and sends a message about the cruel conditions that mass produced chickens are raised under.

Hen house ‘designs’ can be stylish and fun but keep in mind that this is not a weekend hobby. They must include security, shade, nesting areas, feeding areas, ventilation, protection from storms and weather, lighting, access and adjoining (or close-by) storage for ease of maintenance.

You do need space.  The average chicken will need 4 square feet of coop/house space and a minimum of 10 square feet of ‘run’.  Free range chickens are, naturally, just that and require much more space.

Make sure to check your local zoning laws before investing, as cities, counties and towns all have varying criteria.

Earth Day 2010

Happy Earth Day from Petro Design Build Inc.

Branch out and celebrate Earth Day this Thursday!  April 22, 2010 marks the 40th anniversary.  Events, lectures, etc. will be taking place through the weekend in celebration.  We’ve listed a few below around the metro area we think would be great opportunities to “branch out”.

Thursday, April 22

2nd Annual Green Drinks for the Bay: 5:30pm, Severn Inn, 1993 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd., Annapolis

AIA Spring Lecture Series: Jerry van Eyck, Narration of Urban Settings through Integral Landscapes, 6pm Brown Center, MICA, Baltimore

Historic Sherwood Gardens is in full bloom with 80,000 tulips!  Absolutely breathtaking, a must see if you are in the Baltimore area.

Chesapeak Ecology Center:  Volunteer Needed,  Orientation: 1-3pm, Chesapeake Ecology Center, 245 Clay St., Annapolis

Saturday, April 24th

Earth Day and Family, Music & Kite Festival: 10-3pm, Quiet Waters Park, 600 Quiet Waters Road, Annapolis

16th Annual Sierra Club “Earth Day” 5k: 8:30am Quiet Waters Park, Annapolis

Sunday, April 25th

MD House and Garden Pilgrimage: Tour Historic Guilford in Baltimore City, home of Sherwood Gardens

St. Georges Day: PG Historical Society with gather at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upper Marlboro to celebrate the 314th anniversary of the establishment of Prince George’s County.

Earth Day Climate Rally: Washington DC on the National Mall