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  • Writer's pictureCheryl McIntosh

Exploring the Art and Science of Landscape Architecture, with Guest Erin Lau

Updated: May 1

Landscape architecture is a dynamic and multidisciplinary field that seamlessly blends art, science, and environmental stewardship to create outdoor spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also functional, sustainable, and harmonious with nature. In this post, we'll delve into the fascinating world of landscape architecture, exploring its principles, significance, and the creative minds behind the transformation of our outdoor environments. We also interview one of our trusted partners, landscape designer and horticulturalist, Erin Lau, about her experience with the Wingspan Residence–one of Rhodes Architecture + Light’s most recent comprehensive examples of thoughtful landscape planning and design.

 

The Essence of Landscape Architecture

 

Landscape architecture is more than just arranging plants, trees, and pathways; it is a thoughtful and deliberate process that considers the interplay of natural and built elements. At its core, landscape architecture seeks to enhance the quality of outdoor spaces, making them more livable, ecologically resilient, and visually striking. From urban parks and gardens to corporate campuses and residential areas, landscape designers play a pivotal role in shaping our surroundings.

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


Landscape designer, Erin Lau discussed with us the various principals and concepts that guide her process:

 

“My instinctual grasp of landscape design concepts are a product of experience. I’ve worked with about 1,000 clients, and learning what doesn’t work for them is almost as valuable as learning what does. I’ve had my own company for 14 years and before that, worked at a firm for four years as a project architect. I have an in-depth understanding of how architects’ work integrates into the landscape. I also have a true love of plants! I know of almost every plant in the region that you can look out your window and see, and I have a very good understanding of how to source plants that are available and suitable for our coastal climate. I am very aware of environmentally critical areas in this region and have a strong understanding of building and land use codes that effect landscaping.”


Principles, Concepts and Processes of Landscape Architecture

 

Before a single seed is planted or a stone laid, landscape designers conduct thorough site analyses. These involve, but are not limited to, studying the topography, climate, soil composition, and existing vegetation to inform the design process.

 

The design process takes several key concepts into consideration such as aesthetic harmony, materiality, site context, functionality, sustainability, lighting, accessibility, and others.

 

Unified Design Concept

 

Landscape designers develop a unified design concept that seamlessly integrates the building and landscape. This ensures that both elements contribute to a cohesive and harmonious overall design.

 

Erin’s work on the Wingspan Residence encompassed the front, back and side yards which allowed her to approach the project holistically.

 

“Certain aspects of the design were repeated for continuity. For example, the same kind of curves are reflected in the lawn lines and on the side patio. I also used elements of the same material throughout–for example bluestone risers in the front, on the side patio and firepit in the back. The plant pallet also has repeating themes throughout so that wherever you are on the property, there is a sense of congruency.” – Erin Lau

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


Consider the Site Context

 

Landscape designers take into account the natural features, topography, and climate of the site. The landscape design should respond to and enhance the existing context, creating a sense of place that aligns with the building's surroundings.

 

“The backyard of the Wingspan project was actually quite shallow but it backed up onto the park. That meant we could borrow the views of the park, making it look like the backyard was more expansive. The border was blurred, and the landscape is grassy before flowing into more native plantings. They wanted their kids to run right onto the grass and we responded by not cordoning off the backyard from the park. There were a lot of existing conifers, Doug Firs and cedars, and we wanted to keep as much of them as possible to give the front yard a forested screen area. We wove a path between them to enter the front yard.” – Erin Lau

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


Materials and Finishes Coordination

 

Landscape designers work with architects to coordinate the selection of materials and finishes between the building and landscape. Consistent or complementary materials create visual continuity, reinforcing the connection between indoor and outdoor spaces.

 

“For Wingspan, we repeated elements with the hardscape. Inside, we considered the color and tone of the different materials used. We always want that to match with what is used outside. For warmth, I like to employ a combination of natural and man-made materials. I will look at their (residence) material board, inspiration photos, schematic designs early on to understand the materiality of the entire project and use that to inform my recommendations.

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


I have material preferences that I prioritize over others. For example, even when it’s not required by code, I like to make sure most of the hardscape can be permeable if possible. That may be a type of gravel, paver, or a stone paver with gaps that water can get through–on Wingspan, there was a certain threshold of impermeable that we could go up to.

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


There are more materials that I prefer not to use, for example, plastic such as synthetic turf. It makes a lot of sense for a small dog run, but I don’t like to see large expanses of it. Aside from the aesthetics, I don’t like the idea of it breaking down and winding up in our water system. I feel similarly with composite decking. I would prefer bamboo or wood over PVC decking, and because it is less hot to the touch and provides warmer aesthetic and a less shiny look.” – Erin Lau

 

Spatial Continuity

 

Landscape designers work to ensure a smooth transition between indoor and outdoor spaces. They work with architects to design elements such as terraces, patios, or courtyards that extend the interior space into the landscape. This promotes a seamless flow between the built and natural environments.


Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer

 

“We always try to think about indoor and outdoor connection. With Wingspan, we looked at the lower floor spaces that connected to the landscape, and considered how to extend the ground plane at that same floor height so the homeowner is just stepping out of the house onto the same grade. They’re not having to negotiate an immediate grade change which contributes to a seamless flow. Not to mention, visually they are able to look out the windows and not see a wall or a planting that makes the space feel enclosed. Instead, they see something that draws them out with depth and layering so that they feel like they have a view from inside and welcoming space outside. The Wingspan guest room has its own little entrance with a shade garden/courtyard and small patio. That space, which doubles as a courtyard, is great because it brings light into the interior space and you’re able to see plantings, trees and other greenery.” – Erin Lau

 

Scale and Proportion Harmony

 

Landscape designers strive to maintain a balanced scale and proportion between the building and landscape elements. Large buildings may benefit from expansive open spaces, while smaller structures might be complemented by more intimate garden settings.

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


“On Wingspan, the lot was large enough that it didn’t feel like the house was taking up the entire site. There is a large front yard, and because the home backed into the natural area in the back, it lent itself to feeling proportionate on either side. I think it’s important to nestle the house among the landscape. I am always thinking about this with scale and proportion–I think about how tall the building façade is in the front and back, and therefore what kind of height does that need from trees and shrubs. On Wingspan, the front of the home is one story and the back is three, so quite a bit taller. Because we also needed to consider the view corridor, we flanked the home with trees, hardscape and plantings on either side which rely on the home’s scale to dictate their eventual height. This helps accomplish privacy screening and the sense that the home is cradled into the site.” – Erin Lau

 

Focal Points and Views

 

Landscape designers use landscape elements to frame or enhance key views from within the building. They work to create focal points in the landscape that draw the eye and contribute to the overall visual interest of the environment.

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


“I think about focal points when there’s a view from the house, or maybe there’s a focal point along a path such as a specimen type of plant, a bench, a boulder, art, a tree. Usually, I want the focal point to also be nestled into the landscaping. I never want it to be at the forefront or very back of the planting. There is always low planting in front, then the focal point, then medium or high planting in back. The focal point, such as the fireplace at Wingspan, is always nestled amongst layers.” – Erin Lau

 

Functional Integration

 

Landscape designers work to integrate the functional aspects of both the building and landscape. They consider how outdoor spaces will be used in conjunction with indoor spaces and ensure that the landscape serves practical purposes while complementing the building's functionality.

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


“Generally speaking, if you’re going to have an outdoor dining area, locate as close to the indoor kitchen as possible. The farther away it is from the kitchen, the less likely it will get used. Even though the outdoor space may be very well equipped, you still wind up going back and forth into the house when cooking outside. The most well used outdoor entertaining areas are adjacent to their similarly purposed indoor spaces. If someone’s nice back patio comes off their garage, or if they have to go down a long hallway to use the outdoor space, they probably won’t use it as much unless they can see it and it draws them out.” – Erin Lau

 

Sustainable Design Practices

 

Landscape designers work with architects to implement sustainable design practices in both building and landscape architecture. Shared sustainability features, such as green roofs, rain gardens, or energy-efficient technologies, reinforce a unified commitment to environmental responsibility.

 

“It’s always great to make sure the rainfall and its runoff from a roof, for example, goes back into the ground as close to the location as possible. This recharges the ground water and waters the plants around it. From the city’s point of view, they don’t want to overload the municipal sewer system and storm drainage system. The more they can infiltrate on site, the less it taxes the system. It’s important to recharge the ground water because even though Seattle gets a lot of rain, the reality is a lot of our cedar trees are dying because of drought. If there’s a cedar that is surrounded by a street or hardscape, it may be getting 50% less water than it normally would because it’s being channeled into a drain.


Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer

 

I’m always thinking about the maintenance and lifespan of plants. Low maintenance helps this become a long term, sustainable landscape. I make sure the plant palette fits the microclimate and zone that the home is in. In general, if we can create as many greenspaces vs hardscape/built spaces, the better.” –Erin Lau

 

Landscape designers prioritize sustainable practices, integrating eco-friendly solutions such as native plantings, rainwater harvesting, and energy-efficient lighting. Sustainable design not only benefits the environment but also contributes to the long-term viability of the landscape.

 

Cultural and Historical Context

 

Architects and landscape designers consider the cultural and historical context of the site when designing both the building and the landscape. They will often incorporate elements that reflect local traditions, history, or architectural styles for a cohesive and meaningful design.

 

Seasonal Considerations

 

With climate change concerns on the rise, landscape designers are incorporating resilient design strategies to address challenges like extreme weather events and rising temperatures. They also plan for seasonal changes in the landscape to ensure year-round visual interest. They will use a variety of plantings that provide color, texture, and form throughout different seasons, enhancing the overall experience of the site.

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


“Every landscape I design I want it to have year-round interest–whether that be with evergreen plants, or plants that change during the season. Wingspan had deciduous, perennials, evergreen. I like to do an early schematic design at the beginning where I can understand where all the evergreen elements are so that I can be sure it’s evenly distributed and not concentrated too much in one area. Then I go back in and design for seasonal interest plants, like the Japanese maples that may turn color. We’re doing different layers of plantings and design–maybe not every season isn’t absolutely beautiful, but at least there’s something interesting to look at year round. Occasionally a homeowner will want only evergreen trees for year-round consistency, but most of the time there is a mixture.” –Erin Lau

  

Lighting Design Integration

 

Landscape designers work with architects to coordinate lighting design between the building and landscape. Consistent lighting schemes contribute to a cohesive nighttime aesthetic and enhance the overall safety and usability of the space.


Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


“There are both technical and aesthetic considerations when designing outdoor lighting. First, I think about wayfinding lighting along paths. Then on the next pass, I look at designing up lights into trees, artwork, focal points, and against the house. The house itself is often going to have sconces or lights coming through the soffit. It’s challenging to design landscape lighting before the home’s exterior light is installed because you don’t know how it’s going to look at night. Sometimes for new construction, I will wait until the lighting is in so that I can see at night or dusk which informs where the landscape lighting will go. I always err on the side of less lighting versus where every little thing is lit to avoid looking “Vegasy”. I have a preference 2700 Kelvin warm LED lights. I don’t like using 3000 or above. I also shy away from colored lights to avoid the landscape looking too flashy.” –Erin Lau

 

Accessibility and Inclusivity

 

Landscape designers and architects work together to ensure that both the building and landscape are accessible to people of all abilities. They incorporate inclusive design principles that provide universal access and enhance the overall usability of the combined indoor and outdoor spaces.

“Wingspan has the potential to be accessible but also has grade considerations. The front yard slopes down towards the house, so along the path, we put in some stone risers every 30 feet or so. There is wheelchair accessibility through the garage.

 

Accessibility is hard in Seattle with so many steep slopes and hills. We do our best because many clients want to age in place. That may mean paths are wider, using very flat, manufactured steps and risers versus natural materials. We consider hardscape that is easy to walk on, won’t get slippery or full of moss–which is one reason I don’t use brick.” – Erin Lau

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


A well-designed outdoor space should be both functional and accessible. Landscape designers consider factors like traffic flow, usability, and inclusivity, ensuring that the landscape serves the needs of its users.

 

Collaborative Design Process

 

Collaboration between building architects and landscape designers is key throughout the design process. Regular communication and joint decision-making contribute to a holistic and integrated design.

 

Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


“Rhodes Architecture + Light is really good at getting me on board early on at the schematic design phase, where they may already have the building’s massing but might not have any specifics of what it looks like. I prefer to being on board at that stage so that I can answer questions about how the landscape may be incorporated into the site. I think with RA+L, their communication has always been easy and clear. They always consider deadlines ahead of time and give me plenty of lead. Communication is important and it’s valuable when the architect respects the designer’s time and provides a clear schedule. I typically work with clients directly alongside RA+L which requires the architect’s trust that I will communicate in a way that honors both the client and project.” – Erin Lau

 

Maintenance Considerations

 

Landscape designers consider the long-term maintenance requirements of both building and landscape elements. They select materials and plantings that are durable, easy to maintain, and contribute to the long-term sustainability of the overall design.


Wingspan Residence, Cheryl McIntosh Photographer


“Long-term maintenance is what makes a landscape sustainable. Many projects don’t hire gardeners due to cost, or the clients feel they can do it themselves. As someone who’s life is dedicated to gardens and gardening, I even need help with my yard. I think it’s important to encourage the client to even just hire someone seasonally because it will help in the long run. Even if landscape maintenance only lapses for a couple years, it’s very hard to get back the original plan because things grow like crazy here. For example, blackberries or another invasive plant may creep in, or weeding because untenable, or the pruning gets out of hand. Staying on top of it is important because a lot of people lose plants, particularly during drought conditions, and thus their investment in the landscape within the first year or two. Nowadays, I almost always suggest they install an irrigation system. The summers have become so dry that even the drought tolerant plants that haven’t had time to establish themselves with deep roots will probably die if we have a week of 90-degree weather.

 

I also consider the terrain of a site. For example, if it’s a hilly site, I know that client or gardener is going to have more trouble maintaining it. Hills make everything harder, so I will think ahead and may use a simple to maintain groundcover whereas flat land with greater accessibility can have the showier plants.”


Celebrating Seattle’s Notable Landscape Architects

 

The landscape architecture firm of the Olmsted Brothers left an indelible mark on Seattle's park system. Spearheaded by John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), stepson of the renowned Frederick Law Olmsted who crafted New York City's iconic Central Park, the firm played a pivotal role in shaping Seattle's green spaces. John Charles Olmsted's visionary 1903 master plan envisioned a sprawling network of parks and boulevards spanning 20 miles, stretching from Seward Park along Lake Washington, through Woodland Park, and culminating at Discovery Park. Additionally, Olmsted's creative touch extended to landmark projects like the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 and the Highlands subdivision, located just north of Seattle's city limits along Puget Sound. Among his notable contributions is the introduction of playgrounds, revolutionizing recreational spaces within the city.

 

Volunteer Park, located on Seattle's Capitol Hill, is an Olmsted-designed landmark park


The Future of Landscape Architecture

 

Landscape architecture is an evolving discipline that seamlessly weaves together the natural and built environments. As we continue to appreciate the importance of sustainable, functional, and visually appealing outdoor spaces, landscape designers will play an increasingly crucial role in shaping the landscapes of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. The fusion of creativity, science, and environmental consciousness makes landscape architecture a captivating field that not only transforms physical spaces but also enhances our connection to the world around us.

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