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One With The Mountain

Mountain Life

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Think of an unattractive house you know. Though you might believe the house itself is ugly, it’s possible the real problem is the building’s relationship to the land. Maybe it stands in a deep hillside gash or was plunked down in the middle of a clear-cut plot. It just doesn’t look as if it belongs.

What such houses need is a good landscape architect. “If you want to situate your house in a world so that it’s going to make the most of that world, it’s best to bring a landscape architect in from the beginning,” says Martin Mosco, president of Marpa & Associates in Boulder, Colo.Landscape architects are not landscapers, and they hate it when people call them that. Landscape architects go through four- or five-year degree programs; they are the men and women who design environments and tell landscapers how to build them. Landscaping involves, for most of us, a few shrubs, some Kentucky bluegrass and a flower bed. Landscape architecture, done right, can connect your home to the surrounding terrain in a powerful, subtle and ultimately satisfying fashion. And good landscape architecture may cost as much or even more than the home itself. Landscape architects say that it’s not unusual for a mountain homeowner to spend $100,000, even $600,000, on their services and the associated earthwork and plantings. But you don’t necessarily have to break the bank. “One simple maneuver, such as planting a tree, can significantly improve the design landscape,” says Vermont-based architect H. Keith Wagner. “The trend I’m seeing these days is people are spending about 10 percent of their home’s budget on the surroundings.”

The best results come when owners hire landscape architects at the same time they hire architects for the home itself. Unlike a home, however, a landscape plan can be, and often is, implemented over several years. Clients who can’t afford to do everything at once at least are able to define where they are headed and develop the grounds around their homes in an orderly fashion. And, of course, landscape work changes as plantings grow and mature.

Here, three of ski country’s best landscape designers share their thoughts on how to make the most of your personal mountain environment:

H. Keith Wagner
Burlington, Vt.

The spaces around a mountain home can be construed as rooms, says H. Keith Wagner. They’re simply rooms without walls or a roof, but they have discrete senses of boundary and purpose. “We’re creating rooms for play and living outdoors,” Wagner says. “We’re doing the same thing as an architect, but we don’t use sheet rock.”

Mountain homes are often a challenge because many building sites lie on sloping hillsides. Wagner, who has several clients in Stowe, Vt., finds himself using stone walls to create flat spaces for terraces and pools and to draw the design elements of the building out into the landscape to anchor it.

“The challenge there becomes understanding when owners are going to use this home, and trying to create gardens and plantings that will be in bloom when they do,” he says. He also tries to use a New England planting palette that makes the most of winter: spruce, hemlock, pine, birch and burning bush, for example. “The bones of our designs are geometrical,” says Wagner. “You can soften those bones with plantings, but there’s an organization to how you proceed from a terrace to a garden with these axial relationships. I think the goal should be to have a house that is not only comfortable to be in, but comfortable to get to. A lot of my education with clients is raising their expectations.”

Martin Mosco
Marpa & Associates, Boulder, Colo.

When Martin Mosco is confronted with a typical problem of a mountain home-a back window facing into a vertically cut hillside, for example-he doesn’t go the usual route of simply stacking rocks to hold the hill back. Instead, Mosco might create a grotto among the rocks, with shade-loving flowers and a trickle of water that evventually works its way around the house in a soothing stream. This creates a view where there had been no view before.

“We build mountains, rivers and valleys with rocks, plant materials and water-and we create magical worlds out of those materials,” Mosco says. The house becomes part of that world. People hire us for creative possibilities they sometimes don’t think of. I’d call it more fantasy than reality.”

Like other landscape architects, Mosco says that much of his work is about metaphor. He has worked from coast to coast and adapts his designs to indigenous materials and plant life. In northern New Mexico, for instance, he says, “water can always be suggested and implied, even if it doesn’t run.”

Mosco has built 30-foot-high “mountains,” even one including a shell-lined grotto. “We create transformative space,” he says, “environments where people and nature happen together.”Mosco plays close attention to scale. Shrubs or trees might be dwarfed to fit into the landscape plan, for instance. Water may be used to create a mirror, enlarging a small space. For his deepest inspiration, Mosco relies on his dreams. “You put all that information about a site and a client into the subconscious cooker,” he explains, “and wait for something to pop up.”

Laura Mello
LJM Design Group, Truckee, Calif.

In the Lake Tahoe region, landowners and landscape architects face a distinctive set of challenges. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA)-in an effort to keep Lake Tahoe’s water clear and blue-sets tight guidelines on how water can run off private property, how much hard surfacing (such as driveways) is permitted and what landscaping materials are allowed. Some of Laura Mello’s clients are less than happy about the TRPA requirements, but those restrictions can make her services a necessity rather than a luxury.

“We don’t necessarily work in metaphors or try to recreate another person’s yard in yours,” Mello says. “We try to maximize the owners’ enjoyment and use of their property, while reinforcing the idea that they are now living in a very sensitive mountain environment that needs to be preserved.”

That reinforcement can take the form of searching for native stone for artificial waterfalls and streams, minimizing unnatural expanses of lawn or planting vegetation you can park your car on. And while many people are surprised at the expense of a landscape architect, “we’ve found that hiring a design professional saves you money,” Mello maintains. “You aren’t redoing things because you haven’t thought something through. Part of our philosophy is to think about the future and how the house might be used.”

A house and yard that mesh well function as a larger house; people live outdoors as well as in. That symbiosis is Mello’s objective. “My goal for a residential client,” she says, “is that they come up here and enjoy the exterior space as much as the interior.”

Check out Mountain Property: 6 Cardinal Rules

Got a question for Mountain Property editor Hal Clifford?You can e-mail him at