The theme on our blog for the month of May is “Landscaping.” For our very first installment, we interviewed Kent Ford of Kent Ford Design Group. Based out of Toronto, Kent Ford Design Group focuses on a number of services to bring residential landscaping projects to life.
We discussed a number of topics with Ford, including his experience in the industry, the types of projects he prefers, current trends in the landscaping world, and much more.
NewInHomes (NIH): What is your background? How did you end up where you are today?
Kent Ford (KF): I’m a bit of a rare duck, in that most landscape architects in larger scale design avoid landscaping, specifically residential. They think it’s some kind of lower level of design. They think it takes less training and sophistication. I never saw that – it’s actually more design-driven than larger scale work. I did large-scale work for five years. I took a few years off, and then got back into residential in 1992, doing both design and build. I then moved onto design only in 1997, and here we are today.
NIH: We understand that it takes a whole team to bring a landscaping project to life. What kind of professionals do you work with?
KF: I don’t do any autoCAD or computer drafting whatsoever, so I have a full-time CAD person to do that. I have an office manager as well to do that work. I have deliberately kept it small. Now, there is a tight little part of the pyramid of contractors who don’t work for me; I’m not a designer-builder, but I would say I probably manage about 50 people a year during the construction season. In terms of all the trades – landscape contractors who specialize in planting, landscape architects who specialize in hardscaping, arborists, irrigation people, etc. – are all the types of contractors that we use.
NIH: You say you’re keeping things small. What is the scope of your projects?
KF: About 40 percent of what we do now is condo retrofits. Buildings that have aged about 25 to 30 years have issues. Their slabs are failing, their underground garage slabs have to be replaced or addressed, balcony slabs and structural slabs are reaching the end of their lifespan, and they need to be replaced. If there is any rooftop planning, we work with that as well. We did Market Square, which is the largest roof space in Toronto. They had to tear out a 30 year old landscaping plan.
We did the first high-rise in Mississauga at the corner of Bloor and Dixie, 1333 Bloor. We have done phase 1 of a tear out there. It had nothing to do with structure, it was just an old layout that needed to be re-done.
We also have done 331 Webb Dr., which was the the first in the next wave of condo buildings in Mississauga, just to the south side of Burnhamthorpe. It was great to work on both the first high-rise in Mississauga, as well as the first condo in Mississauga.
NIH: How do the condo projects work? Who’s the one in charge?
KF: Poll the owners. It has to be directed by some small group of people, hopefully a small landscape sub-committee. Market Square had a seven-person landscape committee that featured one architect. We partnered on that project and were able to get what the residents wanted. I always stress to condo boards, ‘You have to at least give the opportunity to your condo owners to voice everything and anything.’ We do questionnaires that elicit these types of responses, because a lot of these owners aren’t sure of what they want – no one ever asks them.
NIH: It sounds like you know how to take control of a project. Is there a project that stands out that proved to be a bit more difficult than anticipated?
KF: There was one project in Port Hope that I always use as an example. It was a couple who moved around a lot and wanted to stay put. They were looking to combine home and cottage, and they were on top of a hill, looking down one of the main streets of Port Hope, with a totally unusable ski-slope-like backyard. We went in there and conquered nature. It was probably one of the most someone spent on a project that I have been involved in. They spent over half of what they paid for the house just on the outside of the home. We terraced a landing for a pool area, and then made a second lower level for a basketball court.
They originally came to me and asked if they could build the pool off the edge, using a fiberglass pool, but that doesn’t work in this climate. I suggested that they think about creating a pathway on the slope to go down to an inground pool – no one would think twice about it at a cottage, and it would make sense in this situation, given that we are doing a home-cottage feel. We put the stone slabs down as a way to get down to the slope, and the cabana featured a change room, washroom, sinks etc.
We were able to make the space very usable and they loved to look back up the slope and see the lights of their house. We conquered nature and we helped a client.
NIH: So, are there any projects that just went smoothly that you happen to love?
KF: The Alex Wilson Community Garden was one that got us a lot of attention. It was unusual, they don’t normally have open competitions for open spaces like that. We love what we did there. Market Square was interesting as well. There, we had a kick-ass design – some of our vision was lost with the cost cutting, but it still was a valuable experience. Some other projects that we received a lot of attention for include Kurt Browning’s home, and Marilyn Dennis’ cottage. We also did some work on Dennis’ home in Scarborough, which got us on Cityline, and that was fun. Governor’s Manor is a historic condo in Toronto that I use as an example of phasing in landscaping renovation strategy.
NIH: With the weather getting warmer, a new season of landscaping is upon us. Are there any trends that we should expect to see this year regarding residential landscaping?
KF: Combined cottage and city landscapes – it’s very popular for those people who opt to not have a cottage. I believe that the fear of having a pool on the property has disappeared. Twenty years ago, you would see people worried about the liabilities, the maintenance and such, but that seems to have changed. People want to have water in some shape or form in their backyards; be it a built-in spa or a water feature that doubles as a spa or a dunk pool. People want to maximize every square inch when they are in Toronto.
People are still looking for low maintenance. When I think of low maintenance, I still think no maintenance, but a landscape is a living thing, so there needs to be some things done. What we do in those situations is reduce the amount of grass as much as possible. People think grass is easy, but believe it or not, shrubs and perennials are way less maintenance than a lawn is. Think about it: every lawn needs to be cut, watered, trimmed, fertilized, and sprayed. It’s more than you would think.
At one point, we saw a big call for outdoor kitchens, but that has fallen a bit, I find that people want the barbecue closer to the house to ensure year-round use.
From a design point of view, people are back into colour. I think 10 to 15 years ago, it was more of a green and white craze. I like green and white myself, but now it’s starting to look like people want more vibrant colours in the landscapes. They want to be stimulated.
NIH: Has the art of landscaping been subjected to many technological advances in recent years?
KF: It’s changed, but I still prefer to do things free hand. We still have CAD drawings and such, but the conceptional work remains freehand for myself. As far as 3D renderings go, I think it can work for architecture, but with landscape, I feel – and it’s just my opinion – that there should be an artistic feel to it; people seem to like that. They like the fact that I’m the visionary. People appreciate the hand drawing aspect, the brain to paper thing.
We would like to thank Kent Ford for taking the time to chat with us. We are looking forward to his future projects, and can not wait to check out some of his new condo retrofits.