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Landscape: Please Yourself, then the Market
This article by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 7, 1999. All rights reserved.
Done right, say the real estate brokers, landscaping
improves curb appeal. Done right, say the architects, good landscaping
enhances the design of a home.
If carefully done, say the appraisers, you can get the same return
on your money for good landscaping as you do for a new bathroom.
But doing it right means more than buying a few bushes. It might mean
careful research for a plant-your-own project, or hiring a landscaper
to draw up the plan. But some of the savviest home owners hire the
most skilled planners: They invest in the services of a landscape
Meet Louise Schiller, a Princeton-based landscape architect with major
institutional credits on her resume. Schiller brings to her practice
a classical education (a Ph.D. in English in addition to horticulture
and other architectural courses) tempered by real world experiences
(including a stint with the Peace Corps in Turkey).
In the 20th century, Schiller notes, landscape architecture —
once revered as an art form in itself — has become much more utilitarian.
The formal gardens often identified with landscaping at the beginning
of this century, Schiller says, "were reflective of a society
that was heavily trained in history and literature, so it could quote
from those sources and draw inspiration for what they wanted to make
out-of-doors. Our society doesn’t have that to draw on, so we make
our gardens for other reasons. Someone today may have traveled and
seen something they liked. Someone else may have been inspired by
a neighbor or friend.
"The contemporary American garden has evolved from that sort of
English form into a much more naturalistic model, one that emphasizes
our own native plants, flowering shrubs, woodland materials, and grasses.
That gets away from those formal flower borders where each flower
was chosen for its literary source — sometimes even getting back
to a biblical source — which required very high maintenance in
terms of water and irrigation. Modern American gardens survive without
heavy irrigation or fertilization because, environmentally, these
things are not very good for the landscape. So most Americans have
moved away from what I might call these classical models to contemporary
gardens that are self-sustaining models that don’t require that type
of high maintenance."
"When I started out, people wanted design that involved more gardening.
I guess that through the change in our culture, and the growth of
our profession, people have really begun to ask for environmentally
based projects, which is really what landscape architects do best."
Schiller’s 18-year-old firm has worked for internationally
famous architects and won major awards for public projects (Philadelphia’s
City Visions competition), academic institutions (such as Princeton
University), and corporate headquarters (the Howard Hughes Medical
Institute in Maryland). But she also enjoys doing residential projects.
Schiller and her colleagues believe that homeowners who spend their
landscaping budget wisely can not only enjoy their lawns and gardens,
but also get a fair return — 50 to 60 percent on the dollar —
for their investment.
For some people — including herself — the landscaping actually
comes first. Schiller laughs as she describes herself while house-hunting.
"When we first looked at our current house in Princeton, I don’t
even remember coming inside. All I remember is walking around the
outside and falling in love with this garden space. I just stayed
outside and I figured `Well, it’s a house. It must have a dining room
and living room — there must be a kitchen. So, what’s the big
deal?’ I’m interested in space outside that I can work with."
Schiller grew up in Washington, D.C., with her parents — both
of whom were attorneys — and one brother. She explains that the
city itself gave her an early appreciation for landscape. "It’s
a very beautiful city that takes great pride in its gardens and its
public spaces. With its climate slightly warmer than here, the landscape
also tends to be very lush." Her artist’s eye was also nurtured
through weekly painting lessons. "Originally I wanted to be an
artist, but my parents insisted that I get a strong liberal arts education
first. They felt that I would have a much harder life if they let
me go directly to art school at that time in my life."
Describing her academic and professional life, Schiller says, "Maybe
for me it is true that I’ve come last to the thing that I really love
most. I took a circuitous route that eventually got me back to doing
what I most love to do — making landscapes — which I believe
is really is a form of art." Her circuitous route began at New
York University where she received her B.A. with a triple major in
English literature, government, and French.
Immediately upon graduating, she signed up with the
Peace Corps. "That was a really important experience in my life
— living in another country, immersed in the same way of life
as the people who live there. One of the things that the Peace Corps
gives you is a genuine attachment to and interest in another country.
That interest has been a lifelong reward for me." Schiller taught
English to Turkish high school students in Diyarbakir, a small, rugged
town in the east of Turkey "This was the Kurdish area, the wildest
part of the country. It was sort of like being a cowboy in the 19th
When her Peace Corps tour ended, Schiller attended the University
of London, where she received a Ph.D. in English literature. She returned
to the states and spent some time teaching English on both the college
and high school level but ". . . I just didn’t enjoy it. So I
decided to switch."
In the late ’70s, at age 31, Schiller convinced Cornell University
to admit her to its master’s level landscape program. They had never
before allowed anyone but traditional science undergraduates to enter
the program. "I refused to go through their complete undergraduate
program," she explains, "I said, `No, I have too much education.’
So we compromised. I did one year of their undergraduate training
in horticulture, which I absolutely needed, and then I entered their
two year master’s program."
Schiller’s pioneering course of studies proved to be a boon to Cornell.
The year after she started, the university established a brand-new,
and very popular, three year M.L.A. program for people who already
had liberal arts degrees.
At Cornell Schiller also met her husband, a mathematician, now a senior
vice president with Bell Atlantic International. The couple relocated
to New Jersey when he was first employed by Bell Labs. They now live
with their two sons, ages 17 and 13, in Princeton.
Schiller established her firm in 1981 after receiving the James Eidlitz
Prize at Cornell. She began working on small public projects with
a partner in Philadelphia. In 1986 she won the City Visions Competition
for her proposal "Ribbon of Gold." The project, which introduces
a band of black-eyed susans throughout Philadelphia’s open space,
has been implemented for over a decade by the Pennsylvania Horticultural
Society. The award opened new doors for Schiller.
She began doing work for Robert Geddes, then dean of Princeton University’s
School of Architecture — jobs which included the landscaping for
the Griggs Farm development in Princeton. The publicity for the City
Visions award also brought her to the attention of the Hillier Group,
at that time recently commissioned to do the new 23-acre headquarters
complex for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland. The Hillier
architects asked Schiller if they could include her on the list of
landscape architects that they had been asked to present to their
client. Already on the list were 15 "extremely well-known firms
with national stature. I didn’t feel that I could compete with such
well-established firms, but the Hillier people persisted." To
her great surprise, Schiller was awarded the contract. "It was
a very exciting project, and a wonderful opportunity to work with
an enormously intelligent and interesting client."
Since then Schiller’s firm has worked on an impressive series of projects,
including several in the Czech Republic. Her husband’s job brought
the family to Prague where they lived from 1993 and 1995. Schiller’s
expertise, as well as her fluency in Czech (she also speaks French
and Turkish) enabled her to work as a consultant to the curator of
Prague Castle. "I also worked on the landscape of the new International
School in Prague which was being built. I worked with Czech architects
and landscape architects, and that was a fascinating experience seeing
how they went about doing their work. I also re-designed the gardens
of the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Prague, which is this gigantic
late-19th century, fin de siecle mansion with beautiful, huge public
space for large parties."
She finds residential projects particularly rewarding. "I have
on-going work at a very beautiful alpaca farm in Lawrenceville. It’s
a great joy to work over a number of years with people who are genuinely
interested in their landscape. And I also love working with Princeton
University. There are always lots and lots of projects going on, which
have an impact on a great many people — all the students that
pass through and use the space, as well as the thousands of visitors
that come through each year."
Indeed, says Schiller, the landscape architect offers a unique set
of skills and expertise. "Landscape architects are highly trained
to do the kind of work they do. It really can’t be done by engineers,
or garden centers, or architects — many of whom try to do it without
the proper training. People sometimes ask their architects to design
their gardens, and they end up with formal geometries because architects
are trained in geometric forms and have no training whatsoever in
plants and environment. Garden centers do a lot of residential work
that most landscape architects aren’t necessarily interested in competing
for, but if you have a large or medium-sized property, hiring a landscape
architect gets you a level of training in art, design, and environmental
studies that other people — even professional gardeners —
just don’t have."
For homeowners who are beginning a landscaping project on their own,
Schiller offers some suggestions. "The best advice I can give
to any homeowner who has a modest amount to spend is `Spend your time
analyzing your property, and then spend your money wisely depending
on the site conditions and environment of your property.’ Look at
climate. Identify where the hot spots are and where the cool ones
are, where the bright sun is and where the shade is. Find out where
there are wet areas and dry areas.
"Start out by orienting. Is your house on a north-south axis,
is it east-west? When you bought your house, your real estate agent
gave you a plot plan. Get it out. Figure out where north is —
north gets less sun. Use your plot plan to mark where existing trees
are. Shrubbery doesn’t count for much in the big environment, what
counts is where the trees are because they provide the shade and real
"Only when you’ve completed this analysis should you begin to
research what plants will survive and thrive in the different climate
zones on your property. Don’t start out with a picture from a magazine
and say `This is what I want.’ That picture is what worked for some
other landscape’s climate. You have something different. You may love
and want a certain type of plant but may never be able to have it
at your house because you simply don’t have the conditions that will
Schiller advises homeowners that they shouldn’t be afraid to grab
the interior of their lawn when developing their property. "Most
people simply plant around the edge of property line. I see these
vast, vast lawns with evergreens only along the property lines. That’s
not a garden, that’s a bore. If you really want a garden, do something
in the middle and let the edges go wild if you have to. If you look
at any classical gardens, the lawns are actually the pathways between
the living beds. Seize the center, seize the middle, and make something
of that — and then you’ll have interesting space."
Although less expensive investments such as annual flowers and shrubs
are tempting to the amateur landscaper, Schiller advocates that, despite
the early expense, property owners should invest in good-sized trees
that are at least four inches to five inches in diameter at the base
of the trunk. "Putting your money into a couple of really good
trees is more important than anything else you can do because trees
are the structure of your property. Trees are space making, they give
form to your garden. Only after your trees are placed should you invest
in understory — smaller flowering — trees, then shrubs. Last
would be the flowers."
Schiller points out that today’s emphasis on grassy yards is actually
costly. "It’s very expensive to maintain a really lush lawn, whereas
if you narrowed the lawn and made it a smaller part of the landscape,
and planted out the rest of the garden in different ways, it would
be less expensive to maintain, have a more naturalistic appearance,
and it would be more a part of the broader landscape you live in."
She adds that high columns or trellises are also costly. "And
stonework is very expensive. If you want to have stone walls or brick
walls, keep in mind that these are very expensive items. But there
are options. You can make a patio, for example, just out of pea gravel,
or the way the French do out of crushed stone rather than out of blue
stone. That’s a much less expensive way of having an elegant patio.
You just have to careful to provide for cleaning your feet so you
don’t track all that stuff into the house."
When a customer first works with a landscape architect, they can expect
to first go through what Schiller calls a programming phase. "I
use this time to really find out what their needs are," she says.
"Do they want active, outdoor recreation for their backyard such
as a pool or a tennis court, or are their needs more passive? I would
find out what their entertaining needs are, how much time they are
willing and want to spend each week gardening and taking care of their
property. All this eventually becomes a master plan. You produce plans
for clients, then you help them find contractors to build it, and
then the owner must maintain it. Most people really don’t want fussy
plants that they’re going to have to spend time taking care of, but
there is still a group of people who do want that — so you have
to work with clients on those issues.
"We work from the site, and every site is different. If you go
just from Princeton to Lawrenceville, you find very different site
conditions. We’ve done a large estate in Lawrenceville that’s extremely
hilly, and the land slopes down to a pond there. It had very specific
requirements. That’s the essence of landscape architecture — that
every project is very different from every other project because every
site has its own unique environment. There is no such thing as cookie
cutter design unless you have no training. If you have no training,
then, yes, you can do the same thing for every client, but that would
not be a landscape architect. A landscape architect is objective and
has nothing to sell you but professional service, and therefore designs
the best plan for you.
Schiller says that good landscape architects must follow through on
the installation of the master plan. "An important part of this
is getting good people to install the work — and making sure that
the owner understands how to maintain it. If someone just installs
it for you, and then walks away without giving an instructions for
how to maintain it, that’s a formula for disaster. People must understand
that even in a `low maintenance’ garden, there is maintenance to do.
There’s always watering, for example — especially the first year
for trees. Instructing people in how to take care of their property
is really part of the project.
She herself works a great deal with the Jersey City-based Vanhise
Mcniff Landscape Design & Construction company. Schiller describes
some of the qualities that make them such a valuable partner in her
work. "This is a young company, but they’re very, very well trained.
I’ve used them for projects and also at my home for my own landscaping
projects. They’re skilled in many areas — they know how to plant
things carefully, they do excellent stone work. They’re extremely
knowledgeable about plants and the environment, and very skilled in
working with the materials. It’s also wonderful to work with them
because they are so intelligent."
For architect Jerry Ford, a principal at Ford Farewell
Mills and Gatsch Architects on Mapleton Road, working with a landscape
architect as a co-designer of a project can be essential to the final
outcome. "We’re always very happy when there’s an opportunity
to work with a landscape architect that we feel compatible with so
that the landscape complements the architecture of the house,"
he says. "It’s wonderful to be able to have somebody that you’re
able to talk with on professional terms who can continue your thoughts
to the outside of the house. For example, if an architect designs
a house or building with an axis that leads to the outside, but is
dealing with an unsympathetic person who is working with the outside
of the property, then the opportunity’s going to be lost.
"If, on the other hand, you have a landscape architect who can
understand the strength of the notion, and can continue it into the
landscape, you have a beautiful blending. Sadly, on many architecture
jobs, a lot of the exterior work is left out of a project because
it runs out of funding."
Ford notes that on-going relationships between landscape architects
and architects, the most famous of which may have been between Gertrude
Jaeckl and Sir Edwin Lutyens at the turn of the century, have yielded
some spectacular results. "I think a good relationship is one
in which the owner, the landscape architect, and the architect walked
over the raw site and considered various options. Unfortunately the
architect is often hired first and the landscape architect is brought
along much later — if at all. When the chemistry is there, though,
it’s a wonderful relationship."
Ford strongly believes that homeowners would do well to hire landscape
architects. "It’s too bad that so many people feel they can’t
afford a landscape architect. A lot of money is spent on the landscape,
and it makes a lot of sense to have it well directed. The total effect
is so important. Unfortunately, it’s often left to the amateur.
"You know," he adds, "all of us — one way or the other
— think we’re perfectly fine gardeners. So we’ll put some daffodils
out here, and when we happen to go by the plant store and see that
azaleas are on sale, we put in some of them, until we have kind of
a mulligan stew of a landscape. It doesn’t have a theme, doesn’t mean
anything. That’s a lot of money that’s been wasted when, with a little
guidance and a little understanding of how these elements are going
to grow in time — which a good landscape architect will be able
to give you — you could have something special."
Schiller emphasizes that there is no one element of landscaping that,
in itself, adds particular value to a home. In general, though, a
well designed landscape will improve the micro-climate around a house
— making it cooler in the summer, sunnier in the winter. Carefully
chosen shrubs can reduce maintenance. And it all adds to curb appeal.
Real estate appraiser Michael Kuzma, owner of Kuzma Appraisal Associates
agrees that landscaping must ultimately be for a home owner’s personal
pleasure, but adds a cautionary note. "One man’s fancy’s, another
fool’s problem," he says. "Landscaping is important, you can
go past some magnificent homes, and there ain’t a stick. there’s not
a bird, there’s not a blossom, nothing. I think that if it were profitable,
they’d pour in concrete and paint it green. These houses stick out
like sore thumbs from an esthetic standpoint.
"But if you’re looking for financial return in your investment,
the key is that it’s got to be within a reasonable range of the norm
for your neighborhood. That’s the key. You can put in whatever you
want, but you’d be a damn fool to, for example to spend $20,000 in
a $400,000 Toll Brothers development on a Japanese-type rock garden
when everybody else has five to ten thousand dollars tied up in landscaping
— and expect a return on your investment. You’re not going to
get any more out of it.
"One of the things that we try to explain to homeowners is that
it’s not the cost of producing something, it’s the contributory value
of any improvement towards the overall value of the property. We also
do a lot of research in appraising. In a study of Toll Brothers purchasers,
for example, we found that there was a specific percent of the overall
purchase price put towards an upgrading landscape package. It was
interesting. Everyone wanted what their neighbors were getting. A
report was published about five years ago that showed you get a return
of about 50 to 60 cents on your dollar for any improvement — carpeting,
new kitchen, landscape — up to the norm for the neighborhood.
If it’s out of the norm, then forget about it as far as investment
The bottom line, says Schiller, must rely on the owner’s own esthetics.
"If you want a pool, put one in. There will always be someone
who wants a pool, and the people who don’t want a pool will move on.
You can’t live your life predicting what other people might want outside
your house. You have to live the way you live, and do what you want."
2 Campbelton Circle, Princeton 08540. 605-683-1011, fax 609-683-1004.
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