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Taking Environmental Consideration Into Renovation

There are two different styles of landscape design, both of which revolve around conformity. The first design style has become very prevalent in our track-home laden cities. It's hard to differentiate one resident's yard from the yard next door; they are all landscaped to look the same. In fact, many homes have a common yard in the sense that there is no visible division between properties.

Conformity, however, is not contained within city limits. Take a road trip and you will see the same designs no matter where you are. Drive through the desert and notice the majority of houses accented with lush, green lawns (or in many cases brown, dying lawns). Likewise, enter a community setting filled with natural pine trees and see the variety of trees (besides pine trees) that adorn many landscapes. There is an apparent need to have a yard just like the Smith's, even though the Smiths live in a different time zone with completely opposite climate conditions.

Conformity does not need to have a negative connotation though, if considered in a slightly different context. Instead of creating a yard like the surrounding neighbors, create a yard like the surroundings. Hendrikus Schraven, owner of Hendrikus Schraven Landscape Construction and Design, Inc., strives to assimilate the landscape to the environment around the project. Though some may call the difference in styles a matter of semantics, Schraven models his design theory around the different connotations of conformity.

The Setting

Surrounded by Lake Washington, Mercer Island is located to the southeast of Seattle. The area is well known for its long rainy seasons and damp conditions, which have been a major cause of erosion throughout the region. The Griffith residence is no exception.

The property sits on the southeast corner of the island, subjected to destructive elements like waves that slowly eat away the soil. The lay of the land also features a natural creek flowing through the yard that feeds into Lake Washington, further adding to the erosion problem.

The natural creek bed itself was able to handle the everyday water volume, but as urban sprawl began to devour the island, more water was being displaced. As more land was being developed, water from rain and other sources was unable to be absorbed into the water table. The displaced water then found its way to the natural creek. Filled with more water volume than normal, the creek began to carve a smoother path to Lake Washington and eventually blew out a culvert running through the Griffith's property.

The Design Concept

When the team at Hendrikus Schraven Landscape Construction & Design, Inc. drew up the plans for the project, they considered their purpose. "In some cases the project is a mix of erosion control and landscaping," said Schraven. "If it's a residential project like this, it's kind of a combination of the two concepts, where aesthetic landscaping happens but also erosion control is taken into consideration."

With an understanding of what needed to be accomplished at the site, the design team took over. "We wanted to put emphasis on keeping [the landscape] as natural as possible and integrating it as much as we could into the surrounding environment of the house," Schraven said.

The house itself had to be carefully considered as well. "The house was built out of stone, but it is very large for the property." Schraven said.

"The lot is altogether some 750 to 800 feet long or more, but the width is about 120 feet." With such a large house, little room was left on the sides of the property. To deal with this problem, the design needed to create the illusion that the house was not bigger than the property.

The second challenge was to make the house seem like it belonged in the area. Being built out of stone, the house actually provided a sort of theme that could be used in the landscaping. "We used moss covered granite boulders to create the creek and the pond area, and we continued using them all the way up to the house, around the house, and meeting back up at the lake," Schraven said. Granite boulders are not native to Mercer Island, so boulders were placed in the surrounding forest areas to create a better transition.

To compliment the transition created by the boulders, Schraven and his team selectively chose plant materials that would blend into the natural environment. As the landscaping crept away from the property line, the design called for more native plants like huckleberries. Ornamental plants were then slowly introduced around the landscape surrounding the house. This planting process helped create a softer transition with the environment.

The remainder of the design work was left to the imagination of the designer and the property. "I think the great part is to let the property tell you what needs to happen," Schraven said. "You walk in and it basically tells you, 'This is what I would like. If I wanted to shine like a jewel, this is how I would like to be treated.' And then I go accordingly."

In fact, the nature of the work being done actually dictated the design. Aside from the major outlays of the design, which needed to be permitted by the city of Mercer Island due to the beach and creek work being done, the creativity was harnessed on-site. "I leave a lot of the actual formation of the rock outcroppings and how it actually is going to work on-site pretty open so I can make adjustments and changes according to some of the rocks or plant materials I find," Schraven said.

Site Preparation

In many urban development projects, trucks and heavy equipment compact the soil. The landscape is leveled off after the building is completed, allowing the landscapers to come in beautify the property. In most cases however, there is only a couple inches of soil to work with. Underneath these few inches of soil lies a layer of hardpan dirt. "The problem with that is they jackhammer some holes into the hardpan, plant some plants, and the diseases begin because you don't have sufficient drainage," Schraven said.

This process opens the door to diseases that attack the root system. The plants then become weak and sprayers are brought in to curb the diseases. All the chemicals soak into the soil until it reaches the hardpan. "Of course you don't have any percolation in the soil because you have a compacted layer under a couple inches of topsoil and all those toxins run right back into your lakes, streams, rivers and oceans," Schraven said.

Another problem with compacted soil is the lack of root development. This requires more watering for plants and allows the sun to dry out these areas since they can't retain any moisture. Schraven took special steps to avoid this phenomenon from occurring at the Griffith residence. For this reason, Schraven treated the soil on-site with a concoction he created through the extraction of composts.

The extraction process begins in a machine that brews the compost mixture in a tank of water much like a cup of tea. Ingredients vary based on the desired outcome, but after 24 hours the finished product contains billions and billions of beneficial microbes that are naturally found in good soil. "You immediately have live soil to work with, same as natural soil would have," Schraven said.

To support the "live" soil, worms were imported and planted on the property. "Those guys go to work for me," Schraven said. "They never take holidays and never take lunch. They just keep working straight through and are extremely beneficial to the sustainability of the soil, which means if you have a healthier soil you will have a healthier plant."


The design team had the easiest job; transferring ideas onto paper. The construction team however, had the task of implementing the ideas and making them a reality. Fortunately, Schraven was involved in both sides of the job. As the crew began working on the project in the summer months, the first issue was dealing with the creek; which was the main reason for the project.

Pump equipment was brought in to divert the creek's water, allowing the crew to work on the culvert and fortify the banks. The old 2-by- 2 culvert was torn out and replaced with an 8-by- 6 culvert pipe. As simple as it may sound, unexpected issues arose.

An old, asbestos sewer system had to be removed as well. "We tapped into the sewer system, rerouted it and brought it alongside of those culverts and back out towards the lake," Schraven said. "The sogginess did cause us to snap right into the line at one point," he said. The line was then repaired and reconnected to the main sewer pipe running around the perimeter of the lake.

Excavators set large granite boulders backed up with road fabric into the creek banks to fortify the edges and prevent any possible penetration of foreign materials. In portions where plant materials were going to be introduced, the area was treated with Schraven's essential soil. To match the work done to the creek, the beach was also reinforced with additional clay, rock, sand and gravel.

Using the boulders to keep a natural feel looked great on paper, but finding a rock that matched a drawing would be almost impossible. "It's kind of a design/build project," Schraven said. "You can draw a rock on the [plans], but to find just the right rock for a particular situation, you have to go get it."

Schraven visited a quarry located in the nearby mountains and hand picked each rock. "What I do is tag all the rocks that I want to use for a project," he said. "As I see them in the quarry I say, 'Ah great, I can use this one here.'" The project included close to 475 tons of granite boulders used for rock outcroppings throughout the property and along the beach.

One rock alone weighed over 11.5 tons. "I found a gigantic slab that was about 13 feet long and we actually laid it across from one side of the creek to the other side," Schraven said. "To find a slab like that is hard. It looks like it's manmade, but it's not."

Environmental Approach

Great care was taken to preserve the natural feel along with the natural elements. Using his own organic soil product was one way Schraven showed respect for the environment, but the design included ways to make the enhanced creek beneficial as well.

Numerous pools and eddies were created in the creek to generate a habitat for salmon. Salmon eggs could then be placed and allowed to hatch. "In the next three years those salmon will go back there to spawn," Schraven said. "Besides landscaping, [the project] is very much environmental."

The care taken to respect the environment did pay off too. "While we were working, there were three eagles that sat in a cottonwood tree watching us work," Schraven said. "Talk about them getting used to noise pollution. They actually sat there and watched us running excavators, trucks and everything else. Then they would go fishing and bring their fish back up in the tree, gut their fish up there, and all while we were working.

"This was surprising to most people because they figure, 'Oh my God, there are eagles and we're going to disturb them,'" he said. "Well frankly, they couldn't care less. They were just there watching the show as we were watching them."

With the presence of wildlife, Schraven's goal seemed to have been reached. Instead of adapting nature to fit the concept of a modern landscape, he adapted a modern landscape to fit into nature. "This is the emphasis we try to put on our job site; where man came in and extended nature instead of manipulated it," Schraven said.

Don't look for any white picket fences here.

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June 27, 2019, 1:59 am PDT

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