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The Courage of His Convictions
Profile: Carl Kelemen, FASLA, KMS Design Group LLC

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

Carl R. Kelemen, FASLA, KMS Design Group LLC

“My favorite project is, I think, the Black Rock project. Over the years I’ve done a variety of restoration, residential, athletic fields and park projects,” says Kelemen, “but this was the neatest because it took a site that was damaged and turned it into something that will be forever sustainable. We took material from the site, coal silt and other garbage, and sold it to a reclaimer, who created useful products from it. Then we created a series of environments for migratory waterfowl where they can rear their young in safety.”
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KMS Design Group, LLC, the planning and landscape architecture firm of which Carl Kelemen, FASLA is one of the principals, provides planning and land development design solutions for redevelopment, urban infill, brownfield, and other potentially difficult sites. Kelemen believes that site design should, first and foremost, be ecologically sound. Designs should also be pedestrian oriented, safe, and provide healthy solutions that are economically viable for both the site and the surrounding community.

“The Main Terrace Garden at Cairnwood (the home of John Pitcairn in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania) was 20 feet wide and 100 feet long. The trick was to keep it from looking like a bowling alley. The solution used a visual trick to make the garden seem larger than it was. That led us to the formal seen here. The original garden design was by Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot. We strive to make the landscape appropriate to the architecture as well as the site and, when appropriate, work with the architect to develop a landscape that makes sense.”

Over his 30-year-plus career, Carl Kelemen’s diverse experience has included: site planning, landscape planning, planting design, irrigation system design, site and landscape lighting for commercial, recreational, residential and non-profit clients; preparation of park and recreation master plans and construction documents, trail planning and hands-on design-build construction projects. He has taught landscape architecture and landscape design/build courses at the college level. Kelemen is also an experienced expert witness in landscape architectural related cases.

This courtyard at Neshaminy Manor, an assisted living facility, provides a comfortable, useable space for patients while offering opportunities for socializing, contact with the outdoors, horticulture therapy and structured activities.

“As designers, our goal is to create spaces where people can feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. That is one of the neatest things we do. Does the public get a chance to use it and appreciate it?” asks Kelemen. “If they don’t, you should rethink the whole thing.”

The Road to Landscape Architecture

“I started out planning to study architecture and had taken drafting courses in high school,” says Kelemen. “I’d actually started college looking to get a degree in architecture, but Uncle Sam had other ideas.”

When he returned to school, a girl he was dating was studying horticulture and convinced him to try landscape design instead. After getting a job working for a company that designed parks and community swimming pool complexes, he decided he liked that more than architecture. The girl moved on, but he stayed with landscape architecture and has never looked back.

Says Kelemen, “The one thing young landscape architects need to be taught more thoroughly is how to work with others because in the real world you almost never work alone. We recently assisted DHM Design (Denver) on the New Jersey World War II Memorial project. It was definitely a team effort, involving eight design firms as well as sculptors and artists. Young practitioners also need to have an understanding of construction techniques and how design influences construction. I think young professionals should all be required to have experience in the world of construction early in their careers. I believe it makes each of us better designers.”

“I went to Temple University for two years for an Associates degree in Landscape Design, a program aimed at people who come out of a nursery, or want to design patios. The program provided a good background in plant materials and residential planting design, so you could go back to the nursery, but I went on to the State University of New York’s, College of Environmental Science and Forestry where I got my BLA.”

“When I graduated in 1975, work wasn’t easy to come by. I found a couple of temporary jobs, one of which was in Ed Bachtle’s office in Wilmington, Delaware. He did a lot of work for the DuPonts and the city of Wilmington. In the mid 1970s he was working with the Franklin Institute on a stormwater infiltration/porous paving project for the University of Delaware. At the time, there were no porous paving stones or design guidelines for porous pavements. Bachtle did major research and may have gotten an ASLA award for his work.

When KMS did the Bank Street Restoration, it was brought home how important it is to be able to coherently explain your plans. “You must be able to talk intelligently about your work,” says Kelemen. “You may find yourself in front of a board, or a city council and need to be able to speak and write coherently so people understand your ideas and get a picture of where you’re headed.”

Powerful Influences

“Working with Bachtle started me thinking about design in ways that were different. We did a retirement community outside of Wilmington that was a full range community incorporating cottages and trails, private gardens, apartments and mid-rise buildings on a site of 15 to 20 acres. We did all the grading, site design and internal road circulation.

Looking back, there were a few people who were serious career influences, including Kelemen’s father who played a significant role. “He taught me to be independent, not be afraid to stick my neck out and take a leading role,” says Kelemen. “There are a few people from the educational arena as well, such as Vince McDermott, a professor at Temple, who encouraged me to go on and pursue my degree. Also, Brad Sears (the Dean), Chris Macy, George Curry and Walter Tryon all of whom were faculty mentors at SUNY. They were a gang. Half of them weren’t much older than the students because many in our class were vets who came in as juniors. The average age was 23. In 1977, I worked for Don Lederer, design director for the Fairfax County Park Authority.”

One of the things Kelemen is personally involved with is the Boy Scout movement. He is a merit badge counselor and works with Scouts on several merit badges, including Landscape Architecture and the Eagle required Environmental Science. In 2005, he worked with over 160 Scouts on the Landscape Architecture merit badge on the “merit badge midway” at the Boy Scout National Jamboree. He has been asked to coordinate the effort for the upcoming 2010 Jamboree, which celebrates the Scouting movement’s 100th anniversary in the United States. When BSA wanted to update the Landscape Architecture Merit Badge requirements in 2007, Kelemen was one of the people contacted for input.

Creating Magic That is Practical

“Each of these people brought something. For instance, Vince McDermott and Walter Tryon really encouraged me to stretch my brain, to reach for and use ideas in pursuit of a design…not to be afraid to take a chance on new ideas or to apply old ideas in new ways. Chris Macy and Brad Sears taught me how to be sensitive to and honor the environment.”

He continues, “One of the tenets at Syracuse was paying close attention to the natural systems. We had courses in Ecology and Environmental Impact Statement writing. Lederer pointed out how to be practical with designs. I honed my skills in the practical then took my creativity and channeled it into something that could actually be built.”

“That’s very important,” says Kelemen, “and it’s one of the things that are missing from schools today. It was missing then, too.” As an employer, Kelemen looks for people who can do more than dream. They need to know how things are put together, something about the materials they’re using, how big the components are and how they fit together…this is where he thinks an internship in construction can be a big help. “Another thing my father and grandfather taught me was how to build things. How to paint and hang wallpaper, do electrical work and plumbing. It all helped me when I went out into the field because it helped to know that the project can actually be built.”

“At Black Rock, we took a lot of different design elements such as the ‘Bird’s Nest’ to facilitate bird watchers (seen above), and put them together in one project…there was the reclamation itself, wetland creation, enhancement of existing wetland communities and creation of multiple habitat types,” says Kelemen.

The Budget is Part of the Project

Several years ago, Kelemen was asked by the Penn State Cooperative Extension to put on a combined presentation for the ASLA and nurserymen. He talked about the use of native plants and construction. “It was aimed at encouraging design people, installers and maintenance crews to work together because everyone wants the same thing. The importance of understanding how to ”maximize the design” within tight budgets makes for interesting challenges. The budget becomes part of the project.”

Kelemen continues, “If you’re lucky enough to have a Bill Gates wallet, you can go crazy and create a beautiful picture…and end up creating a maintenance nightmare that costs a fortune to maintain…if you can find someone who knows how. The real key, in my opinion, is to be able to come up with a design solution that’s not only buildable, but maintainable by people who are also faced with limited budgets. Take a look and see if two years later the plants are smaller than the day they went in because someone is out there butchering them with gas powered hedge sheers. I believe plants should be allowed to grow together to look natural, not be individual neat balls or dice.”

“To permit breeding nesting and rearing of the young, we designed meadow areas, addressing nutrient pollution and stormwater issues along with the desire to develop a strong interactive educational component,” Kelemen adds, “and all the while, encouraging public access in a public park.”

The Right Plant for the Right Place

“Recently, we were asked to do a restoration project following a sanitary sewer installation within a flood plain area in a county park. The county wanted it to look “undisturbed” when finished. We felt it was important to replicate the original plant material pallet and use materials of various sizes to get a combination of mature and young plants.”

“Because major portions of the work area were on top of sewer pipes, we could not use trees and shrubs in large portions of the project area. For that reason, we also replicated meadow areas using different combinations of restoration and wildflower seed mixtures that were appropriate for the soil and moisture conditions. We don’t believe in making massive modifications to the soil just to get finicky plants to grow…it isn’t sustainable, or even maintainable,” he says. Our mantra is ‘The right plant for the right place.’ For example, don’t put in azaleas if they can’t tolerate the soil or exposure conditions; and, make sure the plantings will look good without being beaten to death with hedge shears.”

KMS designed a small pocket park, which has been very successful, in the Kiwanis Children Plaza, but Kelemen says getting projects like this has become very competitive. “People who usually do public work, like parks, are now up against 20, 30, even 40 firms submitting on a project that has a $20 thousand price tag and it all becomes cut throat. Whoever is willing to bleed the most will get the work. Competition has ramped up dramatically and engineering firms whose bread and butter were the private development market are going after the work as well as others who are without insurance.”

The Importance of Recognition

“When I first started in the field over 30 years ago, it was really tough to get recognition from the other professions. Many architects and engineers felt they could do landscape design just as well…maybe even better, but it was more convenient to let the LA do it. They thought they could do it all. “You just deal with your plants, I’ll take care of the important things and you pretty it up.”

“ASLA has always promoted the profession and has actively increased public relations efforts, especially over the last ten years,” says Kelemen. “But, it’s the individual practitioners who’ve actually done the job of getting the word out.

“Over the years, many landscape architects have bailed out other design professionals, saving reputations and otherwise poor projects. Clients need solutions that are workable, make a statement and don’t end in causing bankruptcy. As professionals, each time we do that, we make a strong statement about landscape architecture as the leading profession that deals primarily without the outdoors—streets, parks, plantings. The long and short of it is that landscape architects are best able to do that because they’ve had the training to deal with environmental as well as social issues.

Landscapes like the Bank D restoration project, “…should work, be maintainable and always ecologically sound,” says Kelemen. “We’ve been doing this for 30 years, even though “Green Design” has recently become the buzz. I did projects like this in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not new, it’s just good design that respects the natural systems…what landscape architects are trained to do.”

Sharing the Knowledge

Kelemen teaches professional practice at Philadelphia University. He stresses that, “not talking about your work and the profession is like kissing in the dark…you know what you’re doing but no one else does.” If you are in this profession you have to talk about it…with your clients, people in schools, the public. Give speeches, teach, give presentations…if you don’t, people won’t understand what you do and you’ll never see the profession grow.”

He adds, “My feeling is that we need to do more as a profession to get the word out. ASLA has put a lot of effort into the awards program, which garners much attention. They have instituted National Landscape Architecture Month, which relies on the chapters and individual members to develop and make the outreach efforts. But there’s nothing else for the rest of the year. They hold the Fellows inductions, and the Honorary Member’s Reception, which are good, but those efforts do not keep the profession in the public eye. I think we need to do something more. We should more fully encourage our members to go out there and make a difference.”

“KMS is doing a demonstration project for a local watershed conservancy at their headquarters,” he explains. We are creating a series of demonstration gardens using different techniques that homeowners can implement to control stormwater on their properties…things like cisterns, rain gardens, etc. This is not something new. Greeks and Romans did that.”

“What is more,” adds Kelemen, “About fifteen years ago in Pennsylvania we went through a period pushing the concept of continuing education. There were objections, but the bigger issue is that people who don’t agree tend to not stay current with what’s going on in the industry. That’s a hindrance to practitioners, the profession and their clients. The reality is that if you don’t mandate continuing education, there are people who won’t do it, and that drags down the entire profession.”

“Landscape architects should take more active roles in streetscape planning such as this Phoenixville streetscape we did. That and licensure widens our sphere of influence. The average member needs to be more aware of ways to help each other. By promoting licensure, you promote yourself as well as whole profession and raise the bar for everybody,” says Kelemen.

It’s the Economy…

“This sloppy economy is affecting us all pretty hard,” he states. “We’re finding that there are a fair number of projects out there, although they are mostly in the public sector. The bigger problem is that the housing market has gone south. There are a lot of firms that work primarily in the residential and private development market. Now that there’s only government work, these firms are trying to keep themselves busy by going after the public market, which isn’t the same. Public work typically has more stringent design and documentation requirements.”

Says Kelemen, “At Black Rock, we brought in trails in appropriate locations, and are now designing interpretive stations to tell the story of wetland environments. We want to teach park users about the kinds of animals and plants that live in wetland areas, and how people’s behavior on their property affects these environments.”

The Key to Success

At the time we started Black Rock, no one could find another example of that kind of reclamation. We did a lot of things where we were flying by the seat of our pants. We obviously used theoretical and technical understanding, but we took a few gambles. Of course, they were educated guesses, but we knew where we were headed and were pretty sure it would work based on our research. When it was all put together, it actually worked.” And what more could you ask for? Carl Kelemen found landscape architecture as a career over thirty years ago, he’s loved it ever since, he shares his knowledge and his passion with everyone he can get his hands on, and best of all, his projects actually work!

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June 26, 2019, 12:05 pm PDT

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