Category Archives: General Commentary

Feeling Like Mr. Blandings

Working in home improvement contracting can be very interesting. As a contractor you get to work with clients to build something that will improve and enhance their home. It’s typically something that people are excited about, and that makes the work rewarding and fun.

As with any trade that deals directly with the public, it can also at times be extremely frustrating. It’s at these moments that I think of the classic 1948 film, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, starring legends Carey Grant and Myrna Loy. The Blandings, tired of apartment life in New York City, move to the country to build their dream house. Whoever wrote some of these scenes felt my frustrations.

My favorite two scenes (see clips below) are when Mrs. Blandings picks paint colors and when the Blandings are helping their architect design their dream home. In 1948, their custom home budget was $10,000! That might get you a patio now-a-days – Enjoy!

 

Why People Dislike Contractors

Contractors get a bad rap. Sometimes however this reputation is deserved. We are working on a project in Marin that needs extensive demo, grading, and excavation. On the client’s behalf we are soliciting bids for the work. We meet on-site with one prospective company.

“When can you get me numbers?” I ask.
“Two days” says the excavator.

I think to myself this is either an efficient estimator or he is putting me on. A week rolls by, no response. A second week comes and goes. I decide to reach out:

“Just touching base on our site visit from a couple weeks back. Let me know if you have any questions or need anything additional from us in putting together an estimate.”

I get back this reply:
“We appreciate having been given the opportunity bid this job. However, we are not bidding any new projects at this time.  We are in contract with many other jobs and do not have the man power to take on any others at this time.  Therefore, we are regrettably not in a position to submit a proposal.”

This type of bush league business practice is the reason for contractor’s bad reputation with the public. Clearly they were too busy to be bothered, and we are on to do business with a more professional outfit.

 

Tiburon Hilltop Project Video

It is always fun to visit a project a while after installation and see the transformation as the garden starts to fill in and mature. This project in Tiburon was a complete transformation of a front and back yard. It benefited from the great Tiburon climate, with its mild bay-side influence. We installed all new plantings, walkways, rear patios, retaining walls, extensive fencing and driveway for this remodel project. Enjoy!

2018 Project Highlights

Another year of interesting projects is in the books. 2018 was a year of delightful clients, marked by surpassing twenty 5-star reviews on Houzz. Here you will find projects from Petaluma, San Rafael, and Santa Rosa- Enjoy!

 

Building a Deer Exclusion Fence

We recently completed a bit of a different project for us, a quarter mile of agricultural fence designed for deer exclusion of a 3 acre area. We build a lot of wood and welded wire fences, but not being as familiar with the construction of these types of fences we did a lot of research on proper construction techniques for deer fencing. Here are some of the tools, techniques, and tips we learned along the way.

What we installed
-1500′ of 8′ fencing- 6′ of netting plus a smooth wire. We used 75″ tall Bekeart Solidlock Pro 20 Fixed Knot 12.5 Gauge Fence (17-75-6), combined with a high smooth tensile wire to top the fence
-5 HN corner braces with kicker posts using 2 3/8″ OD schedule 40 posts with galvanized schedule 20 cross bracing
-Corners joined using Fence Bullets instead of welding
-Wire tied to posts using Gripple T-Clips, wire joined using medium Gripple Plus connectors
-10′ T posts (1.33 weight) installed at 15′ spacing
-Gate corners built using 6×8 pressure treated crossed braced members set in concrete
-Gates: 16’x7′ Martin Farm Supply Deer Gates

Specialty Tools Used
-Dewalt Abrasive Saw to cut pipe, generator, air compressor
-High tensile wire pliers

Instructional Resources
There is a lot of good information out there from a few different sources. These were the most helpful:
Stay Tuff Fencing Installation Manual (for wood braced systems, but easily adapted for metal corners)

Gear
Building an ag fence is different from other types of fencing. There are some specialized tools that make the work much easier. These are often special order materials that you can’t find at your local Home Depot or even Tractor Supply:
-Post Pounder: While you can drive metal T-posts and pipe corners with a standard post pounder, there is an easier way. There are lots of options out on the market, but we chose to purchase a Man Saver Post Pounder to assist in driving posts. The Man Saver is a pneumatic pounder that can work with a fairly small air compressor in the field. After trying a smaller size twin tank unit, we swapped this for a larger but still mobile 8cfm Devilbiss compressor paired with a 5500 watt generator to run the Man Saver. We used 2 3/8″ schedule 40 galvanized posts for our fence corner bracing. The Man Saver lived up to its name, it was very handy in driving the posts. We were working in heavy clay soil driving corners to between 4-5′ in depth. The Man Saver did a great job in the softer layer up until about 3′ and then struggled in some harder sections where we finished the posts with a manual pounder. Given the size, weight, and cost of the Man Saver, these were acceptable trade-offs. We ended up doing all the T-posts by hand. These we 10′ posts driven to 3′ and it was easier to level and faster to install by hand than to set up and level the Man Saver 12′ in the air for each post. For shorter traditional 6′ T-posts the Man Saver would be dynamite. Two main tips in using the unit, keep it oiled (their accessory kit and in-line oiler is a must) and switch to the hard soil/ground counterweight if you encounter problems with the unit not cycling correctly in heavy ground.
-Corner connections: We knew we wanted to use pipe braces for their longevity and ease of driving, but wanted to avoid the time and expense of welding the corners. We settled on using Bullet Fence connectors based out of Oklahoma. These sleeves improve on traditional chain-link fence style cup and strap connectors by having two bolts, one connect a strap to the post and and the other to connect the sleeve around the brace pipe. This sleeve is the novel part of the design that helps prevent movement and separation common in traditional brace bands. Installation is simple but a bit time consuming using open ended wrenches. We installed 34 brace assemblies and by the end we had gotten very good at installing the bullets and very tired of open end wrench work. We used a Husky ratcheting wrench, which made the work a bit easier.  Time will tell if these braces will outperform their chain-link counterparts, but from the installation and design it should be a good brace.
-Stretcher Bars: You may be tempted to try to build a stretched wire fence without using appropriate stretcher bars. There are many YouTube videos showing novel and frankly dumb ways of stretching fence. The tension is part of the beauty of a high tensile field fence system. We used two Kencove 8′ stretcher bars combined with 3 Kencove Boundary Strainers. For short runs we did end pulls, straining the wire from the corner and then connecting with Gripple T-Clips.

Sources: Finding good Ag Fence Supplies can sometimes be a challenge. We reviewed different wire types (e.g. Redbrand vs. Bekaert), and different sources for tools and accessories. We liked Bekaert fixed knot the best in terms of quality, wire size options, gauge, and price. We used to following vendors for this Northern California project:
Kencove Fence Supply (national supplier)- best price we found on good quality tools. They shipped UPS Freight for free.

Building Gates- The BAD and the Good

We build a lot of gates and fences and see a lot of poorly constructed garden gates. Gates that drag, don’t close, and don’t latch can be on of the most frustrating things in the garden. Below are a couple of videos showing how not to build a gate, and a properly constructed gate.

 

A few tips:
-Big posts, big piers: Larger 4×6 or 6×6 posts will provide more stability and decay resistance over time. Larger piers will make sure your gate has a good foundation. A really solid pier would be 18″ diameter and at least 1/3 the height of the post with gravel at the base of the pier for drainage.
-Frame it right: For a carpenters gate, the framing should always be installed vertically. Typically 2x4s are used. The 4 inch dimension should always be vertically (i.e. perpendicular to the ground). Box framing a gate with the 2 inch dimension vertical is easier, but holds up much worse over time. It also doesn’t look as good.
-Not too heavy or too wide: When framing a gate, make sure to not oversize the framing too much. A heavy gate will be more likely to sag. For that same reason don’t make you garden gate too wide. We typically limit our standard gates to 48 inches. Once you start get wider metal reinforcement or additional support is required.
-Pick the right lumber: Gates should be made out of high quality decay resistant lumber. In California that usually means Redwood or sometimes Cedar. Posts can be either pressure treated lumber or Redwood.
-Choose a good hardware: It doesn’t have to be fancy, but a quality latch will make all the difference on your gate. We like paddle style latches for the easiest operation. Lokk Latches or the swanky Rocky Mountain Hardware are good options for different needs. Same goes for hinges, standard hinges are fine, just make sure they are heavy duty and can bear the gate’s weight well.

The Shelf Life of Landscaping

Recently I was browsing the website of Petaluma based MAD architecture and noticed their nice redesign of the Petaluma Library. Then something else jumped out, the front of the library looked nothing like the photo in the portfolio. This is a rather stark example of the need for on-going maintenance and reinvestment, especially in public spaces. In this example 1 grass out of 100 survived between the completed photo and the current photo.

Petaluma Library Right After Renovation

Petaluma Library Now

Incidentally, Daily Acts is in the process of a community based landscape project to help redevelop the landscape around the library coming up later in March.

Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara has such a unique style. With its more tropical plant palette and strong Spanish influences, it can be refreshing to draw some inspirations of Southern California into our landscapes. Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens in downtown Santa Barbara features some interesting elements- decomposed granite pathways, stonework and boulders, ponds and open grassy areas as well as sections of plants that could be applied to a Northern California setting.

With our new website we’re reposting our great gardens and parks portfolios to our blog in a series of posts. Enjoy!

Making Change Orders Easier

Change orders have a bad reputation and sometimes for good reason. Many contractors don’t create comprehensive plans or agreements for their work scope, only to come back later with dreaded change orders. That being said change orders are often necessary to finalize details, allotments or other aspects of the initial agreement, or to add on to the project scope.

We have completed large projects with zero change orders, and conversely done small projects that clients ‘change ordered’ into large multi-phase installations. What was previously a challenge for us was collecting signed paperwork change orders. While online electronic signature platforms have been around for a long time, we were still doing things the old fashion way since we don’t process that many contract documents.

This past year we finally made the switch to Adobe Sign. We wanted a simple, inexpensive, and intuitive solution that would streamline the change order process. The Adobe platform fit the bill. It also allows clients to keep tabs and approve changes via smartphone or desktop. Now change orders are made easy.

A past project that was executed via 16 change orders

 

Will My Concrete Crack?

There is a very short answer- yes. All concrete cracks, it is an intrinsic characteristic of the material. We design our concrete installations using scoring and other preventative measures so that the natural cracking follows the bottom of the cut scoring joints (which is why we score concrete). You can think of this the same way that a folded or perforated piece of paper tears in a predicable way along the fold’s path.

In about 1 out of 10 jobs we get some stress cracking through the middle of the slab. These are typically hairline cracks, which don’t effect the structural integrity of the slab, but don’t look great either. I like to give this due diligence warning because sometimes clients are surprised or upset with this cracking, which is not a defect. We do all we can to reduce these issues using good baserock prep, steel reinforcement, professional finishers, and good quality concrete material.

Here is a good short video for more on concrete cracking:

Modular Outdoor BBQ Options

Building an outdoor kitchen presents as many options and challenges as constructing a conventional kitchen. Unfortunately, this can also bring outdoor kitchens into the same budget range as a regular kitchen.

One potential solution is to use prefabricated modular island units and components to reduce costs, in place of expensive custom built islands and masonry.

It used to be that there weren’t a lot a good options of modular units. Choices were  simple low cost stucco boxes with limited choice and customization options. However as outdoor kitchens have grown in popularity so have the choices. There are scores of options, but here are a few different manufacturers of high end modular islands:

Danver Outdoor Kitchens: Danver (also sold as Jordan Brown Kitchens) offers the most choice and cabinet options of any modular system. With customizable cabinets and a full range of appliances there is a solution for almost any desired configuration.

Challenger Designs: Offers several different modular island designs with a clean modern look.

Gensun: In addition to a full line of outdoor furniture, Gensun also has some interesting islands, with a full range of colors and detailing options.

DCS: Appliance maker DCS offers their Liberty Island as a modular outdoor kitchen solution. Their system does not offer much customization, but you can get a full kitchen island at a competitive price including appliances.

Below are a couple of our recent custom island installations featuring bluestone countertops and stone veneered masonry islands.

BBQ Island and Green Egg Smoker- Petaluma

Custom BBQ Island- Larkspur

Two New Holidays for 2017

In this political climate we thought it was important to add two new holidays to our work calendar in 2017. We will be giving our employees the day off to celebrate the life and legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. In that spirit, here is an excerpt from Dr. King’s final speech:

2016 Project Highlights

2016 was another successful year of landscape installations with lots of interesting and varied projects. We were fortunate to have great clients to work with last year. Enjoy the gallery of project highlights below. Cheers to 2017!

O’Connell Landscape Joins the Fight for $15

As a company we have always believed in providing stable, long term employment with good benefits. This year we have employees who have been with us for over 10, 20, and 30 year time-frames, including since our start in 1987.

To that end we have made a commitment to a base wage for our workers of $15 per hour. Unfortunately, given the high cost of living in the Bay Area, even this amount is less than ideal.

We thought it was important as a company to affirm this commitment to our workers and express support for the Fight for $15 movement. This is especially true in light of the current political environment and pronouncements by organizations such as the CLCA (California Landscape Contractor’s Assocation) and Farmer’s and Ag Associations that are anti-employee. We don’t buy the anti-minimum wage arguments that these wage floors are a bad thing. Substandard wages only force an increased burden on social services.

CLCA’s Anti-Minimum Wage Lobbying Efforts

 

Thanks Jerk!

I was talking with a colleague today who works for another landscape construction firm in Sonoma County.  Our conversation lit on the topic of reviews and unreasonable clients.

“How’s that jerk of a client you guys had recently, the one who wrote multiple bad Yelp reviews under different user names?” I asked.

“Oh I think they have finally given up and gone on to bug someone else,” he said. “Funny thing is, we didn’t have a lot of reviews when this guy started his campaign against us, it helped us make sure our happy clients shared their experiences online.”

We had a similar experience with a bad reviewer, who vowed to ruin our reputation with the power of his online scorn.  The current online review score card for O’Connell Landscape?
Happy Clients 18, Jerk Clients 1
h-reviews y-reviews

Completed Project San Rafael

This front yard design and installation in San Rafael  focused on creating a new low maintenance, low water use garden to replace an existing front lawn. Because of the layout of the front entry for this project, a new paver patio was installed to create a courtyard space off the front entry path. We used McNear pavers for the hardscape, accented with a Bluestone landing over an exisiting concrete stoop.

Plantings focused on creating color, texture and interest while being easy to care for. New LED lights highlight the path and new patio space.

We highly recommend O’Connell Landscape. We are delighted with our new front yard which eliminated the dreaded lawn and replaced it with an easy care, drought tolerant, very attractive landscape. Michael provided a design that incorporated all the elements my husband and I wanted, and expert advice and infinite patience on all fronts: Hardscape, plants, lighting, irrigation and more. O’Connell Landscape has a very efficient and yet flexible mode of operation; deadlines and the budget were meet. The crew is extremely hard working and highly skilled in all areas: Foundation work, paver fitting, soil preparation, woodwork and lighting installation. There was excellent communication between the crew and/or Michael and the client. In our case, approval of the plan was required by a homeowner’s association. Michael provided the requisite documentation for this process; compliments were expressed by the HOA for the complete and professional plans. The overall care and attention that our project received from O’Connell Landscape was of the highest quality. It was a lot of fun to work with this company.
-Carol Mirenda, San Rafael

Breaking down our estimates- project cost and line items

Creating a good estimate is a time consuming process. We consult on scores of projects every year, issue a lot of free estimates, and try to create a proposal that is complete and also responsive to client and project.

Our estimates are line item based, we think of them as similar to a menu at a restaurant. We outline the scope in terms of a wide array of options and detailing, and then refine the estimate depending on budget and client needs. We find line item estimates work better than lump sum estimates, especially at an initial phase.  They take into account elements like a patio that may have a range of potential sizes depending on design, say 400-750 sq.ft., and a range of potential materials- like concrete, pavers, or flagstone. Line item estimates also allow for prioritization and the division of work into phases as needed.

Here is an example of an a recent estimate in San Anselmo that shows the type of granular detail involved:

Estimate_totals

An estimate like this one takes a lot of time to put together with such fine level detail. There are 5 work divisons and 26 individual elements.  However, when we are starting out without any design documents, it serves as a great project roadmap to further develop the project.

 

Turned Earth Turns 500!

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When I started this blog in 2005 little did I think I would still be writing it 10 years later. But here we are. The rate of posts may have slowed down since the beginning, but we just logged our 500th post to the blog. I find blogging is a great way to share our work in a more informal forum with more frequent updates than our main website. That and you can read my occasionally coherent thoughts and musings. If you want to read every post since 2005 you can visit the live archive listing page. Enjoy and thanks for reading.

-Michael O’Connell

2014 Project Highlights

While we previously highlighted work in progress construction photos on our last best of 2014 post, here are some finished project photos from our landscapes completed in 2014.

 

 

The Drought’s Over in Marin

With all this wonderful rain in the month of December, MMWD’s reservoirs are spilling. While the media is quick to point out that the drought is not over, one thing is clear, for this year at least there will be no water restrictions or drought in Marin, which gets 75% of its water from reservoir storage at Mt. Tam and Nicasio. In Sonoma County things are also looking good with Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma at about 80%.

Links:
MMWD Water Watch
Sonoma County Water Agency Reservoir Levels

Our Portfolios on Houzz

For those not familiar with Houzz, it’s a home design website with lots of good images of high end projects both inside and out. We have loaded our full portfolio on Houzz, and use its Ideabook feature to show clients precedent images and examples of our work. It’s a great collaborative tool and free to join.

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A Professional Quality Portfolio Builder

We just purchased a new Nikon digital camera for our office to shoot our projects (and of course as a fun toy).

The quality is amazing, and the wait is over. A professional quality camera (one that would have been the finest available at many thousands of dollars just a few years ago) is available with a couple of lenses for around $800. We picked up a Nikon D3200 DSLR.

Resist the temptation to upgrade to something more expensive. Unless you are going to shoot weddings on the weekends on the side, or paper your office in 24″x36″ photos, you don’t need fancier features or more pixels. The camera will just be outdated in a year or two anyway.

For more of my shots, see my new photo blog- done as a lark to get me to take more and better photos.

Dr. Seuss, your plant is ready