Category Archives: General Commentary

Estimate Etiquette- The Good and Bad

We have been bidding on a lot of projects lately. On some of those projects we win the bid, and on others we don’t, that’s the nature of the process. One interesting aspect of estimating process as a whole is what I call estimate etiquette. There are two parts to estimate etiquette, that of the contractor and that of the client. Like any aspects of courtesy these are subject to interpretation and depend on the context applied.

In general good etiquette by the contractor means being punctual for meetings, creating a detailed and pertinent estimate, and delivering it in a timely manner. Good etiquette by the client means respecting the time and effort bidding contractors put into estimates on their projects (which can be substantial),  and updating clients as to the status of the project and their final decision moving forward.

For our estimates in general, these are done at no charge. They usually include an in personal on-site consultation and subsequent proposal presentation with the creation of a detailed estimate, and often supplementary materials information, specifications or conceptual designs. Client responses to the estimate can vary, but clients are usually either responsive and update the bidding contractors on the status of their project, or they fall off the face of the earth and do not only not update the contractor, but don’t respond to follow-ups via phone, email, carrier pigeon, etc.

Now, all this being said, we aren’t always perfect in the process of soliciting estimates for our projects with sub-contractors. The purpose of emphasizing good estimate etiquette is to help encourage some common courtesy and professionalism on both sides of the estimate process.

Cotati Co-op Native Garden

This post gives an overview of a volunteer project at the Cotati Co-op Preschool-

Dear Cotati Co-op Families,
I met with the board last night to discuss a volunteer project to re-landscape the Mark Roberts native garden beds at the entrance to the school. Sherry and I have been discussing this work since last year. I own a landscape firm in Petaluma and would coordinate the work and solicit donations to the school of required materials at no cost. The board voted to move forward and discuss in more detail next week at our parent club meeting. I hope this will be a nice enhancement to the front of the building and be a good educational demonstration of native plants.
Cotati Co-op Front Landscape Existing Conditions
Planting Overview: The new plantings would be divided into two themes for the existing planter beds. The section under the Walnut tree near the parking lot would be a native grass garden and would feature Deer Grass, Berkeley Sedge, Blue Fescue, and Reed Grass. The section closer to the front entry gate would be the blooming section. Plants here would be low maintenance native perennials featuring California Fuchsia, Artemisia, California native Sage varieties and Yarrow. At the sidewalk lower groundcover plants would replace the existing shrubs, which have become overgrown. You can read more about the plants to be installed in the Plant Palette PDF.
Cotati Co-op Proposed Landscape Plant

Work Scope: The work scope would involve two distinct phases. First would be new plantings, which would require the following steps-

  • Remove existing plantings
  • Cap and convert existing spray irrigation to drip irrigation
  • Prep and grade new beds
  • Plant new plantings with amended soil and slow release fertilizer
  • Install new drip irrigation tubing and emitters to all newly installed plants
  • Install a thick new layer of bark to finish the area, retain moisture, hide drip tubing, and reduce weeds
  • Install botanical signs giving the common and latin names of newly installed plants.

Fencing Phase: The second phase would be to install a new extension of the perimeter fence to encompass both entry walkways from the front sidewalk, all the way to the parking area. This would have the benefit of enclosing the entire front of the school in a secure yard area and has been on Sherry’s wish list. As part of this work, the existing sign would need to be either relocated closer to the street, or replaced with a higher visibility sign that would face West Sierra Avenue.

Timing: Work would take place over winter break and be completed either sometime in December or January. I estimate 3-4 volunteer days being required for the planting phase, depending on the number of volunteers we have.

I look forward to discussing this more next week.

Michael O’Connell, O’Connell Landscape
(Zoe O’Connell, Butterflies)

Changing to WordPress

We just changed our blog software from Movable Type to WordPress. What a difference! WordPress is faster, more user friendly, open source and popular- all great features for a blog platform. For the non-professional web developer Movable Type wasn’t the right fit for us.

The best part of Wordpess is the photo management. Unlike Movable Type you can upload multiple images and organize them in galleries.

Post Referenced in Lawn and Landscape Magazine

Our post on our pricing and the pricing of our vendors was referenced in a story in this month’s Lawn and Landscape magazine.
Just goes to show that these type of pricing issues are critical to being profitable in a difficult economy.

In other blog related items, we just rebuilt our blog, combining an older platform of the blog with a new rebuilt interface. This means that over 350 posts from 4 years of Turned Earth can be found in one place and searched. Enjoy!

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Our Demonstration Garden

Come visit our demonstration garden at our Petaluma office!

The garden is still under construction and features constant additions. Below are a few of the landscape installations we are featuring now. The garden is open Monday-Friday 9am-4pm, stop by and see us or call and set up an appointment and tour.

Smart irrigation Controller: with easy to use Solar Sync sensor that monitors and changes watering based on weather conditions

-Water Features: Self contained and in ground water feature samples

-Materials: Flagstone pathways, redwood fences and arbors, deer fences, decomposed granite and more

Synthetic Turf: installation and material samples

DSCN0162sm.JPGNative Sod Lawn
DSCN0161.JPGCan reduce water consumption up to 50% over a traditional lawn

Underground Sod Irrigation

DSCN9942.JPG Netafim irrigation buried under the lawn, no more evaporation, no more over-spray, and some serious water savings

Vegetable Gardening
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Planters that are simple to install, easy to maintain and can produce a lot of food


Our Prices Are Lower, How About Yours?

As a result of slower times in the economy we have lowered our prices and found ways to cut costs on overhead to become more efficient and pass savings on to our clients.

I wish I could say the same thing about our materials suppliers. We have seen little if any change in prices for many of our suppliers. In some cases costs are going up. How about those delivery and fuel price increases when gasoline costs were above $4.00? In many cases they have remained as well.

How are we adapting? We are shopping around all our major materials purchases, negotiating with suppliers, and purchasing from suppliers we wouldn’t have used before that have cheaper prices. In some cases that means even discount chains like the Home Depot. On a recent order of mortar for a flagstone patio they were 30-40% less than large landscape material supply chain in the area.

Our Refferal Program

Personal relationships with our clients and excellent customer service are two ways we distinguish our company. When customers refer family, friends, or neighbors to O’Connell Landscape they are paying us a great compliment. In appreciation for your referral, we have set up a new thank you program. Just have your referral mention where they heard of us, and when we start the referred client’s landscape project, we’ll contact you to discuss your thank you gift. You can be a past client or simply someone familar with our work, either way, we have established this program to recognize our efforts and pass our name on to other clients.

Our Thank You Gifts

-Dinner for 4 at Buckeye Roadhouse
-A Weekend Get Away for Two at a West Marin B&B
-Or a Napa wine tasting tour

Consider a Survey When Working Near Property Lines

There is an article in the Marin IJ today about homeowners in Mill Valley that build their landscaping and pool house on open space and MMWD land. Over 7,000 sq.ft. of improvements ended up in the Homestead Valley open space, sparking the outrage of neighbors and open space advocates.

This is a good example of why in many cases homeowners should consider surveys when working on fences, large parcels, or other landscaping near property boundaries. Should adjacent properties sell or if neighbors want to expand, encroachments can lead to frustrating legal conflicts and the possible removal of improvements.

New Office Location

We have moved our administrative offices to an exciting new location in Petaluma. The address is: 3028 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma, CA 94952

We still have an office and construction yard in San Rafael, but this new office has more space and room for landscape demonstration areas and will allow us to better serve both our Marin and Sonoma clients. More details to come soon.

Our contact phone remains the same: (415) 462-9729 or you can dial our Sonoma County number (707) 313-5320.

Trying a New Smart Phone- The Samsung Saga

saga.JPGWe love technology around the office, and what better way to embrace new technology than by upgrading to the newest and latest smartphone. This was my plan at least when ordering the new device, a Samsung Saga. One day later, in was in the box ready to be sent back (thanks to Verizon’s 30 day trial policy), and a Blackberry was ordered in its place. The problem- too much of a good thing. The Saga combines an optical mouse similar to the trackpad on a laptop, with a touchscreen, Palm Treo like stylus, and keyboard. This would all be great if you were using the phone as a complete PDA, and a laptop replacement, but not ideal for quick navigation and email on the go. None of these navigation methods worked flawlessly, and coming from the Blackberry like Motorola Q9, it was all too much technology.

How We Track Time on Projects

For years tracking time on our construction projects was a bit of a challenge. We used a paper time card with different activity codes for the construction activities on our various projects. Rather than a simple clock in, clock out, this is what is known as a time and attendance system. Last year we implemented a new digital time tracking system, Pocketclock by Exaktime. Exaktime has been developing time tracking solutions for a few years, but we found their Jobclock system, that used a special padlock that was placed on the jobsite, didn’t work well for the way our projects and crews were organized.

Recently, they released the Pocketclock system that was based on a Palm or Windows Mobile device. Rather than track time on paper, our employees enter their work actions on a PDA in the field. The difference has been noticeable. We can more easily track, analyze and bill our clients for the time we spend on projects, and it has streamlined our whole payroll process and simplified entering and bookkeeping tasks.

This a definitely worth a look for contractors or anyone who tracks individualized tasks out of a typical office environment.

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Mindmanager Update

We wanted to follow-up on our previous posting on our upgrade and customer service experiences with Mindjet and the Mindmanager planning software. Following our previous posts, we contacted customer service via the web to tell them about our experience. We quickly received responses from customer service letting us know that they would issue a courtesey upgrade for the newest version of Mindmanager. We also received a message from one of Mindjet’s customer advocacy representatives following up our issues:

We
take our relationships with our customers as the utmost priority and I
deeply apologize on behalf of the Mindjet team for your negative
incident. With new product introductions, there will be special
situations which we will consider on a case-by-case basis, such as
yours. We are grateful to have such passionate customers who care
enough to let us know when they are pleased and more importantly to let
us know when they are not. You have provided us with valuable feedback
and we hope that you will give us a chance to improve and earn back
your trust.

In this era of limited customer service, we appreciate Mindjet’s efforts to satisfy our concerns with their upgrade process for Mindmanager and quickly respond to our concerns.

Mindjet’s Mindmanager: Upgrade No More

One of the pieces of planning software we use frequently to brainstorm and plan out projects is Mindmanger (see our 2005 post here). Recently in September, we upgraded our software to the current version 7.  A couple of months later in November we got a notice that new version 8 had been released. Rather than pay again for a new upgrade only 2 months after the initial purchase we called up Mindjet product support number to see if we could upgrade to the newest version. The support representative tersely informed us that we had missed the cutoff for a courtesy upgrade by a couple of weeks. We don’t begrudge software companies for trying to generate revenue and keep their products current, especially a small company like Mindjet. It would have been nice if they informed purchasers that a new release was imminent to avoid upgrade fatigue. On the service side, because they are a small company, they should display more flexibility in working with companies like ours who are loyal users and want the new features provided in the software upgrades. Instead, because of their lack of service, this is one software product we will no longer upgrade.

2009 Calendar

Our 2009 Calendar is now mailing out. This year’s version features images of the beautiful vistas, landscapes and plants of Utah’s national parks.

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A Beautiful Southwest Sunset

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The Delicate Landscape Arch

As always, if you would like a free copy of the calendar, email us your name and address and we will send one out to you.

Online Resource for the 2007 California Building Code

California has implemented its new 2007 building code based on the 2006 International Building Code. The full set of the code is available in hardcopy from reference publishers, but previously was not available online through an official outlet such as the California Building Standards Commision. An open government advocacy website public.resource.org has scanned an uploaded copies of the full code that are available for download in .pdf.

The website argues that under 2002 Federal Appeals Court Decision that posting the code information online does not qualify as copyright infringement because once the code is enacted as law it becomes part of the public domain and does not qualify for copyright protections.

Publishers and code writing bodies argue that in order to produce building codes they incur costs that need to be offset and funded by the sale of code information. The open government proponents counter that increased access to the code and other open source legal information benefits society, and improves adherance and knowledge of building code standards.

 

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MMWD’s Long Term Water Plan

There was an editorial in the Marin IJ from Marin Municipal Water District’s general manager recently about the districts plans for water conservation. Like all water districts in the state, the needs and demands on the water supply are becoming more pronounced.

In about one in 10 years, the district would ask customers
to voluntarily reduce water use by 10 percent. In the most severe drought
years, MMWD would require customers to reduce water use by 25 percent. In spite
of these reductions in drought years, MMWD still would not have sufficient
water to meet customers’ needs. To close this gap, customers would have to
reduce water use in all years, reducing 10 percent immediately. Demand
reductions would have to increase to 20 percent in 2025 because population
growth in Novato and Petaluma
will have first call on supplies from the Russian River
aqueduct.

Conservation is obviously the main tool the water district has at its disposal to manage the water supply. This needs to be combined with increased reclaimed water efforts and could be supplemented be a future desalination plant the district has been exploring. In any scenario, it seems that water supply will be a major future issue in the county and a general issue in the landscape industry.

The Water Pinch

There was an interesting article in today’s SF Chronicle about water restrictions and golf courses in the East Bay. One course profiled is trying to drill wells to supplement its water needs. Continued drought conditions, water restrictions in the Sacramento Delta, and Southern California water demand are going to make these issues and difficulties more and more commonplace.

A Differnent Way to Control Weeds

While driving by Sears Point Raceway (Infinion) recently in Sonoma, I noticed large flocks of sheep grazing the grass and weeds on the edges of the racetrack property. Turns out there is a free range sheep grazing service Wooly Weeders, which provides the sheep to control weeds for vineyards and other large properties. Apparently, the sheep can be more efficient and more ecologically effective in removing surplus weeds and grass. A simple and old fashion innovation for the problems of mowing large areas.

For More:
Article on Sheep Grazing in Vineyards from the Chronicle
Article on Wooly Weeders in the North Bay Business Journal

Interesting Smart Irrigation Controller Overview

Smart irrigation controllers that automatically adjust based on plant water needs and weather patterns are becoming more and more common in landscaping of all scales. The Chronicle had a good overview in today’s paper about the role of climate-based controllers and some different manufacturers. Definitely worth a look; in the current drought conditions, water districts are going to start mandating these controllers be installed for new and existing landscapes.

Garden Featured in July Marin Magazine

mmJuly.jpgOne of our Tiburon garden installations has been featured in July’s Marin Magazine. The project featured a roof top garden, with green roof installed over a new pool house. The pool house was integrated into the project hillside to give seamless views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.

The owner of the project wanted a garden that would replicate her garden before construction of the pool house. She also wanted a design that would give instant impact.

The project was done in coordination with Caletti Jungsten Construction and was designed by Pedersen Associates Landscape Architecture. O’Connell Landscape did the landscape installation and second phase design and installation.

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Garden Path

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Stone Garden Stairs from Roof Level to Pool Level

mmtp2.JPGGreen roof with lawn, plantings and view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco

The Price of Fuel

Contractor trucks and equipment consume a fair amount of fuel. While our expenditures on fuel aren’t as dramatic as some industries in the transportation sector, we still notice the difference on our truck fleet especially. The cost of diesel for example, has jumped almost a dollar in the past couple of months, to an astonishing price of over $5.00 per gallon in California.

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More information from the EIA

Sprint/Nextel’s Woes

Sometimes in retrospect you can look back and be glad in the judgment of having made a correct decision. Our company’s decision to switch from Nextel to Verizon a couple of years back was one of these instances. I read with interest in the Wall Street Journal of Sprint/Nextel’s huge 30 billion loss in the previous quarter, due largely in part to a write down in the value of the Nextel division. Our company’s experience with Nextel has been well chronicled here in the past, and I was in no way surprised to learn of Nextel’s difficulties. For the scores of other construction companies who still use Nextel, the question has to be asked, is it time to get off a sinking ship?

Drainage Check

This is the time of year where hidden elements like drainage and roofing that go unnoticed most of the year can become the focus of attention. When there are feet of standing water in the crawl space or water pouring through the skylight, their importance become obvious.

We just finished an extensive drainage system for a commercial project where we installed over a thousand feet of drainage line and twenty new catch basins to solve drainage problems around the project site. Having a drainage system that provides a finished solution is an important consideration. Unless the system collects and removes or segregates all the draiange water out of critical areas, it can function to treat the problem but not solve it. For example, a system that pumps water out of a flooded crawl space or basement is less effective and higher maintenance than a French drain or other surface drainage system that stops the water penetration in the first place. Sometimes this type of solution isn’t possible due to site conditions or topography. In most cases though, while it may cost a bit more the short run, the system that can most effectively deal with drainage issues is going to perform the best in the long term.

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Water pours down a hillside near a recently completed commercial drainage project

Good Rain, Bad Rain

We make a morning call to determine if we are going to work in the field on mornings like this. Turned out we made the right call yesterday by deciding not to work today. The traffic and conditions have been terrible as a result of last night and today’s storm. The good news is the reservoirs will be filled and we could use the rain. The bad news, with 580 and 101 closed, flooded, and delayed it has been a mess of a day on the roads.