Landscape Architecture: 15 and counting

Recently, three HMH landscape architecture projects took top honors at The Silicon Valley Structures Awards, sponsored by the San Jose Business Journal. In a competitive region packed with innovative design, HMH’s work proved standout.

The recognition comes at a pivotal time for the flourishing LA studio, as the group marks its 15th anniversary this year. Initiated from the power of collaboration fostered during a housing project back in the early 2000’s, the group has since designed solutions for clients that range from single and multi-family residences, to engaging civic parks, to groundbreaking tech campuses, to some of the largest transit-oriented developments in the country. At the core of this diverse portfolio is a philosophy encompassing teamwork, communication and a heartfelt investment in partnering with clients to design better, vital communities for The Bay Area and other regions in California.

The HMH LA studio leaders took stock of their growth and their 15-year history in a conversation with HMH Marketing Manager Jennifer VanderArend. Principal and Manager Bill Sowa, Manager Brian Glick and Principal Jackson Derler share their insights on the team’s beginnings, HMH culture, key projects, and future trends and challenges.

Landscape Architecture

Beginnings

Jennifer VanderArend: The LA group started as a result of a project called Rivermark, an in-fill housing project in Santa Clara, for which HMH was providing engineering services. What clicked on Rivermark?

Brian Glick: On that project, the team of consultants from various firms formed an amazing synergy of problem solving and coordination that none of us had experienced before. We bonded together in our triumph to get Rivermark successfully approved. As an employee of another firm, I was working on the Rivermark landscape design, but HMH said to me “Let’s have lunch!” and David Wilson (HMH’s current president) showed up. We brainstormed for 2 ½ hours at a Chinese restaurant in Milpitas about the fusion of civil work and landscape architecture.

Bill Sowa: That close-knit partnership of civil and landscape was so powerful because Rivermark was an in-fill, new urbanism type project. It had a lot of challenges to get everything to fit, much like we experience today with similar projects, but that was one of the first higher density residential developments in the area.

BG: We saw that the close fit of landscape architecture would be a big benefit to both our HMH clients and our HMH internal teams. We could accomplish more, and more efficiently.

BS: David Wilson said, “I want this for my company business model because it makes sense moving forward to operate these two services in a tight integration because these are the projects we’ll be doing in the future.” And so for 15 years that’s been the inspiration of working together closely.

JV: How did the studio continue to evolve?

BG: HMH brought on Bill Sowa later in 2003 and things took a turn for the great. He gave us the stability, vision and leadership that the (then) tiny team needed.

BS: Around 2009 we needed to refocus our business strategy. We had been designing mostly single-family subdivisions but I wanted to add more work in multifamily, mixed-use, apartments, condos, commercial, retail, and also in transit-oriented developments. The Bay Area, especially Santa Clara County, needs more well-designed urban spaces and high-density housing to meet growing demand.

JV: Your team and breadth of work grew from 2010-2011?

BS: Yes. I also looked for people with a strong skill set for future corporate market-ready and new campus work. Jackson Derler came from a SoCal landscape architecture firm that had a very high level of design and detail. I didn’t have any projects for him when he started at HMH, so I think we tricked him into showing up!

Jackson Derler: I had previously interviewed with HMH and everything clicked. Once I came on board at HMH, I first worked on some civil engineering type work. Not what I was used to doing, but a great education in seeing the close relationship between both capabilities. As the economy continued to recover, Bill gave me free rein to target landscape architecture for tech campuses. That has been a great fit for me, the LA studio, HMH and our clients, who need unique, engaging solutions to maximize outdoor spaces with employee amenities.

BS: A key project that kicked off our corporate office work was Nimble Storage with Bixby Land Company. In 2011, this was one of the very first market-ready projects in north San Jose. That work led to HMH providing landscape architecture for the refurb of the Verizon campus, also for Bixby. That site was so successful that it was purchased at a significantly increased price. The redesign for the Verizon campus really set a high bar for other projects to follow, and we had our HMH name all over it.

LA Studio Philosophies

JV: Now that the studio has 20-plus team members, what defines the HMH LA capability?

BS: Everyone has a likeminded vision for excellence. For us, landscape architecture is a mechanism for making change in society. We like the pressure of demonstrating that to our clients and coworkers in other disciplines. The members of the LA studio believe in this. They bring a passion to do well for themselves and for our clients. That’s a win-win for HMH.

JD: Integration is key to our philosophy. We now have an HMH civil engineering group dedicated to our landscape architecture studio. That’s unique. The engineers are not only looking to engineer an element but also looking for the best solution while not impacting the integrity of the design. They have developed an eye for how to achieve the ideal visual solution, due to their strong relationships with the landscape team.

BG: Everybody now at HMH is really seeing the vision of a collaborative, multi-disciplinary design team. The firm is making great strides in continuing to push a unified design approach through as one of our core values. It’s about how the project looks in the end, supported by solid functionality.

BS: We are reversing the role of landscape architecture—no longer working at the end of a project on the “left over dirt.” Now we are shaping and leading the vision from the very start, and the projects, clients and eventual end users benefit.

BG: Our mindset is this: Our job is to be the keeper of these sites. We are the leader and all of the other groups and disciplines — they don’t report to us, we are all equals — but we’re going to take on this added responsibility to review and check and coordinate and communicate all the different overlays of design features. That adds a huge value to our clients. When they feel like we’re doing that, they feel good in hiring us.

BS: A good example of that is the 120-acre transit-oriented development Market Park in San Jose. This mixed-use project has many consultants and utilizes every HMH capability—landscape architecture, engineering, planning, surveying, public works, and entitlement work. The clients trust us to be in the middle of it all and to get the job done. The LA studio members are the eyes of the project for all the disciplines because, at the end of the day, all aspects of a site interface with landscape design in some way.

Studio Culture

JV: What type of attitude or atmosphere do you choose to cultivate?

BS: We are all about collaboration in our studio. We have a flat organizational structure and we are all conversing about a project. We share information and ideas, challenging each other to think outside the box and bring the very best solutions to the table. As opposed to my being the principal and telling you exactly what I want done. Instead, we help our staff reach their potential with tools, training and the chance to work on areas that interest them. I always say the strength of this department is the sum of its parts. Everyone has something to contribute and has a voice in this team. For me, sitting back and just listening to our people results in some of my greatest inspiration for what’s next.

JD: I want the architect and landscape architect to have the best designs. I want the building owner to attract the best tenant or to make the tenant the happiest. The only way to do that is to work together. I think we’re a little bit unique in that sense at HMH because we’re constantly coordinating with people to really have the best project team first and foremost, to come up with the best solution in the end. We’re not about working in a bubble.

BS: Another thing about our culture is that we are community-minded. Our projects are all fairly local and we understand the impact of our work.  We are shaping our own communities in Santa Clara County, Silicon Valley, the Bay Area, and other parts of our state. Our work is not off in Dubai or China. In fact, some of our HMH people are living in the housing developments that we have designed. So, believe me, we get feedback! And that helps us continue to improve.

BG: The orchard designed for Harker School is a great example of incorporating community history.  Kingston Village is another great local example. It’s right down the street from our office. It was our very first contract landscape architecture project in 2003. That client, KB Home, has remained a valued partner.

BS: In fact, about 85% of our work is with return clients.

Current and Future Issues

JV: What are issues affecting projects today and into the future? How is HMH responding?

BG: Regulations are always changing. We’ve stayed on the forefront of current water use policies for irrigation and/or storm water treatment for the LID measures. Same with LEED and other sustainable design practices. We’re combining the regulatory standpoint with different trends in design. Because we’re building closer and with higher density, utilities and infrastructure are getting more complex. Fitting everything in and still achieving landscape-lead, aesthetic-driven design is more challenging, more detailed. So, having other capabilities at HMH maximizes that cohesive design for clients. Our engineering and surveying teams, stormwater experts, our planning and entitlement professionals mesh seamlessly.

BS: I think there’s a greater awareness of ecology, community, health and wellness.  Clients –and the public in general– view the health of the community as being tied to the infrastructure that is around it. All the bike and pedestrian improvements, the safe route to schools, the no smoking regulations, multi-use parks, just everything that people are waking up and seeing. Our job at HMH is to help our clients infuse societal benefits, to create safe and healthy areas for families. That’s why having a committed visionary team and the key specialists, like our HMH professional arborists and stormwater experts, are so critical.

JD: The importance of outdoor space is a growing hot button for corporate office clients.  Clients are realizing you can’t just build a brick patio and people are going to use it. You have to create destinations, get the scale right, the proportions, the seating types, factor in sun and shade. Clients are realizing it takes an expert. In current campus projects that we have won, the outdoor programs are impressive, very detailed and a high priority for the client.

BG: Managing complexity for our clients is one issue that is constant. At HMH, there’s really been one common way of operating, which is: communicate with your client, communicate with the team, make sure you understand the scope, make sure you understand the fee, get out ahead of the schedule, communicate challenges before it’s too late, so be proactive, don’t react, don’t wait till the last minute. Get on the phone and talk to people. Go drive over to someone’s office and sit down across from them and check out how they’re feeling when you’re presenting. Don’t just send them an email and then wait for a response.

JD:  And, of course, another issue: balancing budget vs. impact. Our response is to knock it out of the park on Day One. Show a design that is really strong for the site, full of thoughtful ideas. Give the client the best possible solution. As part of that solution, we have also spent time devising ways the budget can be trimmed, if needed, without loss of visual impact. We are sensitive to budgets but we take the stance that we are the professionals who know the potential on a site.

Personal Rewards

JV: What do you find most satisfying about the state of the studio now and into the future?

BG: I think the most rewarding aspects in all these past, present and future projects are the relationships that HMH and myself — that we all have– with our clients and our design teams, our partners really.

JD: In the last six years, we have completed over 350 corporate campus projects. In each one, what I really enjoy most: working closely with a client, designing for a reason, creating innovative environments that people go out and enjoy.

BS: We’ve gotten to a point where our reputation precedes us. When a client brings us into a project team, they know we are bringing that attitude of “let’s do it better” and the HMH spirit of collaboration.

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HMH applauds the LA group’s 15 years of strong design and client service. Future blogs will cover the studio’s hiring process, points of inspiration and new design technologies. Congratulations to the seasoned studio leadership and their talented team.