New England Design & Construction’s David Supple talks with Ryan Gross from Kate Ann Designs. Go behind the scenes of the show and learn how Ryan’s company pulls off their beautiful landscape design and construction business.
Transcript of Episode 8:
Alright! Welcome to the Design Build Show. I’m here with one of my best friends in the whole wide world, Mr. Ryan P. Gross
Thank you for having me! Appreciate that.
Who just happens to be a design-builder.
Took after my boy.
Ryan and I worked together in a design studio 10+ years ago and now Ryan is in LA. He has his own company called Kate Anne Design Build. Who’s Kate Anne?
Kate Ann… You gonna do this?
You gonna do this right now? Okay, okay. So Kate Ann is my fiancee. I’ll tell you- he’s gonna start giving me some flak about that. Why don’t I name it after myself? Well my last name is Gross- so you ain’t gonna be doing Gross Design. Who all wants a Gross Backyard? So no. Kate Ann Designs.
Did you guys start the business together?
What kind of business is it?
It’s a landscape design and build, so we do everything you can do in the backyard.
You guys didn’t start off design build, right?
You started off doing only design for the first year or two?
Yeah, well I’ve got a background in interior and exterior architecture, and uh, was doing that. And Kate was doing landscape design for another company. Her stuff was great. It was phenomenal. I saw what she was doing. And I told her we should start doing something, you and I. I thought it was just going to be a side gig, and we got that going. Within 6 months it took off, and I think within 9 months I quit my job.
You went to work for her?
I hired her on. I started the company. Kate Ann Designs, I am the owner.
So we were doing designs only for a long time. And then clients were asking us to manage their install, and kind of have that designer touch throughout the installation process.
Was it a problem? Were clients running into problems on projects you only designed?
Yeah, of course. Cause you got division of hats, you’ve got division of responsibilities. And you’ve got us as the designer- we’re all responsible. And then you’ve got the contractor that comes in, that sort of- because they have no place in the design, they kind of lack the responsibility, or sort of lacked the full control of the project. So we then had to step in for the client and act as an owner’s rep to sort of pull the whole project together and kind of run it. So at first we kind of ran the clients’ projects for them, with their own hired contractor.
Like a construction manager, almost like the clients’ agent? So did you have a fee for that or you just did it?
Yeah, we would sometimes put on a 15% project management fee. So that was fine, and we were doing that and we were very successful; clients were real happy. But you know, with overhead, and with us increasing, and our promotion, and all that kind of stuff, 15% wasn’t cutting it. Cause you know, 10% was overhead and that didn’t really leave a whole lot of profit for the project management. So I got my General Contractor’s license, and started operating as a General Contractor. So we became a design-build essentially.
Give some examples if you have any, of when you were doing just the design of what a client ran into, or like, you guys had just done the design and the client hired a contractor- what would they call you about or what would you see that wasn’t ideal?
You know, quality of work. I guess. Sort of just that craftsman touch. The pride of the product. And they would- even contractors, the ones that meant well, just didn’t have the full view, the full artistic view of it. So when they would try to basically execute your design it didn’t always achieve 100%. So the client wanted us to come back in and help communicate to the contractor appropriately and help the contractor get back on track with whatever the design intent was.
I mean it makes sense, right? If you didn’t do the design, you have whatever they bid it on. That’s what their mindset is about owning. It’s very hard, I find… it’s very few who look beyond that, and look beyond like , “Hey, we want to create the best project for the client here”. Or are even able to, right? Because the contractor might not have the aesthetic-
-might not have the trainig-
-the skill set exactly. They’re able to be responsible for what they’re responsible for.
That’s right, you know. And not to give you too much credit, but I remember us chatting. What was it, six years ago? We were discussing the role of the architect, and what the architect was and what the architect meant back in the day. And back in the day, the architect was The Man. He was the guy that designed it and got it built. There was not differentiation between an architect, the designer, and a contractor.
Most people don’t know that. I’d say still, a big purpose for this show is to re-educate people. Because you go back a hundred and twenty years, and the architect built. The architect was responsible for the build, took ownership for that. You look at the number of years that building have been occurring, the great majority of history that’s the way it went down.
All the way through back to Egyptian periods. All the relics we see- the pyramids, all that stuff. There was an architect that supervised thousands of workers. And he was on the job every day running the work as the architect, as the master builder.
The derivation of hte word Architect is Greek for Master Builder. And you go throught he ages- even the Rennaisance where you had this artist who didn’t know how to build, right? The Renniassance was all about the return of the antiquity. And they were specialists in that antiquity. They were who the clients went to because they knew how to give them that- but they didn’t actually call themselves architects. Like Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists of all time, also very well known as an architect- he said, “i’m not an architect, I’m a genius”. Right? I’m an amazing artist, but that build things not my… just the viewpoint of that role is different. That’s what we’re doing, we’re bringing it back.
And it just makes so much sense.
It does. You know, as a client- I’ve been every hat there is. I’ve been the client, I’ve been the project manager. I’ve been the contractor, I’ve been the designer, the architect. I’ve been the owner’s rep. I’ve seen it- I’ve seen project complete. Go through the whole project from each of those hats and what we ran into. The only time it was successful was when you had one person who was responsible for the design through to completion, all the way to the very end to the punch list. All those little wrap-up points. Taking your designer eye and making those last little tweaks.
You know even within my company, this is something we can struggle with. We’re a design-build firm, but it’s not like I, one guy, or one gal, is running the gamut of the whole project. We have turnovers. But if there isn’t somebody who’s really overseeing it all, and who’s really responsible for that, things can get lost. And even though, it’s kind of the hard way to be accountable for it, because you end up being accountable for it the hard way because there’s something that gets dropped. There’s nobody else to point hte finger at. I love that- I love that aspect of that.
What I meant by that was one company, because obviously as you grow you take on more staff, you divide up the responsibilities. But it’s all within the same team, within the same group. And you know, that’s when it really makes sense to the client because they know they’re gonna get a product at the end, because there’s one person that’s responsible from the beginning to the end. It’s turnkey. It’s the way it was meant to be back then, and it kind of fell away from that. You’ve done such a great job of bringing that back with your company. We emulate a lot of what you do.
You’re giving me too much credit. You’re giving me too much credit. I’m gonna write a blog about it soon: in Japan, the word Architect didn’t even exist until 1950. If you think about it, even the 1800s the 1850s, things started turning. The American Institute of Architects was created in 1860? I think? That influence didn’t hit other parts of the world until later. It was the builder. In Japan too, it’s much more modular… I digressed a little here, but if you think about the world… the point really is that you look at these areas that are untouched by modernism and this European influence. My point is that it makes sense to have the guy, to have one person or one entity responsible. It’s kind of like innately..
It’s the natural path.
Yeah. And if you give analogies to other fields like music, or cooking.
You’ve got your conductor. You’ve got your chef in the kitchen.
It’s not like the guy who just wrote recipes and never cooked: he couldn’t really write recipes that way. So landscape- that’s an area.. I told you last night we work with a design build landscaping firm in Boston and we love it. You come from more of the commercial residential construction. What’s some of the differences between landscape design and construction…
And Interior? You know, people think that there’s more of a difference than there really is. We’ve found that to be successful at landscape design, we really had to pull a lot of the interior outside. We had to really jive with what the client was trying to achieve inside their house. What their aesthetic was, what their color pallette was, what their mood was, and pull that outside. I’ve got a big background in interior architecture and Kate has a major background in interior design. So, that just… we kinda took that to the outside. We wanted to take that same level of thought and create to the exterior, which is sometimes lacking. At the same time, it’s all about listening to the client. A lot of designers try to just put their touch on something, and create their own design without really listening to the client. They want to make it theirs whether it actually works for the client or not. So, it’s one thing we learned on doing the interior design stuff and took that again to the exterior. And it’s made it very successful.
Awesome. Yeah I find a big.. we call it our Pre-Design phase, when we’re not designing but we’re just asking questions of the client. It’s a survey right, like a questionnaire. I think most architects do that, right?
We do that too, and the bigger landscape design companies do. We take a meeting at the beginning, a free consultation. And I get most of what the client wants with that, with that one meeting. And I’ve pretty much got the design.
Do you know a lot of names of plants now?
Do most clients?
No. But that’s why I’ve got Kate: I’m nuts and bolts, hardscape, decks, trellises, retaining walls, pools, permitting. I know nothing about plants- if you handed me a plant I’d give it about two weeks to live.
Clients must really lean on you guys on the plants, right?
They do. They absolutely do. That’s where Kate comes in- Kate knows everything there is. She’s the plant princess, she waves her magic wand and this stuff is gorgeous. It’s funny, what I’ve learned about landscaping through doing this with Kate, was there’s way more than just the aesthetics of the plants. There’s all kinds of things that go into what makes a plant survive in that space. There’s the type of soil that you’ve got. There’s a bunch of different types of soil. The PH of the soil, is it full shade, partial-shade, or full-sun? What’s the wind pattern? When I’m on-site I’m always noticing where’s North, South, East, West? How’s that going to affect…
A year later, a client can call you up going, ‘All my plans are dead”.
Yeah, they can. That’s why we go through all that at the beginning. For example, the sun in the winter drops into the horizon a bit, so it casts longer shadows. So things like herbs, citrus trees, that kind of stuff, planter boxes- you don’t want to put those on the south side of the yard where they’re going to be in full shade through the winter because they’re just gonna die. Also grass. If you’re gonna plant grass in the yard and you’ve got a big old building on the south side that’s gonna cast shade through the first quarter of that yard, you want to find some kind of hardscape to put over there. Some kind of shade-friendly plantings, and not put grass.
You gotta water the grass in California, right? Like it’s a must, you have to water it, like you have to have sprinklers.
We do sprinklers. We do a lot of drip irrigation to save water from all the plantings.
Oh that’s cool, from the roof? What’s drip irrigation.
No, it’s these little flexible conduits that kinda go through underneath the mulch. Actually they’ve got these trunk-lines that go out and little fingers that go out to each individual plant, and circle the root of each individual plant and deliver the water to the plant itself so you’re only watering where the plant is. With spray irrigation it’s watering everywhere whether there’s a plant there or not. That’s why you spend so much water. This delivers it right to the plant and it’s underneath the mulch. So we add mulch- a certain kind of nugget mulch, which soaks up a little bit of that water and throughout the day releases it back into the ground. And it kind of helps with evaporation and that kind of stuff. Grass still needs spray, because grass just needs a lot of water. but now they’ve got drip irrigation that’s like a whole grid that you put underneath the grass right before you lay the grass. So there’s no spray. So you can have the whole lawn with no spray.
Is it a lot more expensive?
A little bit, but not too bad.
I mean, cost is a thing we’re talking about- the questionnaire, asking the clients, taking our own inventory of the site, or in our case the home, doing like a home inspection… I think one thing with a design-build company the capability is much higher, is to talk about cost early on.
It’s a must.
Where we’re going to end up. If you’re the architect and you’re not building, what you say about the cost? You’re not accountable for it. And since you’re not building, you don’t know what things cost as much, so you’re more apt to go for like a square footage cost. And if you’re the builder, early on you know what things cost, but its much more difficult to put, like, what are you estimating.
Absolutely, because that’s a key thing. We run into that with clients all the time. We find that in the interior world, in interior construction, clients tend to have a better idea, a relative idea, of what things might cost. You know, you’ve got all those house flipping shows…
It’s all bullshit.
It is all bullshit, I’ll tell you that.
Except a few of them. This Old House. I don’t think they talk about cost on that show though.
No maybe not, I don’ tknow. But I tend to find clients kind of think they know what they’re talking about in that, but in landscaping, they just give it up, they just say, “We just have no idea”. I’ve had clients that wanted to pave their whole yard, and add 500 plants and a whole bunch of lighting, and said their budget was five thousand dollars. They weren’t intending to be facetous, they just have no clue what it took. Sit I usually, it’s vital at the beginning of the project, even with the first meeting, that you set a realistic target for what the client wants to invest in teh project. And then kinda give them a rough idea based on that first meeting, you’re in this rough range. It may go lower and it may go higher than that once you actually develop the plans and stuff…
You’re educating them!
You’re educating them. And setting an expectation in the beginning so that you’re more of a team member with them develping this as opposed to promising the world and then you give them the sticker shock and the end and it never goes anywhere and they’ve just wasted two months.
It really comes down to, you’re using the same plants, the same basic labor cost. It really comes down to who you trust, who you feel comfortable with. As long as you’re talking to a reputable firm who can deliver your type of project who has a track record to deliver that, I think that’s the most important thing to come down to. And early on you should be talking to different firms, because you should be getting very similar ranges for the same project.
Right. The one area where I’ve seen issue, at least in LA, where there’s hillside. Hillside is a whole ‘nother scenario than flatland projects.
Even for landscaping?
When it deals with hardscape. Not really landscape. The only time it gives landscapetrouble is when it’s so steep, that when you go to irrigate the plants, that the water runs off before it has a chance to soak in. A lot of times the super steep hills are more rocky and silty, and they don’t hold plants as well, so on a very steep hillside we won’t recommend small plantings or little seeding. Doing seeds, or what we call flats, those tiny little baby plants that you can get 16 in a flat. We usually recommend doing a more mature plant where we actually carve a pocket for the plant, we fill it with fertilizer, and we set the plant in that and water it, so it’s got it’s own little pot buried in the ground basically, and it gives it a chance to live. So that’s the only time, in hillsides. But when you’re talking hardscape, you’re talking about putting a deck in, or a wall, or anything like a patio. LA, particularly, hillside is astronomically more expensive and there’s a lot that goes into it. Some contractors will sort of gloss it over in the beginning, give an estimated budget that’s a bit low ball. Then, as they go to install they find that bedrock is way lower than they though it was, and you end up with change orders. So we always recommend, and we’re always major sticklers with just doing all the planning up front. Even if it takes a few extra weeks, you get all the planning done, get all the engineering done, do everything right so that you know before you go. And when we issue you a cost it’s a realistic cost. We’re not gonna issue you a bunch of change orders.
We really do our best to have the initial ballparking. We do provide an estimate before we start our design process, and we do a range at that point. We’ve done a similar project, and that’s really what we’re basing it on. But, we do have changes in design, because we’re looking at different options and there might be things, new data that we get from the home.
I like to say that we have our change orders during the design process. Which is better. We have a project right now that is actually landscaping related. We’re doing a garage. It’s totally landscaping related man, I haven’t talked to you about this. It was gonna be detached, then there was a tree. Where it was was in contention with the neighbor. They were like, “no, it’s our lot line”. There were two different surveys going back to like 1890 where it was different. So now it’s attached, but it’s a narrow lot. And so the driveway, the house is on the right side and the driveway is on the left. But now there’s another tree where we just realized we need to move the retaining wall to 3 feet, three and a half feet. 24″ circumference Maple. We were basing it off of we need to give 3.5 feet for the roots. Anyway, that changed things. I think we’ve finally figured it out where they can still park their car. We actually chalked it out. We went to a parking lot- we’ve done this three or four times because we went from an 18′ garage door from a 20′ garage door. We had to shrink the depth 1 foot, but I think it’ll work now…. I don’t know what my whole point was here… but it was a change order! Thank god we’re doing this now, and we’re figuring all of this out.
Well, that’s the purpose of design. The design, from your first meeting to the end of the design there’s a whole lot of development. Ideas change, concepts change, you’re able to finally dig in to what’s involved, what you need to do. And sure, it will change through design. But that’s why you do design. That’s why design-build is such a good idea, because it forces all those changes to the surface now so that you the at the end of design you can properly set a realistic budget and you’ve gone through all that workout. And a project is only as good as it’s planning. 90% of problems that you run into on a construction project be it landscape or interior, all stem back to improper planning, or incomplete planning.
A hundred a hundred percent. The thing about it is, is, (this is how I feel)- unless you’re a design build firm, or unless you’re an architect who knows what things cost, who has built- because there are architects out there like that- who have more of a design-build mindset. And when I say a design-build mindset, I mean you can’t just have the drawings. You can’t just have like the rendering or the plan and not have thought through everything else, like how it’s going to be executed, what are the trades involved-
-how are you gonna get the equipment in there, what’s your path of-
-exactly. And if you’re not responsible for it, you’re not going to think with it. Michelangelo- even though this guy didn’t call himself an architect he developed scaffolding. He created inventions in scaffolding to figure out how to build. And that was the hat of an architect at that point time. He was being very modest when he was saying he asn’t an architect really. This guy, David Sellers, I interviewed him. He’s one of the founders of design-build. He graduated Yale in nineteen sixty four architecture school, and just started building. I admire this guy tremendously. Design-build to him was kind of like building on the fly- designing and just building. There is a lot of truth there when you say that once you’re on site you can see things more clearly. But I believe that, and I think that where your process works is similar, is that you have a complete design phase. It’s done before you build.
Right. Well we’ve got 2 design phases. The Schematic Design which is the broad strokes, and sort of like painting the picture of how everything is going to lay out, where everything is going to be located, what all the plants are, what all the specs are, what all the finishes are, where the lighting goes, elevations of any kind of trellis structure or deck or that kind of thing. And then the phase 2 design which is the development. The design-development. All the CDs, which are the Construction Drawings. And permit plans, getting it through engineering, getting it through soils tests if we need to. Whatever might be needed in order to get it approved by the city if there’s any parts of it that require construction plans, require permit plans and permit approval.. so we do that as a phase two. Then after that, then you got it nailed. You know exactly where every nail is going.
So which is traditional architectural phases right? I think the thing we’re adding to it is costing information. So throughout the whole process, cost is part of the decision making process, it’s not just the plans. And then just the mindset of execution. Having that the whole way through. It does help develop the design and change the design because you are thinking with that.
You have Nest cameras on all your sites. I’m gonna steal that from you. I’m gonna figure out how to do that.
My guys had to get used to it- they called me Big Brother for a while.
I mean, they can check your cell, right? You have to dispose of some of that camera I’m sure.
What are you talking about?
Well, you had this habit where you would like to undress a lot when nobody was around…
You’re full of shit. No, but the camera did catch some shenanegans on-site. You know, dancing, and stuff that other people do.
I saw some of that.
We’ve got cameras on site that keep site security in. The homeowners really like it because the homeowners have a lot of people they don’t know on their job site. So the fact that there’s something always recording is great. It alerts you when a body is see on on the camera so it tells you when people arrive on site in the morning.
I love that man, it lets you control the project better.
And then you always have a history on it. So you can rewind, and see what got done in the last seven days, what got done in the last two days, when did the inspector arrive on site, a bunch of stuff like that. Security wise it really helps. If I have got a bunch of projects going, then I give logins to my clients and to my project managers, so even the client can see what’s happening. It gives them an extra bit of assuredness and security and whatnot. It’s been very successful so we like doing that.
Well I want to thank you for being on the show, I’ve learned a ton from you over the years, you’re an amazing friend, I really admire you.
Yeah, you’re my boy.
And we’re gonna bring back design-build. The knowledge out there- even when I was talking to a builder yesterday. When you say “design build” a lot of people are just like, “What are you talking about”. It’s still like the separation is still there because it’s been like that for so long, but..
It has. ’cause it’s been pushed in other directions.
People have been educated, they’ve been duped man.
They have. It’s a very litigious world these days. Everyone’s looking to carve their own little corner, their own little bubble, and have an out on everything. Always have a legal out. You can always point it back at someone else. We took a look at that and we said, “Well, you know you can’t really get a product that way”. And the only way I know I can get a product is by managing the entire product, and having it all. You guys kill it at that, that’s why you’re so successful.
Design-build- the legal system, the insurance… Design-build would reduce that tremendously, because the liability is all in one place.
It’s all in one place. Everyone’s responsible for thier own shit, pardon my French. Everyone’s got their own point of responsibility and they can’t point their fingers elsewhere. Because we run the engineers, we run all the trades, everything’s on us. So the client just- we just update the client every week on what’s happening, even if there’s errors, even if there’s stuff that delays it. We let them know what the deal is and what a proposed solution is, and they just come to us. They don’t have to go to a bunch of people.
Awesome. Well thank you again- any parting words of wisdom?
I think I’ll leave that off the video.