Making the Grade : Award Cemented With Landscaping, Brickwork


The first thing visitors to the James and Terri Gick residence here see as they wind around the final curve on the approach to the couple's sprawling Cape Cod-style home is the trees.

The house, designed by Irvine architect James Mickartz, is impressive. But it is the stand of 100-year-old California live oaks out front, and the way the whole site has been designed to make them the focal point of the property, that draws rave reviews from guests.

The layout and landscaping, particularly the lavish but unobtrusive brickwork and the extensive use of large specimen trees to complement the native oaks, also has been well received in the industry.

David Lee Landscape Co., the Placentia firm that modified and executed the Gicks' original landscaping plan, recently won the President's Award in the annual competition of the Long Beach/Orange County chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Assn.

The judges, in reviewing the firm's work at the Gick residence, were impressed with the complex subterranean drainage system Lee installed to enable the moisture-sensitive native oaks to coexist with the thirstier plantings that surround them in the terraced front and side yards.

But the hardscape, which features a herringbone-patterned brick pool deck and an extensive array of brick retaining walls, pilasters and planters, clinched the award. The judges noted that the "incredible intricacy and precision alignment" of the brickwork set the Gick residence apart from the other 129 entries in the competition.

The American brick industry has been trying for several years to persuade homeowners that brick isn't just for fireplaces and back-yard barbecues, and the Gick residence goes a long way to supporting that argument.

Richard Lee, David Lee's son and vice president of the family-owned company, said his masonry crew installed nearly 75,000 red clay bricks.

With brief time-outs for several rain delays, it took a crew of eight nearly six months of full-time work to complete the brickwork, Lee said.

The Gicks, whose Irvine-based Gick Cos. publish how-to books for craft workers and hobbyists, declined to discuss the cost of the project. But Richard Lee said his company's budget for the job approached $250,000.

Gick said he and his wife had a definite image in mind when they outlined the landscape scheme--a soft English country look. But they left it to their landscape architect, Clark & Green Associates in Irvine, to pencil in the specifics.

To find a contractor to do the work, Gick asked a friend in the Orange County Nurserymen's Assn. for recommendations.

"He handed me the association's book of award winners and I picked David Lee because of the prizes his projects had won."

Lee, who began a one-man gardening maintenance business in Glendale in 1959, said the key to his success has been "to treat each project, no matter how big or how small, like it was for my own house."

That often means that the 61-year-old contractor is not the low bidder on a project--these days the company seldom does jobs that come in at less than $10,000. For that, said Richard Lee, a typical Orange County homeowner "would get just the basic irrigation system and plants. No hardscape."

But a basic job for the Lees would probably qualify as a deluxe project for many landscapers.

Among other things, the Lees insist on installing a complete garden and lawn drainage system that carries excess water away from each landscaping zone to avoid problems with erosion, slope slippage, root rot and the growth of plant-damaging mold and bacteria.

"No job should be done without a drainage system," Richard Lee maintains. The additional cost will be repaid in lower maintenance and longer plant and lawn life, he said.

"This is your home, and your landscape is part of where and how you live. You should figure a minimum cost of real quality landscaping will be 20% to 25% of the market value of your house," adds David Lee. "You will get it back in enjoyment and resale value."

For the Gick job, the price quickly surpassed the Lees' minimums because of the extensive use of mature trees, the substantial amount of grading and the complexity of the masonry work.

Among other things, Lee's crews hand-carried 10 towering Leilani cypress trees from the road across more than 100 yards of steep slopes to the planting site on a hill above the pool. Each tree, roots encased in a well-watered 30-inch cube of soil, weighed in at about 1,500 pounds, Richard Lee said.

A heavy crane was used to place other large trees, including eight 15-foot liquidambars in 48-inch boxes, three feathery-leafed podocarpus trees in huge 64-inch boxes and six podocarpus in 48-inch boxes.

"It was incredibly difficult," said Richard Lee. "The pool was already in and we couldn't do anything to damage the oaks, so we had to have the crane driver bring it down an embankment and wind around the trees."

Working with the landscape architect's plans, which they extensively redesigned on the site to fit their own and the Gicks' needs, the Lees began the job by pulling out more than 150 dump truck loads of dirt from the driveway area to give that critical approach to the residence the proper grading to drain water away from the garage and the attached gardener's house.

To preserve as many of the property's live oaks as possible, the house had been located on a pad cut into the foot of a steep slope. A brick-topped retaining wall stabilized the slope in the back of the house and a natural watercourse cut a steep-sided gully through what became the driveway and front-yard area. The shell of a pool already was in the side yard when the Lees' crew arrived to begin work.

To turn the gully into usable space while ensuring that runoff from winter rain would continue flowing naturally down the hill, the Lees installed a 24-inch concrete pipe from one side of the 1-acre property to the other. They then covered it with about 3 feet of dirt, terraced so the yard continues a natural downhill slope.

A 10-foot curving brick retaining wall separates the brick and exposed aggregate driveway on the uphill side of the property from the lower lawn area, where seven of the largest live oaks on the lot are located.

"That was one of the most difficult parts of the job," Gick said. "The oaks had to be left at the existing grade, so the yard had to be sculpted to fit the level of the oaks."

Because the oaks cannot tolerate the amount of water needed to keep a lawn and the other ornamental plantings alive, the Lees installed a system of 4-inch drain pipes around each of the massive trees to carry away excess water.

Each tree also is surrounded by a low brick retaining wall to keep the thirsty lawn from growing up against the trunks.

Scores of purple agapanthus and a seasonally changing palette of annuals provide a colorful border for the lawn.

All plantings are grouped according to their moisture needs and irrigated by an automatic system that can water each zone for as little as a minute or as much as 99 minutes at a time.

A low, curving brick wall topped with an iron fence and pierced by an arched iron gate leads from the lawn into the pool area on the east side of the house.

Most of the big liquidambar trees and all of the large podocarpus were planted along this fence line, softening the lines of brick and iron and cleanly delineating the quiet zone of the shaded lawn from the sunny recreation area around the pool.

While the pool had been installed before the Lees were hired, the decking was left to them.

"The first thing we had to do was to dig out the top 8 inches of solid all around the pool because they had built it level with the ground," Richard Lee said.

The landscape plan called for a brick deck and the Lees installed the 2 1/4-inch-thick bricks on 4 inches of reinforced concrete that in turn is poured atop a two-inch bed of compacted sand.

All of the deck area was graded by hand, Lee said, to ensure that there are no low spots and that everything drains away from the pool. Lee said his crew did the final grading of the driveway area by hand, too, and because no machinery could be wedged into the area, did a lot of hand grading on the slope behind the house.

A concrete-line channel was built atop the retaining wall that keeps the hillside from sliding into the Gicks' home during the rainy season, and a pad was leveled behind the west end of the house to make room for a swing and play area for the Gicks' young daughter.

The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room was relieved by a small tiled and landscaped fountain area built into a notch in the retaining wall. Small podocarpus trees were planted atop the wall there and a light pink and white trumpet vine cascades down the wall behind the fountain.

The scheme is not native--there is too much color for the arid Southern California canyon--but the Lees achieved a natural look with a landscape scheme that is comfortable being where it is.

"It is just great, having it in and done," Gick said. "We feel that we have our own little world here. There's a lot of privacy and it's a treat to see all the new colors and forms as the plant mature."

And that, says David Lee, is what good landscaping is all about.

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