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Showcase finalist: Designer works hard to understand clients’ wishes
David Rountree | September 2, 2016

The landscape designer was quick to credit the construction company that helped turn her ideas into a beautiful outdoor space.
Photo: Michelle Derviss Landscape Design

Landscape designer Michelle Derviss of Novato, California, appreciates the importance of collaboration, both with her clients and with the contractors who help bring her designs to life. Her inclination to give credit to others was evident during an interview this week about a project she completed for a homeowner in Mill Valley – a project that is one of six finalists in Total Frauengruenden’s photo contest, Landscaper Showcase.

The work involved the creation of a contemporary garden and an outdoor space for entertaining, with the latter replacing a shifting, uneven and cracking patio area. The work included the addition of a safe stairway linking the dining and entertainment terraces with an organic vegetable garden.


Before its makeover, this backyard had serious drainage problems.

At least those are the elements of the project you can see in the photographs. What you can’t see are the soil and drainage problems that required extensive hydrology analysis – and extensive drainage infrastructure – to overcome.

Derviss said a neighbor downhill from her client had experienced a retaining wall failure, “and we were fortunate that the failure occurred before our project because that informed us of the soil and drainage problem.”

In Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, the summers tend to be extremely dry while the winters – “if we’re lucky,” Derviss says – can be wet, and the heavy clay soil in the area reacts accordingly.

“You must have good retaining walls to stand up to that push and pull of the soil,” she said.

To complicate matters, the site had an existing grade problem: The client’s home wasn’t level; in fact, there was 2 to 3 inches of difference in the elevation on either side of the house. Great care had to be taken in setting the grade of the terrace as one stepped out of the house.

In addition to trying to get the know clients during the initial meeting, even asking about their travels and special interests, Derviss pays close attention to things like home furnishings and decoration to guide her in designing a space consistent with a client’s personality.

With respect to the Mill Valley project, it was the home’s beautiful, dark hardwood floors that made an immediate impression, along with the panoramic, bifold glass doors – similar to a wall of glass – opening on to the back.

“She wanted the hardwood floors in the house to flow out and go into the deck,” Derviss said, a look the designer knew she could accomplish with the use of IPE (pronounced “E-pay”), an expensive type of teak wood.

To accommodate the client’s wishes and remain within her budget, the landscape designer suggested a 4-foot IPE banding of the concrete terrace. The result was beautiful and, while not cheap, not outrageously expensive either.

The use of the wood banding meant there would have to be at least two separate concrete pours. The walls were poured first, followed by the wood banding, then the second pour for the flat work.

Derviss said Dan Young Construction in San Rafael “deserves a great amount of the credit.”

Construction companies, or landscaping companies that do such construction, “generally don’t get the credit they deserve” as regularly as they should, Derviss said.

A design may be truly exceptional, she said, but without the right contractor it will never be realized.


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