Show House Gardens – The Science of Designing and Building Gardens for Show Home

(The Science of Designing and Building Gardens for Show Homes)

Over the years, I developed a system of working with Property Developers and major building companies that enabled me to create a business that was almost a ‘stand alone’ specialist firm – a Design and Build Landscape Company that became part of the Construction Scene in the South of England, back in the 1980s.
I have lived through – survived – at least four recessions since 1968. The first was in the early 70s, which appeared quite serious at the time, but I now realise was almost purely political; the rich would not spend money all the time a particular colour of Government was in power. They would wait – even cancelling accepted projects – until ‘things changed’.

During the early 80s, I started to build gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, for a variety of different firms, always as Project Manager and Contractor, arranging every single aspect, (sometimes even finding a Sponsor), except the actual design. Designs were provided by others. My first client designer was Peter Rogers, a Chelsea veteran, who taught me the ropes of working at Chelsea. He was a great source of knowledge, which enabled me to undertake other clients, including ECC Quarries (now Bradstone), Sunday Express, London Association For The Blind and the NSPCC among others at Chelsea.

During that time, I started to develop a relationship with a couple of major house builders, including and especially Alfred MacAlpine Homes Ltd (Southern), then Alfred MacAlpine Homes (East), Alfred MacAlpine Construction Ltd – gradually undertaking so many of their Show House gardens that they sponsored me at Chelsea – this first time any developer had taken space at the Show. The combination proved to be very successful. With Peter Rogers as designer, in 1985 we won Gold, in 1986 Gold and Best In Show, and in 1987, Silver Gilt.

The ‘failure’ to win a third Gold did not go down too well with the client, who had no real idea of how medals are awarded, and somehow expected to keep on winning Best In Show!
In 1988, they missed the Show, and suddenly realised how much publicity they had received for such a modest outlay (compared with (say) newspaper advertising), and in 1989, they returned, this time with me as the designer. As I said, at all times, with all RHS gardens, I was project manager, organising every item and necessity.
Result? Silver Gilt, but this time they were very pleased. Delighted in fact, as for the first time ever at the Show, the BBC (in the shape of Alan Titchmarsh) actually mentioned Alfred MacAlpine Homes – a commercial name! – live on camera.

At or about this time though, things were getting tough in the construction industry, and MacAlpines decided they could no longer be seen to be spending shareholders money on RHS Chelsea Show gardens, so they withdrew from the ‘circuit’, and never returned.

Fitted Gardens

Why do I mention all this background information? To show how close and strong a relationship may be formed between a design and build landscape company and a major house builder. In the years between the Show gardens, I was producing every single show house garden for MacAlpines, but also for Galliford Sears, Southern Homes Ltd, Fairbriars Ltd, McHawk Ltd, Cussins Green Ltd, Lovells Ltd, Site Improvements Ltd, CALA Homes Ltd, Taylor Woodrow (some) and several other developers. I developed a very healthy landscape design and build company mainly servicing the Building industry.
Not only did I carry out all the Show house schemes, I was also invited to Sales Directors meetings and sat in on many Board meetings, as their resident expert on what they called ‘kerb appeal’ – the ability to attract the right quality people to their sites.

This association grew stronger, when on several very prestigious developments, they arranged a new deal, whereby purchasers could have their garden designed and built by myself, to their specification, with the builder paying a certain amount (based on the size of the plot) towards the cost, which was built into the purchase price and therefore became part of the mortgage! If the owner wanted to spend more than the ‘allowance’, they paid me direct for that work. The owner was always the ‘client’ for the purposes of warranty etc.

All in all, I probably designed and built around one hundred and fifty  gardens for developers and new buyers in a five year period – until the early 90s, when another recession came, only this time biting deeper and, I feel, lasting longer.

I feel that the time has come, and the present climate is such that there will soon be another period when an efficient, competent and enterprising design and build landscape company (several across the country in fact!) can forge a similar relationship with their local developers.

Making contact with your chosen developer – targeting the client – is all important. As every company has its’ own strengths and experiences, and differing regions produce their own set of problems/opportunities, I will leave that part up to you! What you will need however, is to clearly understand the nature of the business of selling houses, and be willing to undertake a lot of research.

This is where the Science begins.

Researching and compiling your dossiers on your local building industry is the key ingredient to a successful presentation. Check through local papers, both for House Developers adverts, but also for Planning applications. Learn to understand the time scales between a new application to develop and the actual breaking of the soil. You need to be as far ahead of the game as you can. How many units, where they are located, their likely price range, the target purchasers – low cost/starter homes are of no use to you, whilst prestigious sites are.
Once you have the names and addresses of the individual developers, get onto their websites, visit other developments of theirs in the area, check out the quality of the build, the cleanliness of the site, record every detail that you feel may be relevant. You need to know all you possibly can about that chosen target company. Your aim is to have a face to face meeting with The Sales and Marketing Director. You need to be on the ball!

Note especially, your personal thoughts on how their Show developments are presented. All too often, the Sales Staff are sent out with the Company Visa card to buy some ‘colour’ to brighten up the Sales complex. This usually means a few boxes of pansies!
Note too, if the Show gardens are in your opinion worthy of the site or type of house/unit they are part of. Has the designer really given thought to that particular site, or is the scheme ‘off the peg’. How could YOU improve on the garden?

Ascertain the name/s of the senior sales staff. Often, one person will be the Manager of several sites, with subordinate sales staff beneath them. Take any leaflets with you, including about other sites on their books.

Now is the time to start to work your magic! THINK very carefully, not as a garden designer in the first instance, but rather as a user of the site. Remember, the garden serves different purposes in a Sales situation. Understanding the needs of the garden in the context of a sales area can be very different from normal use. The garden must be one dimensional inasmuch as it is something to be viewed from the inside out. It must complement the style of the house and internal décor. It is a part of the living room when viewed in the first instance. What impression does the garden give in the first three seconds of walking into the room? If it clashes – it upsets the whole initial ambience.

The garden itself must be based on both spatial awareness, but also following ‘desire lines’ – where do you feel that people will be drawn to look back at the property to have a good look at the outside of the house. This is the area to design a ‘halt’ spot – perhaps a patio or seating area. Maybe a junction in the layout where one may pause and reflect on their surroundings.
Once you have decided that ‘halt’ area, consider building in a seat or place a few chairs where a family (according to the type of development) may sit and discuss their views away from the Sales Staff. This privacy area is very important.
The need to feel part of the new house experience, making believe that this could be their garden and their  house, yet still try to be subjective when discussing if they want/could afford to live there. A fair bit of psychology required here!

If the site has some problem areas, eyesores perhaps that may need shielding from view, or noise attenuation, where perhaps some vertical slats may be used. Once you have designed your perfect show garden and you are very clear why you have chosen this design, you will be able to make your presentation to the Sales Director. He/she will have never given a second thought regarding the correct use of the space, thinking of it only as a ‘garden’, not as a major Sales aid.
Use your imagination. Avoid running water features, a) because of young children and b) to avoid causing bladder distress to visitors. Avoid sharp/pointed leaves e.g. Yuccas and Pyracantha.
Include as many soft pastel colours as you wish, and be sure to use as much green as possible, as the colour is well known to help relax the senses. Avoid rockeries (twee) and the use of any natural rocks, as these can upset some ‘green’ people.

If the scheme is multi-complex – more than one house type, all surrounded with one fence – this site will eventually have to be divided into individual plots. This is another skill to develop. How to make two or more gardens appear as one, yet be able to split at some later date.
Be sure to work with the builders plans, especially reference drainage runs, as these will only be weeks old and liable to subsequent subsidence. Avoid putting any feature over these runs (a solid path perhaps) which may crack and move as the ground levels change.

Be sure to have more than one scheme to offer, and have costings available for discussion. If necessary, try to arrange on going maintenance  as this is a very important part of the scheme.
If you are successful and manage to win the contract to design or design and build a Show House garden, get an invitation to the Press opening evening, where many other potential clients will be waiting for you to tell them all