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Sculpting a Winning Landscape

| Landscape

New Desert Gallery, a Tucson-based exterior design and construction company, has earned national recognition for sculpting a landscaping masterpiece. The company recently received a 2006 Grand Award for Environmental Improvement from the Professional Landcare Network for the John E. Wahl and Mary Lou Forier residence.

This new construction project, which sits high on a forty-foot-tall rocky peak in the Tucson foothills, is amazing not only for what was added to the landscape but for what had to be carved out, recreated, and surgically implanted into the site to make the finished product possible. While New Desert designer John Stropko always likes a challenge, this project was extreme. The site for the contemporary home had been deemed 'unbuildable' with its makeup of rocky outcroppings and vertical cliffs.

But architect and builder Don Kornburg managed to find enough horizontal space to anchor the home to the mountain top, and he brought John Stropko in to design a landscape around it. "There was rock, rock, and more rock, and a mountain goat trail to get to it," says Stropko, who owns New Desert Gallery with his wife, Barbara.

"The builder's vision was for a clean, simple look that nestled into the site, with features melding naturally into nooks and crannies. When those nooks and crannies weren't there, we had to make them." Planting pockets and drainage lines for all plant material had to be sculpted out of rock using jackhammers. Soil had to be brought in to make plant growth possible. Channels also had to be carved out of the rock in order to strategically embed the irrigation, lighting, spa, and pond lines so they wouldn't be noticed.

Access to the cliff top was difficult. Materials and equipment had to be carried up by hand, concrete was pumped up, and topsoil and boulders had to be craned. It took about six months of work spread out over the two-year building project to complete this unique landscape. Stropko was drawn into this challenging undertaking by the opportunity to work with the builder, who he says shares his attention to detail. Stropko had worked with Kornburg before. He knew that if the two took the project on together, the results would be well-designed and well-coordinated inside and out, and worth the extra trouble caused by the precarious site.

The home was designed to take full advantage of the space it sits in. Panoramic views of mountain canyons and city night lights provide a breathtaking show at all hours of the day. A footbridge joining two major outcroppings allows access to the yard from the master bedroom. A patio with overhanging edges gives the illusion that it floats over the pond. Annual flowers provide sumptuous year-round color from a small planter that cantilevers in front of the spa. A barbeque buffet of slate-covered steel tubing seems to hover above the rock, showing no visible supports.

6_2.jpgWhen Stropko and his crew were finished carving out the mountain and installing all of the main elements, the whole site had to be put back together to recreate a landscape that blended seamlessly into its environment. In some areas of the site, this enabled New Desert to incorporate one of their hallmark features, museum-quality artificial rock that looks so real it fools the keenest eye. "We don't even usually mention that it's artificial, because people don't tend to believe it," says Stropko.

Stropko used native desert plant materials to create a smooth, natural transition from the outdoor living spaces to the pristine desert. Desert-adapted plants and annuals keep the patio inviting, green, and colorful year round. The result: a serene hilltop home and garden that are harmoniously embraced by the rock they sit in. "We build these projects to surround clients with a full experience," says Stropko. "We design 'immersion' yards -- spaces that are spectacular from every direction." Doing it all John and Barbara Stropko are no strangers to complicated challenges.

Their company is known for 'doing it all' for clients who often have complex, multi-faceted, and extraordinary requests. Pools, spas, water features, outdoor entertainment areas, sculptures, and other custom outdoor living amenities are only part of the story. The Stropkos' 'can-do' attitude takes them in all directions, from a cattle handling facility they were asked to design for a major remodel at an Arizona ranch to exhibits for a private natural history museum in the eastern United States.

"When people ask us if we can do something unusual, we say 'Yes'," says Stropko. "Then we go back and figure out how." For the Stropkos, the appeal of 'doing it all' comes in part from the knowledge that when they take responsibility for all of the features in a landscape, each will harmonize with the other and function as a coordinated system. "Because we're the ones doing it all, it fits in and works together," says Stropko. In New Desert landscapes, functionality is as important as aesthetics. Nearly thirty years of hands-on experience building pools and yards has given John Stropko expertise in using technology to create systems that perform as they are supposed to.

The swimming pools and spas they build use state-of-the-art plumbing, cleaning, and structural systems to ensure that clients spend more time enjoying them and less time dealing with problems. This high performance and extraordinary aesthetic appeal give New Desert clients a chance to experience their outdoor environment to the fullest. "People come to Tucson to hang out and enjoy the climate," says Stropko. "They want to make every minute count.

Their outdoor space is extremely important to them. These spaces really enhance their lifestyle."

The Stropkos both get an obvious thrill from enhancing the lives of their clients. "Barb and I both really enjoy seeing this stuff come together. And we take pleasure seeing the clients go nuts over it. We're really passionate about what we're doing. We see it as very worthwhile." Their dedication to the unique and creative is what brought New Desert Gallery to this point. From the start, John Stropko has always been interested in trying new things. "When I was working for someone else in the pool business, I was always the guy who got the difficult jobs nobody else on the crew wanted."

A lot of the guys liked to do the routine jobs, because we did them so many times you could do them in your sleep. When we'd get more unique or difficult projects, the guys with more seniority would give them to me. I didn't know then what a favor they were doing me. After starting their own company in the pool business, the Stropkos' work quickly started evolving in new directions. "When someone wanted something a little different, we'd welcome that," says Stropko. "One thing led to another. It started with pools, then plantings, then irrigation and lighting. It just grew from there."

"New Desert is the kind of company that looks for ways to give clients much more than they ask for. From the start, we always chose to do things at a higher level, whether the client knew it or not. When people know you're trying to give them 110% a day, they want you to do more." This kind of attention to detail and service tends to get noticed quickly -- especially by high-end clients. With each year, the Stropkos were asked to do jobs that were bigger and more involved. "We started doing fewer projects at a time, and projects that were much more complex. Today we do about two to three projects per year."

A winning recipe the Stropkos have learned a great deal about success over the years. One thing they've learned is the importance of a careful match between themselves and the clients they work with. Because the projects they take on generally last for months, the relationship has to be workable. "We practically marry these people," says John Stropko, "sometimes for a year or more, so we have to make sure we're not going to irritate each other. We're looking for clients who are realistic. We have a pretty big bag of tricks, but the client who works is one who is realistic about what he wants, when he wants it and how much it's going to cost." The Stropkos make it a point to clarify expectations up front. "One of the first things we'll tell a new client is that all of our old clients are a priority," says Stropko.

"They look surprised at first, but then they realize that when their project is finished, they'll be the ones in that position." This level of commitment to follow-through instills confidence early in the relationship. In addition to a walk-through of their own site, prospective clients are also encouraged to go with the Stropkos for a tour of several completed New Desert landscapes. This gives prospective clients a feel for the possibilities, logistics, and other factors related to the project they are about to undertake. "This takes us to a whole new level of communication," Stropko says. This client selection process narrows the pool considerably.

Typically, New Desert selects only one client out of ten good qualified candidates. But the Stropkos are selective for good reasons. Solid business management is one of them. "Some people think they have to take all the clients that come their way," says Stropko. "But we find that if we take the ones who are a good fit, there will always be more waiting in line." Another reason for careful client selection is to ensure a thoroughly positive experience for their clients. "We do this as much for them as we do for us," says Stropko. "One of our goals is to make the construction process enjoyable, fun, and creative." Forming a long-lasting business friendship is one way to do this. New Desert Gallery is as selective about their employees as they are about their clients. They find that their own work ethic, attention to detail, and dedication tends to attract like-minded employees. "The crew really loves people who really like to work," says Stropko.

"The ones who don't tend to weed themselves out on their own." Stropko likes to take a mentoring approach with employees. The fact that he developed his own expertise 'in the trenches' gives him credibility when he's working with them. "They get a kick out of the fact that when I started, I did all of these things myself, the pools, the spas, the lighting, and irrigation. Now they'll actually come up to me and take the shovel out of my hand," Stropko laughs.

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Even though he now has employees available to take over some of the hard labor, John Stropko hasn't stopped his hands-on approach to creating stunning, all inclusive landscapes that work. It's obvious that he has a passion for working with his hands and for seeing the beautiful, fine-tuned systems that result. "I love everything about this field," says Stropko. "I love moving water around. I love working with the rocks and the plants and the dirt. And what I really love is putting all of these things together and making it all work."

 
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