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GROWING UP, KEVIN ROBERTS, OWNER OF BIG SKY LANDSCAPING, Inc., would leave his home in Montana to spend his summers in Oregon working for an uncle who owned a tree service company.
Years later, Roberts decided to make the Pacific Northwest his permanent home. Although the name of his 16-year-old company is homage to his roots, the big thing about this company isn’t a location nestled under an endless expanse of Montana blue. The really big thing about this Oregon City, Oregon residential design/ build/maintenance company is its ambitious commitment to craftsmanship.
Recently, Big Sky was one of 30 landscape firms nationally to receive the Grand Award for Design/Build Environmental Improvement from the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET). The award was given for sculpting the backyard of the Honberger residence in Tigard, Oregon.
Over a period of three months, Big Sky transformed a dull, sloped expanse of mud into a relaxing retreat. Not far from the house, a multi-level waterfall, the project’s focal point and most striking feature, spills six feet down into a small pool of rocks. To convey the feel of nature, a moss-covered tree lies strategically but naturally across the waterfall. At the base of the waterfall, inviting seat walls allow for hours of reading or sunning.
Bordering the waterfall on one side are basalt steps that wind down to the patio with path lights to lead the way. The round patio, replete with multi-colored real stone, provides ample space for relaxation and family dinners. Across the lawn, 1700 sq. ft. of shade mix grass are kept healthy by underground drainage lines. Further enhancing the landscape are various plant materials complemented by low-voltage night lighting. The space is elegant but comfortable. It’s the kind of yard in which long summer evenings can easily lapse into late nights. In a recent press release, Roberts said,
“On this particular property, maximizing land use while enhancing the balance of natural surroundings creates an exceptional landscape environment. The Honberger project is the best of both.”
Criteria for the judging included design, overall appearance, degree of difficulty, quality of materials and appropriate scale and functionality. Bruce Allentuck, who facilitated the judging, explains that the judges ask when scoring projects, “Does the space feel comfortable? Is the design well thought-out?” Three days were spent judging as many as 168 projects on the four criteria. Of Big Sky’s work, Allentuck says, “What a great space to spend time in. It’s well designed, and the area was handled beautifully.”
Homeowner Steve Honberger agrees that Big Sky’s realization of the space is masterful. “Despite overwhelming challenges,” he said in the release, “Big Sky transformed a completely undesirable and unusable outdoor space into a resort-like oasis. From the start, we knew that our landscaping project was a huge undertaking. Not only did Big Sky complete the job we had envisioned prior to having our plans drawn up, but they completely exceeded our expectations.”
But before the award and the praise came the less glamorous marketing. Still, it was Big Sky’s business savvy that earned the company the project. “We rely on word-of-mouth, and we go after the clients we want to work with,” Roberts explains. “We don’t advertise in the Yellow Pages.” To land the project, Big Sky instead relied on targeted direct mailings that it sent out to homes in the $700,000- $2 million range in the Bull Mountain area of Tigard.
When Big Sky received a call from the homeowners, Roberts knew they’d be a good match. They harbored a strong sense of the direction in which they wanted the project to go. The Honberger residence butted up against 50 acres or so of native Oregon fir trees, maples, hemlocks and other timber. Because the area was dense and dark, the amount of sun the Honbergers’ 4,500 sq. ft. backyard received was limited. However, the clients wanted to preserve the feel of the native area as much as possible. They asked that the design not be too formal, yet they wanted it to be enticing. A space that would beckon them to come outside and enjoy it.
Roberts was pleased with the Honbergers’ vision. “A lot of people don’t think they can do anything with a sloped, small space, but you can. People aren’t really aware of what they can have.” Their positive attitudes were another sign that the project would go well. He adds, “Perhaps the number one factor in a project’s success is the client. A good client who is easy to work with and open to changes will make the project so much easier.” Designer Erin Wagner had the space and the $100,000 budget to consider when she began to flesh out the Honbergers’ ideas. Rather than throw together a project, the Big Sky team invests time in getting to truly know each client and in building trust and mutual understanding. Cultivating this understanding makes the design and construction processes much smoother. By exploring each client’s situation and preferences, the team is able to meet practical needs while also realizing the aesthetic potential of the space.
“It’s always tough to put something together so that the client will really understand it,” Roberts said. So to bring the sketch to life, Wagner took about two weeks and made several visits to the site to gain ideas, view the property in different lights and understand how the home and surrounding areas communicate. Generally, Big Sky designers will produce two or three sketches, but in the case of this project, the first one proved to be a home run. Wagner worked with AutoCAD to map out the hardscapes, then filled in the rest of the area with hand drawings to give the plan a softer, readable presentation. Because the homeowners had been initially vocal about their vision, the changes after Wagner’s initial sketch were few.
However, just because the end result looks effortless doesn’t mean the process didn’t present a complex set of challenges. A steep slope and minimal access to the backyard were two specific variables that the company had to tackle. Ron Knapp, who served as estimator, explains the difficulty in accessing the construction site. He said in a press release, “We had only a 6' wide section of fence to move our equipment and materials through.
From there, we had to proceed down a 40' slope. Wet weather and saturated soil complicated removal of 30 cu. ft. of soil and trackhoe leveling for the main patio and lawn area.”
In the tight space, the prep crew had to negotiate not only getting the trackhoe down into the area but also getting it back out as quickly as possible so that work could continue. Knapp added, “Once the patio slab was poured, our crew literally had to make a 6' wide path up the side of the bank to work our way out of the backyard and manage the removal of our machinery without impact to the surrounding area.”
Moreover, in the process, the prep crew discovered that during the construction of the house, the builder had buried large tree stumps into the bank. These had to be extricated before construction could begin. The crew also prepped for the seat walls along the path out. Then footings were poured, and the cinderblock walls with cultured stone were erected. Throughout the project, the unpredictable and sometimes tumultuous Oregon weather was a limiting factor, especially because the work was done between the rainy months of December 2006 and February 2007. “You can’t do any grading or work with equipment on rainy days,” explains Roberts. “But once everything was cut, it started falling together.” With the prepping complete, the water feature crew took over. Big Sky, with 44 employees, uses six specialized landscape crews. According to Roberts, the specialized approach allows people to excel in their particular talent areas. “It also helps with hours and profit,” he says.
When the water feature crew began work on the waterfall, they, too, faced issues with the extreme slope, which made creation of the waterfall difficult. A pond had to be dug to conceal the source of the waterfall. Then, walls had to be terraced in careful increments to create the waterfall drop. Finishing touches included wind-swept basalt rocks from eastern Oregon that were covered in moss and lichen to preserve the natural feel. Roberts always emphasizes matching the appropriate rock to the project.
After much of the water feature was in place, the mason crew worked on the patio, seating walls and boulders using stone from Montana, Roberts’ home state. Cultured stone—compressed, colored concrete—was used for the retaining walls. For the project, cultured stone was both easier to work with and helped keep the project within budget. The patio, however, was real stone. Due to the trouble in accessing the site, much of the stone work was done by hand, though the flawless composition doesn’t showcase this.
Big Sky’s water feature crew returned to plant and add the finishing touches when the stone work was finished. Native Oregon plant material such as ferns and vine maples and a few other sunloving plants balanced the grass. Then the nightlighting crew added uplights and spotlights to highlight certain areas of the water feature. “In spite of the difficulties, everything came together really well,” recalls Roberts. During construction, the homeowners were taken on several walk-throughs to ensure that their expectations were met. They also received Big Sky’s standard end-of-project walk-through during which Roberts personally verified that the initial agreement had been met, and the clients had a working knowledge of the plants, sprinkler system controls, night lighting and water feature filters. I t would be far simpler to pack up once the project was completed and stick a bill in the mail, but that isn’t the Big Sky way. In addition to seeing the project through to its end, Roberts credits good teamwork as essential to the relative ease and success of the work. “Erin, Ron and everyone in the field did a great job of being organized and working well. I only wish that more Big Sky people could have participated in this special project.”
Designing a winning company
For Big Sky, such laurels as the PLANET award are surprising and appreciated but not entirely new. This $3.5-million-per-year company is no stranger to awards, having previously received honors from the Better Business Bureau and Oregon Landscape Contractors Association (OLCA). How does a company get to the point of delivering such consistently high results? First, they commit themselves to their clients. Although many contractors claim to make interminable commitments to their clients, Big Sky makes good on that promise. Like an actor eager to solicit applause from the audience, Roberts thrives on positive responses from his clients.
In addition to that principle, Big Sky has adopted customer service standards aligned with what they call “refreshing quality.” These include prompt customer responses, honest bids and a readily available reference list. Only top-notch employees and materials are used.
“I try to surround myself with upbeat, good people,” Roberts says. “We want to be honest and fair, so we do a lot of training.” At least twice per year, Big Sky offers inhouse crash courses to certify workers in proper practices. Another practice that helps boost the team’s synergy is a meeting at 7a.m. every morning. Roberts says, “We talk about safety, family, business, and we laugh.”
What also has netted the company success is its insight into the market. “After 9/11, people stopped traveling as much and started spending more time at home,” explains Roberts. “We saw that there was a market for outdoor living spaces and started to focus on the high-end residential market. Now nearly 80% of our business is residential work, and almost all of our maintenance is for clients whom we’ve designed and built for.”
His advice for other contractors is to “Never think you’re the best. Always realize that there are other ways to do things and to be successful. Always strive to improve.” Big Sky is among the best, he believes, but there is still room to grow. He adds, “Also, make your clients happy—no matter what.” Roberts continues on to say, “I’m happy with where we are right now. If we do the same amount of business this year as we did last year, I’ll be happy as long as we become a tighter, stronger company and get better at what we do.”