Austin Eye View: Landscape Architects

Austin Eye View: Landscape Architects

Local design studios create sustainable, eye-catching environments that bring Austinites closer to nature

By Veronica Meewes
Photos by Brittany Dawn Short
Austin Eye View: Studio Balcones

Founded in 2009, Studio Balcones strives to design landscapes that inspire connections between people, nature and urban life. Principal Ilse Frank studied architecture as an undergraduate before realizing she cared more about the fabric of nature and surrounding structures, which inspired her to shift into landscape architecture and urban design. Co-principal Jennifer Orr diverged from her path to becoming a lawyer and found her way back to the earth, bringing with her a strong design background, extensive plant knowledge and a deep understanding of ecological systems. When the two Austinites met each other in grad school, they decided to join forces and return to their home city to found Studio Balcones, now a nine person-strong team collaborating on residential projects and commercial developments, as well as institutional and civil projects.

How would you describe the studio’s design style?
“Fluid — we work within the environmental context of each project, while imbuing them with the current needs for climate change response and the creative techniques that make each space special and enduring.”

When you take on a new landscaping project, what’s your process from start to finish?
“All projects begin with site analysis where we study the site’s topography, water flows, vegetation and soils, as well as how the site is being used, its history and proposed future uses. Each project type then has its own unique demands that inform the design process, be it code requirements, sustainability goals or client desires. Ultimately, all of our projects go through our studio’s creative process and quality control, assuring that they are all unique yet soundly designed.”

Why is landscape architecture so important to a project?
“Landscape architecture bridges boundaries and melds each site within the regional context. It provides experiences within nature and allows individuals to physically connect. Just like a painting has a foreground, middle ground, and background, landscape architecture sets up the framework for physically experiencing and visually taking in a site.”

How have you watched the industry change or evolve, particularly in the past year?
“The design community is moving rapidly, especially given the current housing shortage, but especially in a growing community like Austin. For worse, we have been seeing escalating construction costs. For better, we are seeing a greater appreciation for outdoor spaces and rising investment in them, as well as an uptick of affordable housing units being developed.”

What makes Austin stand apart from other cities?
“We are rooted in this place. Austin has always been special, and everyone seems to see that now. Jennifer and I are focused upon restoring degraded sites and preserving connections to nature that have always been part of Austin culture.”

What are your favorite landscaping trends right now?
“We endeavor to be timeless and contextual, ensuring each design works in tune with its environment. We personally favor a modern aesthetic, giving rise to an immersive experience, but one that is also in tune with the native plant and materials palette.”

How would you describe Austin to someone from out of town?
“We both grew up in Austin, and as our city is constantly evolving, so is our answer. At present, we would say that our town has become a city, but still has a way to go in terms of growing up. Our city’s land development code is in dire need of being updated to address issues of inequity, affordability, density and environmental preservation. On the plus side, our city’s growth has brought investment in several fantastic parks and spurred investment into a future expanded public transit system.”

Describe your perfect Austin day — what would you eat, drink, do and see?
“No one should miss taking a dip in Barton Springs or a hike on the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Jennifer and I both love a good breakfast taco, but might not agree on which is best. In my opinion, the migas taco from Veracruz All Natural is the best while Jennifer is a Julio’s fan (in Hyde Park). From there, we’d suggest seeking out the best margarita. We agree on Guerro’s house margarita. As far as music, we both prefer smaller crowds, and recommend Music in the Garden at the Zilker Botanical Garden.”

RELATED: Interior Design with Houseplants Brings Beauty and Benefits

Austin Eye View: Ten Eyck

Christine Ten Eyck originally launched Ten Eyck Landscape Architects (TELA) in Phoenix in 1997 before moving the business to Austin in 2007. The studio leads design innovation with a focus on place-based landscape architecture that addresses pressing global issues such as drought, climate change and aging infrastructure. The twelve-person team — which includes registered architects, landscape designers, landscape architects, architects and ecologists — works closely with engineers, ecologists and clients. From planning to construction, the team draws upon its extensive knowledge and experience to generate socially, financially, structurally and environmentally sustainable environments that intend to stimulate the senses and unify communities.

How would you describe the studio’s design style?
“We focus on creating enduring design by using long-lasting regional hardscape materials and native plants that speak to the culture and personalities of our clients. We are dedicated to creating restorative outdoor environments that are infused with natural beauty, provide habitat, purify air and water, encourage social interaction and foster human healing. Our designs prioritize native plant communities, water harvesting technologies and durable materials, artfully expressed through form, color and texture.”

When you take on a new project, what’s your process from start to finish?
“We work on a variety of scales all over the southwest and Mexico, from campus transformation master plans, like the University of Texas at El Paso Campus and Tec de Monterey, to civic spaces like the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the Pearl Brewery or Kingsbury Commons at Pease Park, to camps and ranches. No matter the scale, we begin every project with a thorough site analysis to understand its existing conditions including watersheds, native ecology, cultural history, transportation adjacencies and development constraints. We listen and learn about our clients and their desires. We work closely with architects, engineers and ecologists on a project team to develop contract documents from concept design through construction. We are actively involved in the construction process to help navigate any unforeseen issues and ensure the finished project is built according to the plans.”

Why is landscape architecture so important to a project?
“Landscape architecture is vital to the success of any project. We connect all the pieces together. We identify important environmental features and vegetation for saving, ground the architecture within its surroundings with grading and plantings, reconcile drainage and erosion issues, utilize green stormwater infrastructure to alleviate pressure on our municipal utilities, propose solutions that have a positive impact on local ecosystems, and provide the people who use the space a safe, welcoming and beautiful experience.”

What makes Austin stand apart from other cities?
“Austinites have always had an appreciation for our city’s and region’s natural beauty that is unique from anywhere else in the country. Being a city with a climate that allows for outdoor activities almost 12 months out of the year means a blurring between interior spaces and the landscape. And while we may have a plant palette that is limited because of our climate, Austinites are eager to embrace drought-tolerant plant design and the native species that you don’t see anywhere else.”

What are your favorite and least favorite landscaping trends right now?
“Getting back to nature, human comfort elements like fire and water, bird watching and zen meditation gardens. As a result of climate change awareness, people are more interested in planting native plants that help bolster our local ecology, are more resilient and use native materials that speak to the local sense of place. Least favorite trends: fake grass, use of plastic play elements, residential owners chopping down native oak forests on weekends and replacing with palms, bamboo, olives and short-lived Mexican palo verdes.”

How would you describe Austin to someone from out of town?
“A lively, fun city which is growing quickly and hopefully will preserve its precious remaining historic architecture, beautiful woodlands, creeks and green space.”

Austin Eye View: Word + Carr

For their work at Word + Carr Design Group, Principals Mark Word and Sarah Carr and their 15-person team draw on a wide range of experience and training in disciplines including horticulture, architecture, landscape architecture and studio art. They believe plants and the unfolding presence of the seasons are a means to witnessing beauty and finding joy in the natural world around us. In addition to commercial and residential projects, Word + Carr offers horticulturist-informed garden services ranging from design to installation to maintenance of existing and developing gardens.

How would you describe the studio’s design style?
“We’re always looking for the best marriage of beauty and utility within a site’s particular context. If we’ve done our job really well, it should be tricky to tell where exactly we intervened.”

Why is landscape architecture so important to a project?
“Landscape architecture connects new projects back to the bigger picture, not just in terms of circulation or street presence, but also identity, community and natural cycles.”

How have you watched the industry change or evolve, particularly in the past year?
“We’ve all had to become more agile and inventive to adapt to multiple uncertainties. From availability of materials, to big swings in costs, to rethinking what plant palettes are truly going to be appropriate in the next decade as our climate shifts, we are all thinking on our feet.”

What makes Austin stand apart from other cities?
“Our geology is fantastically variable, and so the character of the land and the built environment change as you move around town. The sort of garden you can have in East Austin’s soil can be radically different from what you’d do in Westlake.”

What are your favorite and least favorite landscaping trends right now?
“We’ve always had a lot of love for our outdoor spaces here in Austin, but now it seems like they are getting a wider role. It’s been great to see increased demand for more outside gathering and dining spaces, open-air classrooms, etc. It’s also wonderful to have so many conversations about fresh air and inviting the breeze back into buildings. Unfortunately, we’re still seeing the evidence of the big freeze this February — that’s got to be an all-time least favorite.”

Describe your perfect Austin day— what would you eat, drink, do and see?
“Start with a bracing morning swim at Barton Springs, take a picnic lunch to the new Waterloo Park, and maybe wander up to the Blanton Museum of Art. Then tacos, cocktails and a nap under a big oak tree.”

RELATED: Austin Invests In Its Green Spaces For Future Generations

Austin Eye View: Shademaker Studio

After 24 years of observing professional landscape architecture’s role as a consultant, Shaney Clemmons founded Shademaker Studio in 2017. These days, the team of five work internationally from an East Austin studio, and they consider themselves stewards of the land with a shared passion for connecting people to nature while always remaining mindful of the impact of their footprint. Their collective knowledge of placemaking, landscape detailing, local ecology and planting, grading and code requirements (such as protected trees, impervious cover and licensing agreements) allow them to resolve site issues as they arise, streamlining the design process and saving both time and money.

How would you describe the studio’s design style?
“Shademaker Studio’s design style is tailored for the client. Our collaborative design process allows us to weave the client’s goals, architectural aesthetics and our own ideas into a project that fits the site.”

When you take on a new landscaping project, what’s your process from start to finish?
“We try to create landscapes that unearth the character of a given site and meet the needs of those who inhabit it. Our process from start to finish is grounded in a collaborative design process that involves investigatory site visits, conversation, hand-sketching and site-specific problem solving. That allows the land itself and the personal stories of our clients to be expressed in our design and create the tailored style we are known for.”

Why is landscape architecture so important to a project?
“Landscape architecture is more than aesthetics. It is more than solving drainage problems and more than creating privacy. As professionals, it is our duty to understand site systems as a whole, to create designs that are artful and responsive to climate change, water consumption and habitat diversity. Our designs are the inheritance of the next generation. We must always be critical of our design ideas through that filter.”

How have you watched the industry change or evolve, particularly in the past year?
“We are excited to see the profession advocating for change in Texas. Locally, landscape advocacy efforts range from collaboration with city agencies on environmental code development to projects like the I-35 Capitol Express Project. It is also thrilling to see Austin invest in open space like the recently completed Waterloo Park and future parks like John Trevino Jr. Metropolitan Park and Drake Bridge Commons.”

What makes Austin stand apart from other cities?
“The people of Austin are design savvy, and they support the design community by allowing us to thrive in our creative process. Austin is home to a significant number of world-class landscape architects. With that title comes the responsibility of our practice to educate and to shift design trends to promote climate-resilient design solutions.”

What are your favorite and least favorite landscaping trends right now?
“Monoculture plantings (planting a single species tree or shrub) have never been sustainable, but have always been trendy. As a call to action, our studio created a ‘Hedge Pledge’ to create an incentive that would promote biodiversity. The program is designed to reward our clients for supporting climate-resilient design by creating urban wildlife corridors in their yards. We discount our planting design services by 15 percent when our client takes the pledge. We would love our fellow landscape architects to jump on the bandwagon and make ‘Hedges, not fences’ a new Austin motto!”

How would you describe Austin to someone from out of town?
“If we had been asked this question ten years ago, we would have said that Austin is a university town with amazing live music entertainment, beautiful parks and fun-loving, friendly people. Today we see Austin as much more than that. Austin has become a multicultural city with amazing business potential, a hub for entrepreneurs and the creative class — which shows in the caliber of public works and open spaces available to all city residents. We think Austin is a wonderful place, but we must engage with its exponential pace of development and make sure that the soul of Austin — the magic that brought us all here together — is celebrated in each and every project that we undertake.”


Read More From the Architecture Issue | October 2021


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