April 30, 2015

Fabricating bespoke design features

As a landscape designer, the components of a design often require fabrication separately to the creation of the space itself. They may require special materials, skills, tools and facilities to create the elements. Often, especially for roof terrace design and unusual spaces or particular garden projects, I work with local UK-based fabricators to create elements including water features (often in metal or perhaps stone), furniture (which may include storage) and site-specific elements (recently I have been working with a fabricator on the creation of a metal balcony and step system). This piece explains some of my recommendations and experiences when working with fabricators on a landscape project.

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Creating a bespoke feature with a fabricator enables you to create something that is particular and unique to the scheme. You are able to get exactly what you want: size, colour, materials and finishes can be selected. In addition, it may actually work out more cost-effective.

Get recommendations for fabricators either by working through landscape contractors or from others who have used them successfully. At present I am working with several fabricators either through main contractors or independently through word of mouth. Make sure that you ask to see examples of their work and get a feel for whether you could work with them i.e. do they come across as knowledgeable and inventive, do they listen to your design aspiration whilst adding their own skills to the project etc. Ultimately, do they appear to care and want to work with you to deliver the best solution for your project?

Fabricators tend to be experts at using particular types of materials but not necessarily at creating particular elements, be clear at the outset, what you require from your fabricators. There is a difference between fabricators and specialists! For example, often-metal fabricators have the skills to create amazing products using particular types of metal but not necessarily to create specific features such as water features, although some do. Some specialize in using particular metals or at least have particular experiences and skills with using materials such as corten or copper. Make sure that you are not focusing on one aspect of the element whilst forgetting another!

I have found that a good way of working with fabricators is through the creation of initial construction drawings/sketches and a performance specification where the later explains the quality and characteristics you require of the piece. Then using this as a start point for discussions, face-to-face meetings etc. with the fabricator. I have used this approach recently in developing the full detail and final balcony system for a garden scheme. This means that you can retain key design features and aesthetics which are key, whilst ensuring that the structural properties of the element are right, comply with regulations and building standards etc.

Always go and visit the fabricator in their workshops so that you can see how they work. This is an excellent way for the designer to learn more about the materials, their handling, uses and limitations and enables you to design and specify elements and communicate ideas to clients in the most effective way. The fabricator will often show you different sizes and approaches so that as a designer, you can experience the materials for yourself.

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The fabricator is an excellent source of knowledge and understanding of the qualities and limitations of the materials. They should enable the specification of detailed aspects of the scheme such as the thickness of metal in specific areas of the design, its weight, and structural and performance characteristics. It needs to be made clear within the documentation for the scheme whom is responsible and liable for elements of the scheme.

Working directly and in collaboration with a fabricator will in my view and experiences, enable a better value for money product to be created for the client. For example, if using metal for a feature, even slight changes to the size can lead to the use of a different number of sheets of metal, considerably contributing to cost even though the size difference is not significant or detrimental to the scheme. Another example would be the finish applied to a material.

Go to see the fabrication of the product at various stages of production if at all possible. This enables you to learn more about the actual production of the piece but also enables discussions about the details and finishes so that the fabricator is clear at all stages, what is required from a design perspective.

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If possible and if a new approach or untested approach is being used, try to ensure some sort of prototype is produced in the workshops. This may be particularly important for water features or products with specific characteristics where errors or issues on site would lead to problems. Of course this tends to be obvious when designing and delivering show gardens but it equally applies to other projects!

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Working with a fabricator enables you to work with them on timings and potentially fit it into the project timeline rather than working to a commercial suppliers timetable which maybe less flexible. In addition, it is something that can be done in parallel with other works on the project.

I am a Chartered Landscape architect and garden designer with a keen interest in contemporary spaces, roof terraces, courtyards and kitchen gardens as well as all manner of garden and landscape projects.  I  blog regularly about aspects of garden and landscape design and growing food on our boutique allotment.  You can also follow me, Liz Ackerley on Twitter @poppyheadC,  or like our facebook page  www.facebook.com/poppyheadconsultancy  where you will find lots of tips and ideas related to gardens.  Also check out my projects and approaches to design here on my website:  www.poppyheadconsultancy.com

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