Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…Upcycle?

We have all heard this saying repeated again and again, but what does it really mean. Sure, you can buy reusable grocery bags, or use brown bags to wrap up schoolbooks, but there’s so much more to it than that. Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value. What about those old tires you have lying by the side of the house? Or the bathtub that you saw on the side of the road? Or what about that wine crate that your wine club delivery came in? Some may see all these things as garbage, but I see opportunity. After all, one man’s trash is another’s treasure! The three things I mentioned above all have something in common; they can all be turned into planter boxes for your vegetable or flower gardens.

Old tires can be organized into various patterns in your yard, and then filled with soil and plants. This allows for a funky, yet fun garden to show off, all while being earth-savvy. Tires get thrown out or piled in junkyards at astonishing rates, but they can really add character to your backyard. The tires can be painted or decorated to add more excitement.

Bathtubs are another household item that make for excellent upcycling projects. My mother has an old claw foot tub that she found by the side of the road years ago, that she converted into a backyard pond. It was once trash, but is now surrounded with decorative bricks, various plants, and is even home to many goldfish and a turtle. My favorite idea for an old tub is to convert it into a garden planter. They can easily be painted or decorated, and then filled with various plants to add a funky charm to your yard.

If you’ve ever received a shipment of wine, you may have received it in a nifty little wine crate. Maybe you found a use for it, or maybe you just threw it out or stuck it in the garage. Why not plant something in it? The crates can be a bit fragile, but with a little extra love they can be converted into a perfect small raised garden bed. This is perfect for someone with little space, or wanting something portable to be able to move with them to their next home. Crates can be made sturdier with enforcements on the corners, and weatherproofing them is always a good idea to extend the life of the box. Drainage holes can be added with a power drill, and you’re ready to go!

Recycling and Reusing are always important to do, but always upcycle whenever possible. Our landfills cannot tolerate the amount of trash we are throwing into them every day. There is no reason to produce so much waste when there is so much opportunity literally being thrown out each day. Next time you go to toss something out, or recycle something, first ask yourself if there is any possible way to upcycle it or extend its life. You might add a little clutter, or a lot, to your garage, but future generations will thank you.

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The Earthquake’s Silver Lining: A Chance to Move in a New Direction

Napa EarthquakeWalkability and alternative transportation options are in higher demand than ever, according to new research. This trend, along with the recent 6.0 earthquake centered in the Napa Valley, could be a perfect opportunity for North Bay cities to turn towards new alternative methods of transportation. After many decades of following an automobile-centric model of transportation in American cities, young people across the nation are starting to express a serious interest in alternative transportation methods that would liberate them from their cars. In cities like Napa, which the earthquake significantly damaged, there are now opportunities to redesign and retrofit parts of the current transportation system. Cities should seize these opportunities to improve their transportation systems and increase the overall quality of life for their residents.Napa Earthquake

The survey, organized by Global Strategy Group, was conducted on people aged 18-34 in a variety of metropolitan areas across the country. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed (80 percent) said that they want to live in places with access to a variety of transportation options, such as walking, biking, or taking public transit. Almost as many people (75 percent) stated that they will likely end up living in a place where they do not need a car to get around. This dramatic shift from the traditional suburban desires of wide boulevards, separation of land uses, and isolated residential neighborhoods is likely a result of a growing distaste for our reliance on fossil fuels, as well as a desire to increase community interaction, all while lessening the amount of time and money that Americans spend on transportation. In places like Napa, which was developed in the glory days of the car, there is a long Bike Laneroad to travel before we can expect to meet these desires. However, moments like this, where a town or city is forced to rebuild transportation infrastructure due to a natural disaster, provide us with a chance to make important changes that would be otherwise overlooked for years to come. For example, in the residential area of downtown Napa, where the worst of the damage occurred, the streets were very wide, bare, and gave pedestrians little separation from cars. Given the recent earthquake, why not reimagine these streets, emphasizing pedestrian and bicycle activity rather than allocating all of the space to vehicular use? By adding bike lanes and a buffer zone of drought-tolerant trees, shrubs, and groundcovers on the sides of the roadway, the downtown area could be transformed into a more active and thriving social neighborhood.

Complete StreetThis kind of streetscape, called a “complete street”, encourages people to walk or bike to work and spend less time in their cars. It does this by providing dappled shade, a nice view, and physical protection from traffic, all of which make residents more comfortable and willing to spend time outside on the street.

What kinds of long term changes should we make based on the substantial shift in the younger generation’s perspective?  Future cities based on this mentality will most likely be in stark contrast to our current ones, which are dominated by unfriendly streetscapes and where the average person spends about an hour on the road daily. These cities should place a newfound emphasis on alternative transportation options, including pedestrian streetscapes, bike trails, bus systems, and high-speed rail lines.

At Firma Design Group, we welcome this change in perspective, and strive to contribute to a more effective and pleasant transportation system in all of our projects. We look forward to being part of many great changes in the years to come!

Written by Reed Gordon, Intern 2014 with Firma Design Group and a resident of Napa.

Storm Water Awareness Week – September 22 -26

SWAW Workshops Flyer

Michael Cook, Vice President of Planning & Landscape Architecture, will be making a presentation on Tuesday, September 23rd at 9:30 am as part of the Storm Water Awareness Week.  The presentation will be about Low-Impact Development guidelines and ways to implement design strategies that will meet and/or exceed these guidelines.  Both landscape architecture and civil engineering, including site planning, are taken into account with the presentation.

Synthetic Turf: Friend or Foe?

Bay FriendlyThis posting is excerpted from the Bay Friendly Landscape Designer blog ( written by Corrie Lindsay, Sr. Landscape Architect at Firma Design Group.

My name is Corrie Lindsay. I am a Licensed Landscape Architect and Bay-Friendly Qualified Designer, with professional certifications in irrigation design as well as stormwater pollution prevention. I’ve been designing with Bay-Friendly principles before I knew of the Coalition, because I believe it enables the true beauty of the Bay Area to shine. I do what is right for our environment and I try to share my stewardship with others. But when it gets to the topic of synthetic turf I find it difficult to know which stance to take, particularly considering the recent drought.

The average turf lawn (1,000 sqft) annually consumes approximately 50k – 60k gallons of water. Based upon a 0.3115 gallon. per square foot, for a half inch of precipitation, watered 182 days (every other day). Turf’s thirsty character is why Bay-Friendly offers public “Lose Your Lawn” talks. However, there are recreational situations that require mowed lawn. When we talk about an entire soccer field, we are looking at 75,000 sqft of mowed lawn, which is a staggering 4,263,656 gallons of water per year or 77 typical front lawns. That refers to a typical Kentucky blue rye grass with poor distribution irrigation type numbers, but it’s more prevalent than the average consumer realizes. With the Bay Area ground water table dropping more than a foot every year, snowpackat an all-time low, climate change at work, federal farming water allocations being cut by the government, and our local water boards limiting use & raising rates, Water is no longer a limitless resource. But is synthetic turf the answer?

There are two solutions to the typical water consuming soccer field. Personally, I would design it as a natural turf field, but I would use a lower water use grass species. Rye grass is a cool season turf at an AVG. of 80% evapotranspiration (ETO). A simple warm season grass such as a Bermuda grass is only 60% ETO—a 20% savings in water consumption simply by selecting a different species. There are many native grasses on the market, but not many of them can handle the wear and tear of recreational sports. A possibility would be a fescue blend, which can get you down to 50% ETO or 55% ETO, but it comes with a risk of not preforming well with increased use. So the choice of turf species is really going to depend on demand. The more the turf gets used, the more wear and tear means more resources to repair it. Fertilizer applications to promote growth bumps up a turf’s water consumption. A traditional irrigation system has an average of 50% Distribution Uniformity (DU), but a newly designed low precipitation overhead system can reach an average DU of 70%. This is an additional 20% of water savings. With a professionally designed system and a climate correct grass species a typical soccer field can have a 40% reduction in water use. That is still 1,705,462 gallons of water consumed per year or about 31 typical front lawns.

Synthetic turf could save 1.7 million gallons of water per year? WRONG. That is a common misconception. You have to irrigate synthetic turf. People often overlook this. In the athletic field design world, we call them cooling systems. At extreme conditions a synth turf field can reach upwards of200 degrees Fahrenheit, which will melt the rubber cleats right off your feet. This means a cooling system is required in hot climates. Typically six high pressure water cannons are run for 10 minutes before a sporting event. Each cannon puts out 100 gallons a minute, so in 10 minutes a field receives six thousand gallons of water. Note: this is for extreme situations only and can easily be avoided, especially if the level of play is not highly competitive. It’s more of an issue in the Central Valley as opposed to the Bay Area, but the cooling systems can also serve as cleaning systems. Blood, snot, urine and stomach acids all find their way onto any field and synth fields have to be washed down. The most common practice for a cooling / cleaning system is a hose bib for spot treatments, which from a water use stand point is an acceptable practice. An average hose uses 8-12 gallons per minute, so if someone cleans an area for fifteen minutes they use about 150 gallons. Incidents may be more or less, so for this purpose we will say 150 gallons per day for 365 days, which is 54,750 gallons per year. Compared to the most efficient field it’s a savings of 1.65 million gallons per year, enough to water 30 typical lawns

That statistic led me to second guess myself. Maybe we should be using synthetic turf? If you are as concerned as I am, let me help you take a deeper look into the evolution of the synthetic turf market. Typical concerns included, lead in the rubber fines, chemically produced landfill bound material and silica leaching into the soil. These were all valid concerns in the 80’s when Astro turf was the leading manufacturer. Thanks to the EPA and other regulation boards products now on the market contain 0.00% lead. The fibers are made of polypropylene and/or polyethylene and come in a slit film or monofilament version. These are the same chemical compounds as PVC pipe that you put in the ground for your irrigation systems. Then there’s the infill material; which used to be cryogenic rubber or recycled rubber and silica carbide (sand). This material is still on the market today and can tend to have some small trace amounts of pollutants, but all products meet EPA standards and local testing minimums. There are alternatives, such as cork which has shown to reduce heat island effect by 30%. Rather than chemically produced silica carbide there is a naturally mined replacement called Zeofill which is the geologic mineral zeolite mainly from quarries in Nevada. The manufacturers have come up with a plastic material equal to drip irrigation held down with cork and rock. It has reduced the carbon footprint of a synthetic field production by 66% because the infill is now natural without any chemical production. According to the manufacturer, this type of application would be appropriate up to a high school level.

The other half of this argument is the base preparation. Modern synthetic field base prep is more complicated than building a road and can impact the top 24 inches of soil not including drainage systems. Various synthetic geotextiles and pads are placed in a sandwich with different sized rock fines. For contact sports like football the field has to meet certain impact regulations. The test measures shock-attenuation and is called a G-max test. A synthetic foam or pad is used to obtain lower levels of G-max. This Synth material can be another product that is landfill bound and increases the carbon footprint. An alternative to the shock pad or drainage pad is a 100% recycled material called GreenFoam. Used in playground areas, this pad is recycled from non-contaminated postindustrial cross link closed cell polyethylene foam. The pad can also be recycled post field life, but it comes with an 8yr warranty. The Pad is necessary for playground areas, and rugby & football which have higher G-max requirements. For lower impact sports like soccer, baseball, field hockey, lacrosse or ultimate frisbee the base pad is not required. A field with the correct installation and maintenance of a sand base can easily meet G-max requirements. Native local sand and crushed gravel mixes can create an excellent synth base with a very small carbon footprint impact.

Drainage systems are crucial to the success of any competitive field. Without drainage a field will destroy itself whether it is synthetic or natural turf. The systems for the two separate types of fields are the same. Sand channel slit drains, flat drains, capillary action systems or water re-use for irrigation. The systems can be as complex as you want them, but cannot be compared to each other because they can be used in a natural or synthetic field. The one difference is that natural turf fields have a growing medium with organic matter and are capable of building a healthy living system as opposed to a barren one. During the construction of a synthetic field topsoil is removed, herbicide is sprayed and in the winter expansive soils are lime treated. Lime treatment is the death to all soils. Once a soil has been lime treated there is no rehabilitation. The soil can be re-used as structural fill, but it would require too much to amend it. Lime treated soil loses all its cohesive properties and has a PH around ten. Soil sulfurs can be added to amend the PH back to seven, but without cohesiveness the soil remains inhospitable to organisms and fungi. It’s imperative to avoid lime treating during synthetic field installation. If a project site has extremely expansive soils, please consider a natural turf field. It will be difficult to achieve a competitive (level) field in an expansive soil situation. One of the ways to avoid this is proper construction scheduling. Excavation, drainage and base prep all have to occur without rain. If proper drainage systems and a compacted base are in place before a rain event, the field will not be compromised. Another topic to mention is non-toxic herbicide alternatives. Heavy applications of round-up can be more detrimental to a soil than lime treatment.

In conclusion synthetic turf fields are a solution to water conservation. Applications specifically relate to recreation. From backyard play areas to high school fields, synthetic turf is a solution to consider when the correct products and procedures are in place. Natural turf recreational fields can be designed to minimize water consumption and will reduce heat island effect. The tradeoff is up to the consumer. Project location, conditions and amenities will determine if a project will be synthetic or natural turf. Now I am comfortable designing either type of field because I know both of them have their benefits. Most important to the Bay-Friendly Coalition is to correctly identify your recreational needs. Use the local school or parks facilities for your recreational needs and lose your lawn! If you choose to create your own recreational space please consult a professional and always ask for the latest eco-friendly products.

Firma Design Group hired by Marin County

Marin Independent Journal article, May 2, 2014


The Marin County Board of Supervisors hired a Petaluma firm for $84,700 to provide an audit and assessment of water and irrigation pipelines at Marin County Civic Center, including Marin Center and the fairgrounds.

FIRMA Design Group will provide information that will be used to develop a maintenance schedule and long-term capital renovation program.

Our Vice President, Mike Cook, Registered Landscape Architect and Firma Design Group were hired by the County of Marin Public Works Department to work on the Civic Center Campus Waterline Renovaton Audit & Assessment that will observe, audit and assess the entire Marin County Civic Center, Marin Center, Lagoon Park and the Marin County Fairgrounds.  We are looking forward to working with Marin County Department of Public Works, County of Marin Parks Department and the entire team of professionals at Marin County.

Our team was selected over 3 other firms due to our professional experience, including the fact that we are expert at reviewing irrigation systems and existing landscape.  We are Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditors (CLIA, by the Irrigation Association; we are registered Landscape Architects in California, Nevada and North Dakota; we have an immense amount of experience in auditing irrigation systems to develop recommendations for efficiency upgrades and improvements thus saving water and much more.

Our team will work with County of Marin staff to ensure that the entire Marin County Civic Center campus is or will be using as little water as possible to irrigate the landscape.

What this drought means for our profession!

A lot of talk, press, discussion, worry and concern has resulted from the lack of rain this winter.  Even with the rains that we have received the last few days totaling a little less than an inch of rain, we still should be worried.  In Santa Rosa, we have received 13.15 inches of rain this season (25.15 normal) and Petaluma has received 12.3 inches of rain this season (17.5 normal) we are looking like this will be probably the driest season on record.

So, what do professionals in our industry do?  In normal years, we design and develop properties with plants, irrigation systems, pools, water features, ponds, etc.  and that’s what our clients request day in and day out.   On the above projects, in a normal year, we recommend our clients consider drought tolerant, appropriate species that require little to no maintenance, design highly efficient irrigation systems that adjust to the specific irrigation needs of each valve area based on the weather.  We design water features with basin-less features, we always put a pool cover on our pools to reduce evaporation.  BUT THAT IS A NORMAL YEAR…this is not a normal year.

I recently read a Press Democrat article interviewing local landscape maintenance contractors ( and I have worked with most of the contractors.  They are all professional, highly respected companies that do all they can to promote water efficient landscaping.  But, as the title of the article states, they’re worried about the future with the drought.  So, what do professionals do to make sure that the landscape industry continues?

First off, get with the program.  Do not design high-water use landscapes. Do not include in designs or new installations plants that are not appropriate for the region. Design highly efficient irrigation systems that adjust with weather (rain, sun, wind, temperature, etc.).  Take all environmental factors into place and don’t over do it!

Firma Design Group is fully committed to designing sustainable environments and is certified in Landscape Irrigation Auditing (CLIA) by the Irrigation Association and Bay Friendly Qualified Professional in landscape design.  We are always here to assist with our clients and contractor needs.

Canyon Green, Novato

Work Progressing
Work Progressing
Home Entrances
Home Entrances
Model Homes
Model Homes

On a recent trip to Novato, California, I was driving down the road and came upon one of our projects from a year or two ago.  This project is the site of an old hospital that was decommissioned when they built a new hospital.  The hillside site was challenging, but we were able to locate 25 home sites situated around a nice 1 acre park site.  It was a pleasure driving down the street and seeing buildings popping up, and as you can see they are moving pretty quickly!

Canyon Green is being built by Castle Companies.  From the website (

Site Plan for DevelopmentWhen we began in 1966, we were a close-knit group of family members with a real passion for home building. Now we’re still family-owned and operated—and our desire for building homes with unsurpassed quality grows stronger everyday. It’s this dedicated, hands-on approach that keeps us in touch with our roots. Combining a history of dedicated home building with the warm touch of a family business, the Castle Companies has evolved into one of the leaders in Northern California’s building industry, and in the process has earned a reputation for creating beautiful homes of distinction and superior craftsmanship. We set out in 1966 with the goal of providing high-quality homes for the kinds of people that we grew up with, and we haven’t forgotten that purpose, in spite of the rapid changes that have occurred around us.


Bay Friendly Landscape Qualification

We wrote about Steve Kovanis, Bay Friendly Landscape Professional a few months ago (July 11, 2013 @, but we felt it was important enough to repost and talk a little bit more about the Bay Friendly Landscape Professional and qualification program….

The Bay-Friendly Coalition addresses the following challenges:

  • California’s water supply is limited and under increasing pressure. Up to 30% of urban water use goes to landscaping. (This is our drinking water!)
  • Landfill space is scarce and there are significant economic and environmental costs to transporting and landfilling plant debris. In Alameda County alone, 110,000 tons of plant debris goes to the landfill each year.
  • Local creeks and the bay are impacted by inappropriate use of pesticides, affecting human health and wildlife populations.
  • Traditional landscape construction and maintenance practices of mow, shear, and blow contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
  • Biodiversity, ecosystem services, and aesthetic values of Bay Area natural resources are at risk.

See more at:

Steve Kovanis, our Landscape Designer ( is the qualified landscape professional.  Over the last several months, in our interactions with clients, other professionals, etc., we believe that the additional education and certification of Bay Friendly Landscape Professional has come in ‘handy’ many, many times.  This certification program provides the education and certification to know the regulations, sustainability and plant material to assist the natural economy and the San Francisco Bay habitat.

Devil’s Gulch Bank Repair and Stabilization

Engineering and Landscape Architecture
Engineering and Landscape Architecture

North Bay Trout Unlimited (NBTU) replaced three culverts with wet crossings in Devil’s Gulch Creek, a tributary to Lagunitas Creek – one of California’s Southern most reaches of the endangered Coho salmon, in 2004.

The uppermost crossing, on National Park land, was washed out by the 100 year storm of 2006.   This water shed lies in Marin County, California at USGS 7-5 minute, San Geronimo Quadrangle. The watershed empties into Bolinas Bay and on to the Pacific Ocean. North Bay Trout Unlimited (NBTU), Chapter 903, is continuing 40 years of work in the area by repairing a wet crossing to enhance water quality, habitat and open more spawning areas for migrating salmon and steelhead trout.

Firma Design Group was an essential partner in the preparation and acquisition of permits for the work that NBTU was interested in accompolishing.Planning the Planting

NBTU, with grants from Trout Unlimited, the Rockey Foundation, and Patagonia completed restoration of the wet crossing on October 12, 2013 installing rock walls and three layers of bio-technical fabric that will eliminate a source of sediment load downstream of the crossing. At the same time, an existing wet crossing received a new grading which will permit fish to migrate farther upstream. NBTU volunteers harvested and planted native trees and bushes to help stabilize the banks and provide overhead shelter to lower water temperatures and provide protection for the young fish. Our previous restoration work indicates that we should expect to see fish in the upstream area as well as less sediment in the lower reaches.

For the past fifteen years there has been a steep decline of endangered Coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout in the Lagunitas Creek watershed to the point that both were re-listed in 2010 by NOAA and NMFS. The decline in Coho salmon is listed in NOAA’s Coho Recovery Program referring to the species entering an, “extinction vortex” (see in our watershed. The Golden Gate National Park Service listed the Coho as the, “Fish of the Year”, in 2012 in an effort to inform the public of the severity of the population decline.


Volunteers from NBTU planting cuttings
Volunteers from NBTU planting cuttings

The Coho salmon require pristine water and North Bay Trout Unlimited (NBTU) has continued its 40 year record of working to fulfill their habitat needs in various watersheds. Devil’s Gulch has historically maintained 30% of the redds in the entire Lagunitas watershed. NBTU has completed many erosion control projects to ensure that these fish receive the pristine habitat necessary for their return.


The Outdoor Room

An article that I recently read in the Hearth and Home magazine ( was regarding the trend towards using outdoor rooms (kitchens, fireplaces, dining rooms, etc.) 12 months out of the year.  While we are fortunate in California to have weather condusive to using outdoor rooms the majority of the time, this trend is picking up throughout the United States.  The word room is literally being used these days when describing outdoor spaces used for entertaining.  “Rooms of different specialties” is one of the top home design trends for 2013.  Realtor Magazine has identified screened porches and outdoor living rooms with solid overhead roofs as two of the hottest home trends in 2013.

At Firma Design Group, we are experts at designing outdoor rooms for our clients’ purposes and needs.  Recently, we have completed several

Pool House
Pool House

projects that utilize the “year-around” approach.  To the right is a project we completed

Outdoor Kitchen
Outdoor Kitchen

with an entirely covered pool house.  We have also created outdoor kitches, like the one to the left and outdoor entertaining areas like the project below.

As the article in Hearth and Home magazine states “People think hiring a designer costs more, but it actually can cost less, especially if the project will be constructed in stages.  The design will plan everything up front, so later you don’t end up saying ‘Uh oh, I forgot about running the electric for the speakers or running the gas line for the firepit.’  It costs more to rip it up and redo than to plan properly in the first place.”

Outdoor space with fireplace
Outdoor space with fireplace

Please contact us at Firma Design Group for any of your outdoor room or entertaining needs.