Category Archives: Uncategorized

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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Have you ever been to one of these Cities?

• LoDo and the Central Platte Valley, Denver, Colorado

• Short North, Columbus, Ohio

• Kitsilano, Vancouver, British Columbia

• Flamingo Park, Miami Beach, Florida

• Little Portugal, Toronto, Ontario

• Eisenhower East, Alexandria, Virginia

• The Pearl District, Portland, Oregon

• Downtown and Raynolds Addition, Albuquerque, New Mexico

• Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York

• Little Italy, San Diego, California

• Cambridgeport, Cambridge, Massachusetts

• Old Pasadena, Pasadena, California


On a regular basis, we read Better Cities & Townsand this month in their newsletter they talk a lot about transit-oriented development, walkable cities and just plain good urban design.  The cities above were featured in a book called Made for Walking and the basis of the book is a study on the above neighborhoods and why the neighborhoods in these cities are so successful.  Well, based on the title of the book, y ou can probably guess, it’s because they are “made for walking”.

When cities, developments and neighborhoods put an effort towards connecting the different neighborhoods in a variety of walk-able ways, it almost always proves to be successful.  What constitutes a walk-able neighborhood.  Well, in our experience, it has been the following:

  • People scaled streetscape elements including lamps, bike racks, architecture

    Downtown development in Lafayette
  • The architecture is also important, it has to be unique and speak to the neighborhood
  • Retail, residential, restaurants, bars, coffee shops – they all need to be there
  • Minimal vehicular circulation – meaning that one lane in each direction, or even a one-way street with one to two lanes
  • Parking located on the back sides of the streetscape – behind buildngs
  • Minimal parking located along the actual street
  • Attractive streetscape furniture and places to gather with friends, associates
  • Events, you need to have events on a regular basis to keep people coming back

So, do you have a downtown or neighborhood that needs help?  We are experts at urban design and placemaking and are here for your reference.

Sonoma County BEST

Firma Design Group is a proud silver-level sponsor of Sonoma County BEST (Building Economic Success Together),  Throughout the past year, Michael Tarnoff has served on their Track II Committee, with the goal of creating a strong, vibrant, and supportive business climate.  This first year, the committee’s attention was focused on business retention and expansion, and created the goal of interviewing 100 businesses in 100 days.  The goal was met, and BEST continues to thrive and make an impact on the business community.  For more information on how you might get involved in helping Sonoma County grow, please contact Michael Tarnoff in our office at (707) 792-1800 or Sonoma County BEST directly at (707) 636-2842 (Carolyn Stark, Executive Director) or (707) 545-1011 (Robin Stephani, Director of Business Development).


Acacia Lane Senior Apartments is open

Petaluma Ecumneical Properties (PEP Housing) has opened Acacia Lane Senior Apartments in Santa Rosa.  The project was engineered by Firma Design Group, designed by Robert W. Hayes Architects, Sausalito, and constructed by Midstate Construction Corporation, Petaluma.  Completed in June 2012, the project was developed in partnership with HUD and the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Rosa, along with Bank of Marin, the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, Merritt Community Capital Corporation, and Silicon Valley Bank

Situated on 1.3 acres, the site now hosts two apartment buildings with 44 units ranging in size from 600 to over 700 square feet, and an 1,800 square foot community center.




Make Your Neighborhood Better!

Firma Design Group prides itself on creating communities in our designs, whether they be single family residences or entire neighborhoods.  We take a look at all of the contributing factors (otherwise known as a site analysis) for a site and make recommendations to our clients for making communities or neighborhoods.  An article I recently came across is “25 Tips for Making Your Neighborhood Better” and the recommendations that are made in the short article are wonderful suggestions that any neighborhood, community or family can make on existing or proposed sites.  Some favorites of ours include:


1.  Give people a place to hang out.

4.  Give people a place to sit down.

8.  Make the streets safe.

12.  Don’t forget about the needs of kids.

15.  Remember the best neighborhoods, even in big cities, feel like villages.

25.  Take the time to have fun and enjoy what’s already great about your neighborhood.


Firma Design Group designers and planners are specialists in creating neighborhoods and community spaces, please call upon us to help design your public space or neighborhood development!

Custom Home specialists


With a keen eye towards detail, we have been specializing in custom home design for the 12 plus years we’ve been in business.  From as far south as Carmel, all the way up to Healdsburg, we’ve been sought after for straight forward projects and challenging ones.  Our vast experience with custom homes means we know what questions to ask to better get your project approved, on time and at or under budget.  We have worked most extensively in Marin County, both in the unincorporated areas and every city within the county.  Call or email us today to ask how we can help on your home.

San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Small Business Enterprise

Firma Design Group is proud to be a certified Small Business Enterprise (SBE) in the City of San Francisco, providing Civil Engineering and Landscape Architecture services.  Our company is in the City’s Agency-Certified Business Directory, and we are active in several projects in San Francisco at this time.  If you need an SBE on your project, or a multi-disciplined firm with civil engineering and landscape architecture, please contact us.  Firma Design Group is also a certified SBE for the State of California.

SBE Certificate

999 Grant Avenue goes vertical

The basic site improvements and foundation have been completed, and now the vertical steel is being installed at 999 Grant Avenue in Novato.  Once complete, this two-story commercial building at the southeast corner of Redwood Blvd. and Grant Avenue will improve upon a much maligned corner building that stood vacant for years.  Firma Design Group performed the civil engineering design, including a detention pipe for landscaping that eliminated the need for an irrigation meter from the water district.  Crome Architecture is the architect, and Devcon Construction the general contractor.  Circle Bank is the builder.

Vertical Construction at 999 GrantVertical Construction at 999 Grant


Turning pages

I was at the symphony last night, and saw something that really struck me.  Yo Yo Ma was playing Hindemith’s Cello Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, when, in a pause of his playing, he motioned his bow towards his music.  The air conditioning in the symphony hall can cause music pages to turn, and this is what MTT, the conductor, must have thought.  Because, moments after Ma pulled his bow back, and starting a long passage of playing, MTT, now thinking that Ma’s music was on the wrong page, turned the sheet of music for him, and held then held it there with one hand, while conducting the rest of the orchestra with the other.  After a while, MTT removed his hand, and the page stayed where he had held it.  About 20 seconds later, Ma turned the page back to where it was, not missing a beat.  The air conditioning had not turned the page, he was simply motioning his bow to the next part of the score he would play.  Better yet, while MTT held Ma’s music to the wrong page, Ma played as if it was exactly what he needed, and played brilliantly.  He didn’t look panicked, he didn’t try and turn the page out of MTT”s hand.  He just played by memory, and turned the page when he needed to, and when it was not a distraction to MTT or the rest of the orchestra.

This reminds me about how important it is in business to be ready for any challenge, and to stay cool under pressure.  Many times, a design does not go as planned in the field.  Rather than try and force a design that may not work anymore, we look at all options, and then diplomatically come to a resolution with the contractor, agency, or client.  I think this is one of the many qualities that defines leadership.

— Michael Tarnoff