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Neighborly Design

Author: John Roark
Issue: March, 2017, Page 114
Photos by Art Holeman

Enhancing the street view was a priority for the homeowners. “This lot is such a centerpoint of the community,” says landscape designer Chad Norris. “The owners wanted to give back by making sure the curb appeal was fluid with the community but also made a statement.”
An Uninspired Lot Becomes a Source of Neighborhood Pride

Located on a roundabout opposite their community’s clubhouse, Brian and Laurie Cunningham’s North Scottsdale vacation home is a focal point seen by virtually everyone driving in the vicinity. And for years, the sight provided little  in the way of visual interest.

 “There was nothing artistic about it,” Laurie says of the original property, which had languished on the market for more than two years before the couple purchased it. “We needed variation, to get away from the uninteresting flatness. And we really wanted to do something to improve the curb appeal.” Brian agrees: “We’re in a very prominent spot. I wanted something spectacular. We wanted our home to look like an inviting destination.”

An arched nook with a rustic bench provides a perfectly secluded spot to take in the spectacular Arizona sunsets.
As they walked their dogs and explored the neighborhood, the Cunninghams discovered that many of the properties they were drawn to were the work of landscape designer Chad Norris. After their initial meeting, they knew they had found the right man. “We were blown away by his thoughts and ideas,” says Brian. “Chad asked a lot of questions and brought up things we hadn’t even thought of. Right away, he was excited about making the street view really special. He took the project and he ran with it.” 

After convincing the homeowners association that his plan was not only a good idea but that it would also enhance everyone in the community’s view of the roundabout, the transformation began by clearing the areas adjacent to the driveway of scrub brush and minimal existing flora. Raising the elevation by 4 feet and adding contours and outcroppings created visual interest from the street, while also providing privacy for the Cunninghams without blocking the horizon views. At the driveway’s end, a 60-year-old mesquite tree selected for its twisted shape makes an impactful focal point in any season, with or without leaves. Boulders and strategically placed specimen organ pipe cacti (Stenocereus thurberi) and a massive multiarmed cardón (Pachycereus pringlei)—so sizable it had to be transported at 3:00 a.m. to avoid traffic—lead the eye, building drama as you approach the house. Agave parryi, golden barrels, prickly pear and purple lantana add texture, variety and a stroke of color to the landscape.

For the majority of the five-month project, the Cunninghams were at their home in Colorado, communicating by phone and receiving regular updates from Norris, who they trusted implicitly. One of Laurie’s criteria for the sizable lot was a desertscape that would be stunning no matter what time of year they visited.

A gently bubbling water feature masks traffic sounds from the nearby roundabout.
“Our plant palette has visual interest that doesn’t need to rely on the weather for color or texture, such as Parry’s agave and golden barrels,” says Norris. “In the summer, spring and fall, the lantana provides a paintbrush stroke of deep purple throughout the landscape. When they are not flowering, something else takes the lead.” Argentine giant (Echinopsis candicans) and claret cup hedgehog (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) bloom in the cooler months, adding pops of vibrant color throughout the property. “There is always something changing and going on no matter what month Brian and Laurie are here visiting.”

Once finalized, Norris incorporated the botanical palette into the property for continuity, adding additional species throughout. Deep green
agaves and cardón spears found in the front yard are echoed in the main entry courtyard and backyard. “There’s a recurring theme here that helps tie each side of the property together,” says Norris.

A favorite spot of the couple’s is the main entry courtyard, which provides an incomparable view from the kitchen—something Norris always considers when designing. “What you see from inside the house is as important as the outside view,” he notes. “I try to treat all of the windows and view corridors as picture frames for the living art outside of them.”

“I wanted the landscape to feel like it starts at the corner, builds drama along the driveway and then spills through the home and into the backyard” says Norris. “When you walk out the front door, you’re drawn into the landscape by these dramatic points of interest and focal vignettes.”
“Courtyards can be tough,” says Norris. “You’ve usually got shaded areas and are trying to create a continuity that matches the rest of the landscape, generally with much different exposures.” The key, he says, is in knowing which plants are adaptable to the different lighting and exposures­—as found in both the open areas and the partially enclosed spaces. Organ pipe, blue agave and golden barrels do as well in full sun as they do in shade.

Privacy from a neighboring house was another important factor for the Cunninghams. Norris considered different options. “What can we use
for screening and privacy? What can we use to direct the eye where we want it to go?” he asks. Keeping the courtyard’s view corridor open, he incorporated elements such as a Texas ebony tree (Pithecellobium flexicaule), yucca, Blue Cape plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) and star jasmine vines (Trachelospermum jasminoides) on trellises and along view fencing. Layering in a combination of textures and colors gives the sense of privacy even though landscape is not completely screened off. “The Cunninghams can still see the sunset through the trees,” Norris says. “We made sure that we drew the attention to the horizon view. It eliminates the feeling that the neighbor’s house is so close.”

Prominently located near the community’s clubhouse, the original street-facing lot was flat and contained little more than scrub brush. Norris raised the elevation by 4 feet, added contours, outcroppings and a variety of cacti, trees and succulents to achieve the destination feeling the homeowners wanted.
An essential factor for Norris is sustainability. “We try to make big bang for the buck; something that you have to do one time that’s sustainable, and then you just touch it up every year,” he says. Given their extended absences, the Cunninghams appreciate the low-maintenance nature of the property. Many plants subsist on rainfall or moisture from the air; others, such as the barrel cacti, subsist on water stored within their flesh.

The most challenging aspect of the project, says Norris, was accessibility. “In the front yard we had plenty of room to place specimen cacti and big boulders, but I couldn’t even get a small loader into the backyard if I wanted to,” he recalls. “That same sense of arrival that we achieved in the front yard has to trickle into the smaller courtyards and the backyard.” To create that same effect with zero access, Norris used a crane to lift boulders and specimen plants over the house. “The crane can only move one boulder at a time, so it doesn’t happen quickly,” he says. “Because the operator can’t see you, you communicate with walkie-talkies. Up, down, left, 6 inches more to the right.”

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Groupings of stately cardón (Pachycereus pringlei) add impact throughout the property, leading the eye upward. Golden barrels and agave contribute contrasting shape, color and texture. “There’s a recurring theme here that helps tie each side of the property together,” says Norris.

“Putting the right plant in the right place where it can thrive is important,” says Norris, who chose plants with varying bloom cycles. “There’s always something going on no matter what month you’re here.”

Norris meticulously placed every plant and boulder to maximize the view and guide the eye. Here, vertical elements provide both visual interest and privacy from the neighboring house. Desert flora in a variety of shapes, colors and textures further complement the scene.

Originally, Norris had placed a smaller organ pipe cactus near the spa, but it wasn’t quite right. “If it’s not big enough, your eye goes right over to the neighbor’s house,” he says. Rather than raising the wall to create privacy, he created a focal vignette with a specimen cactus as a centerpiece surrounded by lower-lying plants of varying color and texture. The blending of heights and shapes brings interest to all corners of the private setting.

For Norris, precise placement is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. “That’s the best part,” he says of personally positioning every boulder and plant, large or small, on the property. “We twisted, spun and turned every boulder, every agave and every plant as I bounced around and looked at it from different vantage points until it was right. When it happens, you just know. It all comes to life and works perfectly because you put all that energy into it. It’s really cool.”

The result far exceeded the Cunningham’s expectations, and they agree that Norris hit a home run. “The first word that pops into my head is ‘magnificent.’ Everything has a reason and a place and a purpose,” says Laurie, who adds that neighbors often thank them for beautifying the neighborhood. Brian agrees. “We wanted our yard to look like it was a natural, established landscape, not a newly completed project. Chad’s design gives you the feeling of a very mature property even though so many things are brand new.”

Norris has a special place in his heart for this project. Surveying the view from the driveway, he says “This is my ‘job-well-done’ spot. Right here is where I look back and say, ‘We did good.’”

2017 Masters of the Southwest Award Winner

In every profession, there are those individuals for whom the work seems effortless, as though they were born into their jobs. Landscape designer Chad Norris is one of those people. Self-taught, Chad has an innate skill when it comes to desert plants and using them to create jaw-dropping environments that make homeowners want to live outdoors year-round.

The Valley native’s love for the land goes back to his childhood. His father owned a landscape business, and as a teenager, Chad would help him out by mowing lawns. “I have distant memories of being on job sites or seeing my dad install landscapes,” he says. “This work must have been ingrained in me.” As an adult, he went on to work at some of the larger landscape companies in the region; it was during this time that he met his mentor, landscape designer Mark Wdowiak of Desert Foothills Landscape in Cave Creek. “We clicked really well,” says Chad. “We think the same; we problem-solve the same. His way of design made a lot of sense to me.” When Wdowiak retired and sold his company, Chad took over as lead designer, as well as vice president of sales.

Chad’s ability to see plantings and elevations before they’re even in place allows him to work quickly and without drawing up design plans—a technique that can be intimidating to homeowners. But once they see the finished product, they’re sold on his style. Clients from five years ago still email to tell him how much they love their yards and to send him photos of his plantings’ latest blooms.

For his passion for plants and his unique way of using them to shape and complete our outdoor spaces, we at Phoenix Home & Garden name Chad a Masters of the Southwest award winner. Congratulations, Chad!

-The Editors
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