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Master of the Southwest: Landscape Architect Mary Estes Sculpts Beautiful, Sustainable Outdoor Spaces

2024 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Mary Estes

“You start out thinking about changing the density of a plot of land and end up realizing that you impacted a lot of lives in a great way.”

Mary Estes Landscape Architect

By Robrt L. Pela | Portrait Photography by Melissa Valladares

Many of landscape architect Mary Estes’s clients have gone on to become her good friends.

“When I first work with someone, I like to tell them, ‘We’re going to date for a few months,” Estes says, “and then we’re going to break up and be friends.’”

Befriending former clients means Estes, a principal at Norris Design, gets to watch her work grow and change.

“I’ll go to a friend’s party and hear someone complimenting the host about how great the garden looks,” Estes says. “That’s always nice.”

“Mary creates moments in a landscape,” according to landscape architect and Estes’s former business partner Shari Zimmerman. “She creates sensory experiences that make the space more comfortable and relatable.”

Zimmerman refers to Estes as a steward of the environment. “She’s got an affinity for the land,” she states. “Mary has always taken sustainability very seriously, even before that was something people were talking about. She’s thinking about the client and the design, but she’s also thinking about what’s good for the soil she’s going to be working with.”

Estes admits that working with plants wasn’t in her youthful plans. As a teenager in Texas, Estes thought of herself as an artist. In high school, she sold some of her drawings; others won awards.

“I always figured I would study art,” she says. “But I got to Texas A&M University, and they didn’t have a fine arts school. I heard about environmental design and thought, ‘That sounds interesting.’ It’s creative and artistic but also technical. I liked that it worked both sides of my brain.”

After graduation, Estes moved to New York City and worked at a small architectural studio while studying urban landscape. In 1996, she became a licensed landscape architect, then moved on to practices in Seattle and Phoenix, where she landed 20 years ago.

The colors and surfaces of the Sonoran Desert have since become her favorites. “Some of the desert-adapted plants themselves are a form of sculpture, and the combination of materials and textures is very exciting. Think about an agave emerging from some soft grass—there’s so much beauty in that.”

“I need to eat, but the passion I have for landscape architecture outweighs that­— And everything else.”

—Mary Estes, landscape architect

Most days, she still feels like an artist. “Landscape architecture is a creative discipline, first and foremost,” Estes says. “But you also must understand how the related disciplines work. Like how concrete performs, what the soil is like and whether the environment will support what you want to do. Then you get to the creative part.”

Primarily a residential designer, Estes recently worked on redeveloping the City Housing Department’s Edison Eastlake community in Phoenix. Her part of the project involved expanding and improving an existing park in a neighborhood with many inner-city kids who needed one.

“You start out thinking about changing the density of a plot of land,” she says, “and end up realizing that you impacted a lot of lives in a great way. It’s a heady thought.”

When she studied landscape design, Estes didn’t count on becoming a teacher as part of the bargain. “There’s so much educating in what we do,” she says of landscape architecture. “You have to give every client the ‘why’ and ‘how’ to help them make good choices. You can’t just say, ‘Well, I know you love that plant, but it’s not going to love the west side of your house. It’s too hot there.’”

Homeowner John Meyers found working with Estes on his and husband Fritz Rumpf’s property refreshing. “It was wonderful not to be told ‘no’,” he recalls. “Instead, Mary asked us to think longer term about what we were planting.”

1. A curtain of water in the Serenity Garden at Yuma’s Regional Medical Center feeds blue elf aloes and showcases a wall of comforting words. 2. For the pool area at The Flats at Santan, an apartment community in Gilbert, Estes installed laser-cut steel panels that create a shadow pattern from above and reveal the sky and verdant landscape from below. 3. Out front, the entry roundabout features date palms and an ironwood tree in a raised planter surrounded by purple heart, aloe and Mexican feather grass. 4. Lady slippers (Euphorbia macrocarpus) and river rock frame a bubbling water feature. 5. Estes painted stucco walls a vibrant blue as a backdrop for aloe and agave. 6. As part of her work on the City Housing Department’s Edison Eastlake project, Estes helped create the Edison Park Activity Hub.

Rumpf is a gardener who wanted Estes to integrate fruit trees with 15-foot-long elevated beds where he could grow lettuce, radishes and tomatoes.

“The design is harmonious and doesn’t look forced,” Rumpf reports. “People don’t see a farm—they see a Zen garden. It’s because Mary listened to what we wanted instead of telling us what we should have.”

Estes heard Mary Gaudio, too. “The landscapers my husband and I talked to kept bringing us designs that didn’t look like what we were asking for,” Gaudio says. “I was complaining about this to someone at a patio store, and they said, ‘Oh, call Mary Estes.’”

Gaudio had a drainage problem that Estes quickly fixed. Next up was the yard’s casita. “It was a monstrosity built by the last owner,” she says. “Mary planted a cluster of Bismarck palms in the front that have grown over and softened the structure. She added colorful prickly pear cactus that draws your attention away from the casita. She made that ugly structure almost fade away.”

Estes says her work has never been just something she does for a paycheck. “I need to eat,” she says with a laugh. “But the passion I have for landscape architecture outweighs that—and everything else.”

1. A grid of mesquite trees and a ground-mounted misting system are the focal points of landscape architect Mary Estes’s design at Glendale’s Haven Church campus . She chose the boulders from a quarry in Marana, Arizona, and oversaw their placement, arranging them within a void in the plaza’s paving.  2. “This is more typical of the scale of work I do,” Estes says of her design of the community pool at Riata Apartments in Chandler. Water scuppers and date palms are among the details introduced to give the amenity area a resortlike aesthetic. 3. When a Scottsdale client wanted to obscure the cement fence around her home, Estes collaborated on the design of a wood-slab wall from slices of olive, citrus, mesquite and ironwood trunks. 4. Estes recommended a steel roof and sandblasting dingy white paint from the same home’s façade. The carport’s bright blue steel pivoting shade panels protect the area from western sun. A salvaged ironwood tree is surrounded by plantings that reinforce the geometry of Estes’s hardscape design. 5. The lawn is sunken and framed by a steel retaining wall with a cantilevered bench. Pavers are spaced to absorb rainwater from the roof of the shade structure. “In the desert, so much of landscape architecture is about the elegant management of storm water,” Estes says. 6. At the home of avid gardeners, herb planters are bracketed by St. Elmo’s Fire (Russelia x ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’) and totem cactus 7. When a client asked for a backyard amenable to her pet tortoise, Estes based her design on the reptile’s shell. “I had a heck of a time finding a geometry that would work,” she recalls. “I played with the shell pattern scale so that it worked intentionally with the elements the homeowner wanted to retain.” Salvaged brown and gray pavers were laid in an organic, non-continuous pattern. “This project really stretched me from a design perspective,” Estes says. 8-9. As part of her work on the City Housing Department’s Edison Eastlake project, Estes helped create the Edison Park Activity Hub. A trio of colorful shade structures are laser-cut with words of hope suggested by community members. “This was also a significant Hohokam site,” Estes says, “and so some of the patterning you see in the laser-cut steel cladding the shade structures are a historical reference to tribal patterning.”
Sources

Landscape architect for all projects: Mary Estes, PLA, SITES AP, LEED AP Norris Design, Phoenix, norris-design.com.

Architect: Jack DeBartolo 3, FAIA, and Jeff Kershaw and Mike Roth, DeBartolo Architects, Phoenix debartoloarchitects.com. Civil engineer: Cypress Civil, Phoenix, cypress-civil.com. General contractor: Robert E. Porter Construction, Phoenix, robertporterconstruction.com. Electrical engineer: Woodward Engineering, Tempe, woodward-engineering.com. Landscape subcontractor: Sierra Sun Landscaping, Tempe, sierrasunaz.com. Mechanical engineer: Associated Mechanical Engineers, Tempe, amengineers.com. Structural engineer: Rudow + Berry Structural Engineering, Scottsdale, rbise.com.

Project team: Kaylynn Rewerts and Christian Sobecki and Catherine Rouillard, norris-design.com. Architects: Doug Van Lerberghe and Ryan Bender, Kephart, kephart.com. Civil engineer: Hilgart Wilson, Phoenix, hilgartwilson.com. Developer: embrey.com. General contractor: Embrey Construction, Phoenix, embrey.com. Landscape subcontractor: Westar Environmental, LLC, Higley, westarenvironmental.com. MEP engineer: nicholseng.com. Structural engineer: integritystructural.com. Pool builder: Rondo Pools & Spas Inc., Phoenix, rondopools.com.

Project team: Kaylynn Rewerts, Joel Thomas and Greg Rowan, norris-design.com.

Project team: Kaylynn Rewerts, Malerie Gamboa and Christian Sobecki, norris-design.com. Architect: Doug Van Lerberghe, kephart.com. Civil engineer: Hilgart Wilson, Phoenix, hilgartwilson.com. Developer: embrey.com. General contractor: embrey.com. Landscape subcontractor: Sierra Sun, Tempe, sierrasunaz.com. MEP engineers: jordanskala.com. Retail center architect: Dean Munkachy, Suite 6 Architecture + Planning Inc., Scottsdale, suite6.net. Structural engineer: Integrity integritystructural.com.

General contractor: Todd Wills, Harvest Design Group, Phoenix, harvestdesigngroup.com. Subcontractor: Larry Gonzalez, Phoenix, (602) 397-0232.

Landscape contractor: Xerophytic Design Inc., Phoenix, xero.pro. Water feature supplier: The Green Goddess Nursery, Phoenix, greengoddess.com.

Landscape team: Sukhi Singh and Brian Sager, norris-design.com. Civil engineer: Dibble, Phoenix, dibblecorp.com. Contractor: Low Mountain Construction Inc., Phoenix, lowmountain.com. Developer: Gorman & Company, Phoenix, gormanusa.com. Electrical engineer: Wright Engineering, Chandler, wrightengineering.us. Planning: Alan Beaudoin, Rachael Smith and Dan Beavers, norris-design.com. Structural engineer: PK Associates Consulting Structural Engineers, Scottsdale, pkastructural.com.

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