Digging Deep for Inspiration
By Joseph Lucier
Brian Koch, landscape architect and owner of Terra Ferma Landscapes, is a people person. It is with this passion for truly connecting with his clients that allows Brian to skillfully bring their gardens to life and set the stage for a family and its surrounding environs to grow together. It had been a while since I had seen Brian and I was amazed that he has kept his unbridled zest for life alive through the extensive growth of his bustling business spanning the San Francisco bay area and beyond. While his projects are a treat for the senses, it is his spirit that always comes through in the end.
Joseph Lucier: What inspired you to go into landscape design and architecture?
Brian Koch: As a young boy, I would spend countless hours playing in my parents back yard “Dirt” pile, creating miniature landscapes, paths, and water features for my matchbox cars and figures. Later in life as a young high schooler while working on a ranch property in Mendocino, my passion for creative landscape design re-surfaced. Only this time, using tractors and hand tools, I was able to work with the land and shape it into real life paths and garden spaces. After that, I was hooked!
My most pivotal educational experience was at Filoli, where I interned after college. With a degree in Horticulture from University of Vermont, I was so fortunate to work in the Bay Area’s premiere historical gardens. What I learned through the time I spent working there is something that I keep with me every day in my work for my clients today.
JL: Which landscape architects do you most admire?
BK: I admire two landscape architects – one present day and one from the past. For the past, it has to be Tommy Church. He understood life in the Bay Area and was a visionary for western gardens and design. He reshaped how, when, and where people use their gardens. For example, he understood folks gravitate towards the mature stately oaks in the afternoon, sipping iced tea and watching the sun go down. He figured out people and the way they want to use their gardens before they figured it out themselves.
My present day mentor is Andrea Cochran in San Francisco. One would assume she is my mentor for her amazing designs, but I admire her for her knowledge of plants and their environment. You can have an incredible design, but if you don’t know your plants and you don’t specify the right one for the right location, the design impact will not be fully realized. Landscape architecture only works if the plants are in harmony with the site, the environment, and client’s tastes. Andie would always take her time to understand what environment plants do best in, why they thrive, and would they work for that particular site.
"You can have an incredible design, but if you don’t know your plants and you don’t specify the right one for the right location, the design impact will not be fully realized. "
JL: What new design trends are you excited to integrate into your work?
BK: Trends and styles are always changing and evolving. We are in the thick of “Transitional” appeal right now, and although we are digging it, I am exploring some classic garden styles and elements –secret garden spaces, espaliered Fruit Trees, and clean lines and layering. In addition, we are trying to tap into what makes our clients content. Our gardens and spaces are intended to evoke feelings of calmness, by being cozy and carrying genuine charm.
JL: What is the best way to gauge a client’s personality before starting a project?
BK: I try not to pre-judge any client, but instead get to know them through a series of inquiries. I always want to know more about my clients’ roots – how and where they grew up?, do they have memories of their childhood?, or do they have memories from a great trip or experience that has shaped their life? Eventually the questions lead towards what appeals to them most about their garden or property and how they see themselves using or experiencing it.
JL: How do you balance sustainability with a client’s desire for a particular garden style?
BK: This takes work!! In some cases, we need to educate our clients when it comes to sustainability. You have to be a good listener and take the time to inform clients of what you have learned and experiences you have been through. By reviewing your experiences with plant palettes and material choices at an early stage of the design process, you can begin to set the stage for overall style and gauge what clients really want. If we need to, we guide clients into alternate plants or garden materials and elements that are both fitting and appropriate for the environment and site. There is often compromise when it comes to sustainability, and compromise takes time, education, and lots of back and forth discussions!
JL: Describe a dream project?
BK: Any project where our team is invited by the client to view an undeveloped property BEFORE hiring an architect. Landscape architects are a bit undervalued about what we can bring to a project, especially before the project begins. We have an inherent skill to locate a home in just the right spot with all the right orientations that can make an impactful difference in the home’s overall design and outcome. We can minimize negative impact to the site and preserve the key elements that might be overlooked by others. I feel it is our connection with the land, natural features, and existing trees and plants that gives us added value to any project. We constantly work hard to connect with a site, to understand where its strengths lie and where weaknesses exist, so we can create opportunities to change our clients’ lives for the better with a design they will love now and in the future.
JL: Where do you find inspiration?
BK: Inspiration comes to me at all times and places. I love to travel and observe elements of the land and landscape in other countries AND PLACES. I travel often to get away from the day to day operations of running a company, and find inspiration when my mind is not occupied with other thoughts. In addition to traveling, I get inspiration from exercise. Exercise clears my mind allowing me to envision the various projects we are working on and decipher the right design layout or option.
JL: What is your favorite part of the work you do?
BK: The best and exciting part of what I do is my clients. My creativity flows from the relationship I build with my clients and the site. I love asking the tough and important questions and digging deep into understanding what makes them content. If we can design and build towards that happy place, we are successful.
"We have an inherent skill to locate a home in just the right spot with all the right orientations that can make an impactful difference in the home’s overall design and outcome."
JL: How do you completely unwind?
BK: I head up to family property in Mendocino County. It’s so remote, there’s no cell service or electricity, and the water comes out of gravity fed natural springs. Once the Bud-Light has been cracked, boots are up, and the sounds of total remote nature – that’s when I know I’m completely unwound!
JL: If you hadn't become a designer, which career would you have pursued?
BK: Probably a Pilot. I fight with my kids for the window seat. I love gazing out at the landscape below and trying to figure out how it was shaped and how it all pieces together.
JL: What’s your favorite recipe?
BK: It would have to be my slow cooked Ribs. Source St Louis Style ribs, peel the membrane, coat it in French’s mustard, then sprinkle Strawberry Hill Rub from Kansas City Missouri and slow cook for 7-8 hours at 225 Degrees max! Spray Cranberry Juice every 30 minutes. Eat them right away – so good!!
JL: Would you rather shop new or vintage?
JL: First celebrity crush?
BK: Paulina Porizkova!!
JL: Favorite restaurant in your neighborhood?
BK: Corner Store @ Geary and Masonic Streets
Thank you BKJ for your work on this feature!