This month we have a large article in the Garden Design Journal. The Journal is the flagship publication of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD). It is a stylish, inspirational and intelligent journal for all discerning garden designers and those working in associated industries and professions
Transforming one of London’s riverside decks into a fantasy work-and–play space reminiscent of the best Balearic club terraces is no easy task, but this Earth Designs balcony is a small triumph
PAUL AND Gemma Allred’s ground floor balcony flat is part of a block located on the north side of the Thames at Wapping, one of many developments that burst out of the ground in the 90s, part of the mammoth reinvention of the London docklands. The Allreds conform to the expected profile: young lawyers, keen to swap the fruits of their labours for their desired lifestyle.
The space was pretty uninspiring when the couple first moved in. “It was an identikit terrace with tired furniture, dead plants and dull grey concrete paving,” Gemma explains. “The lighting was terrible, so you couldn’t really use the space after dark; it wasn’t a very nice place to be.”The Allreds were impressed when they found the Earth Designs website via Google. “In particular, I liked that all their London garden designs seemed to reflect the personalities of the people they belonged to,” Gemma says. “Other companies we found seemed to specialise in the ‘one size fits all’ design philosophy.”
What they really wanted was a wow factor, somewhere different where they could relax and entertain friends. As Ibiza regulars, they were very taken with the outside spaces in bars and clubs on the island. Their balcony needed to extend out interior of the flat, providing an extra room which would-come into its own at night, really making use of the fantastic “views of the river and Tower Bridge. Gemma wanted an injection of colour to relieve the overwhelming brick red of the building. There was some discussion about the colour theme between the clients and Earth Designs, but Gemma held out and her choice of purple and magenta prevailed. And indeed, during the day, the colour scheme is certainly the most arresting feature of the balcony garden design. A large purple daybed set on a raised platform accommodates comfortable views of Tower Bridge, while magenta mulch tops the planters.
At night, however, it is the furniture that really steals the show. It’s a clever choice – functional pieces that double as light sources. Made by an Italian company, Slide, in robust polyethylene, the individual items – bench, table, stools, water feature, planters and column lights – are all wired in beneath the yellow balau decking. It manages to provide everything needed to fill the space without it looking cluttered -which would certainly be the case had the designer, Katrina Kieffer-Wells, decided to use uncoordinated items.
The balcony now enjoys considerably more use: “We have quite a few dinner parties; the table and bench, together with the timber ‘decking’ stools allows us to seat 10 people comfortably. We also eat out there in the summer, and having outside sockets turns it into a great workspace, “We feel the balcony now makes the most of the views, while still retaining our privacy. It’s also an important part of our interior space – the external lighting provides a brilliant atmosphere inside as well, so we switch it on every night.”
The balcony is at ground level (technically, just above)- separated from the Thames Path by a brick planter that runs the length of the building and intercepts the prying eyes of passers-by. Despite this, the design and build were not without challenges. “The biggest problem was the building regulations,” Katrina says. “We couldn’t attach anything to the walls-or build anything above a certain height. There is also a car park beneath if which meant any loading needed to be thought through. One of our more difficult briefs – to create privacy without using height!”
Earth Designs has built its fair share of balconies. “There are a lot of practical elements to be considered when designing for balconies and roof terraces,” says Katrina. “Firstly you’re dealing with a hard surface which you can’t dig down into, so planting at ground level is very restricted. Weight loading is always in the back of your mind as well, and planters can’t just be filled with compost, as their weight especially when wet – can put excessive strain on the roof joists beneath. A lightweight medium which drains easily has to be used instead. “These sorts of sites are likely to be very exposed, and high winds will tear through planting and knock over things that aren’t battened down or weighty enough to resist. Planting must also be carefully chosen to tolerate the conditions. And, of course, access is nearly always an issue. We’ve seen it all: penthouses on the 23rd floor, spiral staircases, the lot!
“It’s very important during the initial consultation for the designer to provide as much information as possible, and make the client aware of any possible issues. Often people don’t appreciate the importance of the load-bearing capabilities of a surface. They understand the challenges of difficult access but not weight restrictions. Also, the more difficult the access the higher the bill, I’m afraid!”
Katrina Kieffer-Wells has run her Walthamstow-based design and build business since 2003. She has no formal landscape training, but draws on her creative arts degree and a background in event production and floral design. She says: “We felt we had something to offer and were tenacious – we’re now on job number 185, so we must be doing something right!”
Katrina believes an understanding of art and design should be the cornerstone of the designer’s approach. To stress this, Earth Designs is offering a series of occasional workshops for garden designers to learn how to take inspiration from sources outside garden design. “We go to places like the Tate and the V&A, and choose a piece of art or design as a starting point for a garden design. It’s a really good way to get designers back to their creative bones and less bogged down with structure and planting.”
Katrina has a somewhat unorthodox approach to her designs: “When I see a client, I design there and then, at the initial meeting. Yes, it’s a bit unusual, but it’s a dynamic approach that works for me.” Not surprisingly Katrina cites Diarmuid Gavin as one of her influences. “He allowed the ordinary person to aspire to owning a unique designer space, and I admire him for that.” Neatly bringing us back to the Wapping balcony, which is just that: a unique designer space.
If you would like a ‘unique designer garden’ please contact us.