Sustainable landscape

DALLAS — It's an unusual cistern that grabs attention from a well-designed house and landscape, but the 1,650-gallon galvanized-steel cylinder has pride of place in a Dallas, Texas, area front yard.

It is symbolic of the owners' finally realized dream for the home they had always talked about having one day. Once all five children in their blended family were on their own, the couple tore down the 1946 two-story residence in the Devonshire neighborhood of north Dallas to make way for a low and lean Texas modern design with a metal roof, exterior walls of stone and a sustainable, low-maintenance landscape plan.

Architect Stephen Chambers and landscape architect Shane Garthoff, both of Dallas, were instantly on the same page with the husband and wife regarding their desire to create a new homestead that trod sensitively, respectfully upon the site.

"You have to be responsible in caring for the environment. It's everybody's job," says the homeowner, who didn't want his name used. "I didn't want well-manicured box hedges. We wanted something that would be sustainable, that wouldn't take a lot of work and that was kind to the environment."

This man clearly takes delight in his new home, whose landscape was on the national Garden Conservancy's Open Day tour last May. Visitors, sophisticated garden lovers, circled the imposing cistern with the same wide-eyed awe as the gawkers in automobiles who roll to a stop to stare. If tour visitors, strollers or motorists show interest, the homeowner, from his frequent perch on landscape boulders in the shade, is happy to hold forth.

Architect Chambers says his client told him, early in planning conferences, that he wanted big barrels positioned around the house's exterior to catch rainwater. Chambers replied, "Why don't we do something a little bigger, make a bigger statement that (water conservation) is important to you?"

The architect points out a cistern can be buried underground or placed in a far less prominent position than one's front yard, "but that wouldn't be as dramatic." He shopped farm and ranch suppliers online (not a rare occurrence since his firm designs ranches and weekend properties in the country), and chose a model that has a boldly lettered gauge to indicate the tank's water level.

Although the cistern has a commanding presence, it is the lawn turf that is dearest to the owner's heart. In early spring, "Emerald" zoysia is cropped short. But a few weeks hence it will be green and fine-bladed.

"It is absolutely gorgeous when it gets grown up," he says. "It reaches a maximum height of 10 inches, but it falls over on itself at 5 or 6 inches, so it never exceeds the height limit the city will allow. It's like walking on a thick, well-padded rug. It feels so good."

The zoysia takes the Texas sun, performs well in shade, says the landscape architect, and is mowed only once, in late winter before warming days and spring rains trigger fresh growth.

"We designed the landscape to closely fit sun patterns, shade patterns and topography," Garthoff says. "As the beds in the front yard transition under the tree canopy, it starts to get more shade-tolerant plants."

The planting plan was developed around large, old trees, including a majestic male bois d'arc the homeowner says is about 100 years old, a spreading live oak and a row of sizable, multi-trunk crape myrtles that screen the side street. These valuable trees and others were protected during construction and seem to have survived without damage. The property employs an automatic irrigation system that was designed and manufactured in Israel; the homeowners consider it a state-of-the-art option. It supplements rainfall, admittedly, but Garthoff heeded his clients' wishes that not a drop of water be wasted. The neighborhood is close to a lake, and the homeowners did not want rain or sprinkler runoff from their property streaming down streets and into the city's aging and overworked storm sewers. That breaks the rules of good stewardship.

The landscape, therefore, has as little paving as possible. Permeable surfaces — lawn and landscape beds, bands of crushed stone between the concrete expanses of the driveway, dry streambeds that double as walkways and the backyard's crushed black basalt — absorb heavy rains rather than deflect the water. This is where the imposing cistern plays more than an ornamental role. It catches rainwater from the house's guttering system to hand-water the yard, wash the dogs and top off the water feature near the front door.

"It's like a piece of yard art, a piece of sculpture," Chambers says. "And a lot of their neighbors have sculptures in their front yards."

He says the water features and native plants that flower, including coneflowers, rudbeckias, sages, Turk's cap and butterfly bush, draw in wildlife such as amphibians, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, songbirds and butterflies. The plants Garthoff specified, including several species of ornamental grasses, dwarf wax myrtle, coralberry, hypericum and sumac, are arranged "in big, broad sweeps of mass plantings," Garthoff explains, to go with the informal aspect of the architect's modern riff on a Texas farmhouse. Garthoff prefers the word "sustainable" to describe the landscape's style, not "xeriscape," because the word has come to have negative, desert-like connotations of bare earth and thorny greenery.

For the homeowner, who likes to ramble around his property from one favorite vantage point to another, his "last house" is his best house, realizing his dreams of shelter, comfort and environmental stewardship.

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