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Home Magazine PROFESSIONAL LANDSCAPE DESIGN: The Beauty of Safety


Features - Professional Landscape Design

HRPStudio gives Crystal Cove a safe and aesthetically pleasing surrounding for community members.

Heather Tunstall | November 21, 2007

Imagine the task of designing paradise – a place where people can go to relax, live out their dreams, play, shop and still call “home.”
That was the mission of Santa Ana, Calif.-based HRPStudio while creating Crystal Cove, a gated community on the Southern California Pacific Coast of Newport Beach. The design planning and construction for Crystal Cove began more than 20 years ago, and it is still being developed. Kurt Buxton, senior principal at HRPStudio, a part of the ValleyCrest Design Group, says the project is in its final years of construction with its No. 1 goal being to combine a reliable, secure feeling with aesthetic beauty.

THE VISION. The Crystal Cove community is on the east side of the Pacific Coast Highway, with Crystal Cove State Park on the west. Crystal Cove itself slopes up away from the ocean with a bluff-like condition. It ends up on top of a substantial hill overlooking the Pacific coastline. The property has a number of components, including a retail section by the highway, the gated community, a multi-family product and single-family residences. 
The general inspiration for Crystal Cove’s landscape was the Italian coast, Buxton explains. “Crystal Cove was broken up into two distinct areas: beach town – lower town – and the backdrop bluff that is behind the beach town and takes you up to the top of Crystal Cove,” he says.
Crystal Cove is framed by two canyons on either side: Los Trancos Canyon and Muddy Canyon. With the ocean, bluff and canyons in play, HRPStudio devised a plan for the beach town portion of Crystal Cove inspired by Corona del Mar and Santa Barbara. “We definitely looked at the beach towns as influences, which tend to be more textural and more eclectic in their landscape than some of the more refined landscapes that are in the rest of Newport Coast,” Buxton says. “Crystal Cove is a little more garden-esque.”
If a case of “designers block” hits, Buxton suggests a good starting point for any project: “There’s usually a story behind the design, and we start with a design process that talks about building on what’s there – what’s the history of the land? What’s the topography right now? What’s the surrounding context? This worked with Crystal Cove.”
Crystal Cove has a lot of history, so designers built upon the landform based on how it moves up from the coast highway in a dramatic fashion to the upper bluff area. The beach town in the lower section has smaller lots – not quite as wide, but deep – which is typical of historical beach towns, Buxton explains. “Views are paramount throughout the project; both views from within the neighborhoods out to the ocean and the adjacent canyons, as well as the views from the overall Newport community looking back at Crystal Cove.”
HRPStudio wanted to create a place that is not only visually appealing, but emotionally appealing as well. “We work very hard to avoid the feeling that you’re just part of the thousands of other houses out there and no one would be able to tell your community from any other one,” Buxton says. “In a community design, there’s a sense of entry and identity. When you go home you want to know you’re home, and that it’s your community, and you want to feel special and that you’ve arrived.”

PLANNING AHEAD. Making commercial sites beautiful is only part of the designer’s responsibility. Safety should be at the top of the priority list to ensure that the site will remain inviting for the clients and residents. Buxton strongly recommends incorporating safety features and guidelines early in the design process.
“Usually if you can be involved early, and think of safety features as you go into the bigger design picture, you avoid a lot of the Band-Aid fixes that happen later in design,” he says. 
Looking ahead and using your common sense will keep a landscape design safe, he adds. Necessities like creatively looking at the building codes, providing signage and way-finding points and taking action to prepare for natural disasters will help to ensure a secure site. In wildfire-prone California, HRPStudio had to consider fire safety when designing. “Crystal Cove is a high-fire zone, so we incorporate fire-fuel modification areas within the guidelines of the county, which include permanently irrigated zones at the rears of houses that back up to the canyons,” Buxton says. “The plant palette within those zones are limited – the fire authority has a list of plants that are not allowed.”
The plant materials that are excessively flammable had to be eliminated from the design plans. Pine trees, sage and buckwheat were replaced with plants like acacia and Catalina Ironwood trees. Monkey flowers are used in abundance, as are coral trees.
Preventive measures should be taken when considering any potentially-dangerous situation. Site lighting should be incorporated into any design that requires aesthetics mixed with safety, Buxton advises. “Some of the secluded open spaces and parks that we have out here, we definitely have pathway lighting for evening use so that people can get to and from their homes and their cars,” he adds. “It’s a combination of mood lighting and design lighting, but having enough so that it stays safe.”
In the areas designated as Crystal Cove’s “tot lots,” the safety of the children in particular has to be taken into account. “If you have kids in the area, you don’t want to be using cactus or poisonous plant materials,” Buxton suggests. Also, HRPStudio focused on providing parent seating near “tot lots” so they could have constant visual access and can keep an eye on their children at all times.

KEEPING IT UP. Maintaining a property once it is finished is an ongoing, and sometimes difficult, process. HRPStudio designed Crystal Cove with maintenance in mind from the beginning, preparing its future residents by making the properties as low-maintenance as possible and providing them with a maintenance guideline book.
“Maintenance is just integral with what we do, especially with the homeowner’s association,” Buxton says. “It would be terrible to spend all the time designing this community to be rustic and have great plant materials, and then have someone come in who doesn’t understand the intent and start hedging and clipping and not correctly maintaining the plant materials, or not doing the proper maintenance on a monthly basis.”
HRPStudio’s maintenance guideline book is almost as thick as a phone book because of all the limiting factors in Crystal Cove in terms of fertilizers and water restrictions.  Providing such a book for the client helps avoid lawsuits and other potentially hazardous conditions with all the litigation, especially in California, Buxton says. “We also assist our clients in hiring maintenance contractors; we have strong recommendations of who should do that,” he adds.
With everyone working together, Crystal Cove will be a haven for the fortunate citizens who experience it for years to come.