Landscape architect stays small by design

September 10, 2011
Joann Green's four-person landscape architectural firm, Landstory, designed the outdoor spaces for the JW Marriott, Lucas Oil Stadium and IU's Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Joann Green tried increasing the size of her staff a while back. She didn’t like it.

Landstory, Green’s landscape architecture firm, was up to eight or nine employees when she realized it was too big.

WIB Joann Green Joann Green’s four-person landscape architectural firm, Landstory, designed the outdoor spaces for the JW Marriott, Lucas Oil Stadium and IU’s Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“The reason I wanted to come to a small office was to stay hands-on,” Green said. She had joined friend Claire Bennett in 1992 at what was then Claire Bennett Associates because she found that, at larger firms, she was “justifying my existence on paper. I got away from what I loved to do,” which was to help clients make their visions happen.

So, Landstory, the name she gave the firm 12 years after buying it from Bennett, who retired, is now a snug four-person firm. Settled into new offices in June at 901 N. East St. in Lockerbie, Landstory consists of Green, another landscape architect, a landscape designer and a business manager.

That compact size allows Green, 56, to stay involved in all her firm’s projects, and close to all its clients. But it hasn’t limited Landstory’s business to small contracts. The firm designed the outdoor space for the JW Marriott and for the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center. Landstory also was responsible for the exterior space at Lucas Oil Stadium, including stairs and streetlights.

Which points out the important difference between landscape architecture and landscape design. Design is only one part of architecture, Green said. As an architect, she has the expertise to not only design plantings and ground cover, but also develop grading, drainage, lighting and retaining walls. She and other landscape architects are educated and certified to design all the infrastructure outside a building.

Landscape architects also help communities design master plans. Landstory has worked with Irvington for seven years on a still-expanding streetscape project and is collaborating long term with the city of Noblesville on roundabouts and streetscapes.

“We don’t chase projects; we develop relationships,” Green said.

That relationship-building has kept Green connected with many of the same architects and engineers through the years. Brian McFarland, an architect and artist for Blackburn Architects, has worked with Green’s company about a dozen times over the last decade.

“If a project calls for her expertise, she’s our first go-to,” McFarland said. And sometimes, Green’s expertise is a project’s linchpin. McFarland said Blackburn recently won a bid to build a residence hall at the University of Indianapolis largely because of Landstory’s plan for the accompanying parking lot. The school wanted to save as many trees as possible. Landstory did an inventory of the viable trees on the property as part of the bid. The firm’s design saved a large number of trees, added landscaping, and incorporated creative storm-water drainage ideas in the process, McFarland said.

“We’re calling it a parking-lot park,” he said.

Coming up with unique solutions is Landstory’s hallmark, Green said.

“We work diligently to tell our client’s story,” she said. “Our signature is to show their signature.”

Green came by her interest in large-scale design naturally. Her father owned a pre-cast steel construction firm that “was involved in just about all” the major downtown structures: the American United Life tower, the American Fletcher National Bank tower (now Chase Tower), and the now-demolished Market Square Arena.

“I was indirectly inspired” to pursue landscape architecture, Green said. “It was so nice to be able to do something where you start with an idea on a piece of paper and you see it come out of the ground.”

The field is male-dominated, but that’s changing. The subspecialty of landscape design leans more heavily toward women, but the broader category of landscape architecture is catching up, she said.

joann greenMark Reynold, a council member for the town of Cumberland, said Green’s “creative solutions to the technical aspects of dealing with state bureaucracy” were what won her firm its first contract with Cumberland in 2000, for a streetscape project. “They seemed to know how to work with our unique situation and translate that into something the state could accept.”

Green’s direct involvement in the project, and the firm’s commitment to “work with what is already there” has won Landstory more work for the town, on designs for Cumberland’s portion of the Pennsy Trail greenway that opened last year and on a transit plan called 2025 Connections.

While some consultants tell clients what they want to hear, “Joann is more direct in a way that I appreciate and value,” Reynold said.

Green’s deep experience with municipal work has taught her patience. The time lines on government projects are years long, from commissioning studies to writing grants to letting bids and waiting for money to be released. The niche has served Landstory well through the years, but the firm’s heavy concentration in that field bit hard in 2010, when municipal clients’ dedicated funds began to dry up from the recession.

Green trimmed staff hours, laid off a part-timer, and held on. Although she declined to reveal revenue, she said 2011 is shaping up to be a much better year.

“We have a healthy backload of work right now.”

Doug Decker, Landstory’s other landscape architect, said he left a firm “run by engineers” six years ago because he had worked with Green in the past and wanted to be part of a company where landscape architecture was the first priority.

He’s come to also appreciate the flexibility Green cultivates in work schedules and duties.

“We get to do everything here, including washing the dishes,” Decker said. “In a larger firm, you get pigeon-holed day in and day out.

“It’s like you’re working with family.”

Green values that tight-knit collaboration, but she wants a break from it when she’s off the clock. That’s why, four years ago, she began taking metalsmithing classes at the Stutz Business Center, to design and make jewelry.

“They’re little, tiny projects—no staff, no time line, no client,” she said. “They’re mine, just mine.”

The artist in her has excelled at her new craft so much, though, that she has attracted clients after all. She has begun to design pieces on commission, but requires customers work on her schedule, not theirs.

“I insist on no deadline.”

McFarland, of Blackburn Architects, said Green’s enthusiasm over her metalsmithing sideline reflects the joy she brings to her day job, a reason he continues to collaborate with Landstory.

“She is refreshing, personally. She’s a free spirit.”•


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