Sometimes the most complex project, or project element, springs forth from a seemingly simple question. That’s where the art of problem solving comes in. For this project, the question was “How can we get the client to the beach from their house at the top of the bluff?” A simple A to B problem that has many solutions (a funicular? a set of steps? a ramp? a slide?), but only one that worked for the client. Getting to that solution took a lot of discussion, concepting, trial and error grading plans, and most importantly a lot of collaboration between the architect (Dirk Denison) and the carpenters (Landek Specialties) and the railing fabricator (O’Brien Metals).
Initial concepts were for a series of steps with gravel runs between, but that ultimately didn’t fit with the contemporary appearance of the house. Instead, we focused our attention on figuring out how to make a continuous ramp, formed by a series of switchbacks, get all the way down the bluff. Conceptually, you can make the layout work, but this proved problematic when the reality of descending 34′ made the ramp incredibly steep. You would fly down the ramp, but it would be a considerable effort climbing back up. And good luck if you were carrying a cooler or beach toys…I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
In the end, we decided a series of broad steps and shorter sections of ramp would allow for going up and down the bluff in a much less fatiguing manner. Now we just had to figure out how to build it without modifying the grade on the bluff or impacting the two existing beech trees. Because we could not build against the slope we basically had to figure out a way to make a floating system that could have large spans between footings in order to limit our disruption of the slope and of the trees’ root zones. Working we Landek Specialties we designed a continuous steel frame that was supported on 24″ concrete footings.
Now we’re really getting somewhere! We’ve figured out how to get to A to B, now all we have to do is design a hand rail that won’t impede views to the lake, is as aesthetically beautiful as the house and the steps, and is able to follow the changing grade of the steps perfectly. Thankfully, we worked with an amazing company, O’Brien Metals, who live and breathe high-end specialty work and with collaborative input from Dirk Denison we decided on bronze patina steel mesh that practically disappears with an Ipe top rail. It’s really a perfect complement to the architecture of the house and the design and construction of the ramp.
Despite the difficulties of the project, or perhaps because of them, this is one of my favorite projects that I’ve ever worked on and it’s just one example or how intensive and detailed we are when it comes to solving problems. I could have chosen any salesmen, any designer, or any project manager and come up with a dozen similar projects that rely on creative thinking, on-site problem solving, and strong collaboration skills with the client and other professionals.