Turf Magazine - July, 2013

WEST FEATURES

Taking Biological Science to the Field

Wilson Environmental Contracting offers award-winning non-traditional services
By K. Schipper


Yes, you can have a turfgrass lawn in Southern California. This buffalograss lawn is well-suited to the climate. Right, Daniel Wilson and family.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WILSON ENVIRONMENTAL CONTRACTING.

Make no mistake about it, Wilson Environmental Contracting is first and foremost about designing and building with nature for people.

Founder and President Daniel Wilson says the business has evolved from his early years acting as a consultant to doing more on-the-ground work both in construction and maintenance. He estimates that more than half of his clients are looking for environmentally responsible options to more traditional landscaping elements, or to solve complex problems. The company's primary goal, he says, is to get people to start thinking a little bigger and to get them to contribute what they can to the bigger picture.

Wilson admits that beyond doing normal boyhood chores, such as mowing and edging the family lawn, his path into the landscape industry was a little atypical. "I went into the academic world of biological sciences and got a couple of degrees in biology and bio-chemistry," he says. "After that I became an environmental consultant." However, over time Wilson also realized it wasn't his true calling. He says he began adapting what he was doing in consulting to the residential market.

"That pretty quickly progressed to being a full-service landscape, design, construction, maintenance and management company with employees, payroll, overhead and all the rest," Wilson says.

Still, there is no typical client or project for the company. Currently, he says he's focused on three big projects. One is assisting to build a single par-3 golf hole with synthetic lawn in the middle of a property that Wilson Environmental has worked on before. Another is a triple water feature with a 100-foot stream that flows toward the owner's home, with separate fountains at the top and bottom.

Wilson Environmental Contracting

Owner: Daniel Wilson
Founded: 2000
Headquarters: Santa Barbara, Calif.
Markets: Santa Barbara and surrounding cities and communities
Services: Water management (irrigation, stormwater management, rainwater systems, greywater systems); hardscape & construction (carpentry, walls & terraces, stonework flagstone, pavers); planting & design (native plantings, drought-tolerant plantings, edibles, home food forest); water features (streams, ponds, waterfalls, fountains); and maintenance & management (ecological restoration, landscape maintenance, integrated pest management, firescaping)
Website: http://www.weldesign.net
Blog: http://www.weldesign.net/blog

"The system needs to be fully self-contained," says Wilson. "The premise is the owner is not going to be present for many months."

He adds that he was called in on the third project initially to help deal with water intrusion to a subterranean parking garage at a high-end homeowners' facility. That, in turn, has grown to include re-landscaping 900 linear feet of high-profile frontage.

"I call my professional philosophy landscape aikido," Wilson says. "I like to do more with less. I like to take a liability or a constraint and turn it into an opportunity; this large HOA project is a perfect case-in-point with that."

If there is something typical about Wilson Environmental's clients, it's that they seek out the company. Not only doesn't he not do much marketing beyond a website, but Wilson doesn't see himself being in competition with other landscape contractors in his service area, which extends from Santa Barbara as far south as San Diego.

"Our clients seek us out because of what our principles are, and our skills and abilities," he says. "They're looking for water-conserving and energy-conserving alternatives that still fulfill their expectations of what a beautiful, functional landscape should be like."

Given California's arid climate, one of Wilson's specialties is turf alternatives. He believes there's nothing better for playing children than a conventional lawn, but his company tends to remove more turf than it installs.

"We do install drought-tolerant grasses, including buffalograss," he says. "We install native California grass species, include Carex; we also install no-mow fescues under some circumstances."

With that conservation focus, the company is also an expert in irrigation systems.

"We install rainwater harvesting systems and gray water systems, and we mostly install drip irrigation," says Wilson. "When we do install any type of sprinklers, they're the rotator sprinklers. We stress focusing on irrigation efficiency; we try to apply water surgically rather than broadcasting it."



Succulent plants, such as these succulent trees and aloe plants, store water in their fleshy leaves. Wilson Environmental Contracting's design and plant selection created an attractive landscape around this reservoir used for agriculture.

Bottleneck ahead

During the 10 years since Wilson first adopted his more hands-on approach, his crew has grown to include a dozen full-time staff, with half of that focused on hardscape. Today, hardscape encompasses as much as 75 percent of the business, and includes water features, flagstones, stone walls and pavers.

Maintenance is a newer addition to Wilson Environmental. Wilson says it's an aspect of the landscape business he was literally forced into.



Wilson Environmental Contracting tests its methods before offering them to clients. Here Wilson is testing drip on various succulents.

"Four years ago, my number-one client basically insisted that we start doing maintenance, and our first account was his," he explains. "Today, we're maintaining all three of his properties, but it's expanded to where we have two full-time staff members devoted to maintenance and we're really looking to grow that side of the business."

Wilson adds that there are two different components of the maintenance side of the business. One is residential, from individual homeowners to estates to homeowners' associations.



Depending upon the cultivar, buffalograss can be established in lawns by seed, sod or plugs. Here, plugs have been planted about 12 inches apart should provide a nice cover in three to six months.

The other is municipal work. Wilson is particularly proud of having the contract to maintain the landscapes around the city of Santa Barbara's reservoirs, wells and pump station facilities. "It's our first competitive public works contract," he says.

Maintenance is also an area that Wilson hopes to focus on growing in the coming months. With the construction side of the business experiencing more than 200 percent growth in the past two years, he feels it's important to strengthen that other leg.

"I'm really interested in at least doubling the maintenance work we do in the next two years," Wilson says. "Obviously, I'll be keeping an eye on the funds, managing growth in a steady fashion and trying to keep us from getting too big for our britches."



The landscape that Wilson Environmental Construction installed at the Firefighter Memorial is both attractive and easily maintainable. The ornamentals gracing the Memorial are well-suited to the region's Mediterranean climate.

Of major concern is hiring a working field manager. Wilson says the hire presents a delicate problem because the maintenance operation is too small to hire a maintenance supervisor, and he can't afford to price himself out of being competitive.

Wilson is also advertising for a construction supervisor, and adding the right people is critical, he believes, because he says right now his biggest challenge is himself.

"I'm the bottleneck to growth in this company," Wilson says. "I'm wearing so many hats right now and there are so many balls in the air that I can't be fully present all functions of both construction and maintenance. Once those two people are in place, the team can rise a couple more levels."

However, Wilson is an expert at hiring slowly and carefully. While he says, "I really appreciate our employees," he isn't looking for people who just show up for a paycheck. "We try to find people who not only have the basic experience that's required, but who also have the ability and desire to learn all the innovative things we're doing," he says. "They have to have great attitude and great aptitude."



The dedication of the Santa Barbara Fire Fighters Memorial last year honored the eight fire fighters that died in the line of duty since the department's inception in 1926.

Perhaps it's because of his academic background, Wilson stresses education to both clients and employees. While his greatest pleasure is making his clients - and his employees - happy, he says the message he shares through Wilson Environmental is simple. With 70 percent of the water in places such as Santa Barbara being used for landscaping, and a substantial investment in energy to pump, treat and move water, people in the industry and their clients need to rethink their use of that precious resource.

"We're a piece of the equation and we can't separate ourselves from the bigger picture," Wilson concludes. "People need to realize we're players in the bigger picture and we all contribute individually and collectively to what the outcome will be. It's up to use to do the right thing."

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at kschipper@wordmechanics.com.