Charles Hess has more than 20 years of experience creating high-end residential landscapes. He explores the interrelationships between building and site, the formation of memories in garden spaces and implementation of cutting-edge technologies in the built landscape. Hess’ company, Hess Landscape Architects, is a landscape architectural design firm that covers a wide swath of the East, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, West Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire and the Bahamas.
“We strive to craft unique spaces tailored to each client’s tastes and each site’s singular needs, while simultaneously incorporating selective signature elements as subtle reflections of our own design affinities,” says Hess. “We believe balanced designs are distinguished by regionally appropriate materials, the incorporation of relevant historical elements and a broad knowledge and appreciation for our natural surroundings.”
After completing his undergraduate studies in ornamental horticulture at Delaware Valley College in 1988, Hess received a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991. Before founding Hess Landscape Architects he worked at a large, internationally recognized design firm, and then later at a smaller Philadelphia-region design/build firm.
“It’s fairly typical for us to serve as a project’s prime consultant, directing a project’s outcome from start to finish,” Hess explains, sharing how his firm works. “We work directly with the finest craftsmen and artisans in the region to produce truly turn-key projects with the overall satisfaction of our clients remaining our ultimate objective.”
A leading landscape architectural review board recently commented about what makes one of Hess’ recent landscape projects award-worthy: “He shows a more sophisticated planting palette than most, using small areas of one plant and then repeating it in either form or texture, such as clipped mounds, misty uprights or patches of strong seasonal color. He incorporates clever reuse of historical garden features in many of his designs, including garden walls and grand stairways giving a strong sense of place.” Just this year, Hess won three Association of Professional Landscape Designers’ Gold Awards.
Year founded: 1998
Client mix: 97% residential, 3% institutional and commercial
Service mix: 100% design
Business motto: Raise the bar.
Proudest moment in landscape business: Referrals from happy clients remain our biggest generator of future work, something which we are extremely proud of.
Peer recognition is great, but client recognition is underrated. When we started, we had just two clients. If each of our clients represents the branch of a tree, those two initial clients form the stump. Every client can be traced back to them in some way or another, through other old clients. Our clientele is one big, interconnected network of branches in this tree. We knew that we had to provide the highest level of service from the firm’s start if anyone else would ever want to hire us again.
The fact that the phone keeps ringing is a testament to our continued ability to provide quality service.
Biggest business challenge: Delivering value for our clients. Many people see our work and immediately think it must be very expensive to produce. Well, in some instances it is, but that’s not always the case.
While our work is certainly not cheap, we strive to provide design solutions that are as economical as possible while still operating within our client’s predetermined program and budget.
A larger problem occurs when contractors and craftsmen start looking around a project site or the surrounding neighborhood and ascribe higher prices to the project because they naturally presume the clients must be able to afford it. We struggle to make sure pricing remains consistent and fair for all concerned. “Zip code pricing” doesn’t fly!
Best sources of landscape design/build inspiration: There is no substitute for being observant, whether you are at a prospective client’s home or walking around a city or hiking through the woods or revisiting a favorite garden. The little details that make a place truly great are everywhere. All of the above examples are inspiring, but channeling that inspiration into a design becomes the real challenge.
You need to take in and observe the bad along with the good, too. Sometimes knowing what didn’t work or what not to do is just as important to an idea’s ultimate success. When reviewing ideas in the office, we’ll often jokingly say: “Well, I don’t hate that.” Closing the gap to elicit a response of “Hey, I love that!” is the challenge we face as designers.
Favorite plant or plant combination: We are using a lot of villosa type heuchera lately. “Autumn Bride,” “Brownies” and “Citronelle” have each been finding their way into our gardens for the past few years. They are relatively easy to grow, carefree and look great for a long time. We like to try other varieties that may be lesser known or are newer to stay current with what growers are raising. Heuchera “Mocha,” “Pistache” and “Fire Alarm” are a few examples. Growers are always searching for improved varieties, so staying abreast of green industry trends becomes critical for our success as designers.
Monday morning motivation: I usually don’t need any motivation once I start reading my email. We’re very fortunate to be in demand.
Business worry that keeps you up at night: Over-promising and under-delivering. It’s easy to say “yes” to someone, but then you need to back it up. We’re fortunate to be busy, but managing both clients and firm operations and growth can get stressful.
Landscape design/install mentor: I’ve been an admirer of Piet Oudolf for some time and looking at any of his work can be inspirational. His ability to integrate his signature style onto either modern forms or classical architecture is daring and a welcome design trend. Successful landscape design does not have to be constrained to correspond with a particular point in time. Beauty is timeless.
Favorite business or landscape design book: A client recommended Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” and I enjoyed his nononsense style. Moving from being simply good in your field to a place of greatness is a relatable goal for any small business owner.
Landscape design/install project that makes you smile every time you drive past it: We have been working continuously at one project site near Philadelphia since 1998. Every year, the owner has one project they would like to undertake — some years they are small, other years they are more grand. It’s amazing to remember what the property looked like and how much it has evolved over that span of time, and to be able to track our successes as well as our failures. That kind of continuity with a place is rare.
Describe your business in five years: I want us to continue to provide excellent service to our clients. In five years, my hope is for the business to continue to service the Philadelphia market, but also to grow and expand through the Mid-Atlantic and possibly beyond. We’re having too much fun to slow down now.