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In Southampton, a clogged culvert was remedied to create an oasis that worked with, instead of against, a tidal wetland. (Photo courtesy of Laguardia Design Group)

There  is no doubt that climate chaos is one of our new realities — dramatic swings in temperatures, erratic patterns and extreme weather events. If those things frustrate you, try being a plant in the Hamptons, where a range of conditions — both natural and human-born — constantly challenge your existence.

That battle of plants vs. the elements is part of what the Laguardia Design Group addresses in its work. Based in Water Mill, the landscape architecture firm, headed by Chris Laguardia, specializes not only in project design for the here and now, but also future preservation. 

“We’re not decorative in our approach,” he says. “Our specialty is site planning, taking a house and integrating it into the landscape. If somebody calls us and they want a nice tree in the yard, we will do that,” but, he says, their work is more about “optimizing the land around a building” dealing with the specific ecology of a site. The firm specializes in ecosystem restoration and preservation, mitigating things like land contours, water management and erosion — major issues in the Hamptons — while enhancing biodiversity and sustainability. But it has also undertaken projects such as reconfiguring a 14-acre sculpture garden and public parks. 

Terrain, in focus

Laguardia got his start in traditional architecture in the late 1980s working for a non-traditional architect, Norman Jaffe, renowned for his modernist residences, particularly on the East End. They worked together until Jaffe’s death in 1993. 

“We did everything — the interiors, the architecture and the landscape architecture,” Laguardia says. “I learned a lot from Jaffe: He was all about the picturesque, in that when you drive up to the house, you see the full focus — it’s not all about the ornamental: It’s about more of a conceptual setting, not landscaping as an afterthought.”

Laguardia established his own practice in 1993, adding staff as he grew: his wife, Jane, who is a horticulturist, and two partners, Ian Hanbach and Daniel Thorp, who bring specific training in adaptive reuse, waterfront revitalization and site grading. Today, 25 employees handle about 150 projects concurrently in Long Island, New York City, the Hudson Valley, Florida and the Caribbean. Single-family residences comprise about 70% of the practice and the other 30% is institutional and commercial projects. 

Better living through biodiversity

Increasingly, programming focuses on land that is recovering from past neglect or environmental damage, or creating new designs with plantings, recontouring and hardscaping. Biodiversity is encouraged through beneficial plantings such as native trees and shrubs, grasses and perennial flowers. The team reuses as much material as possible from the existing site, sources from nurseries near and far and collects materials in the field from various locales. 

“I have always taken the approach of using native plants: For us it was just an intuitive thing to do because we thought it looked right, calm and appropriate,” he says. “But I didn’t realize at the time how important it was in terms of ecology, resiliency and sustainability. Little did we know the trend would blow up.

“We’re not purists, but with every project we see an opportunity to incorporate natural ecologies,” he says, noting that at least 75% of their jobs are based on native plant palettes.

Laguardia’s clients are becoming receptive to the benefits of going “au naturel,” moving away from manicured lawns and ornamental species that require maintenance, excessive water or chemical aids and toward a curated wildness that provides shelter and pollination food for birds and insects. 

“It’s an easy sell because who doesn’t want to do this? Clients love that they’re not doing something bad to the environment,” he says.

Dune Meadow: An ecological restoration in Southampton

Laguardia cites the Dune Meadow project as an example of a large-scale restoration that involved the immediate grounds around a classic mid-century modernist house and the wider buffer zone between the house and water’s edge. Each of the two areas had its own ecosystem, both severely compromised and overrun with invasive plants, and required different remediations.

Close to the house was a 1-acre tidal wetland that hosted an overgrown “garden” of invasive and ornamental cultivars. Here, the team found a clogged culvert leading to the bay, which created stagnant conditions that encouraged invasive weeds. Once cleaned, the area was flooded with salt water, which acted as a natural suppressant for the invaders. The gullies between the house and the ground surface were filled with repurposed fill from elsewhere on the site, and they were able to reestablish the areas with aquatic grasses and other plant material.

The second parcel was 4 acres of coastal dunes that had been greatly diminished by erosion and weather events. The challenge was not only to restore them, but to also sustain them. “Dunes are dynamic landforms, constantly moving and shifting and driven by the sea and the wind,” Laguardia explained. 

The team used 5,000 cubic yards of repurposed beach sand to recontour the damaged dunes and reestablished the estuary green with native plants — low-lying bushes that dotted the surface like puffy green pillows and grasses to provide height and visual interest. The old wooden walkway was replaced with a winding path that now provides the experience of walking through the wilds. 

The site program, he says, “used plants to paint the landscape three-dimensionally. It’s very simple, yet it’s very intentional and very painterly. It’s about composition and creating pictoral concepts and vignettes.”

‘Oceanfront’ — A return to his roots

Laguardia had the opportunity to come full circle on the “Oceanfront” project, a 1960s Jaffe house in Sagaponack that, due to shoreline erosion, was perilously close to the water’s edge. Located on a former agricultural field, the house was lifted and moved back 300 feet. With the setback, the house was now the central figure in two environments — the ocean and the field — and the challenge was creating a seamless transition between both. The washed-out dunes were rebuilt and recontoured using excavation fill from a pond on-site, in an east-west orientation that mirrored the original dunes and in concert with the ocean horizon. New pathways made of local pea gravel wound from the house to the water edge, connecting the house to the shore. 

“Montauk was a big inspiration for this site,” he says, referring to the regenerated meadow with its maritime grasses. “All those plants are native to Montauk, so they have a real cragginess to them. We field-collected a lot of trees that weren’t grown in nurseries for this job so they would take on that very natural look.” The pond was planted with beneficial native species to both encourage aquatic life and attract birds and wildlife.

“We turned it back to the wild with different effects at different times of the year,” he says. “It was really an act of sustainability — mining the material needed for the dune on site and getting a pond to boot.” 

Seascape: Creating a perennial pollinator garden

The challenge for this site was creating a transition between a house and its immediate surroundings. When the house was elevated above grade after Superstorm Sandy, it resulted in an awkward disconnect between the house and its landscape and required “complete site planning where there was really very little lawn,” Laguardia says. 

Between the house, outdoor living spaces, gardens and structural elements such as the infinity pool and fire pit table, the project had a lot of moving parts. The goal was to harmonize all and create logical transitions so that, for example, moving from the deck to the pool or a garden was a fluid experience. Limestone terraces created a transition from house to ground level and continued as a visual connector between the various spaces. Native shrubs, wild grasses, ground cover and perennials filled in the gaps. “We [took] an environmental approach all done in a perennial meadow, with a lot of flowers and pollinators,” Laguardia says. “This type of informal look goes really well here in the country.” 

The project earned a design award in April from the American Society of Landscape Architects, New York.

Less about ornament and more about conservation, Laguardia says landscape architecture is now being understood more as a value to society. 

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’ve seen a big change in the past 10 to 12 years, particularly with all the climate and environmental issues at stake, as well as social issues,” Laguardia says. “There are layers of things — histories, ecologies, sustainability, equity and inclusion, and you have to create spaces that are engaging, expressive and resilient. It makes for a much richer design when there’s some interpretive quality to it.”