It’s summer! Time to take the Connected with Architects conversation outside. I sat down with Gareth Mahon, RLA, LEED AP, Principal at landscape architecture firm RKLA Studio (New York City), to learn more about his approach to exterior spaces. 

What drew you to landscape architecture? You actually started in tech, correct? At APC? 

Yes, while living in Ireland, I worked at APC for five years as their Head of Technical Support for Europe, Middle East and Africa. My degree is in Electronic Engineering, so I am very comfortable with technology. However, not up to speed on it as much these days!  

I knew that it was not what I wanted to do. Not technology, per se, but the corporate world. I really liked design and the way things are built. I flirted with being an architect, but decided not to go back to school. 

You almost missed your calling? 

Yes! About 20 years ago, I met Robin Key, my business partner here at RKLA. I was consulting, helping out with drawings, graphics, web design, etc. Robin asked, “Why don’t you just work with me and we’ll see if we can grow this business?!” We’ve been great business partners and close friends ever since.  

What influences your design aesthetic and love of nature? 

My upbringing in Ireland, growing up on a farm, and having an appreciation for the land and the natural world. 

Now that you live in Brooklyn, a far cry from the farm, what is your connection to the outdoors? 

On my last trip to Ireland, two years ago, friends reminded me how much time we used to spend outside. I had lived in New York for 18 years, and I don’t think I’d ever gone hiking! When I returned, I committed to hiking every weekend, and I’ve made that happen. You have to escape the hold of the city; the reward is amazing.  

In your work, effectively creating personal sanctuaries, clients might not have to leave. 

I’ve never thought about it that way, but maybe we are facilitating people being stuck in the city! 

Who is the team at RKLA? 

We’re six people, including the two partners. It might sound top-heavy to some, but we, as principals of the firm, are very hands on. We’re connected with our clients, truly involved, and bring a lot of knowledge to projects. Our team also includes two long-term RKLA members and contributors at nine years apiece, one at two years, and we recently welcomed a new member to our team with 20 years of industry experience.

You’re practicing partners—active participants rather than observers? 

Yes, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Quality control is everything for us. We like being down in the trenches (landscape pun acknowledged)! We also have great senior people, fantastic at what they do, and we really trust them! 

How do you describe the value proposition at RKLA? 

When you work with RKLA you get access to one of two partners, each of which have many years of experience and are passionate collaborators. They are backed by a team of really excited and enthusiastic designers. In some firms, you just don’t really get that. 

Tell me a bit about your process. 

We want to get to know the site and the client. We begin with a thorough programming and site analysis phase; then come up with concepts to help facilitate the discussion. We keep it very visual and try to tease out as much information as possible from the client. From there, we follow a traditional design process of iteration. When a design is finalized, we create construction and pricing drawings to get bids. For the residential work, we’re very involved in helping clients select the best contractors. We’ll typically stay with the project through construction.  

How do you hide technology in your designs? 

People expect technology to be in spaces, and they don’t necessarily notice it. If they notice it, they don’t pay attention to it. They have, seemingly, become blind to its existence. 

What is your typical involvement with lighting? 

We do the lighting design for the landscape lighting on 85 percent of our residential projects. It’s usually mood lighting: lighting trees, pathways, seating and dining areas. Our approach tends to be quite subtle and we’re not usually trying to make big statements with lighting.  

Have you had any unique lighting applications? 

An existing client asked us to light their water tower; they wanted to be able to change colors. We chose a DMX solution, and the client is happy. We typically don’t get involved in that level of control. 

I saw a “Landscape Audio System” in some of your projects. What is your take on this solution? 

No issue with the bullets, but hiding those massive mushroom subwoofers is always a problem! The sound is incredible, but they take up a lot of real estate in rooftop planters. 

How often is a music system in your design? 

I would say 90%. 

Is video lower? 

Yes, closer to 10%.

And how about exterior motorized shading? 

We typically have motorized shades on every project, assuming it was needed. They tend to be a standalone system and not usually part of the home automation system. We’re also doing more pergola/louvered systems.  

Any general advice for clients? 

Hire your landscape architect the same day you hire an architect. It makes for a better project—smoother—project.