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Designer | Contractor
Brian Ott

Tiburon, CA

Site | Size
27,500 Sq Ft

Start | Completion
MAY-OCT 2020

High End
Project Data

Landscape Case Study

Project Name

Rolling Waves

Bay Area Landscape Organization


Situation + Site Condition

A fabricator who had previously worked with the property owner introduced Brian Ott, owner and lead designer of Zenscape, to this landscape opportunity in Tiburon, CA.

In his initial meeting at the property, the owner expressed his intent to make a landscape statement that was both inspired and beautiful.

After a thorough site review and extended conversation, Brian was a bit apprehensive about how to address all of the challenges that this particular location presented. His many concerns included:
  • Very steep grades
  • Limited site access
  • Poor soil conditions
  • Grade retention methods
  • Sun + marine air exposure
  • And much more

Project Objectives

After his considered assessment, and a thorough analysis of the challenges, Brian outlined a set of objectives for the project that included:
  • Improve appearance + retention of steep front + rear grades
  • Provide improved drainage and surface water capture
  • Eliminate soil + rock debris falling into access roadway
  • Complement + contrast the modern resedience architecture with new hardscape + planting
  • Improve the use + function of the rear yard
  • Integrate site-wide lighting to feature landscape
  • Responsibly use local  + environmentally green materials
  • Integrate summer-dry tolerant + deer-resistant plants
  • Support local pollinators + wildlife
  • Work with know fabricator for steel forming
  • Make the property a standout showcase within the neighborhood
Exposure Challenges
With a Southern-facing exposure to San Francisco Bay, this site frequently experienced high winds, direct sun, and salty, marine air.

Considering these factors was essential for plant selection and location. Upgraded irrigation would be required to overcome these severe conditions that could subject plant development and growth to risk.

Zenscape Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

The site had southern exposure to direct sun, marine air, and persistent wind.
Grade + Soil Challenges
The residence was located on a very steep grade in the hills of Tiburon, CA. In certain areas of the site, the grade was so severe that a vertical ladder was required to access it.

The rocky terrain was also composed of very poor soil that inhibited the integration of a diverse mix of plants and trees. Rock was so pervasive throughout the site, that it frequently had to be drilled or excavated with a jvackhammer for grade forming or planting.
In addition, the native soil throughout the site was laced with an organic element that is toxic to many plants.

Zenscape Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

An organic toxin found in the rocky soil narrowed plant selection opportunities.
Site Access Challenges
Access to this site was particularly challenging due to a narrow winding road that carried regular local traffic which could be heavy at certain times.

What’s more, large commercial vehicles could have difficulty parking and/or unloading project materials—including framing, steel, soil, plants, boulders, and more.

Zenscape Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

A heavily trafficked narrow road made access + materials delivery challenging.
Wildlife Challenges
Wildlife roamed freely through properties in the area and was known to frequently cause landscape damage or destruction. The native deer were particularly aggressive foragers and were attracted to hillside planting.

With new plant additions, there was ample opportunity to make the landscape more pollinator-friendly to support local birds and insects.

Zenscape Case Study | Pacific Nurseries

Native deer frequently caused landscape damage throughout the area.

Plan + Solution

The residence on the site featured long horizontal windows that faced the San Francisco Bay. The result offered dramatic views that created a sense of flowing water—almost like being on a vessel at sea.

Brian frequently integrates curved forms into his landscape solutions and this site presented an organic opportunity to expand his use of curved forms to reflect the ocean water.

By viewing the total site as a vertical canvas, Brian conceived a series of horizontal, flowing steel forms that would tier the severe grade of the land and provide an expanded area for planting. This idea also complimented the linear architecture of the residence.

Stepped grade tiers would be retained with patinated COR-TEN steel that would undulate across the front and rear yards of the property.

These dramatic steel forms would provide a unifying system of plant beds and an organic-colored backdrop for a rich pallet of plants.
Rather than relying on traditional CAD applications for developing a design solution, Brian used an organic design and implementation process that involved on-site, hands-on exploration of grading and retaining areas.

Brian and his them would spray paint lines on the steep grades to site the location of the curved steel retaining walls that he envisioned.

By installing steel stakes and flexible bender board, he could parallel the curves he marked on the grade, and then review and revise them as required to look the best. Pervasive rock throughout the site required jackhammering to create adequate anchors for the rough forms.

This rough prototyping method was also used to establish dimensions and requirements for both the fabrication and installation of the COR-TEN steel.

Brian’s inventive process to visualize and experience how to accomplish the many project goals necessitated his immersion in the conditions and details of the site. It also created opportunities for unexpected options to surface.

Project Gallery

Selected Project Plants

Brian used many considerations to guide his plant selections including summer-dry tolerance, deer resistance, coastal air tolerance, low water requirements, heat tolerance, and low maintenance.

He intentionally included a lot of plant variety with little repetition or massing. Care was taken to not over plant and obstruct the flowing steel retaining wall forms.
He used a wide color palette that included blue-grey, yellows, and reds to pop in front of the dark, rusted steel wall backdrops. Many cascading plants were also installed to spill over and soften the sharp steel edges.

All plants from Pacific Nurseries were selected at the nursery to meet the project and location requirements.

Results | Outcome

The property owner had high confidence in Brian’s talent and abilities and supported his unconventional approach to the project’s many challenges. The result was an impressive landscape statement.

From enthusiastic neighbors to area visitors passing by, all continue to consistently compliment the property owner on the successful outcome.

The signature steel retaining walls improved the soil and grade retention while eliminating rocks or other debris from falling into the roadway.

Plant diversity and coverage throughout the site also increased. Extensive use of low-voltage lighting helped to create a dramatic nighttime showing of the property. Water usage also decreased significantly from improved irrigation, drainage, and extensive use of CA native plants.

Even better, a few recognized trade books and magazines, including Inspired Outdoor Living and Landscape Architect, featured the Rolling Waves project in major spreads in the publications.

Contractors from across the US continue to contact Brian to gain insights and learn how he completed this beautiful project.

Services Delivered


Project Featured in Trade Pubs

Recognized trade magazines featured Rolling Waves in their publications.


Reduced Water Use 

Site-wide landscape water use decreased by over 30% with many CA Native plants


Grade Debris Slide Elimination

Rock + soil debris falling into the roadway was retained and eliminated

“We really wanted to make a bold statement in our garden and throughout our landscape. Brian and his team helped us achieve that in so many ways that exceeded our expectations. We are inspired every time we look at the Rolling Waves and  love how beautiful our garden has become.”
Rolling Waves Residents

Lessons Learned

  1. Immerse yourself in the site to understand limitations + expose unique opportunities
  2. Chemical test the soil of your site to assess any toxin presence
  3. Don’t over-space retaining anchor posts that can cause retaining material failure
  4. Recognize how much heat steel retaining barriers absorb—especially in direct southern exposures
  5. Plant at least 1’ behind a steel barrier to avoid burning plants + drying out soil
  6. Adding a lava rock buffer behind steel decreases soil heat absorption
  7. On steep grades, do not underestimate how much soil is required to level the grades
  8. Always keep your customer informed about project progress and avoid surprises
  9. Refrain from working with vendors that try to cut corners
  10. Take on challenging projects to grow your skills and satisfy clients


Brian Ott has been designing and building landscapes in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years. His frequent use of rock, wood, and water are cherished natural elements that reflect his interest in Zen Buddhism. The award-winning outdoor spaces he creates provide beauty, rest, and repose where his customers find joy in enduring landscapes. Brian and the Zenscape team value environmental responsibility and use local, green, and sustainable materials whenever possible. They also incorporate CA native and summer-dry tolerant plants in their solutions that address our rapidly changing climate.