[Landscape Architecture & Construction]


Special to the Journal

Sometimes people benefit from their mistakes.

Eighteen years ago, Jay Curcio, vice president of Pacific Earthworks, Inc. left a rewarding career as a teacher in Mount Hood, Ore. and came to Seattle to join his best friend as a partner in a landscaping business.

The liaison lasted nine months.

"Don't ever go into business with your best friend," Curcio said.

Though his friendship was stormy, his introduction to landscape contracting was a success. He soon started Pacific Earthworks Inc. with his wife Geri and has never looked back. Though not registered as a women owned business, Geri is the company president and official owner. She handles the financial side of the business, while Jay takes care of the marketing, sales and acts as a project manager.

The company followed the traditional route of many contractors. It started bidding smaller public jobs. Last year it completed its biggest job ever, a $1 million project for the Supermall of America in Auburn.

The Harrison Memorial Hospital Rock Garden, designed by EDAW and constructed by Pacific Earthworks.
"Please though, don't mention anything about money," Curcio said. After the Supermall job, it was like the phone lines went dead. "People wouldn't call with smaller jobs."

In fact, for repeat clients, the company will do any job, $1,000 and up. And it has decided to focus on less intensive jobs than the SuperMall jobs, although it will consider any sized project.

"The problem with really big jobs is that the amount of risk and exposure is so high," Curcio said. "Your schedule is dictated by what other subcontractors can do."

And for landscape contractors, it is not just a pile of inert materials that need to be stored until the work can be done. Plant materials must be cared for, unless they can be left at the nursery until they are needed.

Curcio now shies away from public works projects. "Landscape contracting is one of the easiest businesses to break into," he said. "Everybody thinks they can do it because they work on their own yard. Bidding against companies who don't understand the difficulties of the business is a waste of time, because they can always underbid you."

The ease of entry has brought many competitors into the market, Curcio said. "But many of the companies who were in business when we started folded." Still, one reason for growth in the industry is the regulations governmental agencies impose on owners. Land use plan that require planting to soften the affects of construction, wetlands regulations and native vegetation buffers all support the work of landscape contractors.

Another key to survival is the company's diversification into all fields of landscaping from custom homes, to athletic fields, to wetlands work.

"Again, many landscape contractors think all those types of work are the same," Curcio said. "In fact, each requires its own special skills." Athletic fields for instance, require special equipment.

Wetlands plantings are equally specialized. "We have been doing them for 10 years," Curcio said. "We have a few guys who really like getting in the mud and getting dirty." That helps, but the employees also know the correct planting depth, and proper species and location of the plant material. Though most wetlands projects are small, around $15,000, that is enough for wetlands work to be a mainstay for many landscape contractors.

Diversification has also helped keep employees busy. Though landscaping is the core of the business, Curcio's company works on a large range of projects from road work to statue relocation at Seattle Center.

One of the most memorable projects on record was a rooftop garden now growing at Harrison Memorial Hospital in Bremerton. Sellen Construction was already remodeling the building, and the owner decided to add the landscape installation designed by EDAW, Inc.

Pacific Earthworks first made sure the rooftop would remain waterproofed. Then it lifted all materials such as plants, rocks, boulders and dirt into place with a tower crane. Then everything, to the last cobblestone, was placed by hand. With the Olympic Mountains in the background, the effect is almost like standing on the beach.

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