Granit Labs: Integrating Building and Landscape Design with Jon Sims

Granit Labs with Jon Sims

Welcome to the latest Granit Labs episode, our resource for commercial developers who want to stay in touch with the latest property development opportunities and options.

There is a lot of information available online, but sometimes it’s easier to listen than to watch or read. Our Granit Labs feature interviews with trusted experts we work with to help our clients realise profitable property developments. Each interview is 20-30 minutes long, so you can enjoy them over a coffee or a short journey in your ear pods.

In this episode, Granit’s James Munro talks with Jon Sims of Alladio Sims, a landscape and garden design firm.

Jon is a passionate landscape designer and has worked alongside the Granit team on a number of projects. In this episode, Jon and James explore how the architecture and landscape design have supported and enhanced each other in the design of three one-off houses built in and around London.



If you are someone that prefers to read, we’ve got you covered. You can find a transcript of the interview exploring the integration of building and landscape design below. 


Hi, welcome to another edition of Granit Labs with myself, James Munro, director of Granite. I’m joined today by Jon Sims, who’s co-owner of Alladio Sims.
Hi Jon.




Welcome to Granit Labs. Perhaps you would just like to give a very brief instruction to Alladio Sims. I know we’ve, we’ve worked together over a number of years and you’re 1/2 of the pairing, aren’t you? Perhaps you could explain who you are, and you know, your philosophy.


Yeah, so we’re a design only garden design company. We got together, well we went to college together because garden design is quite often a second career kind of thing.
So, people quite often go and do a year sort of conversion course as such, so I come from an interior architecture background, and I did a garden design course based at Kew.

And that’s where I met Bella, she was coming from a, she was working as a Russian translator and a Russian tutor at Leeds University and we got on quite well and then coming out of the back of that I won a competition to build a show garden at Hampton Court Flower Flower Show and I asked her if she’d fancy collaborating on that.

Alladio Sims

It was a big garden, so it took two of us and Bella brings a lot of garden and plant knowledge to the team. And so it was, it seemed like a really good synergy for that particular project and then coming out the back of that we worked so well wet thought we’ll set something up.

So, we formed Alladio Sims and one of the first projects that we got involved in was Heath Hill.




With you guys, so yeah.


Yes, of course.


We hadn’t really worked for anyone else at that point. You were our first big client. We had a couple of small-town gardens, but, you know, in terms of design background obviously had a very long design career.

Bella had a great done a lot of horticulture training, so this was our first sort of collaboration on a garden of such a big size.


Right, I’m not sure I knew that. Actually, that’s great.

Now I spend a lot of time advocating to our clients to think about the landscape at the very early stages of the design process, and that can be led by ourselves. Obviously, as architects talk about inside-outside space. The concept.

Next, how you access the building, how you use amenity space. You know light planting all those kinds of things. But I think what I’d like to do is sort of talk through three projects that we’ve worked together on and I think it would be good to get your thoughts on where the different skill sets are and how they come together to produce the end result.

We have one that was designed but has never been built. We have one that has gone all the way through to be completed and looks amazing. And we have one in progress that I think will be completed later this year.

But maybe, maybe let’s start with Heath Hill because he said that was the first project we collaborated on.

This was a replacement dwelling on a site above a farm.

Our client; he’s an old friend Dan. He wanted a very contemporary house to replace this chalet style bungalow. It’s interesting size and where it sits, it’s quite isolated at some 9 acres, it’s quite elevated.

He’s got amazing long views. You know, it sits in this ancient woodland which they think forms part of what was Barnham castles hunting grounds hundreds of years ago.

So there’s history to it. That area of the country’s heathland and very sandy isn’t it? So, what grows there I think is very different to what grows where. I live in southwest London.

From our perspective, there was a lot to do with the view, creating this incredible series of spaces that framed the view and connected with the landscape, both the near and the far views. And then I think you took it on a sort of the next level of integration into the site.


Yeah, so I think I very quickly sort of got the impression that you as the architects were slightly stuck with the footprint of the existing house. And in terms of planning, that house didn’t as such face the view as quite as well as it possibly could have done.

So our sort of instinct was to twist the access of the garden so that all the sort of terracing.

And the outside usable space made full use of that at the long view because it was sort of straight down the hill, which was this was a sort of perpendicular view to the House into the trees more. Whilst off to the left you went through a clearing in the trees and out into the hillsides beyond.

Granit Labs
Image courtesy of Alladio Sims



Which also picked up the setting sun depending on the time of year, of course, yeah.


Yeah, so we took on that particular project. We took an element of the architecture which was a sort of really interesting pod that projected forward of the building and with a sort of sloping, sort of leaning forward, almost cladding detail on it and we took that as our sort of access point and almost came off as though that ground that line was reflected into the ground and that set us up nicely to twist everything around so that we so then the sort of some the seating area in the sunbathing terrace and the sort of garden kitchen, sort of dining terrace all were orientated so they looked straight down the valley sort of thing.

It linked the House very well into the garden.


The House we design is very angular and as you say you’ve then created this geometry.

Do you think the architecture lead that geometry? You haven’t used a lot of curves in your design?

It’s lots of interlocking perpendicular volumes and you know, very sort of right edged and hard materials. And then you soften it all the planting.

So is that initial geometry led by the architecture or site or a bit of both?


I think on that one it was, we took it as an axis, so it definitely led to the beginning of the shapes. And then it became almost like we were twisting like a pen knife almost. We were twisting terraces out of the house as though the whole thing was opening up.

Granit Labs
Image courtesy of Alladio Sims


But then it’s a very common theme in the things that we do that we look to establish I think primarily ’cause I’m quite a sort of control freak when it comes to the sort of hard landscaping element of the projects.

I look to create a strong access or a strong hard landscaping element. Then Bella comes into and brings the softening elements so that on that particular project we had some very hard angles and very hard terraces.

But then the idea was that the landscape would be softly brought in in sort of sweeps of big bold blocks of planting colour up to the house.

You know quite simple really.

In its elements, piece of architecture and the idea was that we blend it into the landscape.


Where’s the balance between taking the clients brief which is about you know, outdoor entertainment space and a pool and barbecue and family, life and the sort of safety aspects as well?

So the different levels against something that’s beautiful to look at and fits into the context? Where does one inform the other or are there sort of clashes that you have to deal with?


I think they’re quite sort of practical in terms of delivering spaces, and we’re very conscious of levels. I mean levels is quite a big thing and on a lot of the projects that we’ve done.
We’re quite conscious of those things, so I don’t think we’re looking to sort of push the boundaries in terms of being totally hard on the client, in terms of creating the perfect garden.

The thing for us, we’re looking to try and create something that’s dramatic but practical, sensible, you know, relatively low risk in terms of, you know, we’re totally aware of where we need to protect the client from themselves to a certain extent.

The things that tend to influence it like particularly, that view is we wanted to create a frame because of an existing tree, so we draw in the landscape and sometimes that actually can influence the design.

Just more than the architecture, but I think in terms of the clients brief. We take it, but then we deliver back a response that we think is right and so far, I mean, I don’t think we’ve had one year where the clients gone, “yuck”.

You know you didn’t listen to me, they generally go. Well you listened to me, but you’ve given me something I couldn’t even have thought of.


You know on many projects, landscaping is often the one thing that on the budget that gets cut.

And I think in in this project, if it comes to fruition those sequence of outdoor spaces should be viewed as additional rooms, additional living space and I think putting a value on that would be really important as a sort of investment in not, you know, not just the value of the House, but investment on what you get as a family living there.


Yeah, I think it’s quite often treated as a contingency sum the garden, so it’s there in the original budgets, but invariably things come along during the build which you know can be, I mean, for instance Tongdean, I think we started working on it in 2017 and it finished last year.

So, you know it’s a very long process and a lot of things can change a lot of things can happen in the garden, definitely.

Is it is a contingency kind of?


Maybe just me once Tongean could, because obviously as you, as you mentioned it, we started working together on 2017 and we’d be employed to, you know, take this, rather outdated house and I think I think you Jon you, visited with me quite early on before we even started.

The house on the site is in need of a lot of love and was quite soulless inside particularly, and I think the landscaping was very disjointed as well.

And you know the client’s vision was, you know, this is my house. I’ll be living here with my family for the rest of my days I want to make it as fantastic as I can get it. And sort of excite me with ideas.

And I mean our brief was about creating a basement and entertainment space and making sure that the main house really sort function well and creating some wow factor into it.
You know?

With the new staircase, but I think we were acutely aware as we designed, you know, because of the, it’s on quite a steep side into the chalk, we were acutely aware quite early on that the landscaping around it was so key.

You know how it relates to the ground floor. The rear of the ground floor of the house around the kitchen and then integrating this sort of 400 square meter basement into the site so that integration of the house into its site and you know what you did with the landscaping.

We knew very early on that we needed to bring in someone who could sort of come along for the ride with our vision and the client’s vision, which is why of course we put you forward.

What was your brief from the client and how did that process of the design and site analysis kind of evolve?


I have to say, it’s probably the best client we’ve ever had in terms of, as a person, he’s fully prepared to engage in conversation about pretty well anything you suggest and is a really lovely lovely chap.

But I think our initial brief was he wanted a garden, but it’s funny, it’s one of these things that you get where you get briefed that you know it’s a garden for the kids to play in things like that, but of course, the build of this project was such that the kids had sort of moved on from that.

You know that initial brief almost so, one of the things that you’d asked us to come up with is was a sense of adventure to the garden and one of the things that struck us straightaway about the house was at once upon a time it had an amazing view out the front right.


There was actually just this bit here isn’t it was that was the original front, which faced down the site.


Exactly, so it was.


And they’ve sold that off for two houses, so you’re left, yeah, you’re left with this house that doesn’t sit very well with.


Yeah, I mean we were in the sort of research that we did I mean, it came up that this was one of the first houses to be built basically on that in that whole area. So it was this House and the farmhouse down the hill.

So you had a sort of dramatic view out to the scene from that front, and you know Once Upon a time that would have been probably an ornate terrace that people would have sort of promenaded along or sat out and looked out to see.

Or, you know look looked over their landscape. So we straightaway wanted to try and reintegrate the house into its plot, make new sense of it. And I think you probably did as well with the kitchen extension. You know, sort of opening the house back up to the to its garden, where it being sort of closed off from it before.


You got this, you say your adventure. You’ve got this route that you can follow the whole way around the perimeter of the property. Is that the adventure?


Yeah, we sold it basically on the idea that it’s, you know in the morning you make yourself a coffee and you can do a circumnavigation of your house and then we divided the garden up into four areas. Just so that there was a sort of distinct feel to each area.

So obviously the new basement had huge windows that open onto a sunken garden. So we created a sort of atmosphere within that and the roof of the basement became integrated into the garden by bringing the soil down onto it in a sort of naturalistic kind of way.

Granit Labs
Image courtesy of Alladio Sims


So the area outside the kitchen had had a sort of lawn and a fairly panoramic view and the front garden was quite another favourite of the clients because it had a lot of bulbs in them amongst the trees. So we tried to keep that as much the same as we could.

Granit Labs
Image courtesy of Alladio Sims


And then this side garden that Once Upon a Time had the view of the sea we created. It’s sort of almost like a formal, slightly deconstructed formal walk. So it’s a gravel path with curving paths, sort of linked the whole thing together. So we created a flow around the House which you know was completely missing before, but you could take a big take a coffee in the morning, a gin and tonic in the afternoon kind of thing.

And then we created these destination points along it so there’s a new fire pit circular bench area that commands the high point of the garden and looks back across the garden so you can sort of survey your domain. And then there’s the water feature in the front garden is sort of a circular pool. And from that flow, these curving terraces lead around the site.

So yeah we talked, we tried to create this sense that you know you went on a little journey every time you left the best your kitchen and when you arrive into the house you know there’s an impression of things going on.

Left and right, so there’s a sort of you must want to go around the corner and see what’s going on.


Talk to me about the planting, because it’s some I mean, it’s quite eclectic. It’s not what you’d say is all indigenous to Sussex, or sort of, you know, the coastal area of Brighton.
I mean in particular, some of the stone you’ve used, and then the soft planting it. I mean it’s a real mixture.

You’ve got palm trees and then you’ve got some sort of small trees. What drove that?


There’s an aim of kind of creating almost different landscapes within the four quarters of the space and also the client has worked closely with Bella, you know, to the point where at one point he was helping plant the plants.

He worked closely with Bella on what he wanted. So there was quite a lot of that interaction, so you get that quite a lot with garden projects where the clients have quite a clear idea of the style that they like.

And then it’s a process of trying to meld that into what works actually with that, that landscape, I mean one of the problems we have with this garden, was that the basement and the and the sort of excavation works were so full on that we basically had to rebuild the soil structure of that area.

So there’s maybe a period of time it takes for the sort of the worms to come back to a certain extent. But the planting is almost because we’ve remade the soil structure, the planting is can almost be from anywhere to some extent.

And also the client wanted a sort of jungle feel to that lower garden, so we used a mixture of you know indigenous and a lot of Antipodean planting as well, just ’cause it you know it suits the climate.


How different is the climate there to say, I don’t know, some of the Midlands or the West Country or further north? Does it make a big difference to the type of plants you can use?


You’ve got to be conscious of the fact that there’s the sea air coming in and it’s a good sort of sunny spot. Generally, it’s not going to get too frosty because of its proximity to the sea.
I mean, I think it would be good to have had Bella on this call just to answer more of these questions, ‘cause that’s really her specialism.


I think one of the successes and the angle of this shot sells it quite well. It’s how the bulk of that basement is lost and you have to remind yourself that the basement is all under here and there’s a swimming pool here, but then there’s a socking great big plant room as you recall, and a trench with pipework coming out to the edge.

The garden when you think that you’re planting small trees above a basement. That’s you know that’s taken quite a lot of thought. I remember we had a lot of discussions about the depth of the soil we needed and how it was engineered.

Granit Labs
Image courtesy of Alladio Sims


And you know the weight of it all and the logistics of building it and getting that the height and then feathering it down to the level of the terraces. It looks effortless, but I know it wasn’t.


One of the design intents was that we wanted to sort of almost bleed the garden, almost like you had built the structure and then the garden had flowed back in. Yeah, so it took quite a lot of work.

I think the first few ideas we pitched up to Michael were terracing it and he was very adamant that he wanted the soft landscape to come all the way up to the house so he didn’t want it to be sort of you know the architecture.

I mean we spent a lot of time messing around with the levels of the soil against the roof light as viewed from the house. So because he didn’t want that sort of feeling that there was more building out there so we spent a lot of time and effort to get there, a naturalistic kind of flow of soil down to the house and I think yeah, I think it’s worked really well.


And I mean one part of our brief was getting the basement, particularly in the pool, to not feel subterranean. So we did quite a lot of excavation at this lower level to flatten it out so it feels like it’s a lower story rather than a subterranean room. And I think again, that I mean the slope of the site helps to a degree, but I think also the plants you use.

The feature under the stairs obviously helps too. Gives you that intimate view because you don’t get that long view at this point because you’re below the fence level and the trees, but it’s it certainly does not feel that subterranean when you’re in that which is incredible given the size of that basement.


Yeah, I mean that was one of the areas that we had the sort of strongest idea for from very early on was.

It was a quarry that somebody built something in so we wanted these sort of these big stones to hold back the bank to a certain extent, you know they would do it.

They’re doing a job, but they’re giving us this sort of like it, like almost yeah, is an excavation, so it gives that impression that you’ve dug this thing out, but you’ve created a garden in where you’ve dugout.


Just one sort of final question on this, and I’m not sure I know the answer, but there was a lot of discussions back and forth about irrigation systems and whether it was required or worth the investment.

And I remember one particular meeting where we talked about it and the client said well for the same cost, I could pay a guy to come every day and use a hosepipe. Where did that conversation end up and I suppose?

How do you convince clients that it’s worth the investment to spend that kind of money?


It was a struggle. It’s a big garden so it was quite a big bill for irrigation. And the proposal we got the guys the consultant to put forward was for a fully automated smart watering system basically. And like you say, the garden is often considered a contingency.

Those are the sort of things that the client sees, you know, sees something that they could do manually. So you quite often get that cut back to its bare minimum.

So I mean, I think we’ve developed a system there where we put a lot of taps around the garden’s edge with individual time as doing different zones.

So it does involve the gardener going round and just sort of resetting the timer every now and again and then none of them is on at the same time, so you don’t lose the water pressure, so that in in the end it’, the whole garden is covered, but in theory with irrigation generally, you only need it for the 1st year, maybe year or two just to get things established.

And then after that, if it’s all, if the plants are right they should be reasonably self-maintaining except for at particular times of drought or low waterfalls.

So yeah, maybe one once a year, but apart from mowing the lawn, which is an obvious thing you have to do.


How much maintenance is there required on this garden would you say?


I think Michael has again, Bella is managing that, so Bella is now going back once a month I think to do, uh, a stint that gardening.

Basically with he has a gardener as well, but she goes on the sort of one of the days he’s there and provides an ongoing master plan as to how things are growing and you know where things might need tweaking.

So we have a nice, we’ve got an ongoing relationship with the garden, which is something that we’re trying to introduce as a practice because I think it’s quite easy to finish a garden and say there you go, mate, and then and then forget about it and I think that’s a shame when you’ve invested quite a huge chunk of your sort of personality into it.

And so you want to see it go forward, so when you’ve got a client like Michael, where you’ve got the opportunity to go to, go back and stay involved, then you grab it so.


As well as the other thing I align with that is that what we see now is not necessarily the vision for how you think it’s going to look like in five year’s time, 10 year’s time, when trees have matured and plants have grown up and it’s embedded it in.

Yeah, that’s it.


Is it you can plant it?

Obviously, it’s got this sort of 4th dimension of time.

Then things keep moving, so you do need to sort of at least sort of review it once a year and so you initially you’re investing quite a lot of plants to give you that, you know the wow factor in the 1st couple of years but long term you’re looking to manage those plants.

Some of them will be taken out, some of them we moved about. You know, as the shade changes, yeah, it is an ongoing relationship with a garden.

Either the client has it or the clients Gardner. Is it all there?

Whether the garden designer is lucky enough to stay involved and witness that development.


Great, let’s talk about Carlisle Rd, which is a project that’s on-site at the moment.

It’s a house in Hampton, which is in the London borough of Richmond, Southwest London, and as you can see from the photo, the existing house I think it was built about 20 years ago.

It’s pretty bland and not of much architectural merit. And so you know, for our brief again was to really create extra space and create some drama.

So we’ve looked at these series of glazed boxes coming off the back and we’re introducing a basement and that has lightwell down to it and we were making it into a really a fantastic home for our clients or family.

Richmond Architects

And then they wanted recommendations for landscape designers quite early on and we put you forward and one other. I think if I got this right and you didn’t, you basically pitch.
I think you did some initial feasibility study, so it’s two studies put forward, and I think the clients thinking behind that was we would like to see kind of slightly what we’re going to get before we commit much further, which I suppose is an unusual way to proceed.

But in this case, it worked out well because you got the gig?

Perhaps you just talk me through again how you took their brief and that is where we got to with our design and the site and you know their budget and what your drivers are for the project.


This was an interesting one because it was more of a challenge to deal with the garden because we couldn’t necessarily say, right, here’s the house, here’s this new design. Here’s how the garden is gonna work with this new design?

Because the client was very keen on keeping almost to the point where at one point we were said by, you know, almost like why are you here?

We want to keep it how it is so there’s a sort of, the classic not conflict but relationship between husband and wife where you know one the guy quite often sees it quite simply.

So we had the brief for this one was slightly Jekyll and Hyde.

So we had the brief that we wanted to keep all the trees keep and make the lawn bigger and that was the sort of you know, and they wanted a garden room or a garden retreat. Almost a place to go, place to go and work, maybe even you know, spend some, uh, longer periods of time.

But we got this, the brief that we wanted a bigger lawn, and we want to keep everything, the trees all the same and to certainly say all the planting. So it’s taking a little bit. It took a little bit of time to sort of get, to get into that one, but I think we came up with something that.

It’s quite fun and it worked well with the existing planting, so we took each tree that they wanted to keep as an axis point and we’ve created curved borders that hinge around those tree stumps.

So we linked all that together into this sort of curvy edge that leads around the garden with a curvy path that leads around the garden to get to this garden room that’s tucked in one corner.

Granit Labs
Image courtesy of Alladio Sims


So it was less about the architecture here, more about what was there.

It was an interesting approach to designing a garden.


And I think I think there was also a lot about where the sun came across the garden at different times of day, so they wanted to sit in a particular part of the garden and get the evening sun and have their drinks or entertain there, or barbecue.


Yeah, so it was again. It was slightly different in that there was the idea initially that they were going to have a veg garden somewhere where the kids could potter around, plant a few things and we put that quite front and centre initially because that was the best place in terms of the sunlight and things.

We got to that, but then you know that it felt like it was too much, become too important to the garden so we’ve moved that away and we ended up putting a greenhouse with the garden room in an in a corner.

We were able to remove an ash tree, so we opened up the sky to this greenhouse so we’ve hidden it away to a certain extent, but it’s still got good access to the sky.

Like the Garden Terrace where we put the dining, the dining garden, dining and the barbeque area is gets the evening sun so in the end we, it’s sort of we’ve found places for the various things and within that, within the sort of the curvy design that we came up with.


Do you think where a client is looking to save money, probably ’cause they’ve overspent on my house? Would you always try to keep the structure in place and perhaps compromise on planting or use smaller trees that can grow.

Where do you draw that line of you know where do you compromise if you have to?


Are you trying to tell me something, James?

I think we’d always advocate buying the biggest trees you can buy because they bring an instant impact.

But things like perennials and small and other plants you know if it’s at the right time of year, we’ve been buying the tiny little 9 centimetre plants because they when they put first put in, they grow like billy-oh, so you can spend less on and buy smaller plants if you’re planting the right time.

So there are ways of sort of squeezing things in and also, we’ve done projects where we’ve phased it, so we you know you can afford this now and you know, we’ll do the stuff that’s messy now and then we’ll do relevance for planting later.

So I think we’ve always try and keep the design as close to the original as we possibly can.


Right, yeah, that makes sense.

Well, Jon, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.

Thank you very much for your thoughts and look forward to working with you and seeing Carlisle Rd and others you know through to completion.


Yeah, that’s been great. Thank you very much.