Sunday, November 22, 2015

Out of hand: a sandstone path and steps

'The obstacle is the path' Zen proverb

Obstacles come with the act of path-making, their resolution often defining finished look and feel. I guess it’s possible to conceive of making a path without facing any obstacles, but I have yet to have that experience. For me, as an amateur, obstacles abound, external and internal, and the only way forward is to embrace them and search for ways around or through. Some are of the simple kind that can be removed with mechanical action and cost only time, like striking high points off bedrock with a chisel; while others - say a certain arbutus tree that's staying where it grew despite a perplexing placement - have just to be gone around and, to that extent, allowed to shape the outcome. I have found that not resisting complications (mental resistance spawns frustration and arbitrary choices, like arboricide in the case of that arbutus) but instead turning the mind towards them in an open manner, is eventually fruitful of solutions. And I've realized that the indirect route to an outcome not infrequently reveals entirely new possibilities. So faced with any particular obstacle, I tend to press ahead slowly, seeing what presents itself along the way and inviting intuition to offer up its leads. I have now had enough experience with this indirect method of work that I am able to envisage new work entirely as opportunity - which is exciting and stimulating - despite the inevitable difficulties needing resolution, in ways as yet unclear. Those challenges may seem daunting at the outset of a job when none has been successfully tackled yet - especially when the paver is after something more aesthetic than simple engineering. But I have a certain confidence, shored now by sufficient experience, that I will eventually uncover a solution that's serviceable, and if I'm creative in the way I go about finding this, it will add some beauty too.

While a finished path may appear as simplicity itself, the way towards this unity of finished work comes by facing and resolving sequences of complex choices. And doing it while maintaining a balance of utility and appearance. My advice, if you are attempting one of these, is just to take your time, be methodical but open to creative turns, and don't force the issue - let things unfold at their own pace. Just plug along giving the unit of work however much time it's going to take to get it right. At least, that's what I try to do.

New work offers the path maker a chance to create a fresh synthesis of materials that achieves both utility and appearance - one that in my aspiration invites the eyes and directs the feet of those using this path to get around. A path that succeeds in conveying sensory impressions at these levels actively shapes the way people experience moving through these spaces, how the views are framed and from where. Finding the final mix of materials that makes for such an appealing finished product is a creative and open-ended process, one that can't be rushed or forced; rather, this process must be patiently cultivated and, at points, even endured as an extended state of uncertainty while the search for ideas that meet aesthetic tests continues. I find these latter define themselves more and more clearly as the job progresses, resulting in a growing intuitive sense of how to put the available materials together to particular effect.

Engineering of the useful aspects of a path (its fitness for purpose and resistance to wear) can easily conflict with achieving an aesthetically pleasing outcome - an objective placing its own obscure demands on a job. My inclination is to find ways to combine order and rusticity so they ultimately feel like a unified whole - so the eye can't really tell where the one begins and the other leaves off. And I really want whatever it is I make to feel as though it truly belongs where it is, that it fits into its surroundings respectfully and adds feelings of rightness to the overall sense of place. This transmits to a gardener's eye as an atmosphere of repose, of an underlying harmony of elements.

What follows here is an account of a project in (sometimes very slow) motion that began as a fairly clean slate but with a number of fixed givens: a bench of land of varying width as a base for a path, itself created by retaining a steep slope using larger chunks of stone; an existing run of concrete steps rising from the base of that slope to intersect the future path; and that inconveniently placed but quite lovely arbutus tree whose curving trunk you can just make out to the right in the picture below.

Surveying the scene post-retention: where to begin?

The job site itself is part of a family getaway on a southern Gulf Island, recently renewed and expanded. The wishlist for this place includes creating a sequence of walkways and small patios that wrap around the entire building, perched on a high rise. This pathway is needed functionally, and the place calls out for a design that fits with its character, which is largely one of wood and being set into its landscape. The specific design challenge here was to contrive a secure pathway and steps along a north-facing wall, on a bench sloping from both ends to a low point at the existing concrete steps. By turns, the area available for paving goes from fairly generous to barely wide enough for a usable, secure pathway.

The materials I chose for this job are irregular chunks of flattish sandstone that come in numerous shapes and sizes, hand-gathered on the property and from surrounding sites. Some show weathering but many are fresh-split from the method of extraction. There's a rough and undressed quality to these pieces, which I aim to soften through arrangement but to conserve for a rustic effect. Functionally my approach to design involves piecing these chunks together as though they were a kind of jigsaw puzzle cum crazy quilt, taking them mostly as they come in order to avoid investing much time in modifying their shapes (which is risky work, as this is soft stone that splits unpredictably along hidden faults when struck). I prefer instead to search for natural harmonies of contiguity and association. Once a layout has firmed up, I proceed to fix the stone in place on a bed and with seams of sand-cement mortar. A final operation involves decorative tooling of the outer edge of the filled joints, which is done after the cement base has hardened (more on this later).

My work is amateur in nature, by which I mean only that I am more self-taught enthusiast than trained to the trade, and the work can only unfold in my spare time, weather permitting. To give a measure of the slow pace of progress these limitations impose: the endpoints of this section of path have yet to be fully completed over three years on! They comprise the beginnings of the east and west perimeter walkways, which are among my next paving projects, knees willing! It would have been so much simpler to just make forms and pour a concrete path and stairs and have done with it, but I am looking to reinforce the presence of local stone and to that extent to diminish or mask the building's concrete foundations. More concrete would look very different, and to my eye appear somewhat incongruous, alongside a house made substantially of local wood. And too, the landscaper in me would have missed out the opportunity to experience making another stone pathway from scratch.

Preliminary work: reinforcing the base of the foundation, sketchy at best

In the end you have to choose a beginning, but here settling on a place to start was delayed while I put significant time into closing up the base of an older portion of the house's foundation. This partial foundation was built somewhat crudely (hand-made by people more game than skilled) and so was placed directly on top of organic soil, which has meant a tendency to wick up moisture and organics during the rainy seasons (note the green-tinged section of foundation in the photo above, indicating the pattern of wicking). Only when this edge was better secured and sealed could work on components of the path actually get under way. 

The necessity of extending an existing set of concrete steps up to the level of the path-to-be constituted an obvious starting point for the job (see photos below). This was also the low point for the slopes down from both corners of the house, so this piece involved sorting out some engineering: the steps to be added to make the connection to the path had also to retain its base to the correct height, while still allowing for ready drainage through the base of path and step so as not to dam water collecting there from downspouts. There was also the complication of the steps up accessing the future path at an oblique angle. For an amateur, these factors presented novel and time-consuming obstacles to be overcome. Once embarked, it seemed to take forever for something to begin visibly to appear. The following shot shows the first presentation or face stones set in place (note the still-moist seam between the concrete path and stone step) which came only after numerous bouts of preparatory work - behind those delightfully weathered stones (picture three below) is a low retaining wall I built first in order to stabilize the path's gravel base. A lot of futzing about went into getting that structure in place, at the right level for the future path, prior to being able to place the first step up from the concrete stairs. Sometimes progress seems elusive while we do endless preparatory work, then suddenly 'poof' a chunk of finished product pops out and we are amazed!

First step cemented in place, with an opening for drainage through the base

Not yet looking quite the very important step it will soon become

Arbutus, retaining wall, skewed step angle: complexity

Above, the step itself completes the retaining wall that allows the building up of the base behind it to a  level that will ultimately carry the path properly. Next (picture below) a section that functions as part of the path and a top step. This image shows a very rough layout - for some reason I chose to reverse the ultimate flow of the stone within the path at this threshold, to serve as a visual cue for the idea of 'step-ness'. While generally the stone is laid crosswise to the path's direction, visually slowing its motion, here it's set lengthwise so as to appear as the top step from below. A needless complication it seems to me now, and finicky to boot, but one I evidently felt should be included at the time. It can always be seen as a trope I guess, one that virtually no one except its maker will ever notice I'm sure.

Section to serve as a top step from stairs to path

While searching for configurations of stone that feel 'right' when placed together, I mentally prepare myself to go through any number of tries and refinements. Which means, not getting too invested in my first attempt to put some stones together within a given segment. Instead, I try to adopt a playful approach to sampling layouts, looking for chance effects of harmony and contrast to illustrate direction, while at the same time remaining open to simply starting over again when things don't resolve into a layout. And, I try always to remain mindful of the need both to make the path work for its intended purpose and to make it simultaneously appealing to the eye. With time I've learned to assemble stones so that their facets mimic or echo each other, which visually supports the feeling of their belonging together, helping them appear as more natural ensembles once they are mortared in. 

I mostly try to take the stone as it came from the ground, however randomly it's modified by the process of extraction, and this means spending considerable time seeking shapes that mirror one another sufficiently to complete arrangements (an incremental process punctuated by searches for specific pieces to fill residual voids). I'm coming to realize that any time and effort saved on custom-shaping with hammer and chisel just goes into poring over piles of stone for workable pieces. It's certainly been an inclination of mine to try and use stone shapes just as they come, rather than expressly modifying them for given slots - a conjuring process let's say, rather than a more determined plan (in Japanese path-making, this would be termed 'gyo' to reflect looser arrangement and stand in contrast to 'shin', which implies tight control and formality). That said, as time goes on, I am finding myself tidying up the edges of the stones more and more with the chisel. And not infrequently, striking off some unwanted knob of rock in order to produce a more serviceable and harmonious shape. One day it will be interesting to attempt more controlled shaping of pieces to fit particular openings, something that would take better equipment and more skill than I now possess. So as I lack the time for that as yet, I continue to work in the old way with the materials as they come to hand.

The path here functions as the top step as well as through-passage: finicky levels

Design emerging: shapes mimicking one another

Extending the gradually widening path westwards

Extending this path presented me with many new challenges and opportunities. Among the first, lack of time for sustained engagement (limited to bursts of work mostly on weekends, weather permitting) and the goal of using the materials consistently and aesthetically. Lack of continuous engagement means  you invest more time trying to summon the right frame of mind to tackle a piece of work, one that allows you to pick up it up just where you left off. Getting to this space involves clearing your mind of everything that's extraneous to the job, being 'in the work' entirely and for as long as possible at a time. On the opportunity side, periodic work bouts do offer fresh chances to sharpen the expressive use of the materials. The real challenge is to find and keep a workable balance between getting output and maintaining good finished look.

In the three years since beginning this project (coincident with starting a full-time job), I've gradually gotten faster at turning out segments of finished path without, in my view, unduly sacrificing appearances. Making a rustic path does help in this regard, as it means a less self-conscious use of the materials. Of course, I realize that everything I do involves some kind of trade-off, always: any placement could always be another, potentially better, one. This is where working as an amateur in one's spare time at a relaxed pace actually confers a benefit: paradoxically, as an amateur I have the luxury of being able to lavish more time on my efforts to achieve a result that pleases the eye. Of course this fiddling around for effect slows progress down, but that means I have the space to not take what my hand first inclines to as finished placement. And I do allow myself an open amount of time to tweak my layouts, teasing out greater impact by adjusting and snugging the fit of the stones. Inevitably though errors do get by me, or at least if not an outright mistake, then an outcome that in retrospect I'd like to revisit, but which is now embedded as part of the path's distinctive personality. Such flaws you have to accept and just try to learn from so as not to repeat - I remind myself that they will only leap to the eye of the person who made them, as others will tend to take the path in as a whole (should they notice it all) and certainly not see a minor blemish in sharp relief against its background. I try to remind myself too that minor misses are a risk that comes with creating anything out of found materials, and press on with the next piece of the work.

A fateful moment, when choices are set in cement

Path as step within the path, flow briefly reversed

Moving from layout to setting the stones in cement - where they will stay for a long time to come if the work is good - is both exciting and exacting. It's a time of emergence, when you experience the sense of finished form solidifying under your hand. I enjoy this part of the job immensely, if anything slowing down the execution somewhat so as to squeeze the very best out of the process. You can't easily back up from here, at least not without incurring large penalties, so this part of the job needs one's whole attention. And once begun, due to the haste with which cement sets up (especially in warm weather) it has to be brought to closure with some dispatch. What satisfaction though, hinted in the pictures below, to finally see a chunk of finished path emerge from what were once random loose stones!

Newly placed, misted to slow the mortar setting up

Same section, seams now filled and linearly tooled

A word here on path edges and 'style': I've made a virtue of necessity by allowing my edges to wander slightly with the contour of the stones. This reinforces feelings of informality arising from the irregular shapes comprising the groupings - and it affords me some useful wriggle room in achieving layouts that require expansion or contraction of width (this path varies dramatically in width along its length). This wandering edge also imparts a feeling of liquid flow to the direction of the path. Overall it reinforces a sense of rusticity.

This style of paving with mixed random shapes, loosely known as a stone carpet or stone mat, originated in the orient and is taken to its highest levels in Japan, where it blends to some degree with Zen influences. There's nothing particularly Japanese or Zen about what I'm doing here, yet there is an indirect link to what I've gleaned from observing what they do. It's my intention to try and use the design of the path to affect the experience of anyone passing through these spaces. This is a traditional Japanese design precept that became formalized with the era of the tea ceremony and its use of paths to conduct participants to the special place within the garden where tea was to be taken. In Japan, the type of path I'm making would be considered informal (or 'So') as regards the materials employed, but semi-formal (or 'Gyo') as regards the balanced and harmonious way the materials are fitted together into a pattern. I am not self-conscious about this analogy when extending the path; I work mostly intuitively and am guided by personal inclination rather than any precepts. However, informal material used in a balanced way is congruent with Japanese approaches to path-making, and to my eye this approach does produce satisfying results.  And with luck, it comes to have that power to shape and intensify the user's direct experience of passing through space, and so become memorable.

One key difference in my approach is that where the Japanese path-makers tend to leave voids or deeply rebated seams between the individual stones (often to fantastic effect) I choose to fill mine up with mortar, more or less to the brim. By doing this I sacrifice the unusual shadow effects and emphases the Japanese technique gains, a most powerful aesthetic impetus it should be said. I would be all for using those voids here too, but for the reality that they expand the labour of maintenance exponentially (or failing that, entail a loss of appearance and utility over time as biosphere invades lithosphere). For those pesky channels do fill up quickly with organic materials, in turn generating vegetation or moss, unless they are swept and cleaned continually. This is not a garden notion that's sustainable without additional hands doing the work. Lacking extra hands, and in the interests of longevity and utility as well as ease of maintenance, I choose to fill my seams so they sit more flush with the surface of the stones. And, making a virtue out of this elected necessity, I amuse myself by tooling grooves into the finish to gain a certain emphasis of outline (shown in the picture below). This choice does afford me the chance to shape those lines to graphic effect, with the added benefit that the tooled seams add substantially to the grippy quality of the finished path, making it more secure under foot in all seasons.

Tooled lines emphasize shapes, confer grippiness

 Among the challenges faced on this project were the path's gradually changing widths and elevations through different sections. This meant a gradually swelling breadth along the west end, a width like a narrow mountain path hanging off a slope to the east, and choices to be made about where the path could slope and where steps needed to be added. In the end, as things unfolded, I wound up with two gradually sloping sections of path and three distinct clusters of steps. The first set of steps, described earlier as the project's beginning point, connect concrete stairs that join the new path at a skewed angle. A second set of steps, pictured in very early evolution below, accesses a level run of the narrower section of path. 

The place where three deep steps are to be contrived

Emerging form: steps tentatively taking shape

I'm one of those weird types who likes to model things fairly exactly before setting things in place with mortar. This could almost be seen as building a path twice, as you have to take things apart again in order to actually cement your choice in place. It's the magic of compactable aggregate (crushed and ground stone that locks up with compaction - commonly, road base, or better still for paths, crusher fines comprising chips and rock dust) that allows me to model my placement prior to building. This enables me to try a section on for a time before committing to fixing it in place, a delay that affords the chance to keep tweaking or rebuilding the design. This can go on for a good long while as I positively enjoy seeing things in embryo, but it does facilitate being finicky about the look and also experiencing a design more fully before locking it in. 


As an amateur my work time isn't commercialized, so I am truly free to lavish attention on the various aspects of things. Of course I am contending with lack of knowledge and skill as an offset. But this nonetheless means I can invest time to overcome difficulties, smooth out roughness to some degree, refine form and placement, and so hopefully gain a better finished look. In commercial time, the job is typically bulled through to closure (time does in fact equal money). And skill in execution may displace expressiveness in design. But in amateur time, indefinite increments  can be carelessly expended exploring possibilities of enhanced effect - or sometimes in reaching dead ends and realizing you need to start over again. Yes, that does get in the way of getting things done, but things are moving ahead at a rather glacial pace anyway. At the phase shown below, the three steps are gradually being coaxed towards their finished elevations and complements of stone. Here I've determined that they will be between five and six inches high, with the top step turning into a long level run to the corner.

Slow work, feeling one's way towards a set of steps

Taking shape: three steps now plausibly roughed in

Refining this set of steps by trimming edges and snugging placements, then bedding the stones in mortar and filling the seams in fact took me a full winter's building and then carried on far into spring. I wanted them to feel as natural as possible (meaning, not imposed on the land) and I hoped to capture a feeling of flow through their run. That's an effect that has always fascinated me: inducing a gentle sense of movement, call it a hint of fluidity, into hard materials. This effect can take lots of tweaking to attain, so you have to be ready to lavish time on subtleties if you want it. You can certainly get it done much sooner if you forfeit this idea, but that's my expressive inclination in stone - and amateurs do make such paths in order to explore their own inclinations in materials. The next two photos give an idea how this plays out as shape is firming.

Lots of movement in the first step mortared-in

One step done, another firmed, a third still notional

Building a path that will endure involves preparing a firmly compacted base. For the easternmost run of path (the narrowest section) I decided to excavate the mixture of soil and rock chips in the existing base, and to replace it with a solid layer of road base topped with several inches of crusher fines. I wanted to get that piece of it done before wet weather set in, so the aggregate would settle and compact as the layout expanded over our long open winter. (When it's not raining, winter is a perfect time for laying out stone structures). There was a lot of breaking up, loading and lugging of organic spoil in buckets to get the space ready - hot work even in a shady spot - and then as much lugging of aggregate back in to prepare the milieu for the path. Next I proceeded to rough in a layout during the wet season, often walking on these loose stones in order to tamp down the moist base. You can see how narrow the path had to be made on this run, noting the sheer drop beside it.

Three hours work to loosen and remove the spoil

Far less work to place and tamp down aggregate

Various phases of work seen evolving in tandem

For months I tacked back and forth between laying out the run of the path and cementing the various components of those three steps in place. By alternating the work focus a job can move forward on more than one front. This sets up the opportunity to become more efficient at making progress - yet it's important to bring aspects to closure in order to sustain the sense of momentum that buoys the spirits and keeps one going. Sometimes design moves ahead fluidly, at other times it's all dead ends and new starts. When this happens, you may be better off leaving a particular facet of work alone for a time and tackling some other piece of the puzzle. Sometimes you have to set things aside so the imagination has time to refresh itself. Then suddenly, even improbably, a simple way around a blockage suggests itself and the project surges ahead. I have found that over time, and with sustained application, a rhythm begins to develop that allows you to feel more confident of moving the project along without sacrifice of appearance to arbitrary choices. That's a very special space to inhabit while creating, one to be cultivated by any means. 

Pattern fixed in place and drying before seams are filled in and tooled

To recap, the phases of this sort of stone work include base prep, initial layout, tweaked layout, mortaring in place and finally, filling and finishing of the seams. There are intervals or waits between each phase of work, from base prep to initial layout, from tweaked layout to mortaring in and filling. The photos below show the run of three steps in their finished layout, then mortared in place, and finally with the seams just filled and tooled. Fixing the stones in place with mortar is is a very satisfying point to come to in the job, and I enjoy being careful with it because this captures (or doesn't) the maximum of feeling.

Long run firming up, steps now ready for joint filling

Filling and tooling the seams: the funnest part of a job

Looking smart as it dries, to a gardener's eye anyway

I mentioned a third set of steps, at the west end of the building. These three rise up to an old and rather crudely supported concrete pad that will one day (knees and back willing) become a functioning rear terrace for the house. The utility of this part of the path is super high, these steps being the sole access to the rear door from the surrounding lands - and forming a key part of the route by which firewood (its principal fuel) enters the dwelling. These steps are also challenging in that they need to be designed integrally to the curving alignment as the path turns the building's ninety degree corner. Fortunately I am very fond of gentle curves in stone, so I actually look forward to trying to make them appear. Curves to me contribute special mystery to the complex motion of a path that feels intriguing. Pictured below is my earliest take on the path becoming those steps up to the concrete pad. The new steps are pretty notional at this point.

The curve will continue right up through the steps

From above: approaching a final layout for the curve

The point of transition between level path and steps is a finicky challenge to get right. The photos below show my efforts to make the line of the step echo the edge of the path, so the transition from flat to rise feels seamless and set into the landscape, the curving alignment continuous and fluid. The shots below depict the path's curve being mortared in place and the steps solidifying as a design. This is a big project in its own right, still not fully finished to this day, but firmed up now and providing stable access to the pad and the rear door of the house.

Nascent step and path echoing alignments

Shape of steps and flanks gradually emerging: new first step layout

This part of the project continues to evolve. As the photos below suggest, the modelled form of the steps functions as interim access to the concrete pad while the regular traffic over it compacts the base material beneath them (I think this might actually qualify as pre-loading, as it's called in construction). The left and right flanks of the steps are being extended and refined. I suppose these flanking structures would be considered 'revetment' in construction, but their actual purpose here is more aesthetic than structural: to make the patio seem fitted into the land it sits on rather than appearing, as it did originally, to appropriate it abruptly and starkly. Here I am trying to disappear some baldly utilitarian engineering, which declares properties that ought, in a picturesque lens, never to be viewed.

The final height of the individual steps will only be fully set when I eventually tackle mortaring a base in under them. They have to bring path users up to the future finished level of the pad, which is to be faced eventually with flat material to a thickness of about three inches. Cementing the steps in place is going to be a complex and time-consuming operation that I'm leaving to the future so I can focus on elaborating other aspects of the design.

This needs more tweaking before setting, here still a very long way off

A year on: elaborating the revetment to be consistent with the path and the steps

Many months have passed between the two scenes depicted above. The first picture illustrates the initial finding of form for the curving alignment. As noted, my goal was to make the curve feel as natural as possible, a continuation of the arc established by the path leading up to it. The second photo shows the gradual firming and extension of the design. The line of small stones at the base of the first step represent a potential base course under it, when I finally do get around to mortaring the ensemble in place. As you can see, I'm allowing myself to extrapolate the design further out along the flanks. This decorative revetment will close up and adorn a sharp rise to the pad, closing up and masking its eroded underpinnings. All of my work intends to make this path and steps ultimately feel as though they're fitted together rather than imposed.

Stone hues varying from sand and nearly white to pink and faintly gold

I am also striving to give these steps the consistent look that comes from using pieces of stone of similar coloration. Local sandstone comes in varying hues, from grey and blue (which tend finally to weather towards a greeny grey black) to sand and even pinky red. Sandy hues can be more stable through weathering, while pinky red seems to actually intensify over time (I think this may be due to iron oxides in this sandstone, which seem to repel organic life more than the other hues do). While these all go together amicably, I'm using more rust-coloured or salmon-pink stones for the stair ensemble because that's closer to the original coloration of exposed bedrock on that part of the site. This constitutes a buried attempt to pay homage to what was there prior to construction by incorporating its look into the design. I don't know what impact further weathering in situ will have on this sandstone (that's unpredictable), but the initial look is pleasing to my eye.

Overall, all the varying hues of local sandstone work harmoniously in random ensembles. This is evident in the long run of narrow path that's depicted below. This run brings the path to a corner that has yet to be turned - but its form begins to define how the corner will ultimately be gotten round.

Refining a potential layout by tiddling the seams

Three to four stones across give just enough width
The seams as voids reinforce the pattern of stones

Tooled seams now drying slowly

Ready to turn the next corner and continue to grow

This project began in late summer 2012 and we are now at fall 2015. Three years of irregular work bouts, sometimes as short as a couple of hours, have nonetheless given rise to some fifty feet of mortared pathway and three separate sets of steps. Handcrafting is slow work even when labour is continuously supplied, but advances at a snail's pace when possible only occasionally. For some reason I don't mind this limitation unduly. Patience with stone is a necessity, especially when one is not trained to the medium. And lavishing scarce time on a project's details pays off in better engineering and quality of finished output. Also, with experience I have come to be somewhat faster and better at execution. This is always a delicate balance - going faster raises output, but the skill lies in doing work more adroitly without sacrificing appearance. In the end, I confess, I always err on the side of taking more time.

Looking west, path sprinkled with fallen arbutus flowers

"Collecting what has been overlooked or unappreciated and making something useful with it feels like an alchemist's trick." Dan Snow, dry-stone waller