Features: The Great Outdoors

by Editorial

A trio of D.C. design experts redefines the perfect outdoor space.

From left: Don Gwiz, Barry Dixon and Tom Martin at the home of clients Norma and Russ Ramsey. (Photo by John Arundel)

Summertime in Washington for Don Gwiz, Barry Dixon and Tom Martin is often the busiest time of the year. The design trio runs local companies that build high-end, dramatic outdoor spaces, usually framed by a magnificent pool, waterfall or koi pond. During a visit with Washington Life in the recently completed backyard oasis they created for Norma and Russ Ramsey, they display a keen expertise for designing comfortably luxe outdoor living spaces.

Don Gwiz, president, Lewis-Aquatech, Chantilly, Va.

What is unique about the way you design?

Good outdoor designs are about unique architecture, floor paneling and spatial planning more than a feature or a function or colored lights. It’s about how you make the space work with the back yard.  A decade ago, outside spaces became more elegant. In the last four to five years, the furnishings have stepped up significantly.

What are the trends in pools these days?

Ten to 15 years ago we didn’t think of outdoor living with furniture, kitchens, TVs, cooling stations, elegant furniture or beautiful landscapes. Now we are more of an architectural firm, focusing on form and function and vocabulary rather than just creating a place to jump in and get wet.

How’s business?

Business has been very good. It seems that D.C. is somewhat more recession proof than the rest of the country.   We have been blessed to also be doing work in Jeddha, Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

I was in New Orleans recently doing a project when a potential client contacted us to design his space. He flew here on a private plane and we took him to five or six nice projects and we had ourselves a contract. We took a big fish to an even bigger fish’s pond. We are design and construction management so we’re not focused on the sticks and bricks. We’re talking about architecture and floor plan.

Tell us about your most challenging project.

The most challenging project was done in a short timeline; we built it in less than four months with $1.7 million worth of work. There were 40-plus construction guys on site.  That’s a lot of work and a lot of moving parts: water, landscaping, irrigation, lighting, pool house, bathroom, pergola, fireplace and waterfall.

We also gained a heroic fan and subsequent got referrals out of it. It was nice for this very wealthy and well-traveled client to come to his residence and find a finished project that exceeded his expectations.

An outdoor oasis created for Norma and Russ Ramsey. Pool by Lewis-Aquatech, landscaping by Martin Lawn and Landscape, and design by Barry Dixon. (Photo by Tony Brown)

Barry Dixon, interior designer, Warrenton, Va.

What interior design trends are making their way into outdoor areas?

The expectation of the client has changed from standard outdoor spaces, small simple areas and the typical furnishings you would see near a pool. Now the furnishings and the form of outdoor living areas has gotten nicer.  People are demanding more and expecting more than just your standard pool landscapes.  The formal living or dining room furnishings that we’ve taken to the outdoors have to measure properly

We introduced a lot of new pieces for this company this year. It’s huge and we’re not the only ones who have collections for outdoor manufacturers. We started designing things that look like they could be inside of the house, but instead they are going to be placed outside in all-weather material.

Tom Martin, president, Martin Lawn and Landscape, McLean, Va.

What were some of the most fulfilling aspects of the project for the Ramseys?

This project for the Ramseys was a lot of fun. It’s a project that everyone became invested in personally. We knew that the client really cared about what they got, so at the end of the day, it was very rewarding that she loved it. You got to feel like you really accomplished something that you were personally invested in.

But this was also a difficult project because it was working around an existing landscape and pool that had not been recently updated. There were some structural issues that Don had to deal with in the existing walls and patios. We were working around existing plumbing, electrical lines, gas lines that all needed to be redone. It was difficult to coordinate but it turned out well.

How’s is your business going?

It’s going great. Fantastic, actually. We’ve been in business for 21 years and most of our clients are in recession-proof areas like McLean, Great Falls, Vienna and Ashburn.

What are some trends in landscaping these days?

People are more focused on the outdoors and outdoor living spaces and it’s nice because people have gotten outside whether they use it or not.

See more in the Summer 2012 issue of Washington Life Magazine.

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