Tubbs fire survivors create landscaping app, Yardzen, to help revive their space — and help others do so too
Allison and Adam Messner were sure their Franz Valley house was destroyed during the early hours of the Tubbs fire as it burned a wide path of destruction from Calistoga to Santa Rosa.
But their home, which sits on four acres on the Sonoma County side of Calistoga near Safari West, was one of those that was spared, although houses all around were left in ruins.
The fire had come breathtakingly close however, ripping through their property and destroying the landscape. It also took much of their fence, damaged their water tanks and irrigation system and killed mature bay and pine trees. Fire basically burned the entire perimeter of the house and ravaged three of their four acres.
The couple felt extremely grateful their home was spared when so many neighbors were not so fortunate. They surmise it might have helped that they have a creek on one side, were careful about mowing and had created “a defensible space” around their home.
Still, their landscape had to be completely redone.
“We filed an insurance claim and collected some money to rebuild the yard. We called a handful of landscape designers thinking we should do it the right way. But everybody was either too busy or exorbitantly expensive,” Allison Messner said. “I’m sure they do fantastic work and have a lot of happy customers. But we had sticker shock finding out how much it would cost to have a professional come in and design our outdoor space.”
She said she was getting estimates of $5,000 to $10,000 just for plans.
It was then that the two technology entrepreneurs hit upon a possible solution that in the past eight months has grown into a promising enterprise giving homeowners a lower-cost option for landscape design.
The couple created a web-based design service called Yardzen. Through the new site, people can retain a landscape designer or architect. Using technology and a good database of plants and other information, a designer can create a plan essentially for anyone, anywhere, that is suited specifically to the needs of an individual property owner, whether they live in Massachusetts or California.
“We’re both entrepreneurs and we just try to envision solutions to challenges,” said Allison, who was part of the founding team of an Internet security company. Husband Adam started LiveWire Electrical Supply.
“Around January we were starting to do our own landscaping and thinking there has got to be an easier and more cost-efficient way to do design. By March we were committed to doing this,” Messner said.
They officially launched in late July. Write-ups in the New York Times, Forbes and Garden Center Magazine, boosted the fledgling company born out of last year’s horrific firestorms. They now have 18 designers signed on doing up to 10 projects at a time and are looking for more. Two are in the Bay Area although none yet in Sonoma County.
“We’ve completed more than 150 designs for people all over the world,” Messner said.
The couple believe the service could be an option for many people, like them, who lost their landscapes in the fires but have somewhat limited budgets. The cost for a full yard design - front- and backyards - is $1,495. A partial design for either front or back, is $995. They also will do small section “Botanical Makeovers” for smaller sections of a garden, including design, plants and spacing, planting and placement instructions for $249.
In addition to costing less, the service can save time and offer more flexibility, she said. Messner said with Yardzen you don’t have to meet on site with a designer and you’re not locked in to using the nurseries or subcontractors that some designers have relationships with.
So how does it work? A homeowner can walk around their own property with a phone, filming their yard space as they explain what they like and what they don’t like and what they want. They can point out shrubs they’d like to see go and survey the space while asking questions like, “I’d like a place for a trampoline for my kids and don’t know where to put it.”
Using the home video and satellite imagery, Yardzen will create what Messner said is an accurate 3-D replica of a home and the space around it.
People using the service fill out a design profile with 20 questions that offer options to help a designer determine your preferences, covering everything from planter boxes and deck railings to pathways, plant preferences, outdoor kitchens or play areas.
They tried out the system themselves for their own landscape.
“We found a designer online. I just started searching for landscape designers and there are websites where people feature their works. We found somebody we really liked and reached out to her and explained what we were doing. She said, ‘Sure, I’m game.’”