With Landscaping Month in full swing, we are very excited to present our interview with Haig Seferian. You may recognize that name from his presence on HGTV or his big-selling book “Hardscaping”. We had the opportunity to meet with Seferian and his right hand man, Brad Smith, last week. We discussed a variety of topics, ranging from how Seferian got his start in landscape architecture to how he ended up hosting many HGTV shows.
NewInHomes (NIH): How did you start out in landscape architecture? Was it something that you wanted to do at a young age?
Haig Seferian (HS): It was really quite funny how it happened. Back in my day, there was grade 13, that would be when you decided to move on to college or stay. I stayed for grade 13, and as Christmas approached, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was time to make a call. I only had January to make a decision. I made a list of stuff that I liked to do. I liked to be outside, I liked art, I liked to be creative. I came across something from the University of Guelph about Landscape Architects, and felt that it was interesting. I pursued it; it was tough at the time, as they only took 30 students and 233 people applied, but I was lucky enough to make it in. All throughout high school I was a C student. There was nothing that really grabbed or interested me, but in this program, all of a sudden I’m getting 80s, 90s, the hours are floating by, and I was having fun. I knew this was right.
I spent my summers in the field, learning about construction and focused on design. I worked 12 years with a construction company, a design-build firm. I cut my teeth on how things were put together. At that point, in ‘92, I decided it was time to go on my own. We were in a recession, and I got bored. We had done numerous $1 million dollar gardens, but now we were back to simply doing the $10,000 gardens. It was a tough transition. I decided that it was time to try my own hand at it, so I opened up Seferian Design Group Inc. I remember my friends telling me I was nuts, and I said to them, ‘If I can get through from the bottom of a recession, nothing will scare me.’ Now, we have a robust office with a great team. We have a lot of fun.
We are small by design. Every project that comes into our company is touched by every member of our team. We don’t have junior staff that we fluff stuff onto. We don’t have walls in the office; it’s open concept, something I learned in university. As I’m walking by, I’ll see what people are working on – a second eye can help. We have quick discussions at the boardroom table. We all work together. Everyone who is in the company now plays an important role. Everyone has their experience and brings something new to the table.
NIH: You’ve been involved in many HGTV series. How did that begin?
HS: That was by chance, kind of like how I fell into the landscape architecture role. I belong to a number of industry associations: Landscape Ontario, the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects, and I’m a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. I’ve always volunteered a lot in my career. Back in 1996, when HGTV had just gotten approval, producers were out trying to create home and garden shows. One producer had contacted a number of the associations I had belonged to, and I guess they recommended me. I was contacted to come in and act as an advisor, simply a one-time shot. I was happy to do so; if my industry is calling, I’m happy to help out.
It was something out of a movie, I went to the warehouse and we went through 300 pictures of gardens, with me talking about each – what worked and didn’t work – and the producer scribbled down info on each one. We went for three hours. I guess what they did, was created scripts and hired a host to read the script at the shoots. It didn’t come off as believable. I got a call one night and was asked to do a screen test. It wasn’t something that I was interested in doing, but my wife convinced me to give it a shot. What did I have to lose? I drove out to the Beaches, and as soon as I arrived, the show started. The producer presented their house, and I talked about what I saw. They sent it down to Atlanta, and on Monday I had a contract. I was offered to host the show. I wasn’t sure, but once again, my wife convinced me to give it a try. We tried it once and it turned into five seasons. We were the first show to air on HGTV Canada. That opened the door to a whole array of other things. Those five years and 65 shows are now in 12 languages floating around the world. I still do public speaking on the basis of that show. The show also offered the opportunity for me to write my first book. It was always one show after another. I’ve probably done six or seven shows. It’s been a ton of fun.
NIH: Is there one show that really stands out? One where you truly helped people?
HS: Each one helped people in a different way. The first one was called ‘Garden Architecture.’ It wasn’t a construction show. It was about coming in post-construction, meeting with the home owner, architect, or construction manager, and learning about the story. Every garden has a story; there has to be. I would talk about what works and what doesn’t work in the garden. There are fundamentals in design that are universal. I still get comments from people, they learned something, it taught design process – it still works.
We did ‘Great City Gardens’ where we pitted one city against another. There was ‘Landscape Challenge,’ ‘The Indoor Gardener,’ and then most recently ‘Greenforce.’ Greenforce went into communities that needed help, that couldn’t do things on their own. It pulled communities and trades together. A perfect example is Percy Street Park, down by Cherry Street. The first time that we went into it, we saw this triangular plot that was not taken care of. Graffiti everywhere, condoms, needles – the thugs had taken over. We pulled the neighbourhood together. People that lived there didn’t know that the park existed. We held community meetings and people from the area came with shovels asking how they could help. We consulted with everyone and brought vegetable gardens and gathering places. We did the design, and called up our trades and suppliers. They were happy to help make a statement. The locals got a $250,000 garden that was built for them in three weeks at no cost.
We did a similar project in Burlington for the Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington. $450,000 garden and we included all the horticultural students in Humber College. They were out there for three weeks, all their classes were held at the site with the industry professionals working beside them. That show helped a lot of people.
NIH: How else does Seferian Design Group help the community?
HS: We got an award from the City of Burlington Chamber of Commerce for the Best Small Business in 2012. That’s because we help. I grew up in smaller communities, so they’re close to my heart. My dad always taught me to help when we can, small or large. Our office is based in Burlington, so every year we help in our community. The Carey House, the Carpenter Hospice, The Burlington Arts Centre, where we can help, we help them. We’ll continue to do it as well. As time goes on, we’ll see more and more projects and help as much as we can. It gets me excited to see communities take ownership of our work – we may put the hours in initially, but they take ownership once we are gone.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Haig Seferian, where we discuss the elements of a perfect garden, some of the most interesting projects that he's worked on, and how technology has changed the landscaping industry.