Sites For Sore Eyes

Following a creative muse

by Phyl Newbeck

cynthia_knaufCynthia Knauf of Cynthia Knauf Landscape Design in Burlington has applied her journalistic talent, for organizing thoughts into a composition, to the creation of physical outdoor spaces.

Cynthia Knauf loves her job as a landscape architect but she admits there are days when she’d like to trade her desk for more time outdoors. In spite of the necessary indoors work, she’s thankful that her position as founder and owner of Cynthia Knauf Landscape Design, Inc. allows her to help connect others to the natural world she loves.

Knauf grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, the daughter of a pair of educators. “My mother was a history teacher and then a kindergarten teacher, and my dad was an elementary school principal,” she recalls. “They were very much people-oriented and loved sharing their interests and passions with others.”

Knauf loved walking and hiking in the woods. “My parents were gardeners and naturalists,” she says “and they educated me about how the native plants of eastern Pennsylvania grow and how to identify birds by sight and sound. I spend a lot of time outdoors so it makes sense that I’m in a profession that helps people enjoy the outside of their homes.”

Landscape architecture was not Knauf’s first profession; in fact, she’d never heard of the field when she was growing up. Instead, she channeled her love of the outdoors into a journalism degree from Moravian College in 1980. While journalism and the outdoors don’t always go together, they did for Knauf since her first job in the field was as an editor for Rodale, which publishes magazines on gardening, outdoor sports, health, and nutrition.

“Journalism is very much about organizing thoughts into a composition,” she says. “It’s a bit like designing and I enjoyed it, but I really wanted to do something where I could incorporate my outdoors lifestyle into a career.”

With that thought in mind, Knauf took a sabbatical from Rodale to work for the Appalachian Mountain Club in the White Mountains as the manager and naturalist for the Crawford Notch Hostel. “That gave me time to take a deep breath and do some research,” she says. “I was trying to learn about career options by talking with other people and reading. That’s when I learned about landscape architecture.” She subsequently left her job to study at the Conway School of Landscape Design, earning her master’s degree in landscape design and planning in 1989.

Knauf had always wanted to live in New England, so she was excited to land a position with Charles Burnham Land Planning in Stowe after graduation. Unfortunately, the economy was in a downturn, and when Burnham had to reduce his staff, Knauf lost her job.

She had developed a friendship with architect Milford Cushman, who invited her to work on some projects. Through those projects, she tried to get to know as many people as possible in the field, networking with architects and civil engineers. “The success of this business depends on building a reputation and making connections,” she says.

Through Cushman, Knauf met Ernest Ruskey, an architect with whom she developed both a personal and professional relationship. Their firm, Ruskey Knauf, started in 1992 and dissolved in 2005 after the pair divorced. From there, she moved to Montpelier where she opened Cynthia Knauf Landscape Design Inc., but in 2009 she relocated to Burlington. Knauf believes that having had her business in different locations has been helpful for networking. “Vermont is so small you need to have an extensive territory,” she says.

Cynthia Knauf Landscape Design is a year-round business that employs two part-timers. “I like to have new projects come in the fall,” she says. In addition to meeting with clients, Knauf talks with contractors, does drawings, purchases supplies, and signs contracts with the hope of starting work in April. “Construction season is short so you want to get started as soon as the ground thaws,” she says. “Spring, summer, fall, I need to be on-site during construction, and there are always new projects coming in so it’s a year-round job.”

Ideally, Knauf likes to get her phone calls over with in the early morning so she can spend the rest of the day giving full attention to designing. In the spring and summer, she tries to do her site visits in the mornings, as well.

Nate Carr of Church Hill Landscapes in Charlotte has been working with Knauf for six years. “She is very collaborative,” he says. “She is the one with the vision and communicates it to everyone on the team. What sets her apart is she’s really willing to work directly with all the tradespeople to execute her vision.”

Carr says it’s obvious Knauf takes a personal interest in her clients. “She makes sure the customer gets a fantastic product. It’s not about her but about what they want.”

Although most of Knauf’s work is in Vermont, she travels around northern New England and recently did projects for a family in Montreal (their primary residence) and Barbados (their third home). She has also done work in Chicago and Victor, Idaho. A favorite project is one where she collaborated with architect Sarah Susanka on a house in Morrisville.

“It’s a home in this old meadow that was a farm many years ago,” she says. “The owners were great plant lovers, and they wanted to blend the arts and crafts architectural style of their house with Asian style, carrying those elements in a seamless flow out into the landscape.

Another project, which recently won a Green Works award, is a house in Burlington on less than a quarter acre of land. “A project doesn’t have to be big,” she says. “We used stone walls to create a series of spaces on land that had been steep and overgrown.”

In 2010, Susan Waring and her husband hired Knauf for a home they were building in South Hero. They had taken down an existing house and needed help figuring out a new landscape design. The Warings interviewed a number of landscape architects but chose Knauf because of her listening skills.

“She’s extremely creative,” Waring says. “She knew that I wanted less maintenance. I wanted it to be beautiful but I didn’t want to be tied to the house. We’ve had her come back periodically as things have grown.”

One of the changes Knauf has seen in her work is a big push for sustainability — a trend she approves of. “I’ve designed some green roofs and rain gardens,” she says. “Dealing with storm water is frequently part of the design.” Particularly in Burlington, Knauf says, designs must show that a project won’t increase storm water runoff and there are additional regulations to protect the lakeshore. “There is a much greater awareness of how construction will affect the environment,” she says. “I think that’s a great thing.”

Other changes are the desire of clients to cut down on energy consumption, a recognition of the importance of using native plants instead of invasives, and a trend toward using local materials to reduce the environmental impact of transportation.

Knauf lives in Burlington’s South End, a block from Oakledge Park. In the summer, she bicycles, hikes, sails, swims, and plays tennis. In the winter, she likes snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. She has practiced tai chi for over 15 years, enjoys ballroom dancing (especially rumba, cha-cha, and waltz), and travels whenever she has a chance.

“I grew up on my bike,” she says. “Working with the staff from Bicycling magazine, I learned how to be a good cyclist.” Some of her favorite bike loops are on the Lake Champlain islands, but on one memorable trip she fought stiff winds on a trek through Newfoundland. Spring through fall, Knauf tries to bike at least four times a week, although that cuts into her sailing time. “Both sports provide that sense of being alive because you’re so aware of the wind,” she says.

Knauf believes design should take into account existing conditions, rather than force something that doesn’t work with the soil, hydrology, and wind and sun exposure, but she recognizes that sometimes clients have ideas that aren’t feasible. It’s her job to help them find their vision but also find something that fits the land well.

Knauf’s work has been showcased in a number of publications including Design New England, New England Home, and Vermont magazines and This Old House Journal. In addition to her recent Green Works award she received a Merit Award for Public Places from the Vermont chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Knauf continues to enjoy her job. “I love colors, textures, and fragrances,” she says. “I love the outdoors. I feel so lucky to be able to work with different materials, sounds, and smells. I love to be able to bring those together to create a palette.” She enjoys subtle elements like the sound of running water or the wind through the grass, and the crunch of a footstep over different materials. She is pleased when she is able to plant with wildlife in mind and hear the chirping of birds in the morning.

Thinking about those projects makes Knauf smile, but a little more time outdoors would do even more for her. “Sometimes I wish I could move my drawing table outside,” she says. “On a beautiful day in summer it’s tough to be inside.” •