Edward Colahan once had a respectable white-collar job, a house in the suburbs and an aching desire to leave it all behind. Four years later, he labors in a cramped basement apartment crafting gardens for hire.
He may have swapped one cubicle for another -- this one shared with racks of hanging clothes and a rambunctious Weimaraner puppy named Hero -- but it is a workplace of his own making and destiny. "I love it," said the 42-year-old landscape designer. "All my friends tell me I'm much happier now."
Though still relatively new and with no great body of work under his belt, Colahan has been noticed by fellow designers for his ability to craft spaces with a master's eye. "He has an innate sense of good taste, he really gets it," said Marty Hays, a landscape designer based in Annandale who shares a Web site with Colahan and other independent designers (www.living-gardens.com).
Already, Colahan has demonstrated an unusual gift for taking city yards that are small and awkward, sometimes derelict, and converting them into alluring and useful outdoor rooms.
His gardens are traditional in materials and feel, elegant in their restraint and more stylish than stylized. He counts as his design heroes Beatrix Farrand, the principal designer of the landscape at Dumbarton Oaks, and Thomas Church, a modernist who blended beauty with utility in suburban yards after World War II.
Showing off his own work, Colahan pores over the drawings and photographs of a Capitol Hill garden he designed whose exterior consisted of a heavy, boarded deck used to store trash cans, a brick patio, a chain link fence and little more. The transformation is stunning. A new deck, slightly expanded, is made of nut-brown Brazilian Ipe wood. Steel cables form a transparent railing. The brick is gone, replaced with a patio of diagonal bands of bluestone between tan flagstone, enclosed with a stone wall and a fence of natural cedar.
"We extended the deck less than two feet but it feels so much larger," he said.
Small as it is, the garden captures the essence of Colahan's design philosophies, incorporating careful realignment of spaces, craftsmanship in construction, attention to details and a strong underlying architecture. When he caps a low wall for sitting -- a seat wall in design parlance -- it is with a thick piece of flagstone. A stone cap less than an inch thick looks flimsy even if it isn't. With a two-inch slab "the proportions are better and it looks like it's there and meant to stay," he said.
Fussing over the width of a joint, for example, may seem excessive, but Hays said when you sit in a garden continually for years, such details are noticed and become important.
"I like good structure," said Colahan. "It must look good twelve months a year with very good materials, craftsmanship. All of it costs money and probably the biggest drawback to getting really good gardens built is that everything is so expensive." Of course, people also spend large sums of money on new gardens of mediocre design: landscapes that might be superficially eye-catching with lots of retaining walls and crammed with evergreens, but ultimately lacking in craftsmanship, originality and other flaws that the timeless garden seeks to avoid.
Colahan worked for 14 years in the corporate world, as a project manager for a major travel company. "I was in my mid-30s and thought I didn't want to be in a cubicle when I'm 40 and certainly didn't want to when I was 50," he said. "I started the long process of figuring out what I really wanted to do."
He went through the landscape design program at George Washington University and emerged quitting his job, selling his house and living meagerly. He worked first for a design-build company in the suburbs and then joined the studio of landscape designer Jane MacLeish before creating his own company, Edward Colahan Landscape & Garden Design, two years ago out of his basement apartment in Upper Northwest near Takoma Park.
Like his seat walls, Colahan means to stay. In five to 10 years he sees a practice that has expanded, with two or three other designers, but is still essentially a boutique enterprise with a definite design credo.
"My goal is not to make it exciting, my goal is to make it feel right," he said, "so that the garden feels like an extension of the house, or an extension of the client."
To Watch in 2005
Architects: Marcie Meditch and John Murphey
Furniture Maker: Keith Fritz
Interior Designer: Celeste Davis
Retailers: Tamara Schulman and Gloria de Lourdes Blalock