February 09, 2004

Will artificial grass start to grow on Seattleites?

Reprinted from: The Daily Journal of Commerce

John Davidson, owner of Dream Turf
Photo by Jon Silver

John Davidson inspects the FieldTurf yard of Steve Emtman, one of his partners in Dream Turf, an artificial-landscaping company.


Journal Staff Reporter

Steve Emtman on Astroturf is like an Atkins dieter getting locked in a bakery -- horror ensues.

The University of Washington football star's promising career in the National Football League unraveled in the 1990s after he blew out his knees on the unforgiving artificial surface of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. ESPN.com and other sports publications now list Emtman among of the NFL's all-time biggest disappointments.

But Emtman likes FieldTurf well enough to carpet his backyard with it, which speaks to recent advancements that have bolstered the popularity of synthetic playing surfaces. The UW, Washington State and the Seattle Seahawks have all installed FieldTurf in the last five years.

Like Emtman, people are putting it in at home, too.

Mucking around in a muddy, sod-stripped yard last week, John Davidson, who runs a Kirkland-based artificial-landscaping company, said he expects to complete over 100 FieldTurf installations this year -- most of them residential.

Workers were preparing a sloped site to install 2,500 square feet of turf. The retired couple that occupies the multimillion-dollar Laurelhurst home is typical of Davidson's clients, whom he described as owning "higher-end" homes and eager to give up the rigors of lawn care.

From a distance, FieldTurf can be tough to distinguish from the real thing.

"Sometimes people scoff and laugh at first," Davidson said. "But they see it and their concerns are relieved."

Jennie McDonald, who owns Dragonfly Landscape Design in Olympia, doesn't object to using an artificial surface if a client asks for it.

"It looks pretty real nowadays," she said.

So when a client with grass allergies sought to install FieldTurf in her yard, "I was game to put it in," McDonald said.

Davidson, 41, started his company, Dream Turf, in 2002 after 20 years in the cedar siding business, 18 of them with Colonial Cedar Co., where he was general manager.

As the siding company lost ground to low-maintenance products like vinyl siding, Davidson began casting about for an exit strategy. After a year of research, he decided to sell FieldTurf -- a natural choice for someone watching the residential yard market glom onto an ever-widening array of convenience products.

Within weeks of beginning his business, Davidson snagged a booth at the Seattle Home Show, thanks to a family connection.

Emtman, now a coach at UW, stopped by the booth and liked what he saw, later installing about 1,500 square feet of FieldTurf at his lakefront home near Sand Point. Emtman was impressed enough with the business that he offered to invest.

"At first I was kind of flattered," Davidson said. "I thought he was just being nice to us."

Emtman was persistent, though, and Davidson eventually relented.

"How do you say no to a 6-foot-5, 330-pound guy?" he asked.

So Emtman is now the company president, dividing his time among Dream Turf, coaching and a real estate investment business.

Davidson is chief executive, and a third partner, Rick Griffiths, who has a construction background, is vice president of operations. The partnership works well, Griffiths said, because everyone's skills are complementary.

Shipped from Scotland

If Astroturf is essentially carpeted asphalt, FieldTurf -- a blend of polyethyline and polypropylene -- is a different surface altogether.

After the sod is stripped away and any sprinkler heads are capped, installers lay down a permeable weed barrier, followed by 3 inches of clean, crushed gravel, which is evenly spread and then compacted. Giant rolls of turf -- shipped from a factory in Scotland -- are then unfurled and cut to size.

Workers use industrial drop spreaders to complete the infill process, dumping a mix of sand and recycled rubber (Nike sneaker soles), so the turf has enough give to approximate real sod. Once it's snugly in place, the turf is given the once-over with a lawn mower-like device that uses wire brushes to split the turf strips into natural-looking blades.

The process generally takes several days. Rain can delay installation for weeks.

Once it's in, little upkeep is required beyond the occasional leaf blowing or brushing, which keeps the turf from matting down. Dog doo should be scooped.

Dream Turf offers an eight-year warranty for its lawns, but Davidson said surfaces should hold up for 20-30 years. The oldest FieldTurf lawn Davidson has inspected was installed in Phoenix, which, after 11 years still looks good, he said. To prevent fading, the turf is treated to withstand ultraviolet light.

Revenues to hit $1M

Davidson said his company has taken on a few commercial customers, including a school and a day care center, but his contract with Montreal-based FieldTurf -- his exclusive turf supplier -- ensures the two companies don't step on each other's toes.

"They hit the home runs," Davidson said, referring to FieldTurf's large-scale athletic field projects. "We hit the singles and doubles," which include the residential and smaller commercial jobs.

A typical Dream Turf installation covers about 1,000 square feet, at about $8.50 a square foot.

As the only residential FieldTurf distributor in the region, Davidson expects to see competition arrive eventually, but he hopes to have his business firmly entrenched by then. Davidson expects gross revenues to hit $1 million this year.

Rubber mulch

To keep a step ahead, he's expanding his business into other artificial landscaping, including ponds, rocks and even rubber mulch. He recently inked an agreement with British Columbia company Stone FX, which creates rock landscapes for Vancouver film sets

Davidson's company will soon take on a new name, Dream Yard, to reflect the expanded focus. In April, he'll also move into a larger office and warehouse space in Redmond.

Susan Byersdorf of Sound Turf Farms in Sumner Valley said she isn't aware of any surging interest in artificial turf, but she surmises the surface has its drawbacks, including clean-up after pets.

"No matter how it looks, it's still not a living, breathing thing," she said.

The company's 200-acre sod farm serves landscapers and homeowners, who can buy turf for 25-30 cents a square foot.

Davidson said FieldTurf has at least one major edge over natural grass -- it doesn't require pesticides or fertilizer. To demonstrate FieldTurf's environmental credentials, he set a slab of turf -- gravel, infill and all -- over a fish tank to show how water draining through the turf is safe enough to keep a fish alive.

The company is a member of Built Green, the environmentally friendly program of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

Jon Silver can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.
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