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  • Writer's pictureEric McQuiston, PLA

Bridging the Gap Between Landscape Architects and Contractors: Fostering Harmony



As a licensed landscape architect and contractor for 30+ years, I have a question for the professional contractors out there... How do you feel about working with architects. What are your biggest gripes? What p----s you off? How has that partnership been beneficial? What do you wish the architects could understand?

Don't hold back! You will not hurt my feelings. - Thanks”


 

INTRODUCTION


I recently took to some professional Facebook groups to pose this question. My reasons for doing so are rooted in my own personal experiences as both a contractor and an architect. I have found that many contractors are hesitant to work with landscape architects for a number of reasons. And as an architect I am frustrated by the initial reaction that I often get from landscape contractors. This, often poor, perception that contractors have of architects is unfortunate but in many cases, deserved. And since this reputation has such a detrimental effect on my own business I wanted to better understand the issue and share what I have learned.


I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who responded to my query. Your personal experiences and comments have confirmed to some degree what I've observed throughout my own career. I will share some of these at the end of this article. (I will, for privacy, remove any identifiable information and only use initials of the respondents)


While my previous article Enhancing Collaboration focused on how landscape architects can help contractors, my main reason for writing this article is to provide my fellow landscape architects some insight into how they are often perceived by the contractors tasked with installing their designs so that they may do a better job at making the contractor an integral part of the finished project. It is not meant as an indictment of landscape architects by any means. I believe that most landscape architects are very passionate about representing their clients best interests and preserving the integrity of the designs that they have created for them. Like some architects, many contractors also allow their personal feelings and ego to get in the way and a few are just downright unprofessional in business and workmanship, we all know it. My best advice is to develop great working relationships based upon mutual respect, effective communication and a shared desire for a successful outcome.


 

Personal Experience


So, to begin, allow me to provide a bit of context. I began my career over 30 years ago. After serving in the US Coast Guard and completing college, I started as a laborer in residential design/build on the Gulf Coast and then the North-East. I got my hands dirty doing the real grunt work, and over time, I worked my way up to foreman, then supervisor, and finally transitioned into design and sales. I eventually ran the design department of a very successful residential design/build firm for several years. My journey then took me south, where I worked for a major commercial landscape contractor as a designer and architect. During that time, I had the opportunity to work on a number of large-scale commercial projects, including casinos, municipal projects, and commercial swimming pools. It was crucial to ensure that the designs I created were not just aesthetically pleasing but also practical, realistic, and geared towards ease of maintenance, given that the company had a maintenance division. I took the knowledge I gained there and applied it to several A/E firms before assisting a young colleague in establishing his design/build firm. Eventually, I found myself taking the reins of that endeavor (a long story in itself). These days, I operate my own small design office, working on projects ranging from residential to commercial and some municipal. I specialize in providing design services on an as-needed basis to contractors lacking in-house design staff. I also collaborate with emerging landscape contractors, helping them expand their service offerings through consulting and hands-on training (I'm ICPI certified and also hold licenses in landscape horticulture and irrigation among other things).


 

COLLABORATION


Throughout my career, I've had the privilege of experiencing both sides of the architect-contractor dynamic. I firmly believe that contractors can learn invaluable lessons about effective design from architects, while architects can benefit immensely from the practical insights of contractors. This collaborative approach, especially in residential projects, can result in more successful endeavors and satisfied clients.


Happy Customers is the Goal
 

OBSTACLES


In my opinion, the main obstacles hindering successful collaboration between architects and contractors are ego and arrogance. Architects who remain humble and open to input from contractors can discover innovative solutions that enhance the functionality of their designs. Similarly, contractors can gain a deeper understanding of design principles that make projects more aesthetically appealing and environmentally responsive. Ultimately, keeping the project's success as the primary goal should guide all involved parties.


 

Fostering Harmony

FOSTERING HARMONY


To foster a harmonious relationship between architects and contractors, patience and mutual respect are paramount. Instead of viewing each other as adversaries, we should embrace the opportunity to learn from one another. By approaching projects as collaborative endeavors, we can create spaces that not only look stunning but also function seamlessly, all while satisfying our clients' needs.


 

CONCLUSION


In conclusion, the collaboration between architects and contractors is a crucial aspect of the landscape industry. By shedding ego and arrogance in favor of open communication and mutual respect, we can pave the way for more successful projects, happier clients, and a thriving industry. I encourage you to continue sharing your thoughts and experiences with me, either in the comments or by reaching out directly. You can contact me at ermcquiston@gmail.com and stay updated by following my page and visiting my website.


Thank you once again for your valuable contributions and insights.


~ Eric


 

In order to clearly illustrate my conclusions I feel it is important to share some of the responses to my question. In the interest of privacy, I have removed any personal information and have only used the respondents initials.


Original Post:



Replies:


A.B.

Top contributor

They don't consider the cost of their designs. I recently put a bid on a new construction gas/car wash on a corner lot as a Landscaping contractor. I am licensed in ----------. They wanted over 7,500 feet of underground 3/4" PVC pipe to water the plants. Every 1 ft of pipe had a T connector and a pipe going up to a drip emitter. Irrigation materials alone was nearly $30k. It would have been cheaper and so much faster to just run a 1/2" drip tubing and put emitters directly on the pipe for the same effect and would have been at least $10k cheaper not including being half the labor time. Other cases the LA mandated a 12 zone controller be used even though there were only 4 zones being used. That is over $300 in extra expenses that will have no benefit.



J.F.

The number 1 challenge I've seen has mostly been with larger firms designing in areas they are not familiar with. They have a tendency to ignore/overlook the availability of materials in each specific area. Also, trade knowledge and common practice in a specific area. Bringing new ideas to an area can be a great thing, but the customer should be informed if that's the case.

In the simplest terms, most landscape architects lack common sense. This isn't industry specific. People that start in the field, care about their customers, and grow into a design/planning/management position through education and experience are always going to do better by their customers and industry. It's a societal flaw that was born out of prioritizing a college degree over experience in the field.



J.R.

I always appreciate how LA's rarely account for maintenence. They pack beds with plants. Put 25' trees (at maturity and freaking Cherry trees and Pears to make it worse) , 6' from a house foundation. Have beds designed with 1.25' feet of grass between a tree mulch ring and and a 10k sf bed. ALL of this was designed in a 5000 unit development 3 miles from me.

I've only ever had one residential client have an "official" LA design. We went over it, I removed probably half the plants from the design.



S.L.

So... I am a designer (not an architect) with 25 years of experience in horticulture, hardscaping, etc. and I agree with J.F. above. My biggest gripe would be with architects providing designs that do not meet needs and requirements of specific job sites and spec'ing plant material that is not appropriate for the sites based on erroneous USDA zoning information (don't even get me started on that) or that is simply not availible in a local area. I also get called to revise plans drawn out of the area when local irrigation design standards are not met and the original architect/designer is not qualified to produce the necessary drawings and plans for permit submissions.



C.T.

Top contributor

I’m not a licensed LA (yet) but I am planning to start my L.A.R.E exams in December…have a bachelors in Landscape Architecture and a few years at a firm as jr. designer.

In 2010 I took a hardscape construction job with a stone mason. Instantly I understood the disconnect.

I never really could wrap my mind around site grading problems in school, but once I could run an excavator and skid steer, manipulating topos into landforms made sense.

I have my own design build biz in ---------. I am designer, builder, stone mason, EQ operator and planter.

I feel the LA curriculum and industry could benefit greatly from logging mandatory hours/years of construction experience.

Just finishing up a stone fire pit for a Local LA. It was an awesome experience because it was a collaborative effort. There were changes every day and I kept an open mind, ultimately the build is much better. Also the LA trusted my design background and experience with stone.

I see a lot of comments on this thread saying LAs are worthless, half of these guys saying that don’t even have a contractors licenses. I think it’s an ego thing.


C.B.

I've loved working with architects. Maintain communication and it is great.


C.K.

They’re terrible. They follow lines on a computer, call for plants in areas that will cause significant issues 5-10 years down the road, have zero in field knowledge, and can’t get measurements correct. Landscape Architects are worthless and only needed for regulation reasons…. Even then, I’m not sure of instances where they are ‘needed’. Many guys in this group far surpass landscape architects abilities

F.Y.

Top contributor

C.K. that may happen or not, depending on many factors

1: if plans or measurements are provided by the contractor is Not the Architect faults.

2: I have received really bad measurements and i always told my clients that is NOT gonna be accurate they agree, well the rest is not my problem i follow what they provide.

3: softwares don't lie, 1ft is 1ft , if its smt wrong with the measurements then the person who took them then in the first place it's the problem.

if the designer or Architect did/took the measurements and it fails to do so then he shouldnt call himself Architect and i totally agree with that level of unprofessionalism cuz I've seen it before.



C.S.

The fact that you all push liability to less trained people than yourselves for your designing shortcomings.

But as a career installer, recently retired from it, I made a living on change orders.

I got out of installing because of this



B.C.

Top contributor

Don't know measurements

Can't pull measurements

Designs often arent even physically possible

Get irate when design has to be adjusted to actually fit into the area

Think it's ok to get irate and yell at people onsite that are making the plans a reality

Get angry when told if they show onsite again they will end up swallowing their teeth

All this from my last job working directly under a landscape architect

This was the most dramatic version but every instance has had something of the dramatic about it

(When I appologized on behalf of the LA, who I do not know, he elaborated...)

yeah he had major issues

The calmest man I have ever met told him if he came back he would slapped like a woman

I finished fast and left


C.T.

Top contributor

As a landscape architect I think our design should compliment the architecture of the building



J.R.

Complete lack of foresight for maintenance… see time after time most especially with architects over designers…



T.B.

After working with a few landscape architects and the pain they put us through I stopped taking jobs that they were in charge of.

Things like taking a tape measure to measure fresh sod against my edging and wanting it exact we’re the final things. The architects wanting us to install our project in their order even know that’s not how we did it were frustrating as well. Just cause they learned how to do stuff in school doesn’t always correlate in the field. So my experience has not been great with them. I’ve been landscaping for 25 years professionally.


D.K.

Top contributor

Plant placement, region and height requirements. While I do have to say, working with architects is nice, bigger jobs, more upscale, constant work and easy. But a lot of commercial/residential landscape architects I work with, don’t understand what can and can’t be done. While it may look great on paper or even in the ground. Here in ---------, always having to go back to say these flowering plants can’t be on north facing of the property or these plants need to be in semi shade, or even these plants don’t even do well in this region. As well as height requirements, what you can get in a 3 gal (24 inch) 5-6 years ago, is now 12 inch. And then it falls back on us that we shorted on finding the right size plants. Other than that, it truely is an art what you guys do.



K.N.

I've been in the landscape trade since 1983.

I've had my own business for 28 years.

You can't always do exactly what's on paper.

Adjustments are sometimes necessary in the field due to various reasons.

I do some landscape designs as well as installing and maintenance.

One of the biggest problems I run into and it drives me crazy is an architect who doesn't understand drainage. If that trees and certain shrubs get big after a few years and they have them in the design right up against a foundation of under a overhang of a structure.

Crape myrtles and Maples especially.

Maple roots surface and can cause foundation problems years after being installed.

Crape myrtles need to be planted out away from buildings where they can spread their limbs and fill out.

Large hollies, Osmanthus, Cleyera, Cedars, etc need to be a minimum of 4 to 5 ft. off foundations.

And correct the drainage before planting.

Don't overcrowd plants. Consider 2,3 or 4 years down the road how they will fill in with growth.

Nothing beats time and experience in the field.



J.M.

When the LA swears up and down to the client that everything is local and native. Here I am shipping plants from 5+ hours away. When the client takes the architects word as the gospel, pounding massive quantities of plants into beds, being upset when I (installer) requests changes, etc.

With this said, 95% of the installs I work with one LA and we have a 5+ year working relationship. Fantastic for us and the client. There’s a few local LA’s that are almost unbearable to work with.


S.N.

I have worked with a few architects and there are a few things that they do. First they want to measure everything, which is fine kinda, but to try to get trees and shrubs into exact spacing is difficult. They also cant admit when they make an error. They dont seem to understand the difference between built and as built. Yes the walkway was supposed to be 42" but its not 39" so there is a difference. And they are sooooo attached to their design that the smallest change sends them into a panic meltdown. And lastly, they behave like they are the authority on everything, when most of the time they make more mistakes than we do. And most of what they decide to do is over engineered.


B.H.

biggest complaint so far is about half at least place plants with no knowledge of sun requirements or size at maturity .

I do not take jobs with a plan from a Landscape architect anymore and most companies won't that have actually know plants



P.S.

As for anybody it depends on the person. Designers and architects with no knowledge of construction methods will not end well.

I’ve had great experiences and long lasting relationships with architects and la and we respect each other. If I don’t know something I ask there opinion and if they don’t know something they ask me my preference or opinion. No or small egos and mutual respect are the way to go!



F.N.

My experience has shown me that architects and designers have egos that bruise easily if their designs or concepts can be improved upon

Many have no field experience and their expertise is only behind a computer screen

I don’t have the credentials to be an architect or a designer but I do have real world experience

If there could be a happy medium then I’m all in

Just my experience



T.W.

Top contributor

The one time I did work with an architect on a outdoor living project the architects grades and step design was not accurate even to the slightest. He told me he wanted 2% fall (industry standard) but his grades on the grade plan did not match that. They were less than 1% across entire patio. He didn’t like being proved wrong!

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