New Designer: Should I have a base design price?

oath5(z6b/7a MD)April 11, 2012

I'm starting up a new landscape design business. I'm very good at what I do, and have a hourly consultation/design brainstorm/general labor/plant procurement charge already but I've been confused on how I should charge for my designs.

Is there a standard I should follow? Go by size of beds/project?


- Max

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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

If you have an hourly consultation rate in place could you start keeping track of how long it takes you to design common projects and create a estimate sheet from that .
Every project is going to be different and after a few years of designing you will start to get a handle on how long things take to do. We all experience this in the growth of our business. There is no magic formula. You'll win some and you'll lose some but always keep track and that is how you will inform your business of how to best estimate a job.

You might start by breaking down the basic Landscape Design Process and estimate how long it will take you to do the different tasks.
Initial meeting
Site Analysis and Measuring
Code Compliance reasearch
Preliminary Design
Design Review ( I alway quote how many meetings and how much time for ea. meeting )
Master Plan
Preliminary submittal process for HOA or planning dept.
Construction documents
- topo - survey - and grading ( by others or by you )
- drainage and erosion
- vegetative management plan if required by your district.
- hardscape details
- irrigation schematic and water usage calc's.
- low voltage lighting and electrical plan
- planting and installation notes.
- maintenance schedule and notes

Some designers work on a percentage basis. Depending on a lot of different variables ( location, experience, distinguished firm, scope of the project ) this % rate could range from 5 % to 17 %.

We all go through this process and everybody will have a different way of estimating and running their biz.

Provide great value and your company will earn a fine reputation thus allowing you to charge more as your company grows.

You might enjoy reading the Harvard Business Review Blog. It has some great articles and may help you in informing your business plan -

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 4:05PM
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oath5(z6b/7a MD)

Thank you for the extensive answer deviant. Most helpful.

I have been when dealing with design, essentially that, estimating how long it takes to design it and looking into the variables, just applying my hourly charge.

I was just unsure though if I should have been applying a base design charge "cushion" for my art/design of the actual beds. I don't want to undersell myself, you see people do that all the time in art world undervaluing their work, commissions for people and selling it at a low rate that gets them nowhere.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 6:43PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

This is just my opinion but I think there is some discernable difference between planting design and buying/ selling a peice of art.

The two, in my opinion, can walk a fine line of difference in capable hands and are usually priced out differently.
As an example I consider artistic practitioners like Suzanne Biaggi, Shirley Watts, David Feix, Raymond Jungles , RB Marx and Topher Delaney to be highly skilled mixed media sculptors/ artists . They work with plants in a sculptural realm.
This is a bit different than a landscape / garden designer who is creating and planting a garden, no matter how painterly.
It's one of those things that is hard (for me) to describe, but you know it when you see it. -.. and they probably charge accordingly because of it.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 7:28PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Oath, do you have any examples of your work? You typically don't see people in any trade say they are very good at what they do themselves unless they are the cream of the crop.

I'm just a homeowner and curious.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 9:00PM
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oath5(z6b/7a MD)

Yes I have a website whass. I'm really new in the business, lol didn't mean to sound boastful I just wanted to disclaim that I generally know what I'm doing accept assigning worth to my work. I have a pretty good sense of taste and color theory and I was lauded for my designs at my old workplace and the work I've done so far.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2012 at 10:17PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Hit us up with a link! Perhaps you'll be getting a buzz from those in MD.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2012 at 10:20PM
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I must be getting cynical. I read your bit about the art and went "d'awww, that's cute!" The reality is that yes, we need to be artists to set ourselves apart. BUT, the vast majority of our clients (especially as we get established) don't really care about the art, they just want a problem solved and solved well. You still kick butt and do your best and for the good ones, they realize what they got. For the rest, they needed plants and now they have plants and they write a check and take the kids to soccer then out for Fribbles and don't give it a second thought.

There's a smaller cohort that wants the problem solved artfully and really dig the end result (and often the process). This is the sweet spot of the market because there are enough of them to make it a sustainable business, and they're the most likely to refer you to others.

The art lovers that you're talking about? They're out there but fewer and farther between. I have a client -one client- who gives me his credit card and free rein on every project. It's a blast, but I treasure him and make sure he's thrilled. If I was pricing myself to hold out for more like him, though, I would be eating a LOT of ramen. You're not likely to get your name out there effectively relying on one or two benefactors.

When I got started I used a calculator designed for graphic designers to figure out my minimum I could charge if need be and still achieve my goals. It's important to look at the number of non-billable hours you'll spend in a week and make sure that your billable hours will cover those in your overhead calculations. Then as deviant said, figure out the steps. I have a minimum of sorts but it's not padded. It's what will cover my time on site and my travel time and a little for the paperwork involved.

I've really thought hard about coming up with a "standard" way of pricing design work but each site is different. I'd either lose my shirt or rake the client over the coals. Like today's new sales call - tiny 400 sq ft duplex backyard where they want a patio and plantings. Should be dead simple, except there's a huge drainage issue so the patio needs to be permeable pavers built on rain tanks. That's a wee bit more complex...

Here is a link that might be useful: rate calculator

    Bookmark   April 12, 2012 at 10:20PM
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oath5(z6b/7a MD)

Here's my website/portfolio!

Here is a link that might be useful: M.J.E Perennial Garden Design

    Bookmark   April 12, 2012 at 10:38PM
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Brad Edwards

I really enjoyed that post marcinide completely.

One thing to mention, and I don't mean to sound greedy, but I would charge slighly more for work in the spring than other times of the year. Its really busy then and you don't have time to peddle around then, its pretty much your bread and butter. I would think 40% of your annual income in maryland would come from the next two and 1/2 months.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 1:43AM
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Thanks oceandweller. Great point about the spring rush. We typically get a fall rush (smaller than spring) when the kids go back to school, but that was non-existent in 2011 thanks to weeks and weeks of rain.

oath, I don't think a tumblr site is serving you well. You can self host a pretty nice, professional WordPress site for not a ton of money

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 1:34PM
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oath5(z6b/7a MD)

marcinde, I'm only 22 and out of college, it's free so that's what I can afford right now, will look into the wordpress shortly. It's really just a temp, never meant to keep it there for long.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 3:18PM
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Mine's been hosted on a WordPress platform for years - I think I pay $75/yr for the hosting and domain. This is the first year I've hired a professional web designer and hopefully the new site goes live in a few weeks. Prior to this I've used the free templates and done all right with them. Money's still money, I know, but it's worth it.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 3:24PM
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Brad Edwards

oath, this is a great job for somebody just out of college, you don't have the man telling you what to do ever 5 minutes, no 5 bosses to report to, and if you chance venues you can use "I used to own and operate a landscape business" on your resume. Throw in you can sell or keep the equipment for home use when you get out and its really worth it.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 3:17PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

With a far sharper memory of myself as a 22 year old than I wish I had, and with a loving awareness of the failings of my own offspring who are not far from your age, I would gently recommend the acquisition of a little humility in both your pricing and your promotion.

Even knowing that this has me playing the role of " old fuddy duddy" I am going to suggest that your pricing at this point in your career needs to reflect what I'm afraid I am going to call youth and inexperience. I don't think you have the status yet that you can (a) pad your estimates to cover the lean months, or (b) thumb your nose at "the man."

Or even (c) claim to be "very good at what you do." You may be good, but even if you have been doing this since you were 15 or so, there is a value to sheer quantity and variety of experience and follow-through that you cannot have, and you show the limits of your vision by failing to recognize that higher levels of expertise exist. It is fine to regard yourself as an artist, but we are not all Mozart.

"The man" is the person you are posting here to ask how to structure your pricing. "The man" is also the person you are lecturing on your website about what plants to use and not use. As will have become clear on the ivy thread, I don't have a problem with choosing not to use various plants for various reasons, but I think it is a bit of hubris to begin your website with a missionary zeal.

That's a real turn-off. If I were a potential client, I would be clicking over to my next potential landscaper real quick. Why? Because I don't want anyone speaking to or of me in the tone that you are using to hypothetically address your fellow, and mostly your senior, landscapers. If that's how you feel about your peers, I would assume you would have even more contempt for clients.
My guess is that you will be able to get jobs based on pricing lower than people like Marcinde. Potential clients understand that they get what they pay for. When someone like Marcinde prices a job, they bring with them years of experience in site assessment, plant knowledge, communications skill, and risk management that some clients are willing to pay for. You likely aren't bidding on the scope of job that their additional design ability enables them to do, but even on simple jobs consisting of planting design, their depth will enable them to do work to a higher standard.

I do not suggest that your youthful qualities are not also worth paying for. Some clients will prefer those to jaded, possibly overpriced experience. But really, it would be a shame if you already knew everything at 22 that you will know at 50. The learning journey is so rewarding and has so many unexpected twists and turns that I would hate you to think it was already behind you.

All that said with the best wishes for success, really!

Karin L

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 3:10PM
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oath5(z6b/7a MD)

Karen I appreciate your honesty but if you're talking about my post condemning the use of leyland cyprus then I'm sorry if it sounded preachy or offends you (do you use the plant).

I've deleted it. It's a blog-site not my official website so I post my thoughts there too but I should probably be more censured. I do not like most suburban landscaping and my aim is to try and help people learn that the landscaping is not just x, it can be y too through fixing problems that people by doing it well with the best choices AND easy instead of just easy that may prove problematic later or are easy but problematic. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings or turn you off, it was more in response to around here a lot of designs are just bad and many designers in the area continue to perpetuate bad trends and poor planning and practices that I'm shocked they even allow/continue to do. Very poor workmanship and practices. Volcano mulch, tree topping and etc. Very shoddy work. I try to pride that I take extreme care in my work but I know I am not Gertrude or Grahm Thomas! But I'd like to think, FOR MY AGE, I'm pretty good. People will surely be better and are better.

I worked at a nursery for 5 years, I may be young but I do know a lot about prep, planting and varieties and vigor, hardiness and plant selection, I fear you may be right that what I know is a bit ahead of what I should know age-wise which makes me grumpy sometimes. It's also true a lot of people won't trust me due to my age. It's a problem. People ignored me at the nursery thinking I was "the help" or the lower nursery staff that usually are around the same age as I am and just did hauling, cleaning and other menial jobs. That is until I asked if they had a question, then I routinely impressed people about what I know, it confused a lot of people. They usually asked if I went to school for it,etc.

I realize that I'm young and am pricing it as reasonable as I can, I do take into account my age. For instance I'm focusing on small, very small jobs, corner gardens and the like. If they are moving and need a garden bed clean and spruce it up. Pots. Fill in front spaces. Spruce up. Fill a niche of smaller jobs that are slightly too big for people to do themselves but not big enough to warrant contacting the large landscaper companies, that way they can turn to me and pay a lower price than what a larger firm would charge for the same time.

I haven't posted anything at all of what I charge for my time so please don't criticize as if I'm already overpricing my efforts or padding anything. I pad nothing at all and keep my hourly rates low. Most jobs lately will only bring in $150 dollars each the way I am charging.

All I wanted to know is how or if at all I should be charging period when it comes to designing and how these mechanics work. Turns out I shouldn't really at all. Lesson learned.

Last year when I started people really took advantage of me and I didn't make the money I should have.There's a ton I still have to learn I'm just afraid of both underselling and overselling myself and overall being taken advantage of again. I'd love to find a good medium.

Again, I'm sorry for the tone.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 3:50AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

If I understand your background, you have 5 years of retail nursery experience, have gone to college and have a degree, but didn't specialize/get a degree in horticulture or landscape architecture?

If so, and from what you've indicated as your horticultural/landscape design interests, it sounds like you are somewhat limited in skill set to planting designs for existing garden beds rather than knowledgable about all aspects of garden design, including non-planting hardscape issues. Nothing wrong with that, but it tends to limit the scale of projects you can realistically take on, and what your perceived worth is in the market.

Right out of school, I'd also suggest there is real value to be had from getting experience working for an existing more experienced firm, and absorbing the lessons to be learned about pricing services and materials, running a business, etc, rather than immediately doing it all on your own. You could always continue to do the self employed thing as a weekend job while gaining experience with a firm.

I certainly agree with you that there are a lot of landscape installers, (I hesitate to even call some landscape designers or contractors), that don't raise the caliber of the profession. I don't much like Leyland Cypress for general landscaping myself, but find that fast growing and inexpensive plants may also have a suitable place in some situations.

As far as positioning what you do as fine art, you may really have an eye for planting composition, but it is also about experience gained over time about how your designs hold up, and maintaining them to remain looking good as they grow. I would have to add that it is almost impossible to have that degree of experience and a maintenance perspective in just 5 short years.

I'd suggest taking lots of pictures, returning at different seasons and following years to track progressions, and build up your knowledge set with more experience of how your designs mature/hold up. If your portfolio supports your opinion that you are an artist at what you do, and your client satisfaction supports you with recommendations and referrals, you may be on your way. It might be worth your while to do a display garden in a local garden show venue, or have your garden designs featured on a garden tour to get more exposure.

I admire your enthusiasm and energy, but would also advise you to pay a bit more attention to reviewing what you write/blog for spelling/grammar/syntax, etc. before you push the send button; because your writing is also part of how you'll be perceived professionally. If it seems rushed and full of errors, some might judge your design work as rushed. Good luck with your career, and the shopping carts full of nursery plants is an interesting point of departure on your blog. It would be more interesting to have included progress installation photos and initial/ 6 month follow up shots of those plants in one of your designs. I hope you continue to find your own voice, and absolutely nothing wrong about being opinionated and passionate about what you do. Just be able to back it up, and document/follow up on your own work so that you'll have more experience.

As an example of a really opinionated blogger writing about garden design and faux pas, check out Billy Goodnick on the web, he's got his own blog and has also written garden columns over many years in Santa Barbara, California. You might find him entertaining as an example of a similar passionate voice.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 8:16AM
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Whether you are 8 or 80 when you are first starting to do this to make a living, it is important to sell a lot, design a lot, and build a lot of portfolio material which is hard to do if you have not done it already.

It is even more important to get the other experiences of listening, explaining, and facilitating discussion that gets the prospect focused on giving you the information that you need to successfully design his landscape. This is the foundation that you build from and why it is more important to get work than make a lot of money when starting out. The sooner you build your foundation, the sooner you have more value.

The two things that almost no one ever mentions are what your design deliverables are and what is in the landscape design that you do or want to do? Are you doing hand drawn plans on letter sized paper, or bigger sheets to scale, photo imaging, CAD plans, perspective drawings,3d computer models, construction details, design development sheet sets, construction document sets, specifications, ... Any or all are fine, but they serve different markets and have different value. Is your landscape design plant compositions only, or flat hardscape with plantings, or including retaining walls, grading, drainage, full site plans siting the house, driveway, pool, ...... There are so many variables as to what a landscape design is and/or what the design products are that can go with them. All of them require different skill sets, different levels of experience, and have different value for different clients. ... yet there is a market for any of it. Your deliverables are a big factor in what you can charge and who you can work for.

None of this happens without prospects coming to you to give you an opportunity to sell them your services. Do you already have that happening? If not, how will you make that happen?

When they contact you, assuming that they already are, do you have the ability to make them confident enough to turn the project over to you and no one else? What, other than your enthusiasm, is going to have them stop looking at anyone else and sign on with you? Landscapes are a long term investment and people do not tend to take chances on them as they do with shorter term investments. Landscapes also are a mystery to many homeowners making them all that much more concerned about the competency of any designer that they may hire. A designer is hired for one purpose only - to remove doubt from the outcome of the project. This is the biggest factor in allowing you to sell the deliverables that you produce.

I don't expect you to list answers to any of these questions, but you should ask these of yourself and answer them over and over again and do things that result in better answers throughout you entire career.

Ability to design is not an uncommom thing. Ability to attract prospects, package it and sell it to the people who value it is not as common. You need to be equally good at both in order to make a living doing this. Few people realise this going into it.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2012 at 10:24PM
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