Choosing a Landscape Architect

revitulize(7)November 3, 2013

Good afternoon All!! Happy Sunday

My wife and I are looking at a major backyard renovation and need the help of a landscape architect to put it all together for us and do the work. We have several elements like a pool, drainage, rainwater collection, garden/compost, etc...

We had a great preliminary meeting and he listened and asked questions that other architects did not. They are now asking for a substantial deposit to see the this standard? I understand the concern of their intellectual property, but I think a rough draft or general idea of what they're proposing is due before I hand over money. What if I don't like their idea or decide I want to use another architect because they weren't even close to what we are wanting?

Any advice is appreciated...thanks

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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

Good question - It sounds like you are unclear about the Design process.

Commonly your designer will explain their specific process and or approach during your initial first meeting.
Often times a 'Process Letter' is left with the client after this first meeting to help inform the clients what to expect.
Following the meeting a formal contract for services is usually prepared - before any design work, site investigation and code investigation is done.
If the contract for services looks good to you then a retainer fee is given to the architect and the formal design process begins.
The contract normally spells out the various steps required, the responsibilities of the firm and how the firm will be compensated for their work.

Customarily there is a "preliminary design concept" phase - during this phase several design schemes will be sketched up based on the initial conversation .

There are usually several meetings that take place during the preliminary design phase. This is when you collaborate with the designer . Good collaborations make great projects.
Once a design scheme is agreed to then the landscape architect will draft up a master plan or they might go straight into construction documents depending on the scope and complexity of the project.

I think you might enjoy looking at some professional landscape architectural websites to further understand how the Process of design services unfolds.

As an example here is a Design Process sheet that I leave with clients after our first initial meeting to help them understand my process. ---- Other designers might have a different type of process , this is just one example.

Needs Assessment
When you first contact ---, she will ask you general questions about your objectives for your landscape project. If she feels the project is a good fit for her skills, she will typically follow the phone conversation with a visit to your house. This will give her an opportunity to develop a more thorough understanding of your project.
If this meeting is a basic ‘getting to know one another interview’ , then this meeting is generally not billed for except for travel time. If this is a horticultural & or a design consultation providing the client with tangible information this meeting is billed for at the hourly rate of $ ------ per hr.

The initial visit will then be translated into a proposal for design services, or a contract which will describe the services to be performed and their costs .
For smaller projects we may simply outline what we will do , note the overall costs and provide a deadline by which we will complete the project.

Development of Landscape Plans - the phases:

Analysis - ------- will come back to your property to measure and photograph the site.
Information gathered will be soil , sun, water pressure and drainage conditions, existing plants, structures & viewing corridors . A base plan will be prepared from this information.
A certified survey & topography plan may be required. ----- can recommend a surveyor.
A meeting will be schedule with your city planner at this time to review all CC+R's for your site if required.

Preliminary Plans and the Design Review Meetings -
Based upon the analysis and our conversations, the preliminary design schemes will be prepared. These preliminary design concept sketches are drawn roughly to scale in site plan form with a corresponding colored pencil perspective sketch to further assist you in the visualization of the design concepts. Typically several schemes will be presented and we will meet to review the various schemes and determine a final design for the Master Plan .

Master Plan - Graphic representation of the project communicating the scope of the job.
This master plan meets the qualifications for Design Review Boards and HOA’s.

Construction Plans - Derived from the Master Plan the final construction plan package is assembled. Depending on the scope of the project these plans may include the detailed site plan with grading specifications , construction details and elevations for hard surfaces such as patios, walls, stonework , pergolas and swimming pools, the planting plan , the drainage schematics , the irrigation plans, and the low voltage lighting plan.

Pricing of Landscape Plans -
We bill our time out on an hourly basis at $ ---.00 per hour. A budgetary estimate of our time will be presented to you in our contract for services. As a basic rule of thumb landscape design fees usually work out to be approx. 10 to 12% of landscape construction costs.

Installation and Project Management -
Once the design phase is complete, we will work with you to implement the installation.
--- has developed close working relationships with many landscape contractors and will help you through the contractor selection process.
--- will ensure that a high standard of quality craftsmanship is carried through and that all plants, hardscaping and sculptural elements will be executed as per plan.
Project management is also billed out at the hourly rate of $ --.00 per hour.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2013 at 7:18PM
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D-D gave a very detailed, professional response. I'll give the short version: As a designer, I'm not gonna be the only one with skin in the game. Do you go to work without an assurance of getting paid?

    Bookmark   November 3, 2013 at 7:52PM
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Thanks for the reply!
So basically, I have to decide whether I want to use this particular designer BEFORE I see their idea for our backyard? Our issue here is that we only know the basics of what we want. We thought this would be a process that would include several contractors/architects giving us their design ideas and then we would choose who we liked. Sounds like we have to choose who we like and then work with them from there?

    Bookmark   November 3, 2013 at 8:01PM
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...I failed to mention that, although inexpensive, we did pay for the initial meeting. We feel like we paid a contractor to see if we liked what they had to say, but have no evidence of what they could bring to the table.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2013 at 8:53PM
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"Sounds like we have to choose who we like and then work with them from there?" The ideas for your yard that a landscape architect would produce do not come from whim on the spur of the moment during their first introduction to your property. They come from data collection, study, analysis, and the application of experience and it takes time and effort. The "ideas" that would be conjured are the product of work and no one is going to provide the work without first obtaining the assurance of being paid for it. So yes, you must select the professional before you discover what their exact "ideas" for your yard will be. But if you've met with someone and seen examples of their work, if you like the person AND MORE IMPORTANTLY LIKED THEIR WORK, you can be pretty well assured that they will still be competent to figure out how to solve your yard's problems, enhance its beauty and create a finished product you will like, as they have done for others before you.

"Our issue here is that we only know the basics of what we want." Isn't this why you are hiring a landscape designer instead of designing the project yourself? There is no requirement that the client know anything at all about landscaping other than "the basics" of what they want to see incorporated into their project. It is the designer's job (and joy) to provide the details your vision now lacks.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2013 at 10:04PM
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You might get lucky in finding a contractor capable of also performing landscape design (the thinking-through and quality control part of the landscape project.) But unless he has a dedicated designer or LA on staff, your chances of getting the highest quality design are diminished. You stand a greater chance of getting better design if a landscape architect or landscape designer is employed. The more difficult the site or is the need for hardscape, the more I would lean toward hiring a landscape architect or employing a company with one on staff.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2013 at 10:26PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

If you weren't impressed by the first designer's portfolio, and your conversation/consultation and their ideas for possible design solutions, keep interviewing other designers until you find one that makes you feel more confident. Thinking you'll get different designs drawn up to then select from without paying for some of that time; typically only a design/build contractor would consider that worth the effort in anticipation of getting the work. You might solicit a conceptual design for a lesser consultation sort of fee from other designers/landscape architects, depending on your local market conditions, but most would consider the initial site meeting/consultation/discussion of needs/design approach/budget and a presentation of their portfolio/references to be sufficient for you to decide yes or no on hiring a particular designer.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2013 at 5:01PM
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Also, I might add, that the designer should include one round of revisions in the fee. If you don't like what they have shown you, it could be that, with some minor tweaking, you will be completely satisfied.

Here is a link that might be useful: Home Page

    Bookmark   November 7, 2013 at 5:51PM
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mikebotann(8a SE of Seattle)

I wouldn't meet with any Landscape Architect without being able to talk to his last few clients and seeing his, or her, work. This can all be done on line and on the phone. References are very important!
I do agree if there is going to be engineered hardscapes that a Landscape Architect is preferred over a designer.
I too, don't like putting out money before I have a chance to see what's out there and can compare.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2013 at 11:46AM
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Thanks for all of the replies! It's very much appreciated.

We feel that we will keep looking as we have not received any specific pics of work that is similar to what we want. We were given a few references to call to verify credentials & processes. We were also given the chance to come see some work in action, but do not have that kind of time.

Also, we are kinda wondering what it is we paid for on the initial visit. I called and spoke with this person and really liked what they had to say on the phone. He said that we should meet so that he can see the site and the fee was $xx.00. Ok, not alot of money so we had the meeting. Then, just like that, I get an email with a contract and significant down payment request. I would have expected something for my money. Come back to me with pics of similar back yards that you've done, pics of similar back yards that you could do, or even just a combination of pics or rough scetches of what you would like to do. We're not asking for CAD drawings, scale mockups, animated videos or blueprints at this time...just give me an idea of what you would do and show me that you are excited about getting the business.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2013 at 12:43PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

At the risk of sounding crass, Revitulize, I think you have been watching too much HGTV.

You paid for a persons time to come to your house, listen to your desires for your landscape project, view your site and take stock of what constitutes the realm of the project so that they could access the scope of the project and write a well thought out contract for services.

This is part of the design process .
The next logical step IS the proposal / contract for services.

Legally we cannot do any work WITHOUT a contract.

Your designer did absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, s/he did exactly what standard professional protocal and law dictates.

As an analogy, if you asked an interior decorator / real estate appraiser/ computer consultant to leave their office, drive to your home, listen to your agenda and view the scope of a project, you would be charged a service fee .

You were charged a service fee.

I have empathy for you in that you are treading in unfamiliar waters, but if you want to swim in the pool, you will benefit from knowing how the rules of the pool work.

some helpful websites might be :

    Bookmark   November 14, 2013 at 11:06PM
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Funny, when I call a plumber it's a $75 service call for them to come out and LOOK at my toilet. They know it's a toilet, they know where it is, it ain't going anywhere, and there's two likely and six less likely things that could be wrong with it.

On the other hand a landscape designer/architect is coming out to get a feel for everything that's wrong with your entire site, talk about what's working for you, what's not, get a feel for where you're trying to go with it, and help you parse what's possible and what's not. Conversations often include how the job can be phased out, how the whole process works, etc. This alone is often of tremendous value to folks (who aren't you, apparently). Then we get to put the time into writing a proposal. I hate writing proposals, it's generally an hour or so of my time making sure that I'm charging enough without charging too much, and getting the scope of work right.

Have you asked for pics of similar projects? I can't see any reason why someone wouldn't provide if asked, even if it's pointing out a section of his/her site.

As for doing rough sketches... no. The only way to even start sketching is to get a basemap, which you get by doing the site analysis. For which I charge. Then there's studio time coming up with a "rough sketch", which is generally step one in the design process... for which I charge.

The way you've been bellyaching about the consultation fee makes me wonder if you'd be any kind of reasonable design client. Maybe you'd be better off having the neighborhood lawnboy chase his tail on a bunch of amateur free drawings and settling for a crappy landscape, since you don't value the professionals.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2013 at 10:07AM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

heh he, heh, Marcinde, you gave me a good laugh with the toilet analogy. .... "it ain't going anywhere" .....

Revit, You might be better off using a cookie cutter planting scheme from a website like Better Homes and Gardens instead of working with a design professional if you want to have a landscape installation that has been previously designed for another property that you can relate to. There are plenty of computer generated plop in place plans to pick from and you won't have to pay a dime.

Caveat emptor - you get what you pay for.

One of the most value added aspects of working with a competent designer is that they wil bring fresh new ideas that are site, climate and personally specific to you.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2013 at 3:20PM
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Thanks Everyone. Just a couple things to note...
1. I do not watch HGTV
2. I'm not "bellyaching" over the small fee...I think I just don't feel that the designer is doing due diligence to gain my business. I have NOT received any pics or anything and was curious if this is standard practice.
3. I recently converted a room upstairs into a laundry/mudroom in anticipation of some of the design work we're doing to the back yard. The plumber came by, gave me his recommendations on where it could go, and what it would cost to plumb the area. He did not charge me for his time, until he started working.
4. I put together computer quotes, network diagrams, etc...daily and they all take time. But if I want the business and want to show why my solution will work and meet their needs better than the next guys, it's a price i have to pay.

I will keep looking until I find the right person and thanks to all of you because I will now know which questions to ask up front.
Thanks to everyone for the replies thoughts.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2013 at 4:43PM
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I realize this has been explained previously, but the fee for an initial consultation by the designer/LA is pretty much SOP. And very different from the estimate outlined by the plumber in your example above.......lots of businesses give out "free estimates" when doing routine work - it's just to let you know what the approximate cost may be before you proceed. And that's what differentiates an estimate from a consultation - one applies to routine, proscribed work and the other is an exchange of ideas and assessment of a physical situation and a preliminary needs analysis. Again this is not a "quote" or estimate situation and does involve travel and time on the part of the design consultant without any guarantee of subsequent work.

I can recall an early-in-my-career consultation I did where the homeowner was rather adamant about having something physical in hand at the end of the consultation. It took a fair amount of explaining exactly what 'consultation' meant and what the end result would likely constitute before I could assure her she had received exactly what she paid for. It is a common misunderstanding on the part of many homeowners who are unfamiliar with the design process, as deviant-deziner has so clearly pointed out. I now make sure prospective clients are very clearly informed of the process, the initial steps and the fees involved even before we meet so that there is no misunderstanding.

FWIW, many designers will credit the consultation fee towards the full design services fee should they be selected as the designer but just as many others will calculate it as a typical cost of doing business regardless if a contract for additional services is signed or not.

    Bookmark   November 17, 2013 at 3:41PM
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