Let’s Talk Landscape Architects

Let’s Talk Landscape Architects

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What Do Landscape Architects Do?

First, let’s start with what a landscape architect is not: someone who puts plants in the ground and installs irrigation lines.

“A landscape architect is really like an architect. We do the same thing for your exterior,” says Anita Van Asperdt of LandCurrent Landscape Architects in Portland, Oregon. “We make the drawings. We do not construct things ourselves. We do not put plants in the ground.”

To be licensed by their state, landscape architects must obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree in landscape architecture and work experience under a licensed professional. In 49 states, they must also pass a national exam. Their rigorous training provides them with critical knowledge to safely design structures and grading, and to create construction documents.

“There are three reasons to hire a landscape architect,” says Craig Reynolds of Craig Reynolds Landscape Architecture in Key West, Florida. “One: a great design. Two: an organized set of construction documents for bid, permit and installation. And three: We’re there as their advocate while it’s getting constructed.”

Landscape architects provide a range of services that can transform outdoor spaces. They:

Create outdoor design concepts. Landscape architects come up with a holistic design vision for a site that may include natural elements like plants and boulders, hardscaping like pathways and decks, and structures such as arbors or trellises. “We typically design everything except structures with a roof,” says Jennifer Horn of Jennifer Horn Landscape Architecture in Arlington, Virginia. “That can include driveways, motor courts, pathways, walls, retaining walls, drainage structures, topography [or] grading, pergolas, swimming pools, water features, fire features and outdoor kitchens. Along with, of course, gardens, irrigation systems and lighting.”

In the initial concept design phase, landscape architects convey their ideas to clients through a site plan showing the overall layout of the design, as well as with sketches, perspective renderings and plant palettes. “Paths, patios, water features, pergolas — all that would be laid out. All the planting areas and plants themselves are laid out,” says June Scott of June Scott Design in Los Angeles. A landscape architect may also share mood boards and inspiration images from Houzz to communicate their ideas.

“If it includes changing the exterior footprint of your home, changing the views or adding any outdoor amenities, a landscape architect is uniquely trained to think holistically about how architecture, engineering and landforms all come together,” says John Conte of Conte & Conte in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Working with a creative landscape architect can open up possibilities a homeowner may never have thought of. And what’s more, they can save them from making costly and unsightly mistakes.”

As the landscape architect and client work together to finalize the vision, the pro will begin to create more detailed drawings and documents that home in on the design and its various elements with greater specificity and detail.

They may also act as point person coordinating with other professionals who can bring specific expertise to the design. “Sometimes the project requires subconsultants like civil, electrical, structural engineers, architects, irrigation designers, artists,” says M.J. Meneley of Hitchcock Design Group in Indianapolis.

Analyze the homeowner’s site. A landscape architect will probably ask his or her clients for a recent survey of the property and may also take measurements to confirm it is accurate. “You would be amazed how many times surveys are wrong,” Reynolds says.

Create construction documents. Next, landscape architects create detailed plans that a landscape contractor can follow to make the design a reality. These plans include grading and site drainage, retaining walls, planting layout and plant selections, lighting and any other structural elements. “It’s something that a contractor can build from,” Scott says.

If required, these plans can be submitted to the local municipality or county for permitting, either by the landscape architect or by a licensed general contractor or landscape contractor. (Requirements for which elements of a design need permits and who can submit plans for permitting vary according to local regulations.)
Select finishes and materials and design engineered features. Some landscape architects design every last detail of the features to be included in a landscape design — down to the shape and materials for a fire pit, trellis or pergola. Or they may create an overall plan with placeholders for, say, an arbor, and leave the details of designing that arbor to a trusted contractor to work out. “I’ll ask [clients] if they’d like me to do the detailing,” says Sue Jacobs Grant of Jacobs Grant Design in Columbus, Ohio. “But clients don’t necessarily want to pay for that.”

Generally speaking, a greater level of detail takes more time and will result in a higher fee. Homeowners should clarify how the pro works before hiring them.

Establish a realistic budget and help homeowners stick to it. Landscape architects who have worked on many projects can quickly tell homeowners whether it’s realistic to achieve their initial goals within their budget. And they can tailor their ideas to fit what the client has to spend. “We provide solutions that are not only functional but aesthetically pleasing, within budget and site-related constraints,” says Chris Sears of Sears Smith & Associates in Atlanta.To determine precise costs for a proposed project, landscape architects will enlist the help of a general contractor or licensed landscape contractor.

Manage bidding or negotiation with landscape contractors. Experienced landscape architects can recommend qualified landscape contractor firms and may be able to say which contractor works fastest or whose quality they most admire.

If desired, a landscape architect can manage the bidding process to help homeowners understand the bids in an apples-to-apples way. Alternatively if the homeowners know which contractor they want to work with and are not soliciting bids, the landscape architect can manage the negotiation process. If the bids or negotiated price come in over budget, a landscape architect can do some value engineering (change the plan to help save on costs).
Oversee construction. Landscape architects will also oversee the construction of their designs, sometimes as part of their comprehensive services but typically for an additional fee. This involves visits to the site to ensure the design is installed correctly.

One final note on landscape architects: There is much debate about the skills and qualifications of this pro type versus that of landscape designers. Sticking with the legal difference, landscape architects are regulated and licensed while landscape designers are not.

Also, it’s worth noting that some regions of the country have a lot of landscape architects, whereas others have many more landscape designers. This article focuses specifically on landscape architects.

How Much Do Landscape Architects Charge?

When people call a landscape architect they often want to know how much an outdoor project will cost overall. While it’s impossible to determine precise costs without knowing a project’s scope, more complex projects are generally more costly than simple ones, and projects with hardscaping are generally more expensive than ones with plantings alone.

“I only provide a fee proposal for a project after seeing the site, meeting with the homeowners and really understanding what level of design complexity they want,” says Falon Michalic of Falon Land Studio in Houston. “Designing a terraced garden with a lap pool and spa into an existing slope will require more time than designing a garden with just a hot tub into a level terrain.”

That said, Van Asperdt, in Portland, offers would-be clients who want a full landscape makeover this rule of thumb for total costs to design and build it: “We know that 15% of the house value is a typical number,” she says.

It’s not unusual for landscape architects to have a minimum cost of projects they will work on. Many pros list their minimum project size or design fee on their Houzz profiles.  Landscape architects charge for their services in a range of ways. Here are some terms you may come across as you meet with prospective pros:

Percentage of construction costs. It’s common for landscape architects to base their fees on a percentage of total construction costs for the project. This percentage often is between 10% and 20%. For a $35,000 landscape project, for example, a 10% fee would be $3,500. A 15% fee on a high-end project that costs $400,000 (this is realistic in some markets) would be $60,000.

Lump sum or flat fee. Some landscape architects charge a lump sum, or flat fee, for design work. This can range from a low of $1,200 to well into the five figures. A landscape architect may then shift to an hourly rate if the homeowners want them to oversee construction, although some pros will include this service in their lump sum rate.  Some landscape architects may charge a flat fee for the initial consultation, though not all do. At times this fee will be credited back if a homeowner then decides to work with that pro.

Hourly rate. Hourly rates for landscape architects can be as low as $60 for a draftsperson working under a licensed landscape architect and as high as $275 or more for an experienced expert. Rates for landscape architects commonly run $150 per hour or more. Sometimes pros with an hourly fee structure include a not-to-exceed amount in the contract to help the homeowners feel more comfortable.

Retainer or deposit. Many landscape architects ask for a deposit to begin their work. This could be a flat amount, such as $3,000, or a share, such as 25% or 35%, of the total fees anticipated for the project. Often, a deposit is required to get on the pro’s schedule.

When Do You Pay a Landscape Architect?

It’s common for landscape architects to bill in a phased manner. Some bill on a monthly basis, others when certain project milestones are complete. All of this should be spelled out in the contract.

Can You Afford to Hire a Landscape Architect?

Enlisting the help of a talented landscape architect can result in a beautiful project. And while hiring a pro may not be free, homeowners who want to improve their outdoor spaces may be a lot happier with the result when a qualified pro is involved.

“You can get a lot done for very cheap and it will look terrible,” Van Asperdt says. “You know that different clothing stores have very different quality. It’s the same with contractors.”

If a full-scale landscape design is out of their budget, homeowners might consider hiring a landscape architect on an hourly consultation basis to get design ideas. Many professionals offer this service and can provide the client with a write-up of ideas after the meeting.

Another possibility to help save costs is limiting the hardscaping. “There’s a big difference if there’s just a planting plan, or if there are hardscapes or structures involved, in terms of cost,” Van Asperdt says.

As with any home project, the working relationship that clients have with the landscape architect matters. After all, designing outdoor spaces is a personal process, since it involves homeowners making choices about what they value and want to invest in. It helps if homeowners can work with someone they trust. “Make sure you really enjoy working together,” says Tom Altgelt of Altgelt & Associates in Boulder, Colorado.

Once a project is underway and the yard is a mess, it can also help to keep the final goal in mind. “The essence of a garden is a sanctuary,” Altgelt says. “It’s a place you can come home to and let your hair down.”

Source: Erin Carlyle, Houzz
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