Questions to Ask a Landscape Architect or Site Design Team in an Interview
By Leslie BattenJuly 13, 2017
Board & Vellum introduced landscape services over 6 months ago when we recognized the value to our clients. If you are in the position of hiring a landscape architecture or site design team, then we want you to have the information you need to make a good hiring decision. Last month, we highlighted important questions to ask your architect. This month’s giveaway: sharing the important questions to ask a landscape architect/designer during an interview.
First Things First: The Value of Integrated Services
When choosing a landscape architect/designer, you may want to consider an interdisciplinary firm that has architectural and/or interior design services in-house. An integrated approach often results in better design that will ultimately save you time and money. Our integrated teams work in close proximity and easily (and often) bounce ideas off each other. As a bonus, your project may receive free design services via office crits where all disciplines are invited to appraise projects and the design approach. Often, these reviews introduce new thinking or test pieces that may not have been considered by a single discipline.
If your project requires all of the design services (from landscape, to interior design, to architecture) and you end up hiring teams from separate offices, it’s crucial to ask them if their firms worked together before, and how it went. You don’t want to find out in the middle of your project that they have a terrible track record together.
So, that's a great first question, but even if you need only landscape services, and interdisciplinary firm or not, you will want to ask the following questions to any prospective landscape architect/designer.
What else should I ask a potential landscape team?
What is the design process?
If you’ve never had design services before, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how exactly you might transform your outdoor spaces to meet your goals. Maybe you have a collection of photos saved on Pinterest, or on your phone from cool projects you’ve seen in passing. This question helps clarify how you can get from A – your current space, to B – your dream landscape. Is the landscape architect/designer willing to walk you through this process step-by-step? Or are they vague, keeping their cards close, and telling you that all will be “taken care of”? (That's not a good sign.) This question also helps outline what is expected from you. Fortunately, design doesn’t occur in a black box back at the office. Your input is vital (it is your home after all), and it’s important to establish your role in the process – make sure you understand how the landscape architect/designer will work with you.
How do you communicate?
This question is related to the design process, but with more specifics about how best to exchange information about the design and keep the project moving forward. The landscape architect/designer will want to share drawings and ideas with you, and then receive direction from you in order to stay on schedule. Outlining a method of communication – and establishing expectations for frequency of communication – helps make the process run smoothly. If there is a problem, how do you expect the landscape architect/designer to handle it? How much information do you want to receive? Depending on the scope of the project, this can vary from a little to a lot; it’s good to be aware before you are over–(or under)–whelmed.
How do you address technical challenges such as grading and drainage?
In the Pacific Northwest, it is inevitable that your site will have grade changes, or soil and drainage issues that will impact how you layout circulation, create level areas, grow healthy plants, or prevent ponding at your basement, to name a few. You should ask about irrigation design. If you prefer not to water your plants by hand all summer, then you’ll want the comfort of knowing that a quality irrigation system will be doing the hard work for you. It’s important to make sure you are getting the skills necessary to address these issues, not exacerbate them. Ask for examples of their work that cover these topics, and ask for (and call) their references.
How much can be accomplished now, or ever?
It’s always good to know if your dream exceeds your budget or the site. If this is the case, then ask about phasing. What could be accomplished in the near-term vs. long-term? Are there ways to implement certain key programs that you really want now, and still allow for future expansion to achieve your full vision? For instance, maybe you want to add a hot tub. This year you create the patio with conduit and plumbing, and next year the tub is easily installed and wired. If the budget still doesn’t work, the landscape architect should be able to advise you on alternative materials, program adjustments, or substitutions such as smaller plant sizes or reducing paved areas. Be open, though: at the end of the day, you may have to adapt either your vision or your budget.
When can you start?
How quickly do you want to experience your dream landscape? Does the given timeline of the landscape architect/designer work with your dream? Have they outlined the fact that in Seattle, construction is booming – so, even if they had time to design it today, contractors are busy and may not be able to begin work for several months? You will need to balance the realities of the construction schedule with the complexities of your design process to decide if the timing will work for you. Don’t let this be a breaking point. Sometimes current projects go on hold. If this happens, your project might start sooner than expected. Landscapes are living beings that take time to mature. Even if your schedule runs as smoothly as you envisioned, your outdoor spaces won’t look their best for at least a year, if not three. Plan some time for the plants to fill in and shape the spaces as envisioned.
How do you determine design costs?
Different firms manage this differently, and you should assess which method is best for you: retainer, hourly, fixed fee, lump sum, and so on. The AIA has resources to help you understand the different fee structures, and you should discuss them with the landscape architect/designer. They should be able to clearly explain their fee structure to you. Do keep in mind that you are hiring services from a professional whose fee reflects their education and professional training.
Can you recommend a contractor?
Often the landscape architect/designer has worked with a variety of trusted contractors on past projects and can curate a list to match your style and your budget. They should suggest a couple options, and outline their strengths and weaknesses for you to ultimately decide. You should never feel pressured to hire any particular contractor. Of course, you should always meet the contractor to see if you get along. It also helps to call their references and check out their website where a portfolio of work will also help you to see the span of their skillset and style.
Do you do design-build?
Design-build shops have their strengths in certain design features that they do really well. Often, the finished product drives the design. If that’s the result you envision for your space, you’re set! However, if there are features or materials you would like that they don’t typically do (say metal fabrication, concrete or carpentry), you are not likely to receive a design that includes this material. Contrast this approach with a design office where the design drives the finished product. The landscape architect/designer can assist in finding the appropriate contractor that has the relevant skills necessary to achieve the complete design.
How much maintenance should I expect?
Whether you prefer a hands-off approach to your site, or one that requires more frequent care, you should ask how the landscape architect/designer can create a space that suits your needs. If you desire an elaborate garden and you don’t want to do the work yourself, you could consider hiring a service to take on the bulk of the care. Either way, drought-tolerant gardens typically require less water, and that can save you money over the long-term.
Can you imagine yourself working with this landscape architect/designer?
This is an important question you should ask yourself. You want to make sure you’re hiring someone you get along with that also has the professional merit to deliver your project. Don’t forget to assess your gut: this is an important endeavor that takes time.
These questions should help you make a pretty good assessment of any prospective landscape architect/designer. Be sure to talk with at least a couple options, so you can compare their services and process and how they relate to your goals. And, most importantly, have fun!