Can you give me a realistic picture of being a landscape architect?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Can you give me a realistic picture of being a landscape architect?

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    Rob Halpern

    My advice to most young people looking, starry eyed, at a career is this –

    if you go in this direction and stay, your career may be many things over time. If you stay you might design those pretty parks, but that will probably not be the bulk of what you do. Or perhaps you’ll never do it at all. Perhaps you’ll work on tract home developments in order to pay your debts and loans. Or perhaps you’ll get in the right company, have the right skills, be given the right opportunities and within ten years be doing exactly what you want. Or perhaps you’ll make a career doing something far cooler than anything you could have imagined.

    There simply is no way to determine any of it at the outset.

    So, as others have said, you had really better enter landscape architecture because you want to do landscape architecture (in the most general sense). The details will take a few decades to work themselves out. When you are 75 you can report back on how it went.

    This applies to Communications, Architecture, medicine, retail, hospitality and anything else. If you are only doing it on the expectation of a very specific outcome, look further.

    Obviously, to get anywhere in the field you will need to be very devoted to the work. And even then, no promises.


    What advice this is. I had to wait two years after I graduated to find my first real job in this profession. I found reading your advice helpful for a entry-level professional, like myself. Thank you for sharing. 


    I’m glad that you found meaningful work, as well as something useful in my words Andrés. You should be proud that you stuck it out long enough to land your first job, when so many others have given up. May nothing but blessings come to you. 

    Stephen Lovering

    Good comments Rob!!



    In reading others’ comments, I very much agree with Jordan; I think he is right on. Stephen’s situation sounds pretty wonderful, and unfortunately, free lunches, golf games, and 40 hr max work weeks are definitely NOT the norm in our field. Hahaha. If only.

    Anyway It sounds like you’d like a view into a typical work day for an LA. Here is what I do on any given day (some days it’s very technical, other days it’s creative. BTW I have 13 yrs experience, small firm, I’m 1 test away from being licensed):

    -work on cad details

    -work on cad plans

    -make a presentation book in InDesign, including photos of inspiration projects, hardscape, site furnishings, plantings, colored renderings of the plan and / or details and sections

    -write specifications

    -coordinate items with sub-consultants (arch, civil, structural, MEP, irrigation, lighting, graphic design) and/ or fix things they have done wrong. (i.e lighting designer selected lights that you dislike; structural engineer misunderstood your walls and detailed the footings wrong; irrigation consultant not connecting to water main in the right location, etc…)

    -write a descriptive narration of a completed project (for the marketing department of the owner, or for our own marketing materials)

    -do a cost estimate for all items in the landscape scope; for example would include all hardscape elements (paving, deck, walls, arbors, water features, site furnishings), planting (soil, filter fabric), grading and drainage (drain inlets, piping), irrigation, tree protection, demolition.

    -make a plant book with specific information photos about plants selected for the project

    -go to a nursery to select and tag trees

    -visit a job site while under construction; take photos and notes, and issue the information in a formal report to the project team as a progress report

    I arrive at work @ 8:30, and leave somewhere between 6:30 and 8. (used to be even later, all the time,  but I have kids now). Sometime I can take an hour lunch, sometimes I have to work straight through lunch.

    It’s a fun field for sure, but don’t get fooled by the thought that all we do is design great iconic parks like HighLine. Underlings typically don’t get to do actual design work, and high-profile, iconic jobs like HighLine are few and far between. They aren’t the meat-and-potatoes of the typical landscape architecture firm.

    Also, don’t forget (and someone may have already mentioned this) is that you can work for a private firm, or public agency, i.e be the landscape architect for a city or municipality.

    I hope this is helpful to you!

    Tosh K

    I’ve worked in a few different types of firms:

    1. High-end design (12 people): designing pie-in-the-sky parks in the Middle East with (seemingly) unlimited budgets.  We looked at artists and their paintings as starting point and spent a lot of time drawing pretty pictures (2D CAD, 3D CADD, renderings, Photoshop/Illustrator, hand renderings, etc).  Not too much of the nuts and bolts, though we did talk to a lot of research scientists on new materials. 9am-9pm work hrs and often til 2am.

    2. Engineering/Planning firm (8 people): subdivision and shopping malls, a few parks in subdivisions.  More planning/zoning related work and a few nice stormwater treatment systems.  Lots of dry CAD work and specification work, and a fair amount of site visits. 9am-6pm work hrs, overtime only when a client got desperate.

    3. International high-end Firm (100+people):  lots of cool parks and ‘new cities’; work involved mostly CAD and photoshop/illustrator work, and a lot of hand sketching. work hrs were 10am-6pm, though many stayed later.

    4. Small residential design firm (2 people): high end residential ($200k~$2m back yards) lots of site visits and interaction with client.  Tons of CAD work, and a fair amount doing renderings (most by hand), some site visits of projects under construction or post-construction to check on maintenance. 9am-6pm, some overtime when busy.  Also helped a lot with marketing (putting together materials and website).

    5. Midsize design firm (10 people): lots of campus/medical work from master planning to construction.  CAD drawings, site visits, renderings; every day is very different. 9am to 6pm, 45~50hr work weeks.

    In short, it varies a lot.  At most firms that follow through on construction about 60% of my time was in CAD, 15% on pretty picture work, and the rest on things from marketing to specifications (mostly done by more senior people) to site visits.  Some firms were 40 hr work weeks, others 65 was the norm.  I’d say the longer work weeks were somewhat self-inflicted in that everyone in the office was around and were more excited about the work.

    It is true about most people not knowing what we do, but I usually just say ‘I’m an architect, I just don’t deal with most things on the inside of a building’ and it gets the point across rather quickly.  It seems more and more people are aware of what we do.

    Personally I enjoy it, each day keeps me on my toes and there’s enough variety to keep it fresh.

    Mike Metevier

    Wow, some of the replies on here are pretty sad.  If this is something that you find interesting and could see you making a living then yes, it is something to consider.  If your goal is to work on public parks then that is was you can strive for.  Like any profession, there are good days and bad days.  I would look into the profession in every aspect.  See if you could visit firms, both small and large to have someone show you around and talk to you.  Unlike what others have said here, the fact that you want to research does not mean this is not for you, or as someone said that if you have to ask its not for you.  Looking into the field before you spend the time and money is smart.  Some people think this profession is so arty that if you not drawn to it with some sort of “passion” then it is not for you.  I disagree with these thoughts.  Good luck with your research. 


    Wow, what a passive- aggressive post. If you disagree with something someone says, tell them. Taking shots at “some people” and “others” is pretty weak. If you disagree with someone please tell them that you do along with why. I think that’s the best way for adults to communicate as well as learn from one another. Just sayin’. 

    Leslie B Wagle

    I guess I was the first one to drop the word “passion,” but I didn’t mean because the field was “artsy,” quite the opposite….it can be technically challenging and if you have visions that don’t take that into account, you may not make a good fit (hence all the advice to visit firms from others posting). Maybe I should have said “commitment, ” because the work has its “good days and bad days,” but where does commitment come from? I think it has to be more than an intellectual “this is good for society” type of decision.

    Lauren Davis

    Hey, just to let everyone know I’m still checking in and I’m really appreciating all of the input. 

    Craig, you’ve talked a lot about your experiences and provided good food for thought on other people’s responses and I want to thank you for that. I think I know exactly what Mike is talking about though, and I think his post is more of a ‘keep your chin up’ message. Henry Cohen’s reply was one of the first responses to my thread and he basically told me the profession wasn’t for me if I had to ask questions. His response kind of shocked me and was really off-putting. I didn’t take it personally, but I thought it reflected poorly on the discipline, especially since it was the first response and wasn’t at all constructive advice. Luckily, everyone else chimed in with their two cents, good and bad, which I’m very grateful for.

    As a side, I’m on vacation right now with family so I’m not really in a position to be visiting firms yet (but I get to talk career plans with relatives, yay…), but it’s definitely going to happen!

    Lauren Davis

    With all due respect, you don’t know the first thing about me Mr. Cohen.

    I have not spent “ four years and a goodly amount of your parents money” nor have I “gone into debt.” I pay for my own education (state school) and have scholarships to supplement my fees. I have worked part-time jobs since I was 16. My mother, who is out of work, is in no position to support me financially and I know it’ll be up to me to support her in the future. I have already started investing in my future for retirement and am very conservative about spending.

    Like I said before, I did not take your first response personally. I was put off, but you did not scare me away. I do, however, take offense to your assumptions about my background and that I am fiscally irresponsible.

    Since I have been funding my own education, which is an investment in my future, I want to make sure I am spending my money wisely and choosing a field that will satisfy me intellectually, spiritually and financially. I do value your advice as a senior member of the forum and profession, and am considering finding summer or part time work at a garden center or nursery to get some plant knowledge under my belt.

    Barbara Peterson

    For me: the field has it’s ups and downs. At times, I really like what I do and am excited about my projects while at other times, I wonder “why do I even bother”. But honestly, the positive experiences outweigh the negatives….I’d say 90:10…with the 90 being the positive.

    I was a degree change student: my BS was in Biomedical Science (a pre-vet / pre-med degree). I went into the l.a. grad program basically on “a whim”…I was talking to someone about what I wanted to do, and they suggested the degree….honestly, never having heard of it before and with not much more research than reading the college catalogue, I applied and was accepted. After finishing my MLA (despite a chair & a couple profs who thought that I should have gotten out of the program), I worked, got registered, and have been in the field 20 years now: not as long as some but longer than others.

    Your “life path” doesn’t have to be linear…if you also like communications, why not combine the two? They are not mutually exclusive. The great thing about landscape architecture is that it is incredibly diverse…you have the opportunity to combine varied interests to create your own niche….Who knows where you will wind up in 10, 25, or 50 years: as long as you are “moving forward”, learning, and doing your best, that what counts.

    “Go for” what you believe in.

    Laura Duplain

    I was actually going to school to be an architect and didn’t get into the program, my school advisor said there was an opening in the Landscape Architecture class so I took the opportunity and found myself with a 100 other rejected architecture students and 3 students who truely wanted to be a landscape architect.

    Overall I enjoy what I do; however, it is not all pretty pictures, coloring, and designing parks like others have said.  A bulk of the jobs I work on are through the state (roadway beautifications), municipalities, commercial, and residential development.  Most of your time will be spent in preparing construction documents, getting approval of your plans through the local municipalities/clients, permits, rezoning and depending on the scale of the project/budgets/phasing, and that project is most likely be at your side off and on from 1 year to 10 years. 

    You’ll be spend most of your time in the office rather than out in the field and a lot of your designs will be cut and dry because the client doesn’t want anything exceptional or they just need a landscape design to meet code. 

    Some of your projects will never be built.  Your job security rides the tide of the economy depending on how diversified the firm’s projects.  I was laid off 4 years ago and just got my job back 6 months ago due to the economy and in that time many firms have shut their doors (obviously no job is 100% secure).

    I suggest job shadowing a professional LA, take some beginning landscape classes just to get a fill for what it’s about, talk to LA students who are currently interning to get their perspective what reality vs what they expected.

    In college, Landscape architecture studio classes are design to weed out those who aren’t really interested just like any other major.  So I say give it a whirl and if the shoe doesn’t fit at least you know and can pursue another degree that will fit without feeling regret


    Well said, Laura……and I have read most of the OTHER comments posted here too….a lot of very good input here.

    I think the ONE “issue” that I don’t really recall seeing talked about in this discussion is “Do you really have the required skills or abilities to LEARN the skills you need to become a professional LA?”. 

    I guess my point here is…..I could say, “Wow, I would love to be a Medical Doctor”, an “Attorney” an “Actor” or a “Rock Star”……But, just because you WANT it, doesn’t mean it can happen….or that you have the background that will help you make it in any given profession.

    Of course, passion and ambition are important.  But, I recall many of my LA classmates that just seemed to be in the WRONG place.  After our Junior Year…30 of 60 dropped out of Landscape Architecture and switched to Horticulture.  Partly, because they couldn’t keep up.  Many LA programs to tend to weed out those who don’t show a very strong drive and ambition to being a Landscape Architect.  But, “I” had a very strong passion for LA…no way was I going to be discouraged by anyone!

    I think I was fortunate, in that, I knew when I was about 12 yrs. old…that I wanted to become a professional designer.  Took architectural drafting courses in the 7th, 9th, 11th & 12 grades…as well as Art courses in Junior & Senior High…then, 3 semesters at a local college of mostly Art & Architectural courses…….4 yrs. of U.S. Navy (but, exposure to so much of Europe was like an extended course in “Landscape Architecture History” for me)….so then, enrolling in the LA program at Texas A&M (at age 24) was a natural fit for me.  I felt like I had both the passion and the background for the LA profession.

    Also, the LA profession seems to have gone through a LOT of changes over the past 30+ years…just doesn’t seem the same.  Part of it is the “economy”, part of it is that so much of LA has become so close to the IT industry…..if you’re NOT into computers and computer software – you’ll struggle as an LA.

    For me…being a Landscape Architect has been a VERY rewarding, satisfying & positive experience…….a lot of hard work and many long hours for sure…..but, no regrets. 



    Laura Duplain

    btw out of those 100 students I refered to; approx. 30% of those students I started with graduated in that profession with me four years later.

    as Robert pointed out…  It’s not for the faint of heart and you need to be flexible and willing to learn and adapt. 

    It’s one of those professions most people never heard of except through HGTV (BLAH!) and don’t really have a clue what we do.  What most people think of the profession would be classified as build/design with designing/installing small projects/individual residencies with a maintenance crew built in; in addition to bidding for landscape construction projects at various scales designed by larger LA firms .  I interned at one for a year and it wasn’t bad I got to work as part of a construction crew installing landscape and hardscape in addition to designing; however, your salary is based on commission.

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