Commercial Building Site/Grading Plans

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums DETAILS & MATERIALS Commercial Building Site/Grading Plans


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    So I don’t typically see Landscape Architects doing construction drawings, specifically site plans, grading plans and parking lots, for commercial projects. The site plans that I see are stamped by a CE, in most cases, and don’t have calculations or anything specific to the engineering field.

    I don’t have experience in an office that does commercial projects. So are LA’s typically involved in the design of the site, with the design being “given” to the CE so they can engineer it, or do the CE’s just design and engineer the site, with the LA coming in after to do the hardscape/landscape/irrigations plans? It appears that it is very uncommon for an LA to do the site plan, grading plan, and drainage plan for a commerical site, is that true? I am talking about smaller-scale commercial, like a fast-food restaurant.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    A survey for a small commercial project almost spontaneously morphs into a Commercial Site Plan. That is why LAs are not often involved.

    I worked for a total of 12 years in two different similarly sized civil engineering offices doing site plans on commercial projects of the scale you described. It was not very often that a site plan would come in from an LA for such a project, but sometimes it would. The reason why is less to do with skill set and more to do with business and the most efficient route to get the project done (both in time and cost). A lot of it has to do with local regulation and knowledge of local regulation.

    A developer for this scale project usually has an architect design a building – sometimes just a schematic footprint. Very soon they need a surveyed plan of the land so that they can see what they are dealing with as far as any regulatory setbacks so that they have a building envelope and real numbers calculated for other limitations like building coverage or site coverage which only a Professional Land Surveyor has the legal ability to certify (at least in my state). Most of the Civil Engineering offices at this scale have both a CE and PLS (often the same person). This is all before any thought is put to the landscape.

    Parking needs are not decided by the developer or the people wanting to lease the space. It is by regulation that has criteria for parking set by the square footage of the type of use that will occur within the building and/or the number of employees. So, really the survey just starts morphing into a site plan early in the design rather than deciding that we need a site plan and who is going to do it. Parking is pretty flat, so if there is any topography, the grading has to get worked out to design the parking lot.

    Local regulation also usually has standards for parking including size of space, size of aisles, how many tree islands per space, setbacks from property lines, setbacks from buildings, sometimes type of drainage system, … before you know it that is already done before you start looking elsewhere.

    The building, parking, required buffers, and retention drainage in some cases will eat up almost the entire lot with very limited flexibility of what can occur in the unpaved areas devoid of structures. The only thing left for an LA or someone to do is specify plantings. The developers are usually feeling like the regulatory plantings are more than they want to do anyway, so they typically have the CE call them out since the plan is almost done anyway. Sometimes they’ll have their landscape contractor give the CE a plant list.

    The thing is that there is no practical reason for a developer to bring in an LA separately. I know this because I was a licensed LA who worked doing civil site plans in a CE office and few other than the people in our office knew I was an LA. I heard developers bitch about the suggestion of hiring an LA a few times while not knowing that I was one.

    You always have to think like the people who may contract you to understand why they will or will not hire you. It sounds silly, but just because you are good at something is not always a reason to have you do it.


    I work for a civil firm. Andrew’s description is accurate, including the part about complaining about the need for an LA. That said, several of the larger LA firms prepare site plans and frequently team with civil firms over and over again. To answer your last question: I have not seen an LA stamp a grading and drainage plan/report, etc.


    Thanks for the input! I do understand.

    I guess my main observation is, I will see a plan set prepared by a civil engineer and it seems 90 percent of the content of these plans could reasonability be prepared by an LA. Seems like an LA can do most of this work and sub out the drainage plan and utility plan to a CE? It seems to me it would be cheaper to go this route (less engineering hours billed, because LA did that work)?


    Interesting thought. There is overlap between the disciplines… but imho, no way an LA prepares civil CDs, reports, etc., for 99% of commercial projects, at least in my experience. Your clients won’t save anything by having the civil sub to an LA. I mark up my sub’s fees at least 10% to cover administering their contracts and paying them in a timely manner, preferably 15%. Vice versa can work: Civil firms without their own pet LA hire LAs to prepare commercial site plans / landscape plans so that the civils don’t get their brains wrapped around the axle.


    I guess as a young professional, I am still learning how the landscape architecture world works, especially the relationship with CE. I found a random plan set for a chipotle in Wisconsin. These seem to be typical of a Civil Set.


    Obviously, a topographic survey is for a PLS, and the Utility Plan and subsequent CD’s are for a PE, but the demolition plan, site plan, dimension plan, and grading and erosion control plan are all within our legal areas of expertise, correct?

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    One look at the landscape plan should tell you that the requirements are so simple that there is no reason to bring in anybody who specializing in the landscape if you are the developer. You always need a Certified Plot Plan for a building permit, so you have no choice other than needing a Professional Land Surveyor. You usually need a septic plan of some sort which is done by a Sanitarian which most CE’s have that endorsement. More often than not both these professionals work in the same office, or pair up professionally, or are the same person. It is one stop shopping. The developers start with who is required and don’t add more cooks in the soup unless absolutely necessary. If they start with an LA, they will have to get the other professionals whether they want them or not just because of stamping requirements – so they just don’t do that.

    I’m an LA that works with CE/PLS on just about every project that I work on. It is custom residential work, so the need for a higher aesthetic than the CE is interested in doing is client driven. The last thing a CE or PLS wants to do is discuss plant choices with a trophy wife on her 6 million dollar summer home. I do what they don’t want to do and don’t have the experience, training, and disposition to do it.

    My opinion is that your approach is 180 degrees from where it should be. It is not your fault. It is what we are all taught in school. You are focused on trying to do everything including what others are already doing. That means that you have to take work away from people who are more qualified and more established. You, or me, would be instantly disadvantaged with that approach and won’t get any help from the people who are already getting the work.

    I learned that you if focus on what the people who are already very busy and successful are doing, you will be targeting an active market. I think you are already doing that. Your next step is not to try to do what the others are doing successfully. It should be to figure out what parts of their work that they really don’t want to deal with and see which parts you can do so that they don’t have to. If you can relieve them of stuff that you can do well and they really don’t want to do, they will refer you to their clients on every job that has those things. You won’t have to spend a dime on advertising and you’ll be busy.

    Don’t chose a playing field that you can’t win on. Choose the place where you are the strongest. You’ll win every time.

    When you try to take other people’s work, they won’t ever help you. When you make someone’s life easier, more profitable, or more efficient they will keep helping you. Never forget that.


    So are you saying that for a typical commercial project, if the developer does not value or need good site design, there is no way they are going to get a landscape architect to do site work because it is redundant because a CE will be required anyway? If we try to compete, we will lose because they will always need the CE stamp.

    What about a situation where, let’s say, due to Covid-19 Chipolte wants to focus on large outdoor eating spaces and they want to have a Landscape Architect lead their site design. How would the technical work be divided between a LA and CE?

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I’m not saying it is true in every case. Your original post was about smaller scale commercial sites.

    ” It appears that it is very uncommon for an LA to do the site plan, grading plan, and drainage plan for a commerical site, is that true? I am talking about smaller-scale commercial, like a fast-food restaurant.”

    I’m not saying that the developer does not value good site design at all. What I am saying is that typically regulations, including parking lot size defined by building SF factored by the type of use, drainage that is now often required to use retention areas rather than subsurface drainage structures which take up a lot of the space on a lot, landscape standards defined by regulation including buffers to lot lines, buffer to streets, parking lot plantings, and vegetating drainage retention areas is often extremely limiting. There is not a lot of room for high level design, so it really is not very difficult for a CE to design a seating area or a street planting.

    Then you have to factor in that the developer is almost always going for highest and best use (HABU). They look to maximize the use on the site. They want the biggest building which is going to be limited by zoning setbacks, lot coverage % to start. Then it may be reduced because there is not enough room for the required parking spaces. Then the drainage calculations might result is a retention area that can’t fit on the lot, so the building gets reduced to reduce the parking to reduce the retention area to make it all fit. These are things the local engineer does all the time. Most landscape architects have a general knowledge, but they don’t eat, drink, and live in regulation land like the CE does.

    When you add outdoor seating, you are often adding to the calculation for increased parking and runoff while using up more of the available area for parking or retention. If only the engineer can legally do the calculations and someone else is designing the outdoor spaces, it becomes a ping pong match going back and forth. The LA changes the hardscape and seating capacity and the engineer recalculates. The LA then has to adjust and send back to the CE. … and for only a simple flat seating area, some low maintenance foundation plants, street trees and some required buffer plantings that really doesn’t take significant training to design. Why would you go out of the way to add the complication?

    The other thing that we as LAs overlook is that whether we like it or not these small CE firms doing small commercial projects have had to do this type of landscape design all the time for years. They are actually more experienced in small commercial landscape design that a lot of LAs because they do it all the time and we don’t.

    Lastly, why the heck would a creative LA want to do small commercial landscape designs other than to fill a schedule and keep some money coming in? The is nothing more boring than that. It would be better to work for the CE doing site plans like I did. It was a great experience, but I’m glad to be done with it.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative. I’m just trying to explain in detail what my observations were having sat on both sides of the situation. I hope it helps or at least gives you a different perspective from which you can draw your own conclusions.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    WBS, you also added the question of how the work would be divided if the developer or business wanted to use an LA.

    I saw a few commercial projects where the CE did a rough site plan and then the LA enhanced it. I did a few Dunkin Donut plans after I left the CE offices. I had a bit of a long leash because the CE on the projects was someone that I worked for several years earlier, so I did do a lot of the parking and drive through design. There was a little back and forth with the CE. This was very similar to your scenario about Chipotle’s.

    I got the job because I had done the site plan for another one of the franchises that the same developer owned while working at that CE’s office. The franchise owner was very happy with the result because it got a lot of good feedback from the town because it was a little nicer than most DD shops in the area because it had an outdoor seating area, nicer aesthetics, and a very functional drive through in a congested area. The other two DD shops wee in the same town that can be rather difficult in the permit process. I was probably brought in as good PR in the permit process as much as for the design.

    I would say that those donut shop projects were a lot more CE design strategy than LA work. Although, maybe I always brought a lot more LA thinking into the CE site plans than I give myself credit for. Not sure if I mentioned it before – my degree and licensing are LA. Most of my early work experience was CE site plans because I can’t hand draw to save my life and that was very important to get a job in LA offices 20 years ago.

    I saw many more residential site plans done by LAs. They usually started with an existing conditions plan from the CE with the zoning setback lines and tables showing the regulatory restrictions like lot coverage and building height, also conservation jurisdiction lines when applicable. The LAs would then have a good understanding of the limitations so that they could design freely. Residential regulation tends to be less complicated even though it can be very restrictive sometimes. …. the projects are much more fun and benefit far more by having an LA or really experienced landscape designer.

    The big difference, in my opinion, of the two professions is that CE’s do what they are told to do and make it work. LAs look to invest thought and analysis to enhance the experiences for whatever activities are happening on the site. A commercial site tends to have fewer and more direct activities with common experience goals. Residences usually have many activities and a wide diversity of desired experiences that need to be sorted out to avoid conflict and to achieve the best possible experience for each activity. There are some commercial sites that fit that as well, but in general they are usually very consistent in my opinion.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Another thing regarding commercial sites with LAs. I did see several projects that most of the site was planned by the engineers with the details filled in by landscape architects. I was not involved in the site plans, but did have to prepare the survey crew’s data to stake local medium sized projects that were designed by bigger distant firms and needed local survey crew for onsite layout. That seemed like a good way of blending the design teams and not causing conflict. This was very evident with xeref drawing sets with over 100 dwg’s (ridiculous) – it made it easy to see how the work flow was divided.

    An airport terminal and parking lot re-design is one that comes to mind and a large municipal recreation center with indoor and outdoor facilities is another off the top of my head.


    Thank you for the thorough response. It is helpful. I guess now that I think about it, I am trying to connect what I studied in the LARE to professional practice. I remember a question being something like, use the rational method to calculate the detention basion size and place it on site.

    So in real practice, this will likely be a multi-disciplinary team that is working out the site drainage details, and not a LA using the rational method to allocate space for on-site detention, with a CE coming in after to do the drainage calculations, pipes. etc. Correct?

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I have not worked in a big firm, but what I seen is that the CE takes the drainage responsibility. They are all using software like hydrocad as an add on to Autocad. I don’t know that anyone is doing drainage calc’s the old fashioned way these days.

    I don’t know ow many states allow LAs to do drainage calc’s. I know that Idaho did at least for a while, but I don’t know if any other state does.


    I work for a multi-disciplinary architecture and engineering firm and I do all the preliminary site planning as requested by our largest commercial client. That includes all of the preliminary code research. Sometimes it might require multiple iterations until the client is happy with the layout. After the site layout is complete the document usually becomes part of the lease as an exhibit and is handed off to the development team and engineers to take it to the next level. Once engineered, the plan comes back to me for the landscape and irrigation design. We have other clients that have internal site planners to do the preliminary site design, before it is handed off to us to begin fine tuning the design and engineering all of the things like cut/fill, site drainage, storm water management landscape design etc. A lot of it is client driven and we roll with what it is they want where they feel they are getting the biggest bang for their buck.

    On a side note, developing a project in Madison is its own bear. They are not an easy town to develop anything and there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Its unfortunate because of all of the additional work, our fees escalate accordingly.

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