Design+Build or Hold Out?

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    I’m beginning the process of soliciting for contract production and design work and now I’ve begun to think about adding the ‘build’ component.

    I have experience as a landscape designer prior to college, as well as running my own small design-build outfit for a summer or two. The latter was moderately successful, but now looking back I see that I have a whole new and enhanced set of skills, knowledge, and experience to apply which I didn’t have before. I think I could make a go of it and fair pretty well if I commit myself and time.

    The issue is whether it is worth committing to such an endeavour right now, especially considering I am fresh out of school and a few years from the opportunity to sit for licensure. Frankly, I’m curious to know if it’s truly worth spending the years working toward licensure and if the compensation and added benefits are commensurate?

    Or should I take the knowledge and skill I have in garden design and construction and put it to work?

    For those of you in the design-build field, from an LA’s/Designers perspective who understands the advantages and limitations of both design-build and the traditional ‘firm’ career track, what is a realistic earning potential for a ‘high end’ (I know Im going to catch heat for that) design-build owner on average?

    My goal has always been to at some time own my own business, whether that be in a year or 15 years. I understand what owning a business entails and dig it. I see the risk and reward of owning a business, but is it worth the sacrifice now considering all the given factors-economy, my limited experience, licensure requirements, etc?

    To see what I’m working on..


    I think the practice act in co excludes single family residences.

    One thought I had regarding licensing is that if in a year or even two from now I decide I need to get that license I could transition the business in to strictly residential design (moonlighting) and/or have a number of people take it over in the interim.

    I would think that if I was designing and building quality projects that a firm would see that as valuable experience, rather than the myriad alternatives to weathering the economic crisis. Do you think a firm like EDAW (AECOM) would see hiring someone like me in a year or two from now after running a design-build business as a competitior?

    Cliche question, but if you could start all over what would you do?

    Chris Whitted

    You have prior experience running such a business, which is a huge plus. You have gained additional skills and knowledge, which is another plus and in some ways gives you a leg up over contractors and some of the other design-build guys. I would ask what have you got to lose? To me, gaining relevant experience is better than doing nothing or doing something unrelated. I guess I’m just not sure what you’re ‘waiting’ on or ‘holding out’ for. Doing your own thing now while you wait for a ‘traditional career track’ position can only help in my eyes. And you might be surprised at how many people around here had or have their own firm yet are currently working for others. Mergers happen, and individual practices can be set aside while going to work for another company, even prior competitors – a LOT of firms form that way. I would have to strongly disagree with Andrew that you wouldn’t ever get licensed. He does present an interesting issue though, that of enforcement. But that’s another discussion.

    The biggest thing you’d have to watch is what you’re actually doing and calling yourself. Only in VT and DC can you legally call yourself an LA without a license (as I understand it), and all but four other states regulate what you can actually do without a license. Our practice act is very new, and I believe you are correct that single-family is excluded. But I would thorougly read and become very familiar with that law, and what is and isn’t legal for you to do. Especially if you’re also aiming to contract out to other design firms with production support services; you could quickly find yourself in a gray or crossover area.


    I agree Chris, though I have no experience to back it up, that an established firm is more likely to view experience as a sol prop/design builder as very relevant and admirable experience, certainly over doing something unrelated or less connected with actual design and construction of outdoor spaces. I also see Andrews point.

    One major disadvantage I see is that I wouldn’t be able to practice something I have a keen interest in-Urban Design and Planning, but who knows how much of that would be available in the next few years anyhow.

    Chad Crutcher

    I just visited your web site. You younger folks scare the crap out of me! Nice graphics, nice site.
    I’m old as dirt now, never could draw quite that well, have a cheap, Go-Daddy templated on-line portfolio for a web site and never learned CADD. If I had to find a job right now, competing against younger talent such as yours, I’d be on the street.

    Yes, I can draw…in fact, many visitors and newcomers to the firm are quite amused when they enter our landscape studio (I’m in a multi-disciplinary civil engineering firm) and I am hunched over a huge hand drawn plan or sketch, coloring with smelly markers. I can manage, market and sharpen pencils, too. And, I have built many projects. But, for the money, many firms will pass on my experience and expense for a younger, less expensive and multi-talented/skiled fellow such as yourself.

    Whatever your circumstance, I glean from your comments that staying put is more to your liking than relocation. I’ve always responded to employment/career queries on this site that, if one really wants a good job, they are out there, if one is willing to do whatever is necessary. There are several current design jobs that tease me. Maybe shoot for something over your head just to get in the door. You have many skills plus have built something. If I had an opening in our company, I’d be interested in you.

    Oh, yes, I am licensed in 2 states. Licensure is very important to me. I place a great deal of importance and cred in those tix. Since you asked, yes, I recommend you focus on licensure as soon as possible. What I said about getting a job above goes here, too. Andrew is soooooo right. Once your life is launched and passes that point of no return, well, there’s no return! Note I do not have that Masters Degree I always wanted. Good Luck.

    Do well doing good.


    Great advice all around, thanks!

    I’m gearing up to send another round of inquiries in the next month or so. If the response is as poor as it was back in June, I may need to think this over a little harder or come up with a new strategy.

    I’m seeing signs of life in other parts of the country (hello Southern Cali), but not remotely interested in many of the locations or the positions are way over my head from what they advertise. It’s not so much theat I’m not willing to relocate, but that the advantages of moving haven’t outweighed the advantages of staying put…yet. An important factor, for me, is being able to ski and hike, it keeps just keeps me sane.

    Thanks for all the solid advice as usual. I’m sure others not posting found benefit in this thread as well.

    Chad Crutcher


    I live in Truckee, CA and totally get the ski thing! Problem is, I don’t ski! Old sports injury keeps me off the slopes. Hiking? My wife and I go with our dogs all year ’round…snowshoes are great excercise!


    Violate the rules when job searching. If it says no phone calls, this was a strategy I used several times: I explained that the position sounds very interesting and I was hoping they would be willing to spend just a few minutes on the phone outlining their objectives so I can evaluate if the time investment required to prepare and send an introductory package (they want a resume/I’m planning a presentation) is worth it…and, so they might not have to sift through another resume of the wrong person. Sell your call as a WIN-WIN while demonstrating a bit of boldness that you suggest is being thorough and doing the necessary research to support a sound decision. Remember, you’ve opened saying the position intrigues you because you’ve sensed a good fit may be in the cards. Note: take this kind of risk only for something you really want. This is not a standard approach. It only works if your enthusiasm for the job is real and strong and can be easily perceived on the other end. I’ve even used terms like “…wanting to play in the sandbox you guys are in…” If you really love the job, it should be fun, most of the time, and you need to convey that.

    Do well doing good.


    Thanks Chad!

    Jennifer de Graaf

    Nick –
    One of the main complaints I’ve heard from employers over the years is that the people out of school don’t know %&*@ about build-ability. They can’t detail things because they’ve never been out in the field, don’t know how big a CMU is, can’t spec a light fixture, etc. You get my drift.

    I’ve worked for strictly design firms mostly, but also spent 6 months at a design/build contractor’s company. That employer is LUCKY as lucky gets to have the talented (they are licensed) staff he has and even though the employer got his degree in LA, he decided to go all contracting so he could make things himself and get the more immediate satisfaction. He has regretted not getting licensed, so now at 50+ he is studying for licensure. Not sure how he will do, but he has decided he needs it. I’m in Northern California – don’t know how different things are here from Colorado. My former employer did not need to go back and work for someone else – he qualified for the exam with the “equivalent experience” option.

    I’d say overall – go where the work is. I know it takes a LOT to start and build a business – and I strongly recommend both licensure (most people in CA seem to go for it, but I don’t have statistics) and working for design firms. By working for design firms, you will gain so much from the people you may work with. I think a design build company (if that is the ultimate goal) in which the principal has an LA license and a design background as well as the ability to build would be pretty unique.

    hope that helps!


    Thanks Jennifer.

    I enjoyed my time in design/build prior to attending school . I got burned out after about 5 years feeling it was the same thing over and over. Now I can see that it doesnt need to be that way. It wasn’t that the homeowners were demanding the same banal ‘naturalistic colorado alpine’ landscape, but thats basically all a lot of residential designers I associated with knew.

    It would be exciting to try and take some of my enhanced design knowledge and apply it to a similar market here. There may or may not be a market for, or a very limited one, I dont know. I do know that I really enjoyed building things and miss that aspect. I particularly enjoyed putting together irrigation systems, all the plumbing and circuitry. Maybe because my father did HVAC, and I see similarities, I dont know.

    I think it would be a very educational experience testing new ideas in the field, getting my hands dirty again, and I think most employers would see this as an asset I bring should I decide to return to office life.

    I also know I am very interested in urban design and planning (right now) and it would be exciting I think to work on projects that affect a broader user base (public).

    I suspect I’ll fiddle with the design-build thing for a while and eventually return to office life once things take a turn for the better. I just doent want to ‘hang out’ anymore.

    Kellan Vincent

    Hi Nick.

    I seem to be in a similar situation as yourself, tho I have already set my choices in motion at this point. My family has a design/build business that has been established over the last 30 or so years. It was always a joke that if I didn’t get an education, I would end up working for it. 10 years later and after graduating with a BLA from TxA&M, I am working for the company after all with the eventual goal of becoming the new owner.

    While this seems like a reasonable prospect, it is not without its downfalls. About 2.5 years ago I was looking at many of the big firms for our required summer semester-away internship etc. in hopes of possibly landing a “firm” oriented career path. The prospect of working at a reputable firm and building a solid career was great. After working a summer at a relatively influential firm in central Texas, I found that personally, I liked being out on jobs much more than I was getting the opportunity to do so. Getting stuck at a work station day in day out started to get really tedious, and my overall happiness was fading. While I know that many of us have to put in our dues, it seemed as if many of the higher level employees were doing much of the same thing.

    About a year after that, I again applied to some of the bigger firms, but also started to rethink my impressions of my experiences the summer prior. After the recruitment sessions ended, I decided to work as an intern for our family business to get some more experience on the “other side” of the plans.

    Currently I am quite happy where I am. One thing about managing a business is the much greater degree of responsibility. There is not a lot to hide behind, and it takes a great degree of determination to keep your head above water so to speak.

    On the issue of licensing, this is one of the obstacles I am currently working on overcoming. It rubs me slightly the wrong way regarding the lack of options for people to become licensed without having to follow a traditional career path. It would seem to me that review boards would want less people practicing unlicensed and without any sort of continuing education, therefore would allow the ability for established companies to work on having their members licensed.

    As far as Texas goes, I will need 2 years of experience before I can finish my licensing process. 1 year of that can be completed under guidance of a contractor, irrigator, engineer etc. The second is required under an RLA however. My current goal is to eventually hire an RLA on our staff once our design sector picks up, meeting the requirement for my licensing. Is it kindof backwards? Yes. But there aren’t a lot of options if I want to keep my family business alive. Meanwhile, I have my LEED accreditation and working on my Certified Arborist and LI certificates.

    I do not regret my decision at all just know that any choice comes with certain consequences. Best of luck!

    -k. vincent


    Thanks Kellan.

    That was very informative and hits close to home for me. I think your strategy for hiring an RLA is great and makes me wonder about my own potential options along a similar route.

    I had an interview today which went very well. It occurs to me that it means more to people in tough times about what you can offer, not so much your credentials, though having them never hurts.

    Best of Luck to you and I look forward to seeing some of your work one of these days.


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