Economic crisis and what it means for us

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Economic crisis and what it means for us

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 56 total)
  • Author
  • #176009
    Claudia Chalfa

    I have been watching CNN too much lately, it’s beginning to depress me. I am graduating in May with my MLA, and am caught in a catch-22 – I would love to be able to start my own firm, if I can’t find a “real” job when I graduate, but I have to be certified as an LA first. So, my only option is to get a job at this point. There are plenty of people who are just graduating who maybe aren’t sure this is the career they really want, but I am not one of them. I have known this was the profession I wanted for 14 years now. And I quit a good paying job to go back to graduate school for 3 years in order to achieve this goal. So what do those of us do, who want more than anything to be landscape architects, in an environment where many firms are not hiring or are laying off employees? I have a few ideas.

    First, I worked as an intern this summer in Northern Ireland, at a non-profit landscape architecture firm that does community projects. Why can’t we set up a non-profit landscape architecture firm here in the US that will scoop up these unemployed landscape architects and recent graduates? This would benefit everyone – we could get the experience we need to pass the LARE and become certified, and the agency could tackle some of the dire environmental and social issues that are currently plaguing our nation. It seems to me like a win-win situation. Anyone else agree or have comments?


    I think this is already underway in many cases and in many regions of North America. There have been some very bright talents affected by the recent surge of layoffs and there is sure to be many more. I have already become aware of at least a handful of non-profit design organizations being set up in the wake of the economic meltdown.

    To me, it seems like a great idea and perfect way to not only make a living, supplement and enhance your professional skills, but also as an opportunity to increase the visibility and capability of the landscape architecture profession. By expanding the breadth of our typical scope of work to projects we can get away experimenting on due to the non-profit nature of the business we may be able to break new ground.

    I feel the same way as you Claudia- I have known I wanted to be a landscape architect for a relatively long time now and cannot picture myself doing anything else. I would do this job for free, but of course want to get paid well.

    So what brought you to the field of landscape architecture?

    Claudia Chalfa

    I graduated from East Carolina Univ. in 1994 with a b.s. in environmental health, and couldn’t find a job right away in my field of study. I loved plants and so I went to a local LA firm and submitted a resume, asking them to hire me. The Principal sat me down and the first thing he said was ” We don’t really do that much with plants, here is what we actually do…”. They gave me a job as general assistant / gopher (I knew how to survey, measure, draft and color, because of my art school and science background) and I worked there for several months until I got my ‘real’ job. I loved every minute of it and have known ever since that this was what I wanted to do. Life, two kids and a divorce got in the way, but two and a half years ago at the age of 34 I realized I was stuck in a job that I hated and that there was never going to be a good time to pursue my dreams, so I came to Clemson to get my MLA. Of course, when I came into the program the industry was begging for MLA’s, and now the opposite is true.

    Do you know of any non-profit organizations in the Carolinas?

    Josh Burwell

    Claudia, I unfortunately do not know of any non profits, but I was interested in your story since it is similar to mine. I have owned a landscape design/build firm for 8 years, due to the current situation I have sold the assets and am now a full time student @ university of Maryland in pursuit of a degree in Landscape Architecture. I love the field and never wanted to do anything else. I think in 2-3 years we will see an upturn in out industry.
    I think your idea of the non profit is a revelation.

    Claudia Chalfa

    I really like the idea of being able to choose projects that interest me. I have a lot of contacts in Northern Ireland and Egypt,and love the thought of doing projects in those locations. It seems like non-profit status would give me the freedom to explore humanitarian efforts in other countries as well as here. The problem is, I would need at least one certified LA on board in order to sign off on projects and for the apprenticeship while preparing to take the LARE.

    By the way, Josh, I used to run my own landscape design business too.

    Claudia Chalfa

    Non-profit organizations are tax-exempt and able to charge much less for services, and are also able to accept grants and donations. Therefore they should be able to hire and keep employees even at a time when the economy is struggling and construction is halted on many projects, particularly private sector ones. Setting up a for-profit firm at a time when firms are laying off a third of their staff doesn’t sound like a particularly good business move to me. There are non-profit firms, I worked for one in the UK this past summer, and I know of another one in Charlotte NC that specializes in African-American neighborhood revitalization. I am interested in finding a firm that can ride out this economic storm because of its flexibility as a non-profit organization. Perhaps this won’t be necessary, there is always the hope that I will be able to get a job in May. But as a single Mother of two who has devoted the last three years to studying for a career that I am really enthusiastic about, it depresses me to think that I may not be able to find work and so I am brainstorming about ways to solve this problem. Especially with regards to participatory design and urban design, I think landscape architects can really make a difference in how our communities are planned and designed.

    And thank you for correcting me on the licensing versus certification issue. However, I can assure you that I know of several landscape architects that are indisputably “certified”.

    Pok Kobkongsanti

    Dear Claudia

    First, congrats you for the coming graduation!
    I must say that you have a great idea, even though I don’t understand much of how Non-profit firm works.

    In Thailand, we rarely have community park in each neighborhood.
    When one is lucky enough to get some money, the project usually is designed by government’s officials or someone who got connections with the government.
    As the result, design is not their first concern.

    So I think it’d be great for the community to have a capable team.
    Of course, financial-wisem, it’ll be difficult to get good designers willing to work for low salary.
    But I think it’s worth a try!!

    About the economy crisis, it’s coming soon to Asia, I think.
    Hong Kong and Singapore are slowing down now.
    Thailand’d be next, I guess.
    Hopefully, China won’t go down. Otherwise, this crisis will be much worse than it is right now.

    Claudia Chalfa

    Pok, I think China is already slowing down, and you are right, this is disastrous. Landscape architects have a duty, in my mind, to be stewards of the earth. We are trained for this in school. (Some of us even listen!) If we are to practice sustainability as more than just a buzzword, we need to analyze the triangle (balance between economic, social and environmental issues) and make sure it is not bent too much in one direction. Of course, when the economy goes sour, everyone tends to forget about the other two components of that triangle – the people and the environment. That’s why planners, landscape architects, architects and economic development folks are (or should be) trained to work at keeping the system balanced. In America right now we are at a very advantageous point in terms of what we can accomplish with environmental issues: We have a new President in a few weeks who has promised to make environmental concerns a priority, and he has strength in congress to back him up. Now is the time to get creative and really start making those environmental manufacturing jobs happen. For example, the “big 3” auto makers are in financial crisis and may go bankrupt – why can’t we retrain those auto workers to build solar panels, or at very least, Toyota prius’?

    As for the non-profit idea, I am only beginning to investigate the idea myself. I don’t know that much about the nuts and bolts of it, but I have worked for Groundwork, which is the largest employer of landscape architects in the UK and is non-profit. I also think a co-op idea may work – profit sharing and a sort of communal approach. I think each area of the country (or world, even) will have to find its own solutions to this issue, but what I really don’t want to see happen is that landscape architects lose their job and go into something else to make ends meet, especially if it is the career that they love and are passionate about. This profession, in my mind, is important – we can accomplish so much good for everyone if just given the chance.

    It could very well be that I find a regular job next spring, with a regular firm, and then you might say this whole discussion has been unnecessary – but I disagree. Because even if little old me finds a job, there are thousands of people out there who haven’t. One firm in NC is rumored to have recently laid off one-third of their staff, and one of my professors estimates that 50% of this year’s graduates won’t have jobs. So to those people out there who are in that situation, I say: get creative. Find a way to keep working. If you can’t find work, make work. Laurence Halprin supposedly did the design for Ghirardelli Square in San Fran and then showed it to the clients, who loved it and implemented it. It may take that sort of initiative and foresight to make things happen. Landscape architects can’t just sit in their offices and wait for work to walk through the door, in this current economic environment. And, we have to work together and take care of each other. I have heard about firms cutting their salaries so they don’t have to let anyone go; I also know of a firm that has promised not to lay anyone off for the next three months, so that they can at least make it through Christmas before being laid off.

    I understand what you are saying about design work in Asia, too…I worked on a project in Egypt, and it was similar there. They don’t have landscape architects in Egypt, not on any reasonable scale. Architects and urban designers make a lot of the decisions about parks, etc. In this new global environment, I would really like to see landscape architects working in impoverished areas more, to try to help the developing countries develop in a good way. I think the non-profit idea might afford firms the ability to do these sorts of projects.

    What we really need is a lawyer or MBA who knows a lot about these types of businesses to get in here and describe them to us.

    Rochelle Greayer

    Claudia – I am inspired by your zeal – as the principal of a young and small firm who has had to put almost everyone on a contract basis (our business this year will be about half of last years), I am frequently bogged down with the stress of finding ways to grow a small firm in this tough economic environment. I applaud your creativity and would be more than happy to help you try and find other ways of doing things and collaborating. I entered this profession as a career changer too, and I did it because I love design and designers, gardens and landscapes, plants, people, travel and different cultures. What you propose sounds very interesting and I would love to learn more about what it means to be non-profit.

    Noah Billig

    Claudia – I like your idea of non-profit LA firms. I have thought about the same thing when working with community non-profit organizations. I think landscape architects have a skill set that could be valuable for a non-profit. On a job site we can speak the language of engineers, architects, planners, artists, horticulturists, etc. This breadth and depth is valuable and rare.

    One suggestion I have is to keep working your way toward licensure after you graduate, even if you do not have a job. Take the LARE. Get any experience you can. Maybe you can help teach a course at an LAAB accredited school. This can give you partial credit toward your experience requirement.

    I am also a Clemson student in the EDP program. I have to decided to take the academia route. This might be another option for you. With your MLA and previous work and travel experience, you would likely be a welcome addition to many studio courses.

    Good luck in your final semester. Say “hi” to Clemson.

    Claudia Chalfa

    As I said, I don’t know the specifics of it yet, but I plan to do a little research and will let you know what I find out about non-profits. Collaborating sounds good, too…I’ll definitely keep that in mind! Care to work in Egypt?

    Claudia Chalfa

    Unfortunately, Noah, I cannot take the LARE unless I have worked for a period of three years under a licensed landscape architect. therein lies the rub! If you are at Clemson, perhaps we can get together for coffee, it sounds like we could have an interesting discussion. ­čÖé

    Claudia Chalfa

    Hi Brian – yes, I have heard of them, I actually have their book “Design like you give a damn”. Thanks for the links, they seem like a great group of people. However, I think it is a volunteer organization. I am going to need to pay the bills too…then once I have an income I can certainly consider volunteering on the side for projects such as theirs. Still, it’s great to have as many contacts as possible in this field!

    Noah Billig

    Actually, we can now take the LARE after we complete our degree – even without the experience. I’m not sure if this is a state rule or a national rule, but I took Section D in September and do not have three years of experience yet (for MN licensure). You might want to look into it. I will let you know when I am coming back to Clemson.

    Eric Gilbey

    Claudia and others,
    My career has been affected because of the slowing/halting economy. My first job “let go” was in 2005 and the last was in 2007. In both cases, I was let go due to lack of available work. Times like these force us to be creative and more importantly flexible, and in the near future, that flexibility becomes a selling point. You may find similar work with other companies, or government agencies that have related interests, until the economy swings differently. The non-profit route seems a viable option, and there are studios who do this work around the country. When I was faced with my last “let go” I actually applied for jobs that were not necessarily hiring a landscape architect (though I am one), but had positions available that I had experience in, or would like experience in. At the time, I thought this next job could at least get me to the next one that might be better, but it would be a job (sustaining a family makes you think more flexibly). The job I eventually found was better than I expected, and I really have no plans to jump to another. The important part is that my career goals are still being met.
    Consider related design firms that have multiple disciplines; regional planning authorities that do work in community development; education of public in land stewardship/conservation/community building issues, the opportunities continue to come to mind, as you have already experienced…especially when you consider other countries.
    Regarding the LARE, there are some states that offer the LARE to candidates who have just graduated, but do not yet have time under an LA, and if one is nearby, apply to sit for the exam in that state, and get that behind you…you will still need to get the time under an LA before you can get registered, but in the state the economy, you may have to whittle at the professional development goals a little slower than expected, but they can still be accomplished. A word of caution, with there LARE testing, though. It is designed with experience and education in mind. CLARB has purposely built the exam so that the candidate would ultimately need to have some experience to know how to handle some situations, that may just not be known to a recent grad with no experience.
    I’m going to leave this comment on an up note though…most jobs are obtained when the opening was not advertised. Introduce yourself to as many people as possible at ASLA meetings, City Planning Seminars, AIA events, etc. Once you meet these professionals, invite yourself to tour their office, or ask for a lunch to chat about the design industry; talk about mentor programs and ways of working up from unexpected starting points. You would be surprised, and comforted, to know that many jobs are attainable by talking to the right person, at the right time, so keep your portfolio (or a copy of one) in your car/notebook when you do things like this.

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 56 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.

Lost Password