Got Craft?

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    mark foster

    Disparate observations:


    1. I went into design/build 25 years ago in response to watching my best laid plans (pun intended) get savaged by incompetent low-bid contractors. Every time I talk “shop” with a design-only associate (LA or Arch), it seems that things have only gotten worse.

    2. Heather’s post about Mike Rowe, which talks in part about the shortage of skilled labor because Americans see trade work as demeaning.

    3. Every commercial construction site seems to have a work force who’s median age is about 50

    4. The vast majority of completed landscape projects seem to have a maximum palate of about a dozen plants and 2 types of hardscape. All seem to be chosen for their suitability to little or no skills on the jobsite

    5. Contractors and/or D/B’ers outside of competitive bidding are too busy, even in these hard times. Demand for experienced, skilled on-site labor is way higher than the supply

    6. Local suppliers who used to introduce new and innovative products are being driven out of business by the big box retailers and the choices get narrower by the minute. (the internet helps, but nothing like having your hands on it)

    7. Young people these days……do they really need to have someone show them how to shovel dirt?

    8 The absolute best craftsmen in the outgoing generation (older than me by a bit) are retiring and closing shop because they have no one to give it to.

    9. With few exceptions, homes and businesses which cost absolute fortunes to construct look eerily the same–in total and detail….


    Maybe these are nothing more than the musings of an old f#rt. Perhaps my local conditions are unique. But if they are not, I don’t see these as encouraging signs for our profession. Decreasing choice, skills, talent, and pride in one’s work (in the trades) do not seem to be trending well for those of us who create the unique and original.


    In short, are we losing the craft which makes our design possible? 

    david maynes

    Agreed to all mentioned.

    Here in Newfoundland, skilled labor and materials for realizing a particularly inspired project is near impossible. The firm I work for is exploring the seemingly obligatory need to build what we design, just to enable design progress on the island. I believe some places/regions can force the hand of construction upon the design firm, at least if one looks beyond as you say ‘ a dozen plants and two types of pavers’.

    Thanks for the thoughts


    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Does this not spell OPPORTUNITY in a big way? I know excellent design/build people who find a way to get whomever the help that comes along put out a consistent awesome product. Not everyone can people manage, but those who can own it.

    mark foster

    I did not bring this up as a design build issue.  Of course I have found opportunity in it.  But I am still a landscape architect concerned with trends and the future of my profession.

    Jason T. Radice

    As someone whofrequently has contractors swearing at him because of the design and attention to detail, I would agree with the premise, just not on all the details. Around here, things are a bit different.


    3.Most of the workers here are in their 30’s, the bosses (the ones who know what they are doing) are in their 50s. There is generally one older white guy with a big gut directing about 10 hispanic dudes who speak absolutely no english whatsoever. Legality is questionalble, and I’m sure they are not getting paid very well. The contractor has a boat payment to make, you know. Do you think those guys can read the plans? Of course not. This is why you must draw what you mean, notes mean nothing. Speaking of plans, when was the last time you saw a set outside of the job trailer actually next to the guys doing the work? And when you have to reject a lighting fixture submittal THREE TIMES after designing what I want on the plans to begin with (and telling them each time to build it exactly as shown on the plans) you know something is seriously wrong. 


    4. Depends on who designs it. Over the past few years, the selections at out local nurseries has only gotten better. More perrenials and more natives that were once considered oddballs have become commonplace. Sure Home Despot and Loweseses just have a fraction, but even they are diversifying (the HD down the street actually subcontracted their plants to a local grower this year. I guess they wanted more variety, more knowledgeable staff, and less plant loss so they brought in pros who would be out of work anyway as the plating season is over). From my experience, it is landscapes designed by engineers who pick five plants off the list and shove it in the ground.


    5. This will always be the case. Finding good people is tough, and when they have to cut their fees to win work and keep their people, they will, just to stay busy. Wouldn’t you buy a Caddilac for the price of a Chevy?


    6. Just the opposite here, in the past few years, the amount of product available has grown exponentially, both in plant and hardscape materials. Many of the hardscape companies have used the downtime on the machines to experiment and introduce new products. Same with plants. Plus, we have many more smaller specialty nurseries for natives, green roof, and wetland plants, started by people who saw a niche that was not being filled by the big boys.


    7. Yes, yes they do. Kids today are morons…absolute morons. I was saying this when I was a kid, too. Its nothing new. Who knows, maybe they got even stupider lately?


    8. You are right, There isn’t a lot of pride in much of the work being done today. The older generation who was pround of what they did is being replaced by the generation that is how much money they made on the job.


    9. There is no accounting for taste. Besides, HOAs and communtiy groups, as well as cookie-cutter builders who buy in bulk kind of neuter any design. And Joe Schmoe landscape makes his money by rubberstamping the same design over and over because he can, overplanting the same 5 plants because he needs to sell them.


    We are not losing our craft, but it is being subverted by hacks, budget cuts, planting ordinances, and indifferent LAs who just want to make a buck. I’ve seen firms in engineering and archietcture go from an art to a business, and I fear many LAs are headed that way as well with the large amount of mergers and conglomerations. There are still true craftsmen (and women) in the business.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    The biggest change that I have seen over time is the degradation of knowledge and skills as equipment and speed replaced it. As equipment gained speed it reduced pricing. That set pricing that more skilled work, whether construction or maintenance, can’t compete with. Some consumers may want it, but they expect to get it for “the going rate”. No one wants to plant a two gallon plant without a Dingo and auger. A rake is something you use to hook the blower and drag it to the edge of the truck so you can grab it. Pruners are for making a fresh cut on the rope when the pull cord for the power trimmers breaks.

    Every generation of landscaper learns from what they did working for their employer. It is getting to the point where it is largely the blind leading the blind as so many of them believe that it is all about having the right piece of equipment.

    Jason T. Radice

    I think the same can be said with our tools. CAD alllows people to be lazy and take shortcuts and not really know how to design something (especially details). GIS allows all sorts of shortcuts with analysis, and many uses have no idea how to interpret the results of the quiries they run, or even how to check their accuracy. 3D allows some to hide design deificiencies with fancy graphics (the old architect covering the building with the trees syndrome) and unrealistic renderings. Sure, the graphics look great, but it looks like crap when its built because the rendering was so innacurate. This is dangerous because people assume it is photorealistic, not like the old days where a hand sketch was pretty much understood to be an artist’s rendering.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Oh, there is no doubt about that. It is too easy to produce something that looks like a good design whether or not it is a good design.

    One of the things that I do to combat that is not to rely on graphics as a sales tool. That came naturally to me because I am not strong graphically, but I have since realized that because I focus on explanation in “the audition”, I do better at instilling confidence in my prospects than others do (residential) and I usually get the job. That goes back to using the current situation as an opportunity.

    The thing that degrades “the industry” is when we follow what others do and compete on their terms. We become like them whether we are designers or contractors.

    The problem is that in order to continually sell something more, you have to continually produce something more. I find that to be a problem with contractors. When I talk to them, without fail, they all talk the talk abut using the best stock and quality installation, but then when it gets put together it is bargain shopping and speed installation (I’m not project managing currently).

    The few that I know that actually do walk the walk are, just as you say, very busy and commanding high price, They are also not continually growing. In fact, they were once much larger and pared down in order to maintain quality control. They are also quiet – not going out of their way to grab new prospects because the wrong prospect is a waste of time. Clients come to them based on referral from a similar demographic.

    These are opportunities, but they are not ones that we can jump into. These are hard to build, but they must be built in order to be occupied. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

    If everyone could do it, everyone would do it. But at the same time, there are people doing it, so we can’t honestly say that it can no longer be done whether it is design or contracting. I’ve watched a 25 year old design/build from the inside for the last dozen years and saw it change from an American work force, to a mix of Americans and J1 Europeans, to a mix of Americans, Brazilians, and H2B Jamaicans and you can’t tell the difference in the outcome of the projects at all. It all starts at the top with management and control of the work force – by far the hardest part of the job. I’ve watched not so good designs by others get tweaked in the field to become a lot nicer through execution (and change orders).

    When the playing field is low, the ability to shine is greater if we are truly capable. Embrace opportunity if you can perform.

    mark foster

    Great replies all,  Jason thanks for breaking it down– I’m actually relieved to be wrong on any or all of this.  Actually I do see plant selection getting better in the nurseries–I just don’t see it getting used.  (maybe just a time lag thing).  And your description of contractors–Ha!  I smell “The Money Pit” sequel coming..

    Funny story about technology replacing common sense/good design… I was asked to bid a substantial garden project for a local architect.   I took one look at their plans and the site and said “something’s not right with this proposed stone staircase–your grades are wrong”  They insisted they were accurate, and I asked “did you shoot the grades?”, and they said no, they didn’t need to because the grades came from a satellite, and informed me (in so many words) that as the contractor I was not to ask such ridiculous questions, shut up and build what’s on the plans.  Well, they used another contractor  and they have torn out this staircase 3 times.   Sometimes the best projects are the ones you don’t get!

    Andrew, I love the bit about selling residential–there is a total book in this one.  The psychology of designing in residential is it’s own universe with it’s own rules–softer touch, more patience, earning trust, casual but truthful are much more important there.  I have to remind myself to adjust when designing commercial–the “time clock” is very different and condensed….Your description of big to small and quiet sounds like my business bio.   

    The bit about speed is true.  A lot of this is the associated cost structures between labor and machines in capital heavy businesses.  You can buy a machine/vehicle for a business and get an instant tax break– taxes start on labor the minute you hire someone.  Not to mention training, insurance etc. Still, a machine can’t build a dry-stack stone wall.  Having said this, I am a big fan of internal combustion when 20 tons of boulders are in the wrong place…

    The degradation of skills I am most concerned about concern the built things– masons carpenters, even concrete and structural.

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