Guiding My Career Path

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    Yep! It’s prejudging someone because they have the dexterity to operate a machine. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is. It’s all about image with most of the homeowners that are willing to pay for my services. I hate to say it, but it took me about fifteen years in the business to realize that wealthy people are the people who purchase landscape architectural services for their homes. I tried like hell to be the “everyman’s landscape architect” and I nearly starved.


    “When meeting a client one of course won’t drive up in a dump truck. You dress up and take your laptop full of job pictures.”


    Exactly, you put on your sales presentation costume and look like a white collar guy for the 7pm meeting with the homeowners, because image is everything. Honestly George, I am a tractor driving, back-hoe operating, dirt piling, boot wearing kind of landscape architect and I learned early in my career that being labeled a “nuts and bolts” LA could limit my career. Like my first boss told me, “You’re in design/sales; you need to differentiate yourself from the Bobcat operator. You need to carry yourself like a guy that picks-up $75,000 dollar start-up checks for a living.” At that time I was young and idealistic, so it went in one ear and out the other and I had to learn the hard way.


    I agree, starting a design/build firm would be tough for the average CAD jockey, but not impossible. The human body adapts quickly.


    “I would much rather deliver bark and rock in a nice heated dump truck while design jobs trickle in.”


    Personally, I’d rather push wheelbarrows of gravel uphill in the hot sun than spend day delivering bulk materials in an air conditioned truck, even if it had a cushy lambskin pad for my fanny. That’s crazy right?


    I need to relocate, I’m kicking in doors, dancing, begging, or whatever to get jobs and they just trickle in out your way.

    George McNair

     It’s all about image with most of the homeowners that are willing to pay for my services


    Yip, so true. When picking up $75k checks, one must at least dress in slacks, good shirt and decent shoes. My scale of operation is picking up $7k checks if I’m lucky.  Presently, am semi-retired but need to pick up some jobs for mental and physical health. The design jobs seem to be going out of town or to the landscapers who are barely hanging on.


    People must think LAs are too spendy. My reputation should be good when it comes to getting the jobs done and doing nice looking major commercial projects and large residences. Maybe some are bad mouthing me. The landscapers are hurting since a several new ones move into Coos Bay, Oregon during the up swing in ’07. I see them parking their rigs with big signs along side busy roads.


    I’m thinking about running a TV add or radio and sell the idea that LAs use competitive construction bidding that saves the client money and pays for LA services. In addition LAs provides job management, and usually ups the quality since landscapers are hand picked.


    Brittany hasn’t been back on and we are handing out our pearls of wisdom! We are supposed to be discussing the design-build dream. Back before the big crash during the ’80, I was working for the president of the Oregon Board of Landscape Contractors. Learned the nuts and bolts of being an LA. Later, I started up a design-build practice and it was going gang busters. It was really hard hot work in the 105 degree southern Oregon sun. Was doing landscapes on the Street of Dreams!………………..then boom………crash………pop……the economy went dead for 5 fricking years!


    Did a 180 degree move and landed a job as a land use planner for the county……….thank God for a job and pay check. Kept my license up and always did jobs on the side to stay sharp. Taught myself autocad.


    My desgn build dreams had flaws since I was competing with hardened landscapers who had repair shops and tons of equipment built up in families of builders. If I was to do it again, I would design-maintain landscapes or design-deliver bark and rock or design-install irrigation only but never design-build………….LA need a good back up plan…………..bla   bla  Brittany where are you?……


    Funny you mentioned the recession in the eighties. I was an LA grad at the tail end of it. Tough in the beginning, extremely tough now, but it was all pretty peachy in-between. I think I’m addicted to the boom/bust nature of the business.


    Don’t be too impressed with the big numbers I’m tossing around. I went from being a kid that coolly picked up $75K checks to a middle aged dude that stalks clients for $800 checks that are two days late.


    Eh… if Brittany’s not listening, I’m sure some one’s tuned in. If not, at the very least it’s therapeutic to vent my thoughts, even if nobody’s listening.

    mark foster

    Well, I’m still listening….interesting discussion (at least to me).  

    So, the question I ask myself (especially now in my mid 50’s in design build), is why am I still doing this–besides shear inertia?

    We all know the stereotypes (couldn’t cut it as a real one, in it for the money blah blah blah), but what is beyond that?  I mean, is there some deeply intrinsic difference between design only and design build?   Are we all just adults who didn’t get enough time in the sand box when we were kids?  A heavy machinery fetish?   I think there has to be more, because otherwise this business is just too d&mn hard.  

    My “look in the mirror” answer is the finished product orientation of it–how do you get the thing to reality.   I never wanted my billables to end at a set of drawings or cad file–something that may get built in 5-10 years, and then mangled beyond recognition.   

    On the “less than totally noble” scale, I like doing all the fun conceptual stuff we did in school, skipping the tedious cr#p, and going straight to the build.  I don’t know if I am addicted to the boom/busts (ala Craig), but there is definitely an adrenaline rush to “value engineering” on the hood of a vehicle.  “Change orders” are also no problem when you own the dozer and the operator is an employee… 

    Anyway, I have enjoyed your discussion and thanks for letting me muse on.  Now I need to go chase down a couple of those $ 800 checks–Ha!


    Mark I’ll tell you, if I weren’t approaching the Big 5-0 I would probably go back to design/build. I too love the satisfaction of physically seeing a project through to completion. The closest I come to it is doing construction admin on my design jobs, but it’s not the same.


    I left design/build in ’98 because I didn’t want to be an LA with an asterisk. I went to a few of local ASLA meetings where the LA and LDs from traditional design offices would barely speak to me once they found out I was in design/build. I thought that I had reached my plateau career wise, so I believed working at a design only firm needed to be my next move. Initially the transition was difficult. I could barely type and had never done a complete grading and drainage plan. I quickly learned that providing a few spot elevations on a landscape plan is a lot different than doing a full blown grading and drainage plan. It took me about a year or so of immersing my self in ACAD and plodding through CD packages to get up to speed. I have to admit this practice made it possible for me to feel comfortable sitting for the LARE. So even though I miss design/build it was probably good that I left because I would have never gotten registered. I was already making good money, so there was no incentive for me to get registered.


    But I must say that my experience in design/build made me a much better LA. I gained plant knowledge that I never would have acquired at a design firm. I understand the sequence in which landscape projects are constructed and most importantly I know how materials connect or work in conjunction with one another. I think every LA should spend a couple of years working in design/build.


    Huh, a heavy machine fetish? Even though I’m the guy walking around the site with a set of plans rolled up in my hands and a pointing my finger with a scowl on my face, I still get a little green with envy when I see a back-hoe operator piling “dirt”.

    mark foster

    Thanks Craig,

    Interesting how the grass is always greener?

    I will remember what you said when I have yet another tedious conversation about the calcium content of the new type-n cement or the latest DOT regulation….. 🙂


    No, thank you Mark, I’ve always appreciated those fine nuggets of wisdom that you share with us in the Lounge.


    Yeah, high brow artsy-fartsy is sexy in our business, nuts and bolts–not so much. If my hairline wasn’t receding, I would even consider growing a ponytail. Heck, that could possibly get me in with the Hamptons crowd.


    Oh yeah, if you drive a BMW 3 series circa 1985 (worn but nicely maintained), wear all black and introduce yourself as On-ree you’d surely be invited to a summer soiree or two.


    There are a lot of good comments here. I agree that it takes time with the right company to gain the knowledge and experience to branch out. I also agree that  It does take time and resources to do things differently, even if the new methods will increase productivity and quality. The situation I am in is more of an unwillingness to explore (even in conversation) new options. It is disheartening only because when I was brought in, the expectation was that I would be helping grow the business by drawing from my past experience. The company has struggled a great deal over the past few years and could have hired someone with little or no experience, but decided to pay me more because I brought in a new perspective. This is not the case and that can be frustrating at times. 


    I started this discussion because my seemingly simple dream of owning my own business seems to be increasingly fantasy. I may not be happy with my position now, and that doesn’t really matter. I just hope that there is hope out there for those of us that want to make it on our own. There is no limit to my dedication and hard work, however, it would be nice to know that I am moving toward accomplishing a goal.

    I like what you had to say Craig:

    “But I must say that my experience in design/build made me a much better LA.”

    I think that is very true. I also believe that my background in installing landscapes and maintaining gardens makes me a much better LA. 

    I do appreciate all the pearls on this discussion, especially how to get in with the Hamptons crowd… Thank you to everyone who contributed and those who read along.

    I love this profession for so many reasons I really can’t see myself doing anything else, unless this leaves me completely destitute. (Which it might!) Good Luck to all those out there, may we all THRIVE in our careers and lives.

    Jamie Chen

    Owning your own design business isn’t impossible. 

    The big thing is whether or not people will pay for what you bring to the table. And if they can, you ARE in business.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that what happens to the detriment of small design shops is that all the non-design work starts eating up the day. You spend more time chasing bits and pieces of paper to work up invoices, playing phone tag, all those things, instead of what you got into business to do in the first place. 

    That’s why I’ve taken the time to start researching cloud software for small businesses. I’m building up my arsenal of time saving solutions. Quickbooks by itself isn’t good enough. It’s not good enough to have an address book; I need software that tells me who hasn’t paid up so that I can keep the cash-flow going. I’m researching timesheet software that has a timer for tasks so that I’m not squinting at paper time sheets. 

    I intend to have the back room operations figured out before I even apply for a business license. That way, I can concentrate stress free on drumming up clients!

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