Reasons We Exist

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    Leslie B Wagle

    We don’t often see an explanation or essay to help people understand LA, so I saw and thought I’d share this one:
    Value of LAs

    I think the writer gave more weight to the “don’t you care about the world and people” aspect than bottom line emphasis on how we can spare owners and contractors some bad floundering around costs. But since many just don’t know how to insert that elements of “quality,” I think the writer was trying to worm his way into desire. Unfortunately a lot of those desires get compromised away in the grit and mud of stretched-tight budgets and time crunches, and the client or agency doesn’t push back to protect and fight for preservation of the original “vision” even if introduced early in the process. We bemoan this endlessly but don’t seem to have an answser for, so maybe the vision emphasis is the way to go rather than arguing cut and fill balance, improved details selection, etc. Any comments?

    Jamie Chen

    I’ve read other articles that discuss how you can defend aesthetics, so long as you back it up with performative data. An area that manages stormwater in compliance to a code while also serving as a recreational amenity is double loading value onto a site. Code dictates that the developer must include it anyway; why not have it look good instead of letting a civil engineer have at it without oversight, producing a great big rectangle basin of blandness? That’s the purpose of having a landscape architect on a team early.

    Or an article from a green roofing industry magazine; having a landscape architect early to put green roofs on the table well before installers are in as subs means that the structural loads are taken into account by the engineers and the roof slopes are modified by the architects. It’s all about saving time by eliminating change orders and time is money.

    Insisting that daring, different, striking projects can be rented/sold at a premium per the developers’ target demographic because of our design vision is viable in this way. You must insist that you are a value add, not an afterthought.

    I also believe that you have to produce drawings that contractors can quickly bid off of with accuracy in the beginning so you are not the source of deadline breaking change orders. I’ve worked in design build where I did take offs for the estimating department of the construction division as we regularly sub-ed for general contractors and as a result we saw a lot of different plans from a lot of different firms.

    Some firms were specifying obsolete irrigation parts from catalogs over five years old. Substitution research took up time and effort for speculative bidding that we ultimately did not win. This is a lose-lose for everybody concerned. Some firms produced drawings with no proper line weight or grayscale rendering management such that the irrigation plans were a spaghetti mess of lines. I could not make heads or tails of what was a lateral or a hardscape score line. Some firms were so disconnected from the plant stock of major local nurseries such that it was simply impossible to bid because no plants of a new, fancy Monrovia sort were in production enough for a large tract development, for example. And yet others specified invasive species! That is not in the spirit of good environmental stewardship!

    Readable drawings and keeping up to date with industry innovations are paramount. You have to be the indispensable expert that is the problem solver, not the problem maker. And in some construction packages, sadly, it is clear that some firms are the weak link.

    I think addressing that would be a good start.

    Leslie B Wagle

    Well in a nutshell our problem has always been getting into the process early enough to even demonstrate the enhancement of aesthetics. But I think you are stressing that to even be at the influence table requires good technical skills or why would anybody invite us at all? And I kind of worry about what students are coming to expect. I hesitate to answer the young writers who give opinions on future trends. It hardly makes sense to me. I feel like saying, sure, we LA’s are going to be seated at some urban Davos-like convening of the world-mind to plot the course of the built environment…when really all most of us can do is to keep underlying values in the picture as we meet real project conditions and constraints. That “inner circle” idea may exist for members of major firms on well budgeted projects, but won’t be the role of the typical small practice. We must be able to cover the technical side without failing on that last half of what you wrote.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    It is not enough to exist, it is more about being useful and valued. I don’t mean that in a philosophic way or in a general way. It has to be in specific ways to specific people. That is the essential part of success in Landscape architecture whether it is a big firm or a single person residential design shop such as mine.

    It starts with ignoring “what should be” and focusing on “what is“. You have to understand this by working backwards – rather than designing from the bottom up. Start with understanding what IS being built and work backwards. Who IS building things? Who DID the design work? When did they get involved in the projects? Who brought them in? What was the connection that allowed them to be brought in? All the way you must be thinking “why were THEY valued? Why were they more USEFUL than an alternative.

    This is the best way to figure out who you need to be useful to and valued by which is the first step to figuring out how to make yourself MORE useful and MORE VALUED than whomever is currently getting the work. You have to fit into what exists not what should exist.

    Leslie B Wagle

    Absolutely…I may not have said it well. There is not really much of a “pre-existing” necessity for LA in the real world, however much we conceive it should be recognized and “believe” in the “good” it can do. You have to demonstrate worthiness once you get an opening. Those just aren’t waiting out there to jump into in the way that future theorists tend to imply and graduates tend to assume. I’d say something like 1/3 or more of the total effort on a project often goes into just getting the project.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I would disagree that 1/3 of the total effort of a project goes into just getting the project. That only happens if you just market to the end client. It should be easy to gain referral if the homework and groundwork is done to make yourself more useful and more valued than the next person or firm looking to get that project. You have to sell yourself to the other professionals who are already involved in projects that your services fit.

    We were taught that we needed to know x, y, & z and that A, B, & C are the ways that we are supposed to get our work. Consequently we tend to compete against others using the exact same strategy and set of skills which keeps those looking to hire us not seeing a whole lot of difference between us. The question is whether you go back to x, y, and z to look to separate yourself or do you accept that most in the profession are fairly equal at x, y, & z (creativity, presentation, graphics, ….) and decide to look at other ways to be valued that may not be uniquely landscape architectural stuff.

    Can you make someone else’s job easier so that they would rather work with you than the next LA? Can you make the job simpler and speed up the permitting? Can you make it easier for someone else to manage your design? Can you come up with a more efficient scope of work that gets the job done while your competitors try to compete the usual way by giving more product?

    One thing that helps a lot is when we can admit that there are a lot of great designers from all kinds of different backgrounds and professions which makes competing on design ability the easiest way to get lost in a crowd. If you observe closely, the end product of those designers that are always getting the jobs is not as often that much different than other good designers. If that is the case you have to conclude that the process to get to that end product is what is more valued to those hiring those busy designers.

    I think that most of us are trained to follow a certain process and get killed by those who tweak the process.

    All my work is gained by referral. I have zero advertisement and a website that has every SEO company screaming at me that I need help being seen. I don’t often show pictures of my work or copies of plans that I have done to my prospective clients because others have sold them on me before they meet me. I’m not the worlds greatest designer, but I am highly valued by those other professionals involved in the job ahead of me so that they market me. This was not luck. I saw opportunities in the process that I could exploit to benefit those other professionals with the hope that they would be smart enough to realize it and then push to have their clients hire me. It worked. The result is almost no effort in just getting the project.

    Leslie B Wagle

    Well that’s great although I still think you are describing the payoff at the end of the process and confirming what the topic started with, being valuable once the rubber hits the road and not just in allure. What I mean by 1/3 is not literal mathematically as much as how it can “feel” compared to what observers may believe looking at big victory type presentations. I’m counting all the researching, goodwill cultivating, professional development, growing of skills and searching out potential projects that offer more challenge, adding specialties covered, staying flexible for economic gyrations, or even expanding the geographical reach of the practice, along with the cultivation of referrals. Nothing is static any more but most of the public is generally more familiar with what a teacher or a pharmacist does and even a bit of educational outreach comes into it sometimes. Congrats to you Andrew…

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Leslie, I agree with what you just posted regarding the effort that you need to put in ahead of time is huge. The good thing is that you might be able to collect on that investment for quite a long time if the situations and competitors don’t change and if you keep paying attention and adapt to changes.

    I think this subject also goes back to what we are not taught or what we are mis-taught. The biggest one is that as employees we are easily replaced and he/she that is getting the work holds the value.

    I put out an offer a couple of years ago in several places including LinkedIn and I believe here. It was about taking on a partner or do joint ventures or somehow team up so that “we” could exploit more out of the jobs that I get by adding project management. All I got were people looking to do design production work from where they lived. I was surprised by that. I see so many early career people complaining that all they do is project management and are under paid. The big money in this business is in contract administration and I don’t do that. I was prepared to set someone up with a steady pipeline of jobs in the $100k-$300k range to manage and bill for themselves with a very small amount to be negotiated for me …. no one stepped forward to discuss it! Everyone wants to be the designer, I guess.
    I thought it would be a great way for someone to make way more money than I am off of my work flow. …. I did 18 jobs last year that cost over $100k to construct … that is a lot of project management money that was left on the table. Oh well.

    J. Nielsen

    While this is a couple years old and a lot has changed, I have found this article to be very helpful.

    Especially sitting at home under the quarantines and wondering if going to design school was worth it.

    Många Tak

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