Start first LA job with Civil Engineering Firm and Career Path Suggestion??

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Start first LA job with Civil Engineering Firm and Career Path Suggestion??

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    Hi, Guys, 

    I just started my first full-time LA job in a civil engineering firm two months ago. I am in the landscape architecture department. BUT I feel what we’ve done is not very design-oriented. We have done a lot of land development, zoning and tree replacement plan for multi-family and mix-use. We helped engineering department to fill trees and shrubs in the site, avoiding the underground pipes, cables etc. We helped land developers to convert canopy of trees into similarly laid-out residential areas. I probably prefer more urban design, civic space design or ecological design which could make a better life(Probably this is most new graduates usually have when get out of the ivory tower).  I am also starting to think about my career path recently. One of my alumni used to tell me that a LA should finally run the project by himself, otherwise, it is just useless(to some extent? it seems that for your whole life, you are just doing rendering, construction details… just like a screw in a big machine. 

    What are the possible ways that LA could finally go for? I am trying to ask for helpful advice and suggestions for my own career(also considering I am not young enough to idle around without specific directions). If I would be working exactly the same role as I am doing now after 5 or 10 years, that sounds miserable. And I am sure that each profession is under changes, I would like to prepare for future changes.(Just like the paper media decline while electronic media rise up) 

    Thank you so much for all the suggestions you are willing to give me below. 

    Robert Anderson


    You have entered into a profession that the majority of us didn’t get the juicy job at the high and powerful pure Landscape Architecture Studio. A good many of us started out just like you and had to work for, in some cases years, before we could break out or find our way to better job opportunities.

    My career path took much the same course where my first Job was with a Historic Landscape Architecture office in Lititz, PA by the name of Derck and Edson. I had the great honor of work for both Charlie Edson and Bob Derck. The practice did very solid work and the only real opportunity, outside of their bread and butter of subdivision plans and site plans, was the occasional secondary school playground. This experience was priceless to me and I made the best of this for five years. I’ve since worked at several different types of firms including primarily Civil Engineering firms and Architects. All this lead to some of the most rewarding and exciting work that I’ve done working for LandDesign in Washington DC with Peter Crowley and Stephen Jordan. My time there, short as it was just prior to the Great Recession, was with some of the best people and some of the greatest projects! I encourage you to take stock in your situation, learn as much as you can and keep in mind that whatever you do you are contributing to making our planet a better place whether you are doing residential plans or civic spaces.

    I’m not sure if this helps. In closing, be patient and remember that in time good things come to those who are patient!

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I worked in two small civil engineering offices for 6 years each (total 12). I did more civil engineering staff work than I did landscape architecture. Very often I had to put the work of other LAs into our civil plans. Most of the time we would have to finish their grading and drainage work. Very often we would be the lead on going through conservation and/or zoning boards for permitting. This was a great experience, although it took me a long time to realize it. I had the advantage of knowing what every other profession and every other LA was doing, who they worked with, why they liked working for this one, why they did not like working with that one, …. Pretty soon you know how the business works from the outside looking in. It was absolutely priceless.

    Even if the firm you are working with has you too pigeon holed, it will open doors to you to work in smaller civil offices to do civil site plans and a wide diversity of the work in the office. You’ll have a better understanding of grading, drainage, vehicular circulation, zoning, septic, conservation, and a whole lot of other things that are hugely beneficial WHEN you transition into LA. Planting plans are extremely boring in a civil office, but much more easy to pick up on when you transition.

    I was very frustrated for years working in CE offices until I realized what I had learned and how much more that was all valued by potential clients. Those skills set me above a lot of others in my market for certain clientele. I have to refuse a lot of good work that is all referred to me because I can’t keep up with it.  It absolutely comes becomes of my civil experience.


    Hello Tianyi;

    No disrespect intended here in no way…..but, it’s been my experience over the years, that the BEST LAs are working for “Landscape Architecture” Firms…..not for “Civil Engineering” Firms.

    Many CE firms tend to hire a variety of design disciplines…such as:  Structural Engineers, Environmentalists, Surveyors, Architects & also Landscape Architects.  This way, the CE firm can invoice for any given project for ALL of these services….and not just for CE design services.  

    I have had friends who worked for CE firms…..and they were not happy in those jobs.  I have actually had some good friends over the years, who were CEs…..but, there seems to be a tendency for CEs to not show much respect for LAs.  And, I’ve come to learn that most CEs don’t really understand “what we do”.  CEs can’t draw…they are very different than LAs.  CEs are all about “computer software”…..LAs are creative, more free thinking and artistic….we can draw….CEs can’t.

    Also, the “types of design projects” that CEs normally design are different than those designed by LA Firms. I’m sure you have already learned this.

    Normally, you will find higher “quality, more talented LAs” working for LA firms.  It’s where you will best learn the LA profession.

    However, that being said…..not every LA University graduate gets the opportunity to begin their design career working for an LA firm.  But, it would be my recommendation that you “quietly”……be looking for a job with an LA firm……just hang on to the job you have for now.  Learn what you can….work on your “computer autoCAD and other “computer software skills”…..any LA design skills you can learn at the CE firm will help you….going forward.

    It’s important to “take control of your LA career”…..not just allow it to meander in whatever direction it takes you.  Not an easy thing to do, I know……but, it’s good to have “goals”…..and work towards achieving them.

    Above all…..NEVER give up on your “dreams”.  Whatever it is you want out of “Landscape Architecture”… can definitely achieve it…if you want it badly enough.

    After you have gained 4 to 10 years of solid design experience….you might begin to explore the possibility of establishing your own LA practice….but, you NEED exp. first.  Be aware though, it normally takes a full 2 yrs. to establish your own LA practice……that’s how long it took me.  It was difficult and challenging….but, it definitely paid off.  Some LAs are able to “go it alone” after only a few yrs. of experience….but, that’s normally pretty rare.  

    Early in your LA career…’s good to work for others who have exp. and talent……but, while you’re working for them…..they’re making a lot of money off of you (that’s how it works).  So, when you “go out on your own”…’re working for YOU….and I learned…..working for myself meant a much higher annual income…and was much more rewarding.

    For me, in the LA firm I worked for from 1978 to 1991….in Dallas, Texas….approx. 70% of their design projects were upscale “multi-family”…so, I learned a lot about designing that type of project.  So, when I went out on my own….that’s the type of project I went after…..and over the next 17 yrs. or so, I designed almost 170 high-end apartment communities…and LA fees for that type of project is very good.

    I just think it’s not a bad idea to find a great “niche” that you’re comfortable and good at designing in….though, knowing how to design a variety of project types is a major plus….in any LA practice.

    Please feel free to contact me here on LAND 8……if I can help you further, OK.

    Best Regards,

    J. Robert (Bob) Wainner

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    …. of course you will want and need to work for an LA at some point. My point is that there is a lot to learn WHILE you are in that CE office. Not the least of which is a peak behind the curtain of what others need from LAs and what they actually get from LAs.

    There is a ton of peripheral knowledge that you can later combine with your future LA experience. The important thing is that you keep thinking like an LA. You should have that mind set to be thinking that way from your education.

    To discredit time working in a CE office is as foolish as saying that having a horticulture degree on top of your LA degree is a waste of time. It does not displace knowledge or experience. It adds to it, but eventually you need some LA experience to add it onto. It is that simple.



    I don’t disagree with you that “some” experience working in a CE firm is beneficial to an LA….but, my point is… don’t want to be there longer than you have to be.  Being in an LA firm (and surrounded by experienced & talented LAs) is where you will really learn our profession.

    My experience has been that…..well, CEs and LAs mix together about as well as oil and water. Two VERY different professions….who think very differently.

    I have come across some pretty Senior LAs who struggled with “drainage design”.  One CE I recall had over 30 yrs. exp. and was the Owner of his firm….he was “clueless”.  I was shocked.  

    Several years ago, a client of mine asked me to review a set of CE’s Site Grading Plans.  I fund many glaring errors.  The funniest error I think I found was…the CE had drainage arrows pointing UP HILL (yeah, like the drainage was just going to follow those arrows up hill)….too funny.  I think maybe, someone just didn’t review those plans carefully after they were completed.

    Also, here in Texas…..way too many CEs are grabbing LA design work.  CE firms “think” they can produce competent “Planting Plans”…..but, most can’t.  Some CE firms do have LAs on board; but, as I mentioned before….it would be my advise to steer clear of working for a CE firm….unless you had no other options.

    Although, I have worked with many CEs and CE firms over the years…..and some were very talented and easy to work with.  But, too many showed little respect for Landscape Architects….they tend to believe THEIR profession is superior to ours’…….well, they do.


    Hi, Robert, 

    Thank you so much for your sharing! It is quite inspiring. Everyone has the different path toward different directions. I like the projects that LandDesign created . As far as I know, LandDesign Firm has its own engineering department, which makes their design aesthetically creative and technically applicable. I applied for their summer internship program for two years(Charlotte) but all failed. I understand it is a firm that very competitive for entry-level.

    I keep reading and studying those creative projects I found on-line or from magazines, which makes me feel so excited. I am keeping journals to analyze their design strategies, materials used, rendering techniques. Hopefully, I could be the one to design those beautiful and amazing project. I am planning to take L.A.R.E, trying to be more professional and competitive, how do you think?

    Like you said, I’ll be patient and work hard. Hopefully, good things come to me!


    Hi, Andrew, 

    Thank you so much for your reply! I feel I could learn a lot of practical knowledge in CE firm. They tend to be very realistic about the design. I feel it is one way to solve the real problem for clients, I know some clients just want to help them solve the issue, instead of making creative design. It is very down-to-earth. I’ll try my best to learn as much as I can in the firm, but finally I probably would like to try more design-oriented firm. I envision that my years in CE firm could provide solid practical techniques for my career. 


    Hi, Robert, 

    Thank you so much for your long and detailed letter. I really appreciate your suggestions! You know as young professionals as I am, we do not quite know what happens in the real profession. The school life is totally different from the discipline in the real world. Of course you could get real-world experience during summer internship, but it is limited. And you know that LA program usually is very intensive.  

    I actually switched from ecology to LA, holding the simple dream that I could make the world better through design. Ecological research is sometimes too theoretical and far from the public, it takes very very long to make real changes. For LA, you design could affect millions of people and the earth. This is my very first thought about LA. 

    I am always amazed by creative projects by creative designers. One of my friends who is interning for Sasaki in Shanghai told me how he likes the working experience there that designers take great care on people, equality, environment and culture. I know some extraordinary firms could combine research with design, combine science with art and create amazing works. I hope one day I could be one of the designers making such the design, that is meaningful to people and the society. I do admit that people do need design that is functionally right and convenient, such design has the great market, like subdivision development. But I also admire those designs that could do more. 

    Also, based on my background, I hope to do more environment-related design, which I could use design strategies to handle ecological problems. Unfortunately I have not got any chance to practice in this specific realm. 

    Just like what all of you said, learn as much as I can, keep moving on my dreams, be patient and looking for opportunities. I mentioned to Robert who replied my at the first post, I am probably not good enough to be selected by the great firm like LandDesign, I’ll hone my capabilities and work hard. 

    I have a plan to prepare L.A.R.E, I know L.A.R.E provides very practical knowledge and techniques in LA profession and I am in a CE firm which is very practical in landscape design. I feel it could be a great opportunity for me to know the “SOLID” part of the design. 

    Thank you again for your selfless sharing! It helps me a lot!


    You’re quite welcome!

    Looks like to me you have a pretty good grasp of things, where you are now in your LA career.

    You know, probably better than I do, there are some FANTASTIC LA firms in Southeast Asia. Back in 2005, I had contacted Belt Collins (their Hong Kong, China branch office) about a Senior LA position.  That branch office has 600 LAs. Belt Collins made me a generous offer, but, I decided to remain in the U.S….close to family & friends.  But, it would have been an extremely good opportunity for me.  All you have to do, is look at Belt Collins’ web site and see the outstanding Design Portfolio.  I know there are also other MANY outstanding LA firms throughout that part of the World.

    Good Luck!


    John Hotto

    I wish there was more opportunity out there for landscape architects, but the reality is that the competition is really intense. It’s a good design practice; we make environments more natural and green as opposed to the stark reality of concrete and cost controls, not to mention graft and corruption where non-essentials like landscaping and outdoor space development takes a back seat to everything else. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the planning thing, since they seem to get a lot more respect from society than la’s. Depends on the person though; some can really create their own offices and be rainmakers and sell design work and do really well. Some might do well in government, which is what I wish I did. The CE world eventually ages you out in place of younger, cheaper la’s and it gets tougher and tougher to get a decent job, but I really admire those la’s that started their own offices and survived on their own. I think la’s should be doing more ecological engineering such as restoring wetlands, streams, parks and other natural areas that have been neglected or worn out. But then again, you will be challenged by all of the other design professions for the projects based on technical ability and cost. 

    John Hotto

    The CE superiority thing is true. I’ve had transportation CE’s challenge my ability to lay out a sidewalk for crying out loud because that is in the domain of transportation design. Same with trails and parking lots. There are just not enough dams or wastewater treatment plants or bridges to go around for all of the CE’s so they pick on us for all of the scraps, and we end up specifying the lawn seed.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Sometimes I can’t understand the over sensitivity of our profession. We disrespect every other profession and then bitch that they don’t respect us.

    John Hotto

    I can totally understand it. I don’t disrespect CE’s that design bridges and superhighways, but they can’t tell me can’t design a gd sidewalk, trail or a parking lot.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    There is diversity between CE offices and diversity within CE offices just as there is with LAs.

    My geographic area has the majority of its CE work done by small firms working on residential site planning and small commercial projects (under 10k SF buildings due to developers avoidance of a regulatory body that takes control at 10k). These small offices have to do everything from septic, to siting the buildings, designing parking, addressing zoning, addressing wetlands protection, grading, drainage, advocating for clients in regulatory bodies (sometimes w/ attorneys sometimes in lieu of them), …. and sometimes they do the minimum required planting plans. Most of them only have three or four people doing the site plans.

    It might be different in other areas with big CE firms and bigger scale projects. But here in my area the CE offices are much more like LA offices other than their attention to aesthetics. They do everything an LA office does and more (due to licensing) short of planting design and detailed amenities. It is not because they want to keep LAs out. It is because most projects on a 20k to 40k SF lot does not have a property owner that is taking the time, expense, and slow down of the permit process (just because of the extra interaction) of hiring more consultants than they need to. If they don’t, then the property owners find the CE who does.

    Much like an LA, someone doing this type of work over and over develops a certain amount of experience from doing it for many years. It is not only experience in the nuances of civil design, but the experience from the feedback of the regulatory bodies and the residential property owners both of whom have aesthetics on their minds to one degree or another. That won’t turn them into LAs, but it does not diminish the fact that they are not robots.

    I work on about 40 projects a year and interact regularly with 9 different small CE firms. Some do a great job with most everything that we also do in terms of making them structurally sound and physically fit into the site, drain effectively, and function in a technical sense. Some not so much.

    However, what almost all of them are missing is that LA way of thinking past how each piece technically works. The LA’s way of thinking is how all the pieces function together or around each other. The CEs are almost always less focused than they we would be in that regard.

    So here is the thing. You and I as LAs can deal all day long about how things work together or work around each other. The fact of the matter is that we still need those pieces to be technically correct. We don’t get that in the envelope with our degrees or in a secret compartment hidden inside our stamps. What we do get in that envelope with the degree and the extra work including experience working under licensed LAs that it takes to get that stamp is a way of thinking that makes us look at how all the pieces work together or around each other. Working in a CE office is not going to take that away. It may frustrate you while you work in a CE office (sure did for me), but it won’t leave you.

    What I did was to accept that I was in a CE office and not an LA office and understood that I was in a good place to learn how to make each component work technically whether or not I had control of how it worked together or around everything else. This knowledge and experience is broad and grows fast because of the volume of the work moves faster than it does in an LA office because it is not addressing “our stuff”. It is an accelerated course on the design of site components. It may not be a course on how to most effectively make them work together, but you’ll be very aware of that as you do it and have solutions in your mind on how to do that when you are in the position to control it.

    It is absolutely a huge benefit to someone who will go on to intern in an LA office and beyond. I don’t see how that can be disputed unless you are narrow minded and believe the only path in LA is the one path that mirrors your own.

    It is very important to make sure that young people entering this profession understand that they are not screwed if they don’t follow a certain script. Encourage, don’t discourage.

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