What’s it like working in your office

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE What’s it like working in your office

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    Michael Coyle

    I’m still relatively new in the field (about 2 years experience) and I’m curious to know how other offices function. I’m sure it depends on the level of experience and the type of office but I would like to get a general feel for how other offices operate.

    A little about my working environment:

    Currently, I work at a small (5 employee) residential/hospitality design firm with each person basically being their own department in the business.  I am the one who is most consistently in the office working on plans, renderings, correspondence, and even a little marketing/advertising.  There is also the principal, the operations manager, the project/field manager, and a part-time designer to share some of the work load.  I enjoy my position and the level of work but I fear there isn’t a well-balanced system of checks-and-balances.  Overall I get the opportunity to have my opinion heard and to work on some really interesting design projects.



    I worked for a Dallas LA firm for about 13 yrs…that firm was set up much the way yours is.  When I joined the firm, there were 4 LA’s….it grew to approx. 40 LA’s.  But, still…over the years, every LA handled pretty much 100% of every aspect of each project.  There were 2 Partners & then, everyone else. 

    I became the firm’s first Associate…and was situated just below the 2 Partners – but, I never really got any “back-up” on projects…back then, everything was “by hand”.  I did my own base sheets, sketching, prelim. designs, renderings, final drawings, most meetings and job inspections.

    I believe many LA firms today do have “levels” of expertise.  Entry Level; Junior LA’s; Senior LA’s, Partners and/or Owners.  I think though too many entry level LA’s are finding themselves in a “pigeon hole”…stuck on autoCAD or doing the same task…not getting a variety of experience.  Sometimes, it just really takes years at the same LA firm to work you way  up…where you are in a position of handling mostly “design/creativity” and getting back-up from younger staff members.

    In “hind-sight”, I think maybe I stayed at the SAME LA firm too long.  I know of many LA’s who did search for LA firms who were maybe designing different types of projects…larger scale projects.  Moving from smaller firms to larger LA firms.  Although, it seems more difficult today to “control” your design career….that’s what you SHOULD be doing.  Have short and long term goals.  Learn everything you possibly can at the LA firm where you are and then…..if possible, move to an LA firm that will help you elevate your LA skills.  A classmate of mine at Texas A&M did just that….she worked for 4 or 5 LA firms….each better than the last, until she became a Principal at Sasaki Associates in San Francisco.  And, some of my other LA friends ended up establishing their own small LA firms (3 to 8 designers)…and doing very well.

    In my situation, it turns out it was VERY helpful that (at that Dallas LA firm) I had to do 100% of every aspect of every design projects.  Because, after 13 yrs., the firm ran out of design work and had massive layoffs (1991)…so, with very few jobs out there, I decided to est. my own LA firm…BEST thing that could have happened for me.  Design freedom along with much better income.  I’ve remained “freelance” since 1991. Had I not learned ALL I did during those 13 yrs. @ that Dallas LA firm, it would have been very difficult to go it alone.  And it really does take at least (2) yrs. to est. your own firm…..even if you have plenty of start-up cash and several years of extensive experience.

    Also….LA’s should know early on….that after about age 40, getting an LA position with ANY LA firm is just not easy.  Most LA firms (at least in the U.S.) tend to hire younger LA’s…..NOT LA’s in their 40’s, 50’s…and definitely not in their 60’s.  It’s important to get “established”…and/or get as much LA design experience as possible the first 10 to 15 yrs. of your design career…..because, you just never know IF or WHEN you may find yourself out of a job.

    If would be helpful to you here…..to get some input from LA’s who have worked in mid size to very large LA firms to…..get their perspective on this issue.

    Good Luck!

    J. Robert (Bob) Wainner

    Mark Lerch

    How many other people out there are 40+ and found the ageist conclusion to be unsettling? 

    Michael Coyle

    Thanks Bob for your insight and a glimpse into your career!  Being young in this profession is very heck-tick, confusing, and fun.  I want to make sure I’m learning at an appropriate pace and I guess I’m curious to know how other firms function to make sure I’m getting the right experience.  Thanks again for your advice!

    Alec Johnson, PLA

    If you’re good – you can get a job at any age. Fact.

    Jason T. Radice

    Not so much the last few years! If you have over 8 years, jobs are few and far between. Most places are still economically unstable and are looking at 0-3 or 3-5 years with entry level salaries…but with the skill set of a 15 year career veteran. Mid-level LAs have had a VERY tough time in this economy.


    Sorry, Alec……I have to disagree with you here.  Not true.

    I feel I have accomplished quite a bit over the past 36+ yrs. as an LA (since 1977) – though, I KNOW I will never stop learning or improving.  I’ve designed over 650 projects in 17 states…..I’ve designed a very wide variety of projects – well, I haven’t designed a Disney World – but still, some very significant projects.

    And I can guarantee you…..there’s NOT (1) LA firm in the U.S. who would offer me a position…..at ANY salary.  Well, after all these yrs. as a freelance LA, I wouldn’t want to work for a LA firm anyway….but, I’m making a point here.

    I believe Jason is correct.  Probably after about (8) yrs. of experience, you’re going to have a very difficult time finding ANY LA position.  The only exception I can really think of is……search for an LA job overseas.  AGE doesn’t seem to be a serious issue with design firms overseas.  But, you have to keep in mind…The World is in turmoil these days…I wouldn’t want to be living & working overseas.

    So…..maybe considering (8) yrs. and not (15) yrs. is more correct…..I think it’s absolutely critical that young LA’s (from yrs. 1 thru 8) be a “sponge”….learn everything you possibly can at the LA firm/s where you are working.  Learn a wide variety of skills….hand drawing as well as several computer software skills.  Get involved in a wide variety of projects types….not just 1 or 2 types. 

    Also…spend the first 8 to 10 yrs. building up a GREAT professional LA design portfolio…..that will be KEY to your future as an LA.  Include sketches, renderings, copies of contract documents & details as well as photos of final projects.

    Alec Johnson, PLA

    I hear you Robert and Jason, but I stand by my statement. 

    You are right – it may not be easy to get a job in an LA firm with 8+ years experience, but I believe if you shine brighter than other applicants, you can overcome that.

    Win, place, or just enter a design competition or two. Design a new innovative site furnishing prototype and develop cut-sheets for it. Research, write, and submit a white paper to ASLA, APA or AIA on Best Management Practices for day lighting abandoned street car lines in re-emerging neighborhoods. Whatever.

    Anything that you can include in your body of work (CV, portfolio) that will make you stand out in the eyes of an employer. Lets face it – most of us possess roughly the same set of design skills. Some may be better at sketching, some at technical details, some better with digital 3D modeling or public speaking. Many firms are looking for people that are passionate and curious learners above and beyond the basic skills we all should have developed after 5 years of school and 8 years of practice.

    I am not trying minimize your accomplishments or struggles, just offering an alternate viewpoint.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    It looks to me that most jobs that are out there are for subordinates rather than people who are or who could quickly be high on the totem pole. One of the biggest concerns is training your next competitor and introducing him to your clients.

    Jason T. Radice

    I would say that it really doesn’t matter all that much what is on the resume that is an issue, it is because there just aren’t any positions available for more senior staff. Firms are keeping the staffing levels very lean and looking more for production from employees fresh out of school to keep costs low. The senior management in the firm is doing the project management role because they don’t have much work to manage. Add that there is TONS of competition for a relative few spots when they open for someone more senior. And even many of those are contract dependant. It is also a factor as to where you live, with firms logically opting for local applicants.

    There has been more openings lately for mid-career LAs, but not nearly as many as for entry level.

    Tosh K

    There’s always the attractiveness in hiring someone who’s already employed as well – I see a lot of poaching going on (in architecture as well as LA).

    Tosh K

    Of the offices I’ve been at:

    1. 7 person engineering/planning office – everyone did everything, though the PMs did most of the spec work.  The principal checked everything and made most of the big decisions.  More PMs than staff, so they had to do their share of CAD work too.  Some task work (marketing, etc) but not much as there was a non-design staff.

    2. 20 person design firm – CD/CA work was often farmed out.  Lot’s of design work, there were design leads that led the day-to-day project effort with the principal as the main lead in design decisions.  Lots of internal discussion among staff to hash out projects.  Marketing, etc was done by others (non-design staff)

    3. 100+ design firm – different depts, the one I was in had about a dozen people.  Lots of internal crits with dept head, who in turn had reviews with the principal.  design and project work but 0 task work.

    4. 2 person design firm (2) – have to do everything short of direct marketing. direct oversight from principal

    5. 10 person design firm – do mostly everything, including task work. Oversight from PM, who receives internal review from other PMs and principals.

    I would say a lot depends on the type of office (some do no construction end work CDs/CA; others do it more heavily) – whether there’s more ‘design’, technical work, etc.  I’ve found that the type of work and the people you work with are harder to match – jobs tend to be out there in larger metropolitan areas as long as you maintain a good professional reputation and attitude.


    You’re more than welcome Michael.

    Alec & Andrew…..BOTH of your comments have a lot of merit.,,,well said.

    I think the major problem today is obviously out poor economy!  Well, I’ve watched the Landscape Architecture Profession CHANGE over the past 36+ yrs….economic ups and downs….the addition of computer software (as that didn’t exist when I earned my LA degree). I think the LA profession seem, well, more “normal” approx. 10 yrs. ago…because, LA’s with almost any level of experience could find an LA job in the U.S.  But today, it seems like that’s just not the case.  Entry Level LA’s are struggling and competing against each other to find a job…as LA owners know they have the luxury of hiring only “the best & brightest” of the bunch.  IF you have say, over 8+ yrs. of LA experience…many LA firms may not feel your salary will fit within their “bottom line”.

    But, I think you’re correct, Alec.  IF an LA is exceptional…has great hand sketching skills, outstanding 3D computer rendering abilities, great graphics, is extremely competent with a wide variety of computer software programs or has experience designing a specific type of project an LA firm specializes in……I think there are potential opportunities for LA’s with 8 to 20 yrs. of design experience.  However, I think that LA may just need to be very flexible and be willing to relocate to most any city/state in the U.S.  Even for most LA’s, if you focus on just (1) city or even just (1) state, you may be searching for an LA job for a very long time. And then too…you have to do a TON of research on that “location”.  For me, I never even considered NY or CA…due to the high cost of living & high taxes…but, that’s just me.  Hey, I love California….I was born in So Cal.

    I think maybe, I’m in a little different situation that most LA’s….in that, I really am semi-retired…though, I don’t know that I will ever use the term “retired”.  I will always, in some capacity, remain engaged with Landscape Architecture…like here on LAND8.

    I guess my point was….that LA’s need to be prepared…look down the road, because, you just never know.  Back when I was with that Dallas LA firm for 13 yrs., we had work up to our eyeballs for most of those 13 yrs….then, in late 1990, the economy went South…we were sitting on ZERO projects in our office.  The 2 Partners laid off everyone, except for 1 secretary and 2 very young LA’s (who had less than 2 yrs. experience).  I had the most exp., so, lucky me, I was the first to go.  Boy, was I surprised!  The economy was lousy, no LA jobs out there.  So, having those 13 yrs. of design experience was KEY…to helping me make it on my own – though, I will say it took me just over 2 yrs. to get my LA firm up and running.

    Well, I did have an opportunity to join another LA firm (I was approx. 55 yrs. old at the time)….the offer came to me from Belt Collins’ Hong Kong, China (branch office) where at the time, they had 120 LA’s in that one office.  But, I decided to turn down their kind offer and remain in the U.S. near family & friends.  I believe the thinking in LA firms (overseas) is that AGE just isn’t a big issue for them (not like it is here in the U.S.).  However, that being said, with the World being basically in a state of “turmoil”, I’m not so sure I’d want to live & work overseas….I feel I made the correct decision.

    Well, I know I’m sounding like a “broken record” here….but, I just feel that every LA needs to be prepared for their “future”…….because, you just really never know.


    Benjamin Loh

    It’s interesting reading this blog and comments from different people with different background. 

    I wonder what would be the FUTURE outcome of an LA with minimal experience in construction detailing and tender documentation (approx 3 yrs), not getting enough technical experience, to move to a senior LA position in a large international multi-disciplinary firm?  Is it a good idea to do so or better to apply for intermediate LA and continue with more construction drawings etc? Advise please, anyone.

    Tosh K

    It would depend on the position – larger firms sometimes will have ‘design principals’ who are more in charge of overall design than technical aspects (basically dividing the work up even at the senior levels).  Hence you will occasionally find senior level people who are unlicensed.

    In general having technical knowledge and project managing experience helps a lot in moving up to mid-level (every question I’ve been asked when people assessed my experience involved ‘being in charge of drawing sets & specs’ and construction management (RFI, CA, field reports, etc. – knowing enough to make judgement calls in the field).

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