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Three mistakes a Landscape Architect can help you avoid when designing a custom home

After consulting with owner’s architects and builders on new residential landscapes over the years I have noticed some patterns that don’t result in best outcomes.  I do not have all the answers, just three observations that can help you Architects, Builders and soon to be homeowners of custom homes out there.  I feel obliged to relay my insight into common pitfalls you can and should try to avoid when designing and building a custom home.

  1. Programming problems.

About 10 years ago I had an architect client engage me to facilitate programming landscape with a client as the owners had begun to express concerns about the relation of indoor spaces to the landscape. Their building was already out of the ground and nearing the four-way inspection. So now they could stand in the spaces and let their imaginations run wild. In our first sit down meeting, they rolled out the wish-list which included a pool, putting green, spa, and hockey rink among other things. The architects jaw dropped, and he reeled back in his seat looking up to the ceiling. ‘Why didn’t you ever mentioned these things to me?’ he asked poignantly. The client shrugged his shoulders and holding out his hand said, “You never asked about our landscape”. There were major challenges to overcome with this project as the home site was comprised of the main building with a separate detached garage creating a sort of ‘courtyard’ which was just 12 feet too small to fit a small hockey rink within. There would have been room to site plan it in earlier if it were only known. Now the garage would have to be torn down. The owner begrudgingly came to grips that the hockey rink was no longer do-able.  That is a big example of programming problems, but I see this all the time on various scales.

Programming is a simple one-to-two-hour conversation to begin and there really is not any reason this conversation should not happen with your landscape architect at the table. If you are planning on building custom, you should emphasize an integrated design process. Encourage your architect, landscape architect and interior designer develop concepts together. This conceptual step is all about a dialogue between the built and natural environment. It is a collaborative way to carry the inspiration through the process effecting the indoors and outdoors equally. These conceptual chicken scratch drawings are a down and dirty step in the process that many owners never see happen. This is the ‘dark arts’ bit of the design world. The beginning stages are often not pretty, so we designers do it in private, so you do not see our follies. That is sort of the point. Like the scientific process you get closer to the solution by finding out what does not work. Both architects and landscape architects use the same methodology for this stage in their respective professions. Because of this shared methodology they can communicate fluently with each other if they adopt an integrated design process. The exact means can vary between practitioners, but usually only slightly. Typically, there is a matrix developed to consider proximity of each space against all the others. Then some bubble diagrams are created to graphically represent that relationship of spaces.

Lastly, on this topic I must point out that programming also informs the sizing of utilities. Program packed landscapes that include elements requiring electricity and gas and drainage such as fire features, water features, outdoor kitchen’s, pools, and lighting can easily match or exceed the homes utility requirements. I think the worst part of building must be paying for mistakes made by others negligence. Nobody is ever excited to discover that a gas, electrical or sewer line just installed must be ripped-out and re-sized to accommodate a garden they have vocalized a desire for from the beginning. Specifics such as BTU’s and amperage for the program must be discovered and determined early-on, and not lost over the documentation of the design.

  • Site Planning

The larger your site the more critical this collaboration between architect and landscape architect should be.  In an urban context the building envelope can be entirely taken by the home’s footprint. So, the landscape architects only contribution may be their opinion on finish floor elevation as it relates to the outdoor spaces. Large sites where the homes footprint is but a postage stamp on the land results in flexibility that must be informed to narrow down the possibilities. There is an extensive list of considerations but simply put; nature is the element to work with. Nature, the great creator, and destroyer; especially of gardens.

To many an architect the allure of a new site, an ’empty’ lot, that tabula rasa has boundless potential for siting. This sacred work is a treat far too sweet for many home designers to share with anyone. Control is what all creatives crave, no matter how dysfunctional the result may be.  I have worked with many brilliant architects that are masters at site planning. I have learned very much from their genius over the years. However, these lessons were often learned in the form of reverse engineering and problem solving. The experienced garden designer never has the naïve pleasure of working with a ‘blank canvas’. To us they simply do not exist. There is always a context to the landscape that informs the thoughtful planning and design of the garden and its ancillary home.

It perhaps goes without saying but if your landscape architect was not involved in programming, they most certainly are not going to be included in the site planning discussions either. The most overlooked aspect of site planning by all architects I have ever worked with is the soil. The soil is the foundation to all gardens and must be of the best possible quality. The soils porosity, organic content, acidity, and particle size is a delicate balance desired in a good topsoil of which to create a garden. To a building the soils only requirement is to be stable enough to build upon. Soil can vary hugely on a large site and is often related to the topography and surficial geology as smaller grains migrate to lower areas and ridges become rocky with erosion over time, often a conflict between siting a home for commanding views and grounding an extensive lawn and gardens. Soil may be amended and improved at great cost. The addition of lime can loosen clayey soils and organic content can be imported and tilled in. These efforts can take years to finalize. Keep in mind that the footprint of gardens is by nature in their surrounding of buildings much larger than the home and their affiliated earthworks. Grading and excavation of gardens in their extent often dwarf the relatively modest hole even a grand home may be plopped down into. They style of gardens must also fit to the topography of the landscape where a formal garden will require a level siting and a natural garden can benefit from winding paths, and terraces built into the land.

The Second other most overlooked aspect of site planning is climate. If one plans on spending time outdoors, assuring the outdoor spaces are as comfortable as possible is a must. Out of the wind with a southern exposure to extend the seasons are simple to understand as general principals, but the form and mass of a building creates its own micro-climates, and even more finesse can be drawn when one considers the variations of exposure offered by forests and hills. There is an added benefit of the homes heating and cooling efficiency derived from siting a home for good gardens. Wind is the primary factor in heat-loss of all structures and so there is a common benefit for homes and garden that take advantage of topography or consider the inclusion of planting windbreaks as part of the siting of a home. Snow, rain and how the drainage impacts the landscape around the home are all part of the landscape architect’s expertise and every good site plan is informed by stormwater run-off. Drainage can often be turned from a burden to a feature in the garden with proper foresight and planning.

Like the programming effort there is a shared methodology for site planning between architect and landscape architect. Trace paper (trash paper or fodder) is thrown down onto a survey or aerial of the site and a general analysis considering exposure, slope, views axis’, alignments, forms, and massing is pulled from the page. A best-case scenario for the siting and orientation of the building can be arrived at within a couple hours tops and options for the arrangements of forms and massing (informed by the program previously developed) can be completed within another few hours or so depending on complexity of course. The synergy of working together results in a best-case scenario arrived at relatively quickly. True collaboration is a multidisciplinary team working on the same thing, in the same place at the same time!

  • Selecting the right builder.

I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken to people building a home that happily reported to me that there was a budget for the landscape! That their builder was holding one or two percent of the construction cost in reserve for landscaping.  I have no idea where homebuilders get this ratio from. When I have asked, they admit they do not know where it originated either or say its ‘common practice’. That common practice needs to go away. It does not do anyone any favors. Understanding realistic costs upfront is vital regardless of your budget, but especially for those financing the project. Smart builders, experienced builders know better, and say so (They likely learned by previous mistakes). I have also worked with clients who have determined to not hire a certain builder because the interview revealed that they were unrealistic with their landscape budgets, the owners knowing from previous experience that this showed the builders lack of experience and or their habit of closing the project before it is truly finished. Both undesirable characteristics in a builder. Many builders are ready to hitch their wagon to another opportunity about the time the certificate of occupancy for the home is achieved. If the landscape is not finished by then, they will not care much; you are on your own. Surprisingly, they will walk away from their management fee over 15-20% of potential revenue without a second thought because its ‘landscape’. I really do not understand this at all, other than to say they must be short sighted. The best builders recognized in the market typically do not do this, and that is perhaps one of the reasons they are recognized as the best.  So how do you get to realistic landscape costs? Well, if you want to measure this as a percent of the construction then as a base line use 15% of the total estimated value of the home and put that towards a landscape budget.

Landscapes funded well stand on their own. Anything less than that and it will not meet the expectations of the owner, neighborhood, or the quality of the build itself. This is one way, however the best way to arrive at the cost of the landscape is identical to how you arrive at the cost of the home. You have professional trade’s estimate it based on the design. Yeah, that means you have got to do the design first. To get the ball rolling however a good landscape architect; one who has been practicing for some time and has been involved in lots of builds (not a landscape architect selling concepts) can get you a close opinion of probable costs in the programming step. A poorly funded landscape will need to be replaced too soon.  Since the landscape scope comes last, the funds are typically drained unless they are protected at the outset. The total budget will likely have been depleted for various other upgrades during the build. So, people building custom that do not plan ahead are always looking to find a way to save by the end of the project where the landscape begins. Let me drive this point home by asking; how much do you save when you must do it over again?

I have a name for the root of all these problems…Building-centric.  Building-centric: A primary, if not total focus on the building as a definition of home. For many people this is not the desired result, but the current ‘typical’ model twists them into that space. I do not blame anyone, I know that it does not start out that way, it just sort of happens along the way. When I ask my clients why they decided to build here the level of passion for the land becomes apparent. Most of the times my clients relay a message of how they fell in love with the property. The privacy, the views, proximity to amenities, are all common reasons people give me for picking the site of their new home.  Often it is the landscape that inspires one to decide to build a new home in a place.

These patterns unfortunately are inherent in the common or ‘typical’ build timeline where a landscape architect often is not consulted until the home construction is already underway. So, simply change that and you avoid these issues.

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