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Landscape Design Choices

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First: Understand the Game

Most landscape projects today cost tens of thousands of dollars. With the addition of elements like outdoor kitchens, outdoor rooms, outdoor fireplaces, fire-pits, and patio-covers, the complexity of the landscape design is greater than ever. If there is a swimming pool involved the expense and complexity go up considerably. This increases the need to find the most qualified person to guide you through the process and become your advocate. If you understand in advance the best way to get to the finished landscape, you’ll avoid a lot of frustration and expense that comes with the common mistakes. Below are some answers to the most common questions I hear when asked about starting a landscape project. These will help you get started on the right foot.

Landscape Designer, Landscape Architect, Contractor; Where Do I Start?

Landscape Architects have the deepest level of landscape design training, which translates into the best understanding of how to marry your preferences, site, architecture, budget, and landscape design elements. This is the only group licensed in California for their understanding of all landscape design elements, and are allowed to legally sell landscape designs with complete specifications and details.

Landscape Designer does not have a standard attached to the title. Anyone can use this title. There are some good landscape designers, but I have found that they usually don’t provide complete drawings. Legally they can’t, which isn’t good for you the client. What they are required to leave off, irrigation, drainage, details & specifications, exposes you to add-ons and too many unknowns that are left to the contractor. This can cost you a fortune. This also puts the contractor in a bad position because they can’t give you a complete bid due to unknowns not specified. You aren’t able to get apples to apples bids or hold the contractor accountable to any standards. There is a general lack of recognized standards in the residential market so it is important for your designer to set them for your project. Your financial exposure alone easily covers the difference in landscape design fees with Landscape Architects. Most of us have heard about jobs running way over the initial quote. This is how that happens.

Design/Build companies provide the design and the construction. In residential landscaping these are very common. Design/Build make their real money contracting and they offer free or cheap designs with the hope of getting the construction project. There are three big problems with this approach.

The same issues that exist with landscape plans drawn by a Landscape Designer apply, only now there is a contractor in the equation trying to sell you the stuff. Incomplete information leaves you exposed. If the design is free or cheap, how much thought is being given to how to spend your money and what quality of designer would do their work so inexpensively? Conflict of interest; Do they make good margins on the solution or is it the best solution for you. How do you know? If you accept the design, you accept the price of the contracting and have no way of knowing if it’s a fair price. Prices go up with no competition. You probably just over-paid.

Landscape Contractors are builders, much like a mechanic they understand how to put things together and make them work. Their role is not to create but to execute. The best contractors I know don’t attempt to do the creative work. They would much rather execute a great idea. The best relationship is when the contractor collaborates with the designer on the most affective way to build the designers ideas.

Swimming Pool Companies are essentially Design/Build companies specializing in swimming pools. They create the most expensive and permanent form of mistake we encounter in our remodel projects. Because of the size of a pool, placing it in the wrong area in the yard can ruin the potential for every other use if done incorrectly. Pools are commonly filled in now because they are in the wrong place or cost so much to remodel that people are choosing to remove them so they can use the space in a way that meets more of their needs. Since most pool designers with swimming pool companies have little or no design training they are usually focused on the pool design and not the spaces in the entire yard. This is what leads to bad placement and compromising the potential for the entire design. The best solution is to have the placement, shape, and overall look designed by a Landscape Architect who is focused on the complete picture.

2012 jeffwortham.com2015


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Jeff has made our backyard a thing of wonder. He has made an otherwise stressful project easy for us. Jeff is a stand up guy with a great eye for the little things as well as the big things.

Tony & Nancy Washmera April 27, 2015

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Jeff’s landscape selection is one that provides us with warm and lush colors and textures “year-round”. The waterwall that he designed as the focal point has a subtle flow of water over the stone surface. It has a calming almost medicinal effect when you sit by it. Jeff delivered on everything that we asked for and more for our project.

Rick & Connie S. April 27, 2015

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We definitely realized the value of following your process. In particular, it was great to have a base plan from which we could negotiate with contractors and of course your design expertise helped us towards a far superior solution than the “free” plan that we had in front of us. What a transformation!

C.N. Alamo April 27, 2015

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We appreciated that he was available throughout the construction process to help deal with the issues that came up. We also appreciated how quickly he accomplished the design and complete construction documents. We did use the recommended contractors for both our pool renovation and our landscaping. Both contractors were excellent and their work is exceptional.

C. & J. Egan Danville  April 27, 2015

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Jeff is creative, professional, and a terrific listener. I find his knowledge of soil composition, plant material, irrigation techniques and hardscape refreshingly broad and original. My yard is now an oasis thanks to him. 

Noel Madden April 27, 2015

Design With A Budget

Too many Landscape Designers don’t understand or work with a clients’ budget. This can cost the client tens of thousands of dollars in bad design choices. The Landscape Designer doesn’t set the cost, but needs to design with them in mind. They should educate you so you can decide what you value and what you don’t. Your Landscape Designer is your agent and being paid by you to look out for your interest, not just come up with creative ideas. Make sure this is something your designer does to avoid over-designing for your budget.

Complete Landscape Plans & Specifications are Critical

You need scaled plans that include paving layout, drainage, irrigation, plant design, lighting, details of various elements such as arbors, outdoor kitchens, outdoor fireplaces, and the specifications of how each one is to be executed. They allow you to achieve:

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Apples to apples bids to determine the best price Complete costs of all elements up front to avoid surprises later Continuity if you phase the project Contractor accountability to the standards set by the designer A clear design vision for the contractor to follow.

Once you have complete plans you are ready to go out to bid to contractors. The plans level the playing field and enable you to assess who is giving you the best pricing. Your designer should have recommendations on who to get bids from. They are usually the best source for local contractors given that they rely on the contractors to make their ideas look their best.

Choose Us

Beautiful, long lasting design comes from understanding how to best marry the practical with the artistic. That quality benefits our clients with bigger projects as well as those with smaller ones. When it’s time to dive into your landscape project you want someone to help you make the best choices for you and be your advocate though-out. As a Landscape Architect and contractor I can offer a level of understanding of both construction and design that are unique to the residential landscape design market. At the same time, I don’t have the conflict of trying to sell you the landscape because I only do the design. Our firm creates detailed plans that are catered to every client’s specific needs and taste. We work with your budget and educate you on costs, material choices, plantings, construction methods, picking the right contractor and many other parts of the landscape project. To find out more on how we can help you with your landscape project call us and we can set up a time to come meet with you and getting started.

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