Should I hire a Landscape Designer or a Landscape Architect?

Should you hire a Landscape Designer or a Landscape Architect for your landscape project?  It’s a great question with no definitive answer.  That said, I will try to explain the main differences between Landscape Designers and Landscape Architects.  Hopefully, at the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of each design discipline and also have a better idea of which way you would like to proceed on your next landscape project.

First a little about me and my business, Designing Eden llc. I’ve been in the landscape industry for the past 35 years.  I’ve been self employed my whole life, starting ‘in the business’ at the ripe old age of 12.  Along the way, I received an Associates Degree in Horticulture and a Bachelors in Landscape Architecture. Designing Eden llc has been designing, installing and maintaining landscapes for the past 23 years in Fairfield and Litchfield County, Connecticut.  Prior to that, we were primarily a lawn maintenance company.  It wasn’t until I had the two degrees in Horticulture and Landscape Architecture that I entered the landscape installation side of the business, eventually leaving the lawn cutting to others to start focusing on the more creative side of the business.

The differences of  a landscape architect and landscape designer in general terms

Their Schooling and License: All Landscape Architects have a degree in Landscape Architecture.  Recent graduates have to apprentice at least 2 years, working under another licensed landscape architect before sitting for and passing a national exam.  Once they pass the LA exam, they can go out on their own and legally call themselves a Landscape Architect.  Landscape Designers, on the other hand, come from all different backgrounds.  Some have a formal education, including degrees in landscape architecture, as I do. Some Landscape Designers hold other green industry degrees such as a degree in Landscape Contracting or Horticulture. Both of those degrees have a landscape design component.  My Horticulture degree had a landscape design class every semester.  In CT, there are a lot of landscape designers who are graduates of The New York Botanical Garden’s professional landscape certificate program.  There are also Landscape Designers who fall into the profession for some reason or another with limited formal training. Maybe they were interior designers or house designers in a past life or they just had a passion for plants and are self taught. In my case, even though I graduated with a Degree in Landscape Architecture, I was already running a landscape business.  I decided not to give that up to be an apprentice for someone else. For that reason, I’m a Landscape Designer with a degree in Landscape Architecture.

Continuing Education: Landscape Architects are required to take Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) to maintain their license.  Landscape Designers on the other hand do not need to take CEU’s.  That being said, professional designers belonging to the Association of Professional Landscape Designers are required to take CEU’s to maintain their standing in the organization

Washington CT native landscape design

The plans they produce/The process: Landscape Architects are paid to create designs, concepts and construction documents.  They get paid to produce paper! Although we design a lot of our own landscapes at Designing Eden llc, we also install a couple of jobs a year that other Landscape Architects have designed.  From what we see, the typical set of landscape plans involves the overall plan as well as additional plans filled with a lot of notes and technical drawing such as ‘how to plant a tree’ or ‘how to build the patio’.  Honestly, those ‘extra pages’ are typically cut and pasted from one project to the next and aren’t specific or custom tailored to any specific project.  On the other hand, Landscape Designers usually get right to the point, they provide a landscape plan.  Maybe they will get into a technical drawing for a special feature, but usually not. The thought is Landscape Designers are usually working directly with a landscape company or, in the case of Designing Eden llc, are the landscape company, so plan details aren’t as important. This is what’s called the design/build process where both the design and installation of the project happens under one roof.  Landscape Architects are typically just designers.  In theory, the plans L.A.’s produce are usually detailed so the project can go out to bid. Whoever gets the plan has all the info they need to bid the project and build the project.  This is called the design/bid/build process. With the plans we bid, there are always questions that come with developing a price but they are minimized by the plan details.

Landscape Architects will usually try to stay involved through the whole installation/build process.  They will offer a service where they receive a certain percentage of the whole project, usually 10-20%, to oversee the details.  It’s important to note that in most cases, this fee isn’t a project management fee.  The landscape architect are there just to make sure their design is being implemented as planned.  Management of contractors is usually falling under the general contractor or the homeowner.  If the landscaper, mason or fence company doesn’t show up, it’s the general contractor, homeowner or a combination of both, who is making the call to find out why the landscaper isn’t on the project, not the landscape architect. So in general terms, the design/build process involves choosing a company and then working with that company through the whole project from design through installation. The design is usually a fraction of the cost because Landscape Designers make their money on the installation. In the design/bid/build process, once a Landscape Architecture firm is chosen, you’ll pay for a full set of plans. Once complete, those plans can be sent out to bid to a couple of landscape companies that the Landscape Architect usually recommends. A company is chosen and then you’ll have the option of paying a percentage of the total project to ensure it is installed to the designers vision.

What they charge: Typically, Landscape Architects charge a lot more for a landscape design than a Landscape Designer. Part of this reason is Landscape Designers (if they aren’t tied to a landscape company)usually work by themselves and have a lot less overhead than a Landscape Architecture firm.  Another reason Landscape Designers might charge less than Landscape Architects is due to the design-build process.  Because a lot of designers are tied to the landscape installation, the design is a means to an end and is usually a loss leader meaning designers have an interest in the finished landscape so they aren’t charging what they would actually need to charge to run a profitable design business.

Other thoughts: In my opinion, designers have the edge when it comes to landscape design that includes mostly gardens.  The design/build process, where everything happens under one roof, is such a strong business model.  I can’t tell you how much better of a designer I’ve become because of the way we work.  As a designer, think of the consequences and learning that comes with designing a landscape, installing a landscape, guaranteeing the plants and workmanship and then having to maintain that property for 20+ years.  Talk about a learning experiment!  There are a lot of things I’ve changed and perfected over the years due to seeing what it takes to maintain a property over the long haul.  A lot of times, when I see a plan designed by an LA, I’m often disappointed.   The composition, the lack of plant layering, the same plants used over and over again that have proven not to be successful in Connecticut landscapes for one reason or another.  The plans leave a lot to be desired or as one of my installation customers said a year or two after their very expensive Landscape Architect designed plan was installed, “this is not what I thought it would be”. Don’t get me wrong, there are landscape architects that know their plants but a talented design/build wins hands down because of the process.  It just make sense, LA’s produce plans, they aren’t installing plants or maintaining them so how well do they actually know plants? This year, I met with two landscape architects about their projects. In both instances the notebooks came out shortly after the meetings began and they started taking notes as I spoke.  I brought a different conversation to the table regarding the design, something more practical, knowledge that they just didn’t acquire over their careers by strictly designing landscapes.  If a residential landscape is what you’re after and the design/build process makes the most sense, the only thing that i would recommend is finding a landscape design/build company where the owner is the designer or the designer has been at that company for years.  With a lot of design/build companies, designers come and go often enough that there usually isn’t a consistent product from year to year because the designers are in a revolving door. You might be looking at a portfolio of a designer the company employed a couple years ago. That designer was super talented but the designer that they currently employ has no where near the talent.

I think a lot of the problems I see with the landscape architecture process falls on how design firm’s operate or evolve.  The talented owner of the firm becomes more of a salesman and manager over time and the designs eventually start falling into the hands of associate designers, usually recent grads.  These designers have limited experience and it shows in the overall plan as well as the long term success of the finished landscape.

Knowledge of plants. Because design/build companies not only design landscapes but install, guarantee and maintain those gardens for years, the edge has to go to the design-build process. Landscape Architects are good at some things, but in regards to designing gardens, planting plans and residential properties, I think landscape designers as a whole, are more capable.  Landscape designers tend to be more closely associated with plants and gardens, splitting their time between installing and maintaining landscapesands designing landscapes.  Very few landscape designers do just design work.  Because of this, we watch how things grow and learn from our mistakes over the years.

Now is the time where I should mention that I’m trying to cover the major differences and what I’ve seen, my thoughts and assumptions I’ve made over a long career in the landscape industry.  Of course, not every company will fit this article exactly.  There are some awesome landscape architecture firms just as there are some really bad design-build firms out there and vice versa.  It’s your job to find the perfect company for you.  Here are some questions to ask so you find the perfect company and process for you.

Who will design my project and what is their background? The more designers a company has, the more you should scrutinize their background.

How long has the person designing my project been with your company?  I think you can’t go wrong with a smaller company where the owner is still designing landscapes.

How much will the plan cost and what will I get? What is the process after the plan is produced.  In the design-build process is pretty easy to figure it out but it might not be so evident in the design-bid-build process.  For instance, what is the Landscape Architects job description after the plan is produced?

Ask to see a plan and pictures of the finished landscape. Make sure the designers name on the plan is the same person you’re talking to.

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