Tips for Hiring a Landscape Architect or Landscape Designer

Learn how to choose a landscape architect or landscape designer for your pool or outdoor space.

Designing your outdoor space is an exciting process that often takes the same kind of perception, planning and preparation as designing a custom home. An experienced landscape architect or designer can help you create and execute your vision into an art form of functionality, expression and style. These professionals are attuned to trends, attentive to details, artistically inclined and accustomed to solving a myriad of problems. They can develop a plan and organize your outdoor space in a way that is uniquely suited to your home and your property’s natural attributes, as well as your lifestyle and personality.

Getting Started: Landscape Architect vs. Landscape Designer

In most cases, landscape designers have more of a horticultural background, whereas landscape architects have added experience with the design and construction of hardscapes. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, a design service fee can range from five to 20 percent of the construction costs. While most experienced designers have contractors they work with regularly, a design-build firm handles all aspects of the project from design to installation–including the pool. “The execution of the work is typically better, faster and smoother,” notes landscape designer Scott Cohen, president and supervising designer for The Green Scene, a premiere outdoor design-build firm based in the Los Angeles area.

Most high-end designers charge an initial design consultation fee which can range from $150 to $450. At the initial meeting your landscape architect or designer will work with you to evaluate your desires and fine-tune your goals. Your designer will discuss ideas and usually draw up a quick sketch or two that works within your vision, your budget and your site, then quote a design retainer fee to create more detailed plans.

“A good designer will ask you to prepare for the meeting with a wish list or program for the site,” says Carl Molter, senior project landscape designer with the Landscape Design Group in Doylestown, PA, a design-build company trained in environmental design, horticulture and site planning. List all of the outdoor features you would need to accomplish your goal, then expand your initial concept to include your wish list of desires, as well as your needs.

For example, you may need a place to cook and entertain, but what you might really want is a fully-equipped outdoor kitchen within view of the pool area or outdoor dining room. Do you envision a private refuge where you can enjoy family breakfasts or intimate dinners alfresco, or are you looking for an extravagant place to entertain? Perhaps your dream also includes a brick pizza oven or a well-designed kitchen garden with fresh herbs and vegetables always at hand.

Budget and Planning: Be Flexible

You may have specific ideas for your backyard, but remember that a designer has the experience and ability to know what works well and can guide you toward the right decisions. For instance, your designer may find that an existing pool is in the wrong location for the overall design of the poolscape and may recommend that the pool be moved. “This scenario often happens when the property is sold and the new owners have lifestyles and tastes that differ from those of the previous owners,” notes James van Sweden, a founding partner at Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc., whose designs are widely published in magazines and landscape books.

Be flexible about your budget, too. Plan more in terms of a price range rather than an amount. “Sometimes a client will come to us with a fixed budget, when an additional $20,000 will get all of the bells and whistles at only 10 percent more,” Cohen explains. For that $20,000 you may be able to enhance your outdoor living room with a custom stone fireplace, incorporate a built-in beverage/ cocktail center, a melted glass countertop fed with fiber optics, and even include surround sound speakers throughout the garden.

Communication Is Key

“The best thing a client can do is to communicate exactly what it is that he or she wants,” says Molter. “Words can have multiple meanings.” A Mediterranean landscape might mean casual comfort, warm colors and more of a Moroccan feel to you, but your designer may come up with a plan that emphasizes elegant formality in shades of blue and green. Likewise, a water feature can be defined as a stately fountain, a formal pond, or as water cascading from the edge of a pool down into a waterfall.

The best way to communicate with your designer is visually. Start by collecting examples from books and magazine clippings showing pictures of poolscapes and landscapes. Note features, preferred plantings and a color palette, as well as favorite furniture, materials and other elements that you like or dislike.

The Design Process: Be Patient

The interactive design process can take from two to eight weeks, depending on availability and how well everyone communicates. The process typically includes the initial concept meeting, a client questionnaire review, site analysis, tours of previously completed projects and one or more preliminary plans. This is the time to make changes-while you are still in the designing process and not while the project is underway. “Usually the final plan is a result of choosing certain features from one plan combined with specific elements from another,” states van Sweden.

The final or master plan includes the chosen design with color detailing the specific vision-from hardscapes, building materials and plant materials to accessories, lighting and irrigation zoning plans. Molter notes that most high-end designers also offer some sort of three-dimensional visual support along with layout plans for the pool company, and construction visits to make sure that the plans are carried out with any necessary adjustments made to the design.

The entire process from the initial phone call to installation takes from six months to a year, though a design that incorporates an existing pool may only take a matter of months. Also keep in mind that it can take several years before plantings mature and your landscape design truly resembles that of the lush-looking drawings. The landscape design process and resulting creation can be a rewarding experience. Just remember to communicate your desires and listen to your designer. Only then can your dreams for a beautiful landscape and inviting outdoor space be realized

How to Choose a Landscape Architect or Designer

• Look for a designer who is experienced in the style and scale of the project you are seeking. One designer may specialize in formal landscapes showcasing stunning swimming pools, while another has great talent for creating a more naturalistic setting.

• Ask for referrals from friends, neighbors and business associates. Look through garden and design magazines for landscape projects that appeal to you and note the names of the designers. Contact the magazine or do a web search for contact information, if it is not listed.

• Interview a few designers on the phone. Ask to see some of their work, whether it appears in a brochure, portfolio or in projects that have been published in magazines or books. Inquire whether the firm can direct you locally to one of its finished projects so you can see the results firsthand.

• The American Society of Landscape Architects,, and the Association of Professional Landscape Designers,®, have informative and helpful websites. In addition, some landscape firms have websites to provide visitors with instructive design ideas that can be downloaded.

Photo courtesy of Elite Concepts, Inc., Dallas, TX

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