Your design package, that is. Landscape designers can get really creative with what they can offer a client, from drawings and plans, to estimates, catalogs, samples and continued consulting. In this competitive market, what you offer to your clients will say a lot about how you approach design. I tell clients that they might talk to a “designer” that hops out of the back of a truck and slaps out a free sketch on the back of a napkin or they might make an appointment with a ‘cape & beret’ designer that presents a lot of lofty concepts with paint and pastels at $150 an hour.
Which is the better way to go? Well, both or neither, really. The fact is, a client can get a great design on the back of a napkin and might be able to build an award-winning outdoor environment simply by pointing and guessing. You can also meticulously cross all your T’s to build a project that is over budget and still underperforms. In the end, there is no “rule” about the right creative process. Nevertheless, potential clients have to have a place to hang their hat, to make quality choices and start on a process that is creative, methodical and most importantly, on-budget. That’s why I recommend that my potential clients hire, (in order): me, followed by good designers that I know, APLD designers, ASLA designers and finally - state landscape association contractor or designer referrals.
I had the rewarding and fun opportunity of presenting seminars to APLD members last year on the subject of budgeting and no single issue raised as much of a ruckus as the segment about design fees. I have a firm opinion about it, let’s say. And I do suspect that many of you are charging too high an hourly rate - while keeping your fees at a certain competitive level. In turn, you are not charging as much as you need to for travel, meetings, concept time, mapping or printing. Maybe I’m wrong, but methinks not.
You see, as a landscape architect and design/build contractor, I am in the unique position of preparing my own plans and bidding work for installation from other designers as well. As part of this effort, I commonly discover how the outside designers work was presented, what the client invested and how they feel about the design investment and process. Sometimes it’s very professional and they are quite happy. Most times though, not so much.
Sure, a potential client can reasonably be assured of a professional design from an APLD member. But I would submit that, taken overall - the quality, pricing and presentation of our design packages can vary greatly. Is this a problem? What about this issue? Is it the 800lb gorilla in the APLD room…the red-headed stepchild of landscape design? I would suggest that your willingness to present an equitable fee arrangement and ability to present a comprehensive design goes to the heart of your own company’s success. it also informs the thinking behind the ever-present national contractor/designer rift. But that’s another story altogether.
So let’s sift through our design packages and, if you’re up for it – followup with your own response so that we can share how we work…
Types of designs: there are a wide variety of ways to present your work, from sketches, to plans in cad or by hand, renderings, diagrams, elevations, axonometric views and sketch-up scenarios to name a few. In addition, designers might present their own portfolios, color boards, catalogs, samples or magazine clippings or digitally, manufacturer links, Tumblr, Pinterest or One-note catalog pages. Here at classicnursery.com, we typically meet hundreds of potential clients a year, (less so in recent years, but that’s picking up again). In doing so, we often present a design contract as part of a proposal, perhaps at one out of five meetings. These vary as to investment level, but all will typically include:
1. The initial complimentary meeting. This is a plan presentation meeting, usually up to 2 hours with plan discussion, laptop estimating and a discussion of “what-if” scenarios. We may also bring sample materials.
2. A cad drawn scaled plan that shows the entire property with existing botanicals and site features.
3. On the plan above, a clear description of the new design with a plant pallet, but in our case, no notations of quantity or size. We do this because we want to refer specifics on an attached and flexible attached proposal.
4. A color, logo-stamped folder that contains the following:
a. A reduced 11x17 PDF’s of the plan.
b. An estimate / proposal to build the work as well as a ‘phase one’ on budget proposal if appropriate.
c. Necessary plant and/or manufacturer material catalogs.
5. In addition, we offer a single followup revised and re-estimated plan/proposal that will be provided after client comment later.
This requires a signature on a mutual design agreement, a 50% deposit and represents what the client wants, we think. Creative ideas, pragmatic budgeting and real material choices, reflecting their site, topography, access issues, architectural integration and stated and implied uses. Most critically, the proposal for installation is tunkey and within 10% of budget in most cases.
That noted, what’s in YOUR package. Tell us!
Types of charges: Designers are all over the map regarding how they charge for their services. The most common charges are based upon:
1. An hourly rate. This should have a contracted “not to exceed” number or I recommend that clients not hire this way. If so, it should include a defined list of deliverables and duties that the designer will perform.
2. A lump sum. This may be derived from an estimated number of hours at an hourly rate and may also include materials, printing, mobilization and other anticipated expenses.
3. A “cost of construction - plus percentage”. This to me is the least professional way to go, as it is usually open-ended and can reward the designer for cost over-runs. I would suggest that potential clients run from a designer that suggests working this way.
Determining the design investment. So how does your client assess value and how do you then estimate the investment in design? There are a number of items to consider, from distance traveled, to site, to design elements and the all-important (and too often overlooked) issue of client personality, (or lack therof). For me, and importantly in advance of noting to the potential client what I am asking that they pay for design, I tell them that fees should not exceed 5-10% of the projects installed value. This gives the client a metric that their design investment should always stay within.
So to recap, (this is from my loose notes at the APLD seminar):
Always offer competitive value, cover two way travel & if you can, one revision. Be timely, smart and do what you say you will do.
Use a contract that indemnifies you, defines the scope of your work, what the client is paying and what happens if the client does not pay in a timely manner.
Define what you are providing. Design packages can include: Plans, details, specifications, estimates and revisions. Your plan should also include your company name, a title, scale, orientation, project notes and general disclaimers.
Consider the issues of site, project and client complexity.
Solve for yourself the “hourly rate conundrum”. $80/hr = $160K annually. 10Hrs@$80 = 20Hrs@$40.
Know “who/what/when/where & how” you’ll bid before you meet. Research who you’ll be meeting, what you’ll be designing & bidding, when it’s needed & how you’ll get it done.
Think of “Who/What /When /Where/How”
a. Who designs?
Homeowner/designer rapport. Research and know your client and the site.
Designer/designer bidding Understand other designers position vis a vis client.
Designer/contractor relationship Research your contractor to ensure reliability.
Contractor/subcontractor hierarchy Know the subcontractors as well as contractors.
b. What are we designing?
Design bids By hour/lump sum etc. What’s in your package?
Consulting bids Usually by hour or job %. Reports? Liability?
Permit coordination Use a ‘not to exceed number’ and revision provision.
Installation bids Always supply at least a preliminary bid with the plan.
Revisions and “value-engineering” Know clients investment comfort/ fallback positions.
Maintenance bids Plan by season, bill by month. Have a closure clause
c. When are we designing?
Prior to design Webtools to “know” site and your client in advance.
Internal as part of preliminary design Plan to the budget with your list of elements
As part of design package Pre-estimate concept/determine max. allowances
Ongoing consulting Use minimums and an hourly fee w/a contract.
d. Where are we designing?
At office, on the phone or by email. Use webtools and stay in contact.
At the site meeting Be professional. Give free literature.
At office, post design/ out to bid Fax, scan or email as you go. Have “instant allies”.
On site, from contractor to sub Know subs and their limits and capabilities.
e. How are we designing?
Sketches, to plans in cad or by hand, renderings, diagrams, elevations, axonometric views and sketch-up scenarios to name a few. In addition, designers might present their own portfolios, color boards, catalogs, samples or magazine clippings or digitally, manufacturer links, Tumblr, Pinterest or One-note catalog pages.
Units of measure: Each, Lump sum, HR, CY, SF, FF, LF, TN. Plant size, Hourly rate.
Tools of trade: Scale, measuring wheel, tripod, ruler, tape measure, peashooter, planimeter, toolbelt, rite in the rain paper
Some links regarding our landscape architectural plans & estimates:
Best wishes to all of you for a positive and prosperous spring season…
(Image from http://otisketch.tumblr.com/page/2)