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Compromised Landscapes

Compromised Landscapes

Compromised Landscapes

With improving conditions in the construction industry the financial reigns are slowly being released by clients and developers.

Ireland’s design community are finally getting their teeth into projects with substance. The diversity of large scale projects, requiring huge resources and hundreds of man hours to develop, that have passed across my desk in the last few months has been staggering. When I open these proposals I’m often conflicted, on one hand I’m inspired by the creativity while on the other I’m filled with disappointment. More often than not these schemes will end up being scaled back, reduced and ultimately compromised. Why? Because when they’re actually priced they’ll exceed allocated budgets, often set by clients and other consultants who only look at the bottom line and don’t value the proposed landscape scheme.

The overrun invariably means the designer has to return to the drawing board, allocate additional resources to revise the design in order to ensure it comes within budget. Nobody is a winner in this scenario. The entire design team is affected and so to the client as the project is delayed going to site. The designer won’t make a profit on the project unless they get paid an additional fee, but it’s very hard to get paid twice on the same project. In the end, everyone loses.

With a reputation among other design professionals for not sticking to a budget, it’s important for Landscape Architects and designers to have clear instructions on client’s financial commitments to landscape proposals to prevent cost overruns on projects. Cost overruns and contractor variations are a huge cause of conflict for all parties and can lead to tensions from the client and contractors. This is especially true if the landscape contract is to be carried out under a RIAI Blue form of contact (where quantities do not apply) as the drawings and specifications take president over the pricing document.  There are a number steps that landscape design professions should undertake on each project to ensure that variations are omitted and cost overruns are minimised.

Once the initial design is carried out, getting a cost estimate carried out before you spend any more time on detail design drawings can save time and money. If you’re not in a position to undertake such a service with confidence, ask the client for assistance. They may have a Quantity Surveyor employed as part of the design team who could review the scheme and provide an order of magnitude cost. If not, an experienced contractor may give you an indication of the likely costs associated with your scheme. Once this cost estimate is carried out, you will be in a better position to confirm if you are within budget. The added advantage of early contractor involvement is that you can get expert advice from the contractor on the ‘buildability’ of your scheme. This may help reduce costs as they may suggest a more effective way of constructing elements of the scheme. Likewise check in with the nurseries to ensure proposed plants and trees are readily available, and can be sourced easily hence reducing costs of imported stock.

It’s easy to leave details off plans, especially if the design fee is low and is a common problem on small jobs where designers don’t want to take the time to specify every detail. However, it can be a much more expensive problem on large designs. Once the job has started on site, designers may feel guilty or don’t want to be the source of contractor claims so they just go ahead with whatever assumption the contractor makes. In fact they may not even raise the issue as they don’t want to draw the contractor’s attention to it.  What all designers need to do is specify, specify, specify. Be very clear about the products and materials you want installed, how you want them installed, and what the final job should look like. Be wary of cut and paste specification documents. All specification documents need to be site specific. If they’re not written correctly and included in the tender package for contractors to price, it will be a source of conflict and a possibly a claim further down the road.

Design changes once construction begins, usually generates a change order, and a price increase unless it is an omission.  Some changes are required due to design errors or oversights. Some are required by local authorities who rightly or wrongly say that some aspect of your design needs to be revised. However, the biggest cause of changes on is caused by clients, who decides late in the game to up the specification. Careful management of clients is a hard thing to do once the project has started. It’s vital to make as many decisions as possible with the client’s involvement in the process and with their approval prior to starting construction. It’s much easier and cheaper to move a line on a drawing than to move a real path or retaining wall. With today’s 3-D design tools, it’s easier than ever to visualise your design before any work is carried out.

The type of contract and conditions associated with it will impact on what details is required on landscape drawings. It is important to inform yourself what type of contract the project will be procured on. If it’s a Blue form of contract it means that the drawings need to be watertight and co-orientated with other design disciplines. Everything needs to be indicated on the drawings and in the specification documents. Even if it’s included in the pricing document, where the Quantity Surveyor has made an assumption, if it’s not on the drawing and it’s required it will be an extra as the drawings and specification document take precedence over the pricing document. There is a small bit of room to manoeuvre with a yellow form of contact as items can be inserted into the Bill of Quantities, which becomes a contract document.

All these simple steps are easy to achieve but the root of the problem can often be traced back to low design fees. Even if you land the job on what you initially think is a decent fee, the love for the job gradually drifts away as design changes, unrealistic deadlines and the constant value engineering of your design cuts it back to a landscape scheme that could have been designed by an Engineer with lots of grass, concrete paths and Prunus ‘Otto Luyken’. Talk about being soul destroying. We all get into business to make money, not friends. I am sure you all have enough good friends, so it’s enough money to keep business going that you need.

Fees have always been low for landscape professionals compared to other design team member’s costs yet the value they add to a project in terms of design and site features can be comparable to Architects. Architects have more responsibility as they often act as contract administrators, but if you strip this out of the equation, I can’t see why the fees should be in the same range. Architects can often get 4-5% of the contract value while Landscape Architects are often on a set fee no matter what is thrown at them during the project. Low fees combined with a Clients demands for services which are not in the original proposal lead to further resentment to the project. It’s like coming out of the bookies after losing a few quid and it’s raining. You were annoyed losing the money without getting wet.

If fees were to improve and everybody was content with their proposals and knew what they were to be paid and what is expected of them, then I believe the possibility of cost over runs on projects would be reduced as the we would all have an interest in the project and put lots of love into it.  I am a Chartered QS and written into the rules of the SCSI is charging enough professional fees for a professional service. In theory, this fee can only be reduced if the level of service is reduced and not when there bullied into a lower fee for the same, if not higher service. Consultation and agreement within the landscape design industry in Ireland needs to take place to agree a fee structure template for all practices and designers. I am not suggesting that everybody needs to charge the same fee or hourly rate but rather a template for presenting proposals to potential clients, with agreement on the scope of services included in each stage. Until this happens clients will take advantage of Landscape designers and blur the lines between what is included in landscape design proposals.

It is impossible to control for all the factors which influence final budgets, so focus on what you can control: the work that you do. If you do nothing else this year, don’t find yourself at the end of it regretting the lost profit, the compromised projects, the additional stress and the potentially dented reputation for want of paying close attention to the detail.