Assessing Prospective Landscape Architecture Firms: 10 Questions To Ask
Whenever you embark on a major home project, you want to find the right partners to accomplish the job.
That is why it’s vital you speak with several landscape architecture firms before kicking off any outdoor work. Interviewing a number of firms will help you not only assess their skills, personality, and fit for your project, but also will provide you with useful insights into how the industry and process function.
But if you’re embarking on your first landscape architecture project, how can you properly assess the professionals you’re interviewing?
We asked Michael D’Angelo of MDLA to share some wisdom. As a principal of his own landscape architecture firm and a professional with over 15 years of experience, he has advice to help you evaluate any firm.
Here are the ten questions you should ask as part of the process, and the answers D’Angelo recommends you listen for.
1. “What are your credentials?”
There is a critical difference between landscape architects and landscape designers.
As D’Angelo explains, “A landscape architect is a state-licensed professional. This license is a requirement in many states. A four-year bachelor’s degree and two years of professional experience are required in order to sit for the licensing exam.”
Landscape designers, by contrast, have no formal statewide credentialing process.
With a landscape architect’s additional education and experience comes a higher level of technical knowledge. “If you’re planning to do a large project,” says D’Angelo, “I would definitely recommend working with a landscape architect over a designer.”
2. “Who will I be working with from your firm?”
Landscape architecture projects have long time horizons, so you’ll be spending many months with the team you select. That’s why D’Angelo says it’s vital you understand who you’ll be working with.
He suggests you start by asking whether your main point of contact will be the principal or someone else from the firm.
Once you understand who you’ll be interacting with, he urges you to get to know them better. “It’s a very personal process when you’re building these large projects,” D’Angelo notes, so you want to find someone you personally align with.
3. “How do you approach the planning and concepting phase?”
Landscape architecture projects begin long before that first shovel hits the soil. The right firm will be intimately involved in the planning process. This is especially true in new construction, where they should be included in foundational conversations, like where to site the house.
“It’s in the homeowner’s best interest to assemble a team, which includes a landscape architect or designer, early in the project so that everyone’s talking and coordinating,” he says.
Beyond that, D’Angelo shares that the best landscape architecture teams approach the planning and concepting phase with a focus on your family’s lifestyle and needs.
“I think it’s very important, just like you would when you are working inside your house, to have a really well-thought-out set of concepts and plans put together. Taking into consideration all the needs and desires you want as a client – how you live, how your kids use the space, and how much maintenance you want to deal with,” he says.
4. “What does your budgeting process look like?”
As with any large home project, it’s important to speak frankly with prospective landscape architecture firms about your budget. D’Angelo suggests you seek out a firm that takes a pragmatic approach to managing costs.
“People are always going to be surprised by how much exterior work costs,” he says. “So one of the things we tell clients is, ‘Let’s get through the conceptual phase, we’ll put a budget number to it, and then you can plan out what you want to do.’”
D’Angelo likes to offer clients flexibility in how they move forward. Some may wish to phase the project, while others might scale back their ambitions. Others still might decide that a landscape architecture project simply isn’t right for them.
No matter how it ends up, D’Angelo says, his team won’t go too far without ensuring the client has a basic understanding of what a project could cost. The right landscape architecture firm will be transparent about the projected budget.
5. “What factors impact the budget of my landscape architecture project?”
D’Angelo says the factors impacting the budget are usually square footage, topography, and the addition of elements like pools, sports courts, or outdoor kitchens.
“If you have a site that has a lot of needs for terracing, earthwork, or walls, that’s going to drive cost,” he explains. “If you have a flat site versus a sloped site, that is going to be a drastically different price. Putting a pool in a flat site could cost X, but if a site needs work to enable the project, it could cost three or four times as much.”
The right landscape architecture firm will help you decide where and how to adjust your plans to keep costs manageable for you.
6. “What is your approach to sustainability?”
Many homeowners are looking for more eco-friendly solutions in their landscape design projects. According to D’Angelo, sustainability comes into play in three major areas: lawn, plantings, and irrigation.
Not only is the size of your lawn a maintenance concern, but it also has sustainability implications.
D’Angelo likes to incorporate meadow plantings as an alternative. “With flowers,” he explains, “you’re cutting down on irrigation use and maintenance. You are also creating this flowing meadow that has good flowering benefits that a lawn doesn’t.” The bees and soil will thank you!
He also suggests you ask your landscape architect about their familiarity with drought-tolerant and native species. “It’s great to use things that require less water, wherever we can,” says D’Angelo.
Finally, you’ll want to inquire about irrigation. D’Angelo suggests that eco-conscious homeowners consider smart irrigation systems. “They used to just have soil sensors,” he says, “But now they have really high-tech weather sensors that know when it’s going to rain, so they can proactively reduce the amount of water used.”
7. “What is a realistic timeline for my landscape architecture project?”
D’Angelo cautions that outdoor projects take time, and weather and seasonality impact certain phases. A realistic timeline starts at six months and can extend well beyond a year. If any of the landscape architects you interview promise you a completed project in days or weeks, that’s a red flag.
“It can range from one to four months for the conceptual phase, depending on the complexity of the site and getting client input,” D’Angelo explains. This includes surveying, which can be delayed by surveyor availability.
Next, comes the budgeting process, which takes up to a month. D’Angelo says that thorough firms work with a contractor to ensure an accurate budget, which is time-consuming work.
After that comes the drawing phase. “The construction drawings, which we’ll eventually build from, can take anywhere from two months to a year,” he says, depending on the project’s complexity.
Once the drawings are finalized comes the bidding process. “We put the drawings out to bid to our trusted partners, the contractors we work with (usually three to four people),” he says. “When the bids come back, we manage those, level them – make sure they are all apples to apples – and ask questions.”
Then, all of this is brought to the client, who walks through the bids and settles on the final contractor.
8. “What is your experience with the latest landscape design trends?”
As with any space in your home, there are landscaping trends that may influence what you want in your outdoor space.
D’Angelo has noted a surge in the popularity of outdoor kitchens. “They are getting more and more elaborate to really match what you’re typically doing inside,” he says. “You see people adding pizza ovens, large grills, and dishwashers.”
He’s also seen certain pandemic-driven trends continue in recent months, including swimming pools, cold plunge therapy spas, and pickleball courts.
If there’s a particular element you’d like to add to your outdoor space, ask your prospective landscape architects if they have experience executing it.
9. “Who is in your network of service providers?”
In a complex outdoor project, you won’t just be working with your landscape architect. They’ll be bringing in a team of contractors and specialists to help you realize your dream.
Asking up-front about a prospective landscape architect’s network of providers can help you understand more about their business. If their trusted partners have strong reviews and an impressive portfolio of work, it speaks to the quality of work you can expect on your project.
10. “What’s your rule of thumb when it comes to challenging projects?”
Inquiring about how your prospective landscape architect responds to a complex or novel request can provide you insight into their experience level, mindset, and temperament.
Listen for a response that shows enthusiasm for problem-solving and a creative, collaborative attitude.
Take this example from a project D’Angelo worked on in Boston’s South End.
“The space is your typical 20-by-20 townhouse backyard,” he says, and the homeowners wanted to incorporate a swimming pool and a play area for the children in the small lot.
D’Angelo proposed a highly creative solution: “We found a company that has a floor on hydraulics (Twinscape’s Hydrofloor). We used this on the pool floor so that when the pool is not in use, the floor can be raised to meet the outside edges, creating more backyard space for play.”
In working with a landscape architect, you can create an entirely new space where your family can rest, play, entertain, and get even more enjoyment from your home. Ask these simple questions as part of the interview process to find the ideal partner to take your outdoor project from dream to reality.