Helping you plan your home improvement project, from start to finish


Landscape Architecture and Design

By on Oct 20, 2013
Landscape Architecture and Design

One way to relieve an enormous amount of stress when thinking about the landscape improvements you would like to make to your home is to hire a professional. To help you get started, ImproveNet has asked Steve Kikuchi, a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) who has been practicing landscape architecture for more than 17 years, to provide answers to some frequently asked questions.

Do I need a planning or building permit for my landscaping project?

This can vary from city to city. Generally, if you are building a structure such as a swimming pool, spa, arbor, patio cover, or deck, you will be required to meet specific setback or size requirements as dictated by city planning ordinances. Some cities also have very restrictive ordinances regarding the amount of paving you can install in proportion to your lot's square footage. In such cases, plans may need to be submitted to the city's planning department for review. Your architect or designer should consider all of these issues when designing your yard, and the drawings that are developed should be suitable for the city's review.

In addition to a planning review, you most likely will require a building review and permits if you are doing any type of plumbing, 120-volt electrical work, or are building structures that require engineering of foundations.

If your project consists of planting, irrigation, and soil preparation only and is of a relatively small scale, permits generally are not required.

How much should I spend on landscaping?

This is always a difficult and personal question. Some real estate professionals recommend spending 10 percent of the value of your home and property on site improvements. Depending upon the location of your house and its neighborhood, this may not make economic sense. Some people place a great deal of pride in their yards and gain a great amount of satisfaction and relaxation from them, which can't really be measured in terms of a dollar amount. Rather than solely considering the resale value of a property, you should consider the amount of use you will gain from the improvements, how long you will benefit from their use, and the emotional and functional value of the improvements.

How can I control the costs?

Before starting the actual construction of a project, whether with an architect, contractor, or on your own, determine a set budget for the project. A good landscape architect will provide cost estimates throughout the design process so that you have a general cost range. During this time you will be able to react to the bottom line costs and request design modifications to suit your budget. A contractor should give you either a fixed price for the project or a range that can only be added to upon justification and your approval. It should be clear that no additional work or additional costs can be implemented without your written approval.

What about maintenance costs for the landscaping?

It is important that you clarify your maintenance desires during the design phase of the project. If your yard is currently barren dirt, obviously there will be increased maintenance costs. As with a house, which needs to be periodically reroofed, painted, etc., there are ongoing maintenance costs associated with a yard. Whether you hire a gardener or not, you will incur costs related to fertilizer, water, pruning, seasonal cleanup, repainting of any outdoor structures, etc. The best way to find out what possible maintenance costs might be is to talk to neighbors and obtain rough quotes from their maintenance contractors.

What is the difference between a landscape architect and a landscape designer?

There are some broad generalizations about these two alternatives, and in all cases, there are more capable and less capable individuals in each profession. Here are some of the basic differences:

A landscape architect is generally a licensed (through the state Department of Consumer Affairs) professional with a minimum of six years of education or professional experience. Most landscape architects have a degree from an accredited college or university. Because of their educational background, landscape architects may have a stronger design sense when it comes to spatial relationships and overall site planning concepts than designers have.

Landscape architects also have been trained to document design concepts and plans on paper as a visual, graphic means of communicating their designs. This issue becomes important when one is pursuing larger projects that require permitting through city planning or building departments. They may also be more experienced in the design of "hardscape" features such as swimming pools, arbors, fountains, retaining walls, and other engineered nonstructural elements.

Landscape architects should represent the homeowner's best interests, acting as a third-party go-between between the contractor and the owner. Without any financial ties to the contractor, a landscape architect will dictate and support the quality of work that is in the owner's best interest..

In most cases, landscape architects are providing professional services rather than products, and therefore base their fees on the time expended. Generally, a landscape architect's fees will be higher than a designer's and could range from seven to 15 percent of the cost of construction.

A landscape designer is often times associated or affiliated with a nursery or construction company, although there also are landscape designers who work independently. Generally, a landscape designer has a college degree in ornamental horticulture, a related study, or experience based on working for a nursery or contractor.

Some landscape designers are very well versed in plant materials and are very capable planting designers. Their ability to document information for permitting or bidding purposes may be limited. A designer's fees are often based on a lump sum amount or are worked into the nursery or contractor's cost of plant materials or construction. It is therefore sometimes difficult to pinpoint their exact costs.

If a designer is tied to a construction company, it is often difficult to obtain competitive bid prices for the work to be done. As a result, the owner has no basis for comparison. Construction documents prepared by a designer may also be less thorough than those prepared by a landscape architect. This could result in some "in the field" decisions that may not be in the owner's best financial interest.

Whether you hire a landscape architect or designer, it is the industry opinion that a good design is a value worth more than the fees. As has often been said, it can cost just as much to install a bad design as it does to install a good one, and the installation cost is usually 90% of the project cost.

To find the right person for your project, consider the following when interviewing the firm or person: find out how they operate (their design process), their general impressions of your yard and its potential, how they base their fees, and their time schedule. Also ask for photos or samples of past projects and a list of past projects and references. If all of these items are equal between two or more people, make your final decision based on an overall feeling you have about which person you'll be able to work with best.

Also, don't be surprised if there is a consultation fee for an initial meeting. If you are serious about pursuing professional assistance, this initial fee will be a minor investment.

How long does it take to complete a project?

Generally speaking, very rarely are projects designed and completed in less than two months, and an average time may be nine to eleven months. It's always a good idea to begin the planning process well in advance, and the planning time will vary depending upon the complexity of your project. Processing through a city can take up to a month or two. Bidding and arranging for a contractor can take up to a month. And, of course, there are the variables of availability of the designer or architect's schedule, the contractor's schedule, and weather conditions.

Is a new swimming pool a wise investment?

As with any type of landscaping, a $20,000 to $40,000 investment in a swimming pool may or may not increase the value of your property by the same amount. A well-designed pool on an extensive property will undoubtedly add to the overall value. However, a large pool that dominates a small yard may detract from a potential buyer's yard space and lower the home's value. Still, if you're going to use a pool a great deal and you live at the property for an extended period of time, it may be a worthwhile investment.

Steven T. Kikuchi is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and has been a practicing licensed landscape architect in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years. He has more than 25 years of experience in the field and maintains his own firm in Half Moon Bay, Kikuchi & Associates, specializing in custom residential and recreational and resort planning.

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