It’s winter – the mercury is dropping and the snow is settling in, reminding us that the warm days of spring and the break of the forsythia buds is a long way off. So why should I be contemplating landscape design work now? Some of you who have already completed an intricate landscaping project know the answer to this question –and you may have learned the hard way. The answer is quite simple, good design is the basis for any successful landscape project, and good design takes time. It is a creative process that should not be rushed and the implementation, depending on the design elements involved, can be a bureaucratic nightmare before the first shovel hits the ground. In order to build your project in spring or summer you truly need to start the process in late fall or winter. Let’s explore the benefits of cold-weather design; of course, this is more relevant to us here in the Northeast.
Good design does take time, especially if you are considering working with a landscape architect. If your project involves significant items, such as hardscape elements or drainage issues, or even a combination of many different items, such as water features, carpentry and plant material, it is highly recommended to engage a professional as you really want these done right the first time. It is important to take the time to allow the landscape architect to understand what your vision and wishes for the project are, and to perform preliminary tasks such as assessing and documenting your existing site conditions and evaluating local, state and federal design requirements; only then can they begin designing. Good design requires the designer to blend these preliminary tasks with his/her understanding of the client into a cohesive product that answers the clients’ aesthetic and budgetary needs. To do this well you need time, which is what we have after the holiday rush ends. It’s the perfect time of year to plan for landscape work in the spring.
The typical design should go through at least 2 rounds of open and honest discussion of the good and bad aspects of all details, views, relationship of the spaces, colors, materials – and the budget, of course! This process can take several weeks, but believe me when I tell you, that it is time well spent. The financial benefit to developing a design with a landscape professional comes from being able to help you avert the dreaded change order. You will save money on the installation of your project because you have spent the time necessary to plan out the project and identify where problems will occur and head them off. Developing a design is not only a matter of considering aesthetics and budget – it is a completed road map that a contractor can efficiently and effectively build from.
Most contractors slow down a bit during the winter which is another reason winter is a good time to start your project. Providing your contractor with detailed plans will help him to give you a more accurate estimate and a quicker turnaround. Getting accurate prices often influences material choices and could even lead to some design changes. Then there is the critical component of the contractor’s schedule to consider. You want to start introducing your project into their forecasted construction schedule and make certain they can achieve your goals. This extra time will also enable you to make sure you and the contractor are compatible; this relationship is something that is often overlooked but whose importance cannot be emphasized enough.
If you are not yet convinced of the benefits of designing and planning now for your spring or summer project, this next component will be the clincher: navigating the dreaded building permit process. Unfortunately, this is a critical piece of the design and build process. Typically what happens is the designer or landscape architect will explain to the local department the project being designed and they will reply with something along the lines of “you really shouldn’t have any issues, just be sure to address “A”, “B” and “C” in the local code and you will be fine, this permit should only take 3 to 4 weeks”. After more than 18 years of dealing with local, state and government agencies, we know one thing to be certain; expect the unexpected.
For example, let’s assume that a fictional designer has done his job and discussed a project with the local planning or building office to explain that he is designing for an outdoor kitchen which will essentially be constructed of masonry and will include plumbing and electric and several appliances, etc. He is informed of the applicable regulations to consider and proceeds with the design. As he gets deeper into the design, the client decides to add a simple overhead structure to cover the kitchen providing shade and an area for a ceiling fan and lighting. The designer considers these revisions and reconnects with the building office and finds out that not only do you need to consider “A”, “B” and “C” of the building code but that you will now need to consider “D”, “E” and “F” of the town’s planning code.
Considering all of these components you will quickly realize that the design to construction process can take a few months. Every spring there are always a few people with grand plans and matching excitement – but with impractical time frame expectations. Even those that follow the mantra of “the client is always right” may have to disappoint a client with a reality check. So while the concept of designing your outdoor project during the winter months may sound a bit unrealistic at first, we recommend that if you are truly planning to implement a project in the spring or even early summer it is best to consider getting the snowball rolling now.