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What does a landscape architect do?

Where an architect designs buildings - but does not build them - a landscape architect designs exterior spaces. We create plans, sketches, models and renderings to illustrate projects and specify all the elements that go into a new garden: drainage, materials, plants, structures and lighting.

Our work could also be called site design, site specific design or or site planning. Landscape architects may check the progress of a project in construction to ensure that the design intent is being followed.

In an ideal situation, the landscape architect and the architect would work with the client from the very beginning of the project to configure the building and the site to work together, considering topography, views, breezes, exposure, style and a host of other factors. This workflow also allows modification of the architecture in the plan stage to enhance or create outdoor spaces, link views and facilitate circulation between the structure and the outdoor use areas.

Ideal situations are rare, however, so typically the architect completes his or her plans well before the landscape architect ever arrives on the scene.

The landscape architect is often involved in getting an as-built survey of the site, since building positions often shift from those shown on plans when they are constructed. An as-built survey shows current site conditions, with the location of the buildings, paved areas, trees, topography and hopefully infrastructure such as sewers, water mains, etc.

Subject to planning restrictions, landscape architects design features and spaces around the buildings.

These include unglamorous but necessary things such as screen walls for air conditioning units and trash enclosures, and fences.

Parking lots are another place where our services are called for. These features are more complicated than you might think, since there are shading requirements that must be fulfilled for plan approval. Strange as it may seem, parking lots in the Central Valley are required to be shaded, at least for new construction. They are supposed to be spanned by leafy tree canopies or covered by structures so you can walk across them in comfort.

We design entry monumentation, the typical walls, planters and structures you see when you enter a housing development.

We may lay out sidewalks, outdoor terraces and do street renovations (called "streetscapes").

We design hotel and resort patios, trellises, pools, water features, outdoor kitchens and bars - and planting, of course. We lay out sports facilities such as tennis courts, bocce ball and pétanque areas and jogging/exercise trails.

Designs for vineyard tasting rooms typically have patios, serving counters, fountains, shade structures and some kind of garden, whose plants often have fragrances found in wine. Some have outdoor art display areas. Many new wineries incorporate sustainable design principles, with pervious paving and low water use plants.

Landscape architects design parks and community center gardens, specify play equipment, benches and different use areas.

Many features in national and state parks were designed by landscape architects. Interpretive areas with signs, seating and trails are obvious examples, but landscape architects also lay out campgrounds and camp amphitheaters.

Cemeteries are a specialized branch of the profession, where the various gardens and areas take form on plan before being built.

The plants you see along the freeway and along major boulevards - along with their irrigation systems - are another example.

Airport gardens, one of the first things people see as they arrive in a new city, were the work of landscape architects. This is where I have to say that we had nothing to do with the acres and acres of lawn at the Sacramento Airport, and are perplexed as to why they don't replace it with something more interesting and water conserving. Maybe they're pumping the water directly from the river for irrigation - I certainly hope it's not potable water!

Last but not least, we create residential landscapes. These include the typical patios, walkways and planting areas. They may have swimming pools and spas, shade structures, fountains, edible gardens, outdoor kitchens and fireplaces. Some may have sculpture gardens and outdoor theaters.

What does ASLA after someone's name mean?

These letters stand for American Society of Landscape Architects. Someone who has been a member for a long time may be recognized by a jury and awarded fellowship, in which case the letters "FASLA" may appear after his or her name.

This is a professional association, separate from the licensing board. Members typically have degrees in landscape architecture, although they may or may not have a current valid landscape architect's license in the state where they're practicing - although most do.

The ASLA is active in promoting licensure of landscape architects. They publish a magazine, "Landscape Architecture Magazine" with news about products, processes and large and famous landscape architecture firms. They sponsor competitions and give awards (subject to entry fees).

If you want to learn more about the ASLA, click here.


How to choose a landscape architect...

These are some things you might ask a potential designer before you work with them. Another useful method of choosing a designer is to pay for a design consultation from several designers to get a series of options and see how each one approaches the design of your space.

Ask to see some sample plans

Normally, designers communicate their initial concepts with sketches and plans. These drawings should be clear, and there should be enough notes so that you can get a fairly clear idea of the concepts being presented. Once a concept has been chosen, the project moves into construction plans that are more complicated - they're what you'll give to contractors for bids and to construct your project.

Do the initial drawings have perspective sketches? Are they in color?

Are there enough notes so you can read what's being proposed?

How much detail is in the construction plans? Do they specify materials, plants, lighting, drainage fixtures? Do they contain notes about standards, best practices, and other information that can result in a smoother installation and more successful project?

What skills do they use?

How well are the plans drafted? A plan should have a varity of line weights (thicknesses) that make it easier to read. Shaded or hatched areas help delineate different surfaces. Notes and dimensions should be dense yet clearly readable.

Can they draw? If you're getting perspectives and other illustrations, how do they look? Thin and scratchy or bold and clearly delineated?

Do they use computer-aided design (CAD)? Some of the most beautiful drawings are still done by hand. It's an art form - but CAD has the advantage of being easy to share (as pdf files), and it does accelerate the process by automating tasks like counting plants and fixtures.

Can they do 3D modeling? This typically raises the cost of your plans, but it also lets your designer generate many perspective views of the proposed project, giving you a much better idea of how the new landscape will appear when built. It also can be used during presentation meetings for virtual walk-throughs of the project.

Who is really doing my design?

How much involvement will the principal have with your design? If a designer is mainly involved with publishing, television and magazines, they might be too busy pursuing these activities to actually work with you on your project. If they’re running a big office, they might be managing personnel more than creating your design.

What is your typical scope of services?

The scope of services can vary by project. For example, we offer different design packages at different price points whose scope of services vary. Make sure you check what's included in the plan you're considering. 

How many meetings are included? What drawings and plans will be done? How about design revisions?

Do their fees include site measurement or surveys - if they don't, you may need to pay a surveyor unless you already have a survey done after your home or building was constructed. Large and hilly sites almost always require a survey, unless you're only developing a small area.

What to look for on construction drawings

Are the drawings clearly organized? Do they show dimensions? If a structure or special feature is called for, is there a scaled detail (or manufacturer's reference) for it? What does it include?

Does it show layout, planting, construction details, notes, lighting, drainage, irrigation? If something isn't there, why not? (we don't normally include irrigation because the contractors we work with can do it without plans - so you don't pay for them twice).

What details do they provide with their basic plans? Are the details custom drawn for your project or "boilerplate" that apply to just about everything?

Can I see a typical contract? What is your typical price range?

When do you need to make payments, and how are they distributed? How much money would you have to pay up front? When are payments due? Can you tell how much their services will cost and what is included in their base fee? How many revisions can you make before they charge extra service fees?

Looking at portfolios

The current trend is to post images of built projects online so you can look at their work any time, and the architect or designer can update it as new projects are photographed. However the work is presented, it should clearly represent the designs and be large enough to see easily (unless you're looking at it on your phone!). Some portfolios include sketches as examples of concept communication and to show ideas that are interesting but were not built for whatever reason.

You can ask the designer about certain projects in their porftolio: what was the design process used to arrive at that solution, what was the rough budget, what hidden features are in the design that don't show in the photograph - like underground infrastructure, pervious drainage systems, ecological factors...

Do the landscapes they've built match your style? Do they match your budget? The designer should have an idea how much their built projects cost.

Interviews & Consults

Talk to the designer, ask about things you'd like to include in your new landscape, issues such as sustainable design, or a style you'd like to create. 

Do you have a good personality match with the designer? Do their ideas make sense and fit your budget? Do they listen to what you're saying? This is where you can use consults to good effect - it's a lot better to pay several hundred dollars for on-site consults than to be stuck with a designer you have trouble working with.

What is the architect's background? Have they travelled, explored other designs? It's possible that they haven't been to the specific place you visited in another country, but they may have seen something similar and have a good idea of the style you're looking for.

What level of education do they have? Are they designers or landscape architects? What range of projects have they worked on?

Ask for references? Maybe not.

If you ask for references, you'll get a list of people they know will give glowing reviews. You can always ask, but any dissatisfied people wont' be on the list. 

We prefer giving non-client references like architects and contractors who know our work and who have worked with us over numerous projects. (We do have client references if you want them.)


What's the difference between a landscape architect and a landscape designer?

All landscape architects are landscape designers, but not all landscape designers are landscape architects. Both landscape architects and designers can design equally beautiful (or equally horrid) landscapes.Either can also hold a contractor's license and be involved in the actual process of construction (although most choose to work with contractors)

The difference boils down to the fact that landscape architects must qualify for and pass an arduous examination before they can use the title of landscape architect. The license entitles them to design commercial and public spaces, in addition to residential landscapes. Landscape designers are currently more restricted when it comes to designing non-residential spaces.

Landscape designers may be certified by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD). In fact, it's possible to be both a landscape architect and a certified APLD landscape designer.

Typically, a landscape architect will have a degree in landscape architecture, and must have two years' experience working for a landscape architect before being eligible to take the test.

It's tougher to evaluate landscape designers from their background. They may or may not have a degree in landscape architecture, although many do. Their training may come from other sources. They aren't licensed by the state (unless they also have contractor's licenses). None of this makes them bad or good - it just means that you have to ask questions, review their portfolios carefully, and make a decision based on their portfolio and the outcome of your interview.

None of this has any bearing on aesthetics, however. Testing and certification look at the skill set required to create plans, design irrigation, draw details and otherwise create spaces that are safe. Since aesthetics are subjective, you'll have to look at the designer's portfolio and decide for yourself.

Some designers like to imply that they're landscape architects, even going so far as to state that they provide "landscape architectural services". When in doubt, you can check with the California state board's site. If they're not on the list, you can call the Board (called the LATC in California) to make sure they weren't omitted by accident. Newly qualified landscape architects may not appear on the list, so don't assume someone isn't a landscape architect if they're not listed.

The real confusion comes in states where anyone can call herself or himself a landscape architect. Some states restrict the title but not the work, so a landscape designer can work on any type of project as long as he or she doesn't actually claim to be a landscape architect. Other states have a practice act that prohibits any unlicensed person from practicing what it defines as landscape architecture.