The “Big” Picture: Tips for managing large-scale landscape design/build projects

By John Kmitta

Photos courtesy of Matthew Cunningham Landscape DesignBeing involved with a large-scale landscape design/build project may sound exciting, but proper execution of major projects entails many considerations including management of time, budget, materials, the plan itself, and, of course, all of the parties involved.

“We believe what is of paramount importance in large-scale landscape design/build projects is to have all the related decision makers involved at the earliest stage of the project,” said Andrew Demus, principal & senior designer at Gilson Group Landscape Design, Tarzana, Calif. “This includes the key individuals from both the client side, as well as the landscape design/build group. It has been our experience that when everyone is on the same page as far as the direction of the project is concerned, there is less chance of unexpected surprises in the later stages of the project.”

According to Demus, this is important for establishing the direction of the design process.

“The creative process that establishes the visual direction of the landscape design is, by and large, subjective in nature and needs to be resolved as soon as possible in the earliest stages of the project,” he said.

According to Matthew Cunningham, ASLA, Professional Member APLD, of Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design, Melrose, Mass., during the preliminary design stage, look at the site and work directly with the homeowner to develop a master plan.

“The most important thing is to listen to the client’s needs from the start, and dovetail that with the budget,” he said.

Cunningham added that it is important to determine the client’s maximum limit of financial contribution to the project, understand the scope of the work and how it will unfold, work with other team members and coordinate the timeline.

Demus said that he begins landscape design/build projects with the client’s “wish list” of elements they would like included.

“That gives us a feel for the scope of the project from their perspective and allows us to make suggestions and contributions based on our creative and logistical experience,” he said. “More importantly, it allows us to arrive at a ballpark budget, and thereby determine if the project is within the client’s budgetary scope.”

Demus added that he typically uses 3-D renderings to help lower the threshold of misunderstanding.

“It pays dividends to make sure that clients are comfortable and fully understand the hardscape and softscape they are getting,” he said.

 Cunningham recommends guiding the client through materials and supplies from the start. “Materiality is directly tied to budget and timeline,” he said. “Doing your due diligence is critical.”

He suggests being flexible with the plantings. “I like to hand-pick the plantings, and I invite the client with,” he said. “It gives them a level of ownership and buy-in on the project.” For example, the client can see the difference between a 2-inch-caliper tree and a 4-inch-caliper tree, and can make a more informed decision, he added.

Cunningham also determines any seasonal impacts that might cause delays.

“Be transparent with the client and have contingencies for add-ons, changes or even reductions,” he added.

According to Demus, when glitches and snags in the landscape design/build process rear their ugly head, as they are bound to do, it is critical to inform the client at the earliest possible time about the problem.

“Weather, materials shortages, unexpected underground issues and building code variations can all come into play to hold back a project’s deadline,” he said. “By immediately giving the client a heads-up not only blunts any criticism but makes the client, in effect, become part of the build team — positively engaged in seeing the project go forward to its conclusion.”

How big?

Although large-scale projects may sound great, there are some considerations that should be taken into account before even taking on such projects.

Cunningham said that he feels he can take on any residential project, no matter how large, but that he does not get involved with commercial projects.

“The paper trail on commercial projects is overwhelming,” he said. “I try to keep things as minimal as possible with the paper chain. I still document everything, but there is a level of trust on a residential project, and the builder doesn’t need to be submitting change orders all the time.”

Jody Shilan, president of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association and creator of, urges contractors to think twice, or even three times, before committing to a contract on a large-scale project.

“For most of us, the natural tendency is to equate higher-price installs with more profit,” said Shilan. “While this might be true, the reality is that the $100K-and-up projects oftentimes bring more risk than reward.”

The reason, Shilan said, is that mistakes get amplified exponentially.

“On smaller projects, going over a little over on man hours, underestimating a few yards of topsoil or being shy a few pavers is really no big deal,” he said. “However, on larger projects, these miscalculations equate into hundreds or thousands of unbillable man hours, running short by 40 or 50 tandem loads of soil, or needing an additional tractor trailer of pavers.”

In addition to the project itself, cash flow is a big concern, Shilan added.

“Again, owing one of your regular vendors $5,000 for 30 days is usually not a problem, but owing them $50,000 can be,” he said. “The same thing goes for payments from the client. We’ve all had customers hold back 10 percent at the end of the job for something silly like a dead rhododendron or a dried up piece of sod, which is painful but not the end of the world. What if they decided to do this on your $500,000 installation? How long could you carry $50,000?”

Shilan’s advice is don’t put more on your plate than you can eat.

“As a practical measure, I would recommend to never take on a project that is more than twice as big as your previously largest installation,” he said. “In other words, if the biggest landscape you’ve ever done was $50,000 worth of work, don’t take on a project larger than $100,000.”

He added that for straight plantings you can go a little higher, but be more cautious if there is a lot of hardscape, technical work, grading and drainage, or something with which you are not too familiar.

“The want ads are filled with slightly used equipment being sold by contractors who only saw dollar signs, only to be bankrupted because they bit off more than they could chew,” he said. “Don’t be one of them.”

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