How to Set a Budget for Outdoor Space (and Become a Hero to Investors)

How to Set a Budget for Outdoor Space (and Become a Hero to Investors)

Creating a realistic budget for an outdoor space is one of the most difficult challenges developers face. The decision to implement unique landscape elements and sequences to a new mixed-use building naturally brings up this major issue.

How much is it going to cost?

There is no easy way to answer the question as an absolute formula can’t be applied to provide a perfect idea of cost. You can use calculators that model these costs, such as one to estimate rooftop amenities’ costs, but keep in mind landscape architectural design is a big-ticket item. One that almost always gets underestimated. Many developers carry landscape budget numbers that are far below what it takes to get the results they want.

Two General Rules of Thumb for Accurate Cost Estimating

Developers can use one of the two rules of thumb described below to develop a fairly accurate budget for a landscape architectural project.

The Percentage Method 

Experts recommend allowing anywhere between 15 to 35% of the cost of your property for the general landscape architectural design of a project. The appearance of the property outside tells customers a lot about the attention to detail inside, so this isn’t the place to skimp. It is worth noting here that this percentage includes elements such as paving materials, site walls, water features, seating areas, fire pits, BBQ areas to name a few. Too often developers just think of plantings and irrigation when establishing a budget for outdoor space, but they need to understand the full picture of all the other elements that contribute to the costs. An experienced landscape architect can guide you through these additional items when setting budgets.

The Square Footage Method

The second method is to determine the total square footage of the site (from a plot plan or an on-site survey). Then apply a dollar amount per square foot, depending on the complexity of the project, to determine the budget range for landscape architectural design. This includes all the site and landscape elements mentioned above.

Factors that Impact Landscape Architecture Costs

Answering the questions posed below will give you a broad idea of the many factors impacting the costs of any landscape architectural design.

Site work: How much grading, cleanup, tear out work is involved? How hard is it to access the site and do the work? 

Infrastructure: How much work is needed on the underlying systems –drainage, electrical, irrigation, lighting? Are there spaces that need to be created with large retaining walls that require drainage and a lot of site work? 

Hardscape: This is usually the most expensive aspect of the project. What are the sizes and finishes of patios, walkways and flatwork (concrete, brick, stone)? Are there shade canopies and/or structures, fences, or gates required? Are site and landscape lighting, water features, or fire pits desired? What is the scale and level of detail for these items?

Softscape: How much planting, soil prep, and mulching needs to be done? Are plants going to be installed small and allowed to grow or brought in already mature?

How to Begin Your Landscape Architecture Budgeting

Planning of the site and landscape design can be an enjoyable part of the pre-planning phase. Bringing your vision to reality starts with research to find the actual costs of what you want included based on the size of the site.

Follow these tips to create a budget that is realistic, organized, detailed, and easy to track.

  1. Set your priorities. Before hiring someone to design your project’s outdoor spaces you need to make two lists: a) what you want and b) what can be done on the site. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but the exercise is important for setting priorities. It would be foolish to spend big bucks on an outdoor water fountain before resolving potentially disastrous issues, such as drainage problems or other cost inhibitors.
  2. Hire a professional landscape architect. One of the best ways to avoid costly mistakes is to hire an experienced and licensed professional landscape architect to design a master plan. This not only helps you visualize the possibilities, but also maps out the steps to achieve them — and to get it right the first time. A master plan also helps understand where the money goes, which isn’t always where you can see it.
  3. Invest in “maximum value” features. Start by understanding who your user demographic will be. Consider which features will get the most use or provide the most enjoyment to those targeted users. For example, it might be an outdoor patio that serves as an extension of the indoor space for a good portion of the year. Or it could be a fully functional outdoor BBQ/lounge area with seating, shade canopies, and heat lamps to be enjoyed after work or end of day.
  4. Consider the return on investment. When prioritizing your needs and wants, ask yourself these questions: What will be the long-term maintenance costs? Does it make financial sense to do everything at once or in phases over several years?

Every development project is unique because of its particular landscape design needs. Having the right budget numbers at the beginning of a project is sure to lead to great results. These can include less time spent in value engineering, less money spent where it has little impact, and higher returns for investors because the cost of outdoor space was factored in at the onset of the project.

Budget right and rest easy knowing there will be few surprises down the road to an expertly completed project.

Editor’s Note: Originally published October 22, 2017. Updated December 10, 2019 with additional relevant information.