What value can landscape architects offer during the early stages of design?
Landscape architecture pre-design is the foundation of any development project. However, real estate developers don’t often involve landscape architects until it’s too late into the process. It’s an easy mistake to make and usually stems from a misunderstanding about what landscape architecture actually is.
Traditionally, landscape architects have struggled to clarify what they offer, leading to an over-generalization of their services. This makes it confusing to know when to bring them on board – so naturally it’s a delayed process.
But, it’s important for a developer to get a landscape architect on their design team as soon as possible, even before any architecture is actually designed. Doing so ensures developers get the highest value from the arrangement and the clearest picture of what a landscape architect brings to the table.
The pre-design stage is the time to carefully anticipate problems that may affect budgets and schedules during the course of the project. It is necessary during this step to discuss cost and establish an informed investment range for the project.
The Importance of Pre-Design
The stakes are high at the onset of a project. For the next several months you will be pouring time, effort, and money into the design and development of your vision. That’s why it’s worth getting an expert perspective on your plans before you commit to them.
Most development teams tend to rush through this phase of the design process as quickly as possible, or ignore it altogether. But, such a strategy carries a lot of risk. Pre-design is your chance to mitigate risks, optimize yield, and refine your vision. To not pay enough attention at this point can be a costly mistake.
A capable landscape architect will help you avoid cost and space allocation problems by being involved at this stage. They also explore the relationships between the development project and its surrounding context to determine the optimum choices for the site and users. Your development plan may need to be reconfigured to meet your outdoor program or city requirements. The rest of your design team (the architects and engineers) will thank you for identifying that in advance to their production of construction drawings. And you’ll thank yourself because you won’t have to pay extra for re-design.
Below are the necessary steps to a successful pre-design phase as well as some of the overlooked aspects where a landscape architect can add value to your project.
4 Steps to a Successful Development Pre-Design
A successful pre-design phase will get your project off to the right start. While generalized, these are the critical milestones in any pre-design stage:
1) Match your vision with your budget, economic model, and site.
The investment, costs, timeline, product, market, and return all have to be realistic. If there are discrepancies in this mix, there will be discrepancies in your bottom line. Budgets for outdoor space are frequently overlooked or mismanaged at this point, potentially leading to major budget issues later on.
With their expert experience, a landscape architect can easily help you make sure you’re on track. They’ll know how much to expect to invest because they are current on bids that are coming in on other projects. They can easily point out a budget imbalance and provide strategies for decreasing cost while maintaining value.
2) Understand all of the obstacles to a chosen location.
The only thing worse than a loss is a preventable loss. Keep this in mind before making too many assumptions about the site. A landscape architect can quickly see the opportunities and constraints that others miss, helping you formulate realistic strategies for laying out your program.
Landscape architects are trained to work at a variety of scales and to analyze larger systems than other design consultants. They can identify links to valuable benefits that lie beyond your site boundary like transportation corridors and scenic views. By tying your project to the broader city network and biological ecosystem, landscape architects help your project benefit from its surroundings. They also ensure your project makes positively contributes to the neighborhood and environment, making it more accepted by neighbors and more marketable to tenants.
3) Optimize your returns.
This means understanding the market and leveraging amenities to meet tenant expectations. Landscape architects are outdoor specialists. They follow the trends and know what you need to do in order to attract tenants and generate the most value for your property.
4) Create a clear and concise design brief.
More than just the number and basic size of amenities, a design brief should have all of the points you need to make your vision a reality. A landscape architect should visit the site, get a real feel for it, and decide how to optimize natural light, views, access points, etc. They are uniquely trained to collect information and help you synthesize it into a clear path forward.
Priorities for Pre-Design
The best practice for pre-design is to prepare for everything. This is your planning phase, and as a result, it’s important to take seriously. Landscape architects can help you meet your priorities by:
Researching the market. Landscape architects can provide you with specific intel on trends related to outdoor living spaces and the needs and wants of your user groups relative to outdoor space.
Defining and optimizing a vision. Creative landscape architects can help you determine what you want to achieve. The best part? They also know how to capture your vision and translate it into buildable plans.
Discovering all of the risks and planning contingencies. Landscape architects can make certain you aren’t committing to designs that are unsafe, unlawful, or just plain ineffective. With expert knowledge in the workings of outdoor space, they’ll ensure you’re moving in the right direction.
Creating a realistic budget and timeline. Nobody should understand the costs of construction for landscape scope better than a landscape architect. They create a vision, but also guide you along the route to get there.
Validating the economic model. Landscape architects help fill in what is usually a blind spot on your economic model. You’ll feel better knowing everything, however small, is accounted for.
Preparing a clear and concise brief. Landscape architects can provide you with a well-defined scope and assess your proposed route forward.
By the end of the pre-planning phase, your investment in a landscape architect should be worth its weight in gold.
Editor’s Note: Originally published December 4, 2017. Updated March 9, 2021 with a fresh take on the topic.