March 15, 2012
By Arthur Skolnik

A few years back I met a landscape designer at Congress. Let’s call her Pam. She told me she had a planting crew, but was looking for a contractor who could install the wood, water and stone elements in several jobs which she had signed for the coming season.

I sensed her inexperience, but I liked her designs and enthusiasm. I also felt she had passion for her new career and would be easy to get along with, so I agreed to work with her.

Part way through our first job, she changed the specs in the backyard we were doing. I’m sure she made these changes when her design ‘jumped off the page’ and into 3D. This meant more excavation, removals and materials. “No problem,” she said, “I’ll pay for the materials.” No mention of the secondary costs, including lost time.

Every subsequent job had changes which required more labour and materials. In every case, I swallowed some loss of profit. I never knew if these changes were as a result of her clients’ wishes, or her inexperience. The issue of my profit loss was a sticky one and I always made sure she knew I was going to be out of pocket. In any case, I pressed on as our relationship solidified and her jobs assured me of a full season of work.

Then, Pam had a client with a small backyard and they wanted to spend big money on a few well-designed and modern features, including a waterfall, which was my part of the job. She got me involved during the design phase to offer suggestions to the clients and show types of stone, examples of falling water, etc.

We all agreed that a modern water feature using cubic, square and rectangular armour stone, flagstone and curbing would work. The materials were easy to draw and after a few attempts and with input from all parties, we came up with a great design, including shape, size and location. My instinct told me these were tough clients without much ability to conceptualize landscape art. Because I was working for Pam, I felt more at ease knowing she’d field any issues.

We couldn’t have chosen hotter days and harder soil, all in a south-facing back yard. The conditions were unbearably difficult. Every aspect of the work was by hand, because of the very limited access. It didn’t help that the homeowners practically ignored us, never offering drinks or encouragement, or approval of the work we were sweating through.

When we were 95 per cent finished, the phone call came. Her tone was cold and aloof. I’d never heard her speak to me that way. Pam insisted I meet with her and the clients in the evening to discuss their concerns. I was shocked and bewildered. When I asked what the problem was, she said it would all be explained later. When I pressed her for an explanation, she was silent.

We met at the client’s house after dinner. I brought the original drawing and remarked how close to the sketch the bones of the stone waterfall looked. No one said anything. My jaw dropped when both the clients and the designer said the work was not acceptable. I felt helpless and dumbfounded. It seemed as though Pam’s entire personality had changed and she became my adversary. The homeowners were totally unreachable. I was mystified. Again, it seemed as if the 3D version of the sketch we had all agreed upon was now unacceptable.

The answer to the ‘how can I fix the problem’ question came as a huge surprise. Re-do the entire thing at my expense! I felt deceived and discouraged. I don’t know what happened to the bond Pam and I had forged, but it shattered that night.

Her inexperience shone through. There was no way, even with her lack of foresight that Pam could honestly say the work we did wasn’t a close match to the sketch. I had a tough decision to make, but I told both parties I wouldn’t be back. Since I had only been paid for half the job, I knew I was walking away from the money, but I made a tough decision based on the following realizations: If she wasn’t going to stand behind me, or at least be civil with the issues; if she wasn’t interested in speaking with me off-site or away from the clients and honestly explain what the issues were, and if our entente meant little to her, I wasn’t willing to risk being put into this situation again. I thought, what if the dollars on a future job were two, five or ten times greater? I felt terrible walking away, but it seemed like a no-win situation.

I’ve worked for other designers and architects who change specs part-way through a job. One must weigh a future affiliation against the costs associated with making changes that will not be recovered. As a contractor, I know the Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon is not unique to relationships between designers and architects. Homeowners can change how they feel about a job’s unfolding beauty, but I’ve found homeowners can be more reasonable to deal with in terms of reaching a workable solution.

Perhaps contractors should ask the designer or architect for references. (I hope I’m not shooting myself in the foot.) I feel there should be a high degree of honour, and reciprocal understanding of each other’s role and position. Most of all, the roads of communication must stay open and be driven with tact and empathy.

Have you had an issue involving miscommunication, or discommunication? Did you ever not see ‘eye-to-design’ with the person you were working for? If so, let me know about it. I may include your story or comments in an upcoming article.
Arthur Skolnik owns Shibui Landscaping in Toronto and is a member of the Landscape Contractors Sector Group.