May 9, 2013

View landcape design through a project management lens


After a recent visit to Canada Blooms and a few of Toronto’s opulent garden centres and outdoor stores, I returned to my office with my annual dose of spring inspiration. I have learned that to do my job well, it is crucial to pay attention to each new season’s trends and the latest consumer shows and magazines.  A girl needs to be prepared when a client hands over a picture from a magazine or an on-line site and says, “I want it to look like that!”

There sure is a lot to know, and clients are long on wants while we are short on time. The actual decision maker, who according to is now likely to be a woman, is informed and impatient, with high expectations for delivery and performance of all goods and services, and equally high expectations for her purchasing power. The landscape design process is by its very nature integrated and interactive; so if our time is their money, how efficiently can we maximize our time and their money to deliver a successful, sustainable and profitable project?

I am an advocate of a project management model. While most definitely a non-traditional approach to the traditional landscape design process, there are a number of advantages to taking a page from what has been typically a construction purview and customizing it to what works best for your business.

Project management can be as big or as small as it needs to be for you. What is important to take away is the concept and its intrinsic benefits to doing business. There are oodles of short courses, volumes of reading and endless variations on the theme. But for our purposes, how project management translates for your client is turn-key, and if you have the appetite for the risk and responsibilities, you can reap the rewards. 

It is critical to be organized when taking a project management approach, and there are vast technologies, tools and software options available to help us with that. Choose what works best for you. From the initial meeting with your client to the project completion and close-out, you must put in place the tracking tools and documentation you need to ensure both you and your client are very clear on the project’s process, responsibilities, deliverables, costs and close-out.  Following are some basic tracking tools:
  • A new client questionnaire will focus clients’ wants and expectations and align these with your design and management fees and their budgets; this process usually sets the tone for a project, in writing;
  • A project schedule that includes your project’s milestones and deliverables is especially useful for progress invoicing; Microsoft Excel offers a very easy to use Gantt Chart template;
  • A project log sheet to track all project-related encounters whether with the client, suppliers or contractors/sub contractors, including dates, time and project targets or milestones met. You can include documentation on which the client signs off. There are software and smart phone apps available if you prefer digital to paper;
  • A client file, organized however best works for you. The key is the paper trail. Plan on keeping it for at least five to 10 years. This file should include all project-related documentation and drawings (e.g., the New Client Questionnaire and as-built drawings), specifications and supplier/product information and warranties. A picture file, whether hard copy or digital, which documents before, during and completion shots, is a must and will be especially useful for an entry in your provincial Awards of Excellence program.
Networks, connections and relationships
If 20 years from now I am asked to look back and name the single most important contributor to a successful landscape horticulture business, I would say, without hesitation, being involved as a volunteer in my industry. The power of the collective is especially important in a project management approach.

In this industry, designers at the top of their game will make sure they are current with their industry so they are able to bring the very best product and service choices to their clients. We are spoiled for choice these days, and with the depth and breadth of product choice come as many logistics to designing, organizing and building best fit. It’s hard to be innovative when you have to stick with what you know is safe. Case in point, the Spiraea – tried and true and never disappoints! 

Time is money. So as a designer, is your time better spent deciding which shrub will work best, which outdoor kitchen configuration best fits on the patio or which retaining wall system best handles the grade?  In short, no!

Your time is better spent reaching into your network and bringing your contacts and connections into the discussion on how best to problem solve and deliver product and solutions to get the project sold and built. And be sure to share the responsibility for the sale with your suppliers; it is a symbiotic relationship. Sharing should include everything from product information to manufacturer construction or installation specifications and product details for your drawings.

The key to project management is management, not do-everything-myself. It has been my experience that we as an industry underutilize the brainpower of our industry network, a deficit we ought to correct.

Your fiduciary responsibility
Fiduciary is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “held or founded in trust or confidence.”

With any project you undertake for a client, whether you use a project management approach or not, as a designer you are entrusted with a power and a confidence from three sources: your company, your client and your industry. If the weight of that doesn’t send you running for the hills, perhaps project management is for you.

So, what is available to you to ensure your legal and ethical ducks are in a row?

A signed contract and project deposit typically satisfies the three basic requirements for legal and binding contracts, which are a valid offer, acceptance of the offer and consideration. Typically, companies will use a contract template or standard form. Lawyer and Landscape Trades Columnist Robert Kennaley writes regularly on the nuances of a well-written contract. In addition, the Canadian Construction Association is an excellent resource for construction contract templates and best-practice documents, Always consult your lawyer before entering into any contract. 

Industry standards are industry-accepted benchmarks or best practices for products or services and are generally developed for industry, by industry.  Two standards that are very useful are the Canadian Standards for Nursery Stock, which is available for download from the CNLA at, and the BC Landscape Standard, a joint effort between the BCNLA and the BCSLA and available from BCNLA at

Project specifications are specific definitions and instructions describing the goods and services for a project; as such, the project specifications ensure expectations are aligned with deliverables. Referencing a specification can remove performance and payment ambiguities and misunderstandings, by providing a set of tangible project documents that both the contractor and client can use to define goods and services expectations, costs, deliverables and warranties. Specifications can come from many sources including product manufacturers, your provincial industry trades association, the National Master Specification or the Standard Specification for Municipal Services. As a designer, you can choose the specification that best suits your projects. If you haven’t already done so, get a copy of a landscape specification and become intimate with the document in order to truly appreciate its value.
The project management approach inherently contains the elements of good business. It has to or it simply doesn’t work. That said, whether you choose this approach or not for your business. You will benefit if you take away the principle values of being organized, keeping your paperwork in good order, becoming part of your industry collective, and always keeping your responsibilities to yourself and your client top of mind.

Christene LeVatte, CLP is a landscape designer and LEED Green Associate from Sydney, N.S. Her family business, Highland Landscapes for Lifestyle, which she operates with her brother, David Stenhouse, CLT, has won several Landscape Nova Scotia Awards of Excellence and the 2012 National Award for Excellence in Landscape Design. Christene is currently working toward her CLD designation.