By Sue Goetz CPH, ecoPRO
APLDWA, past President

landscape pavers, rock edged with ornamental grass plantings
Photo credit: Sue Goetz

workers and designer discussing a job
Photo credit: Hayley Goetz

As I pondered the content of this article, I thought it was an easy write. I know what I want as a designer working independently with a need to outsource installation. But in all fairness, what does a contractor want from a designer?

To be better at teamwork, we need both perspectives; the goal is to spark conversation and open doors. This is especially important if you are looking for companies to collaborate with or are a new designer wondering how your work gets built. Our membership in APLDWA is made up of designers, general contractors, artists, builders, design-build companies, and maintenance companies, but to narrow this topic, I am writing with a design-only focus. I rely heavily on talent to bring what I have in my head, in sketches and laid out on paper, to life. Sharing the vision on paper, 3D, graphics, illustration (and all of that is another topic) is the first step, but how does it all translate to a beautiful landscape constructed in real time? Going through the interviews to write this article, the words collaboration and communication always rose to the top.

photos of landscape drawing and landscape path
We all have different ways we share the ideas in our heads, whatever method you use, make sure the all details are there to communicate how you want it to look!
Photo credit: Sue Goetz


It takes a team to build the pergola, pour the concrete, procure the plants, etc. If the communication and information are inconsistent, it becomes a lousy telephone game (for a generation that doesn't remember the game, you tell one person something, and it is said to the next person, and by the time it gets to the end – it is a different story.) Sometimes, it is a hilarious game, but when it comes to your design, it can mean disaster.

Communication is the key from the beginning of a working relationship. Make time to have coffee with the owner of the build company and let them know how you work and your preferences. Come to agreements before any project so it is a collaboration from the beginning of your working relationship. This avoids a collision course of problems in the middle of a project. Establish how much involvement you want and how much involvement the contractor is comfortable with. For example, a foreman with a south sound company recently told me that he appreciates the designers' participation but can't have a designer randomly show up on-site and tell a crew to stop building a wall because they don't like it. Unfortunately, it happened to him by another designer, and he found it frustrating to lose dollars as crews stopped to figure out how to handle the request.


From the Designer's Perspective
I spoke with a local contractor who I have been wanting to work with in the south sound. We discussed many things including the logistics of drawings, plant procurement, and communication between everyone involved. It is genuinely about respecting each other's involvement as well. Having a company decide to build the wall or whatever the way they want to build it, not how it was designed or what the client agreed to, is a nightmare. If you have been in the design business for a while, this has probably happened to you. Was there something that forced this to be done differently, or was it simply a change made for no specific reason? You have to work with what is going on and be okay if there is a true roadblock, but how do we deal with a contractor who has gone "rogue" for no reason? The working relationship and respect must be established before it reaches this point.

landscape design drawing, pens and rulers on drafting table.
Photo credit: Taylor Jones

From a Landscape Contractor's Perspective
I reached out to member Kevin Monahan with Avalon NW, one of APLDWA's legacy Gold sponsors, for a look at the other side of this. Avalon does not specifically employ designers; they install independent designers' works. Of course, a contractor needs different things at different project stages. As I was writing this, the content was more about the interaction. Still, I appreciated the importance of some logistics, such as how he needs the design to come to him- "We want to use the landscape plan to measure (using a tape measure) with minimal reading. The masterplan should be scaled accurately with minimal notations and dimensions (except elevations). If the plan is digital and on a larger sheet like 24"x36", center it on a sheet so it is printed easily on an 11 x 17 sheet of paper and give reference to scale and all notations to fit in the 11x17 page area, if possible. He can then print the smaller version (yet still readable) and laminate it to work out in the elements of rainy, muddy Pacific Northwest workdays without getting destroyed. The reality he says about working with drawings of any size is, "We only consult the laminated 11x17 and 8.5x11 sheets when we are in a yard."

His insight on working with a designer really gets to the heart of why collaboration is so important. Kevin says, "We want the clients not to be surprised by what gets built. We see the designer's role responsible for this through clear drawings and photos for both the builders and clients. We recognize that design as-you-go is a fantastic way to create a space. But we can't work that way. With minimal exceptions (usually involving the homeowners who just can't visualize like a designer), we want the designer to imagine it and draw it (including a perspective if needed to help them visualize) and then wait to see what it looks like in reality. We don't want to get it partially built and then have another round of redesign. It's momentum-killing, financially costly, and demoralizing to us builders."

two people looking at front yard lawn
You are the voice of the client. As you discuss ideas and the project, you become their voice for the design, that then needs to be conveyed to the contractor.
Photo credit: Cameron McGinnis

If you are an independent designer, the best approach is to consider your contractor a part of the team or collaborator, not just the company, to get your work done. This will give a professional perspective to get it done, and all parties involved, including the client, will benefit.

2 chairs and a firepit on gravel
Photo credit: Sue Goetz