What a Landscape Architect Does and The First Step To Take When Hiring One

There are many misconceptions about exactly what landscape architects do. Learn what they are all about in the first step toward hiring one

Landscape architects do many things. We design parks, plazas, green roofs, gardens, public art, fountains … and the list goes on. It is a broad and flexible field with professionals working across many sectors. Yet there are many myths about what we really do — how we work, what qualifications we have and what kind of work we don’t do. To dispel some of the myths about the profession here is a breakdown of things to know about landscape architects.

QUERCUS, original photo on Houzz

QUERCUS, original photo on Houzz

What do landscape architects do?

Landscape architects design and plan outdoor spaces. The landscape section sketch shown here is a great example of a landscape architect’s design process. It shows the relationship to the home and important views and begins to develop spatial orientation for the layout.

When working on residential landscape architecture, we design and plan gardens, plantings, pools, paving, stormwater management and more.

Landscape architects are licensed and trained to design landscapes, not to build them. This means that we work primarily through design drawings to collaborate with clients, architects and contractors.

Jacobs Grant Design ltd, original photo on Houzz

Jacobs Grant Design ltd, original photo on Houzz

Landscape architecture is a regulated profession

Becoming a licensed landscape architect is a rigorous process that’s managed by individual states. Obtaining a license requires an accredited degree in landscape architecture, work experience under the supervision of a licensed landscape architect, passing a series of technical exams and thousands of dollars in fees. Landscape architects are often licensed in multiple states to work in different places.

People are often surprised at the level of rigor required for a landscape architecture license. Licensing and regulation are important for health and safety reasons and to ensure the highest level of professional standards.

GARDENIA - Sharly & Tanya Illuz, original photo on Houzz

GARDENIA - Sharly & Tanya Illuz, original photo on Houzz

Our work is about much more than just a good-looking landscape

Many of the landscape site plans and the landscape photos featured on Houzz represent beautiful landscapes. They are just a snapshot of moments within a larger design of a landscape that grows and evolves over time. When you dive into the designs more and look at multiple photos from the same project alongside the design drawings, you can start to see how they are fundamentally great places to be in. They may be great spaces in which to relax, hold a party, have a family barbecue or watch the birds.

Landscape architects design for how people experience and use the space (called the program in architecture parlance). Creating a great experience is one of our primary considerations. As such, we are concerned not just with how a landscape looks and what is planted. We are concerned with how a space feels to the user. Intimate or vast? Cool and lush or hot and minimalist? Questions like these form the user experience and program of the landscape and are fundamental to the design process.

We are designers, not gardeners

There is a common misconception that landscape architects build and maintain landscapes. We would all love to spend more time around plants and gardens, but the reality is that landscape architects spend a good chunk of time at the drawing table and the computer to design and manage projects, and the remainder of our time is spent meeting with clients and collaborating with other professionals.

CARBO Landscape Architecture, original photo on Houzz

CARBO Landscape Architecture, original photo on Houzz

Yes, we do get to visit sites, and most landscape architects are habitual nursery and garden visitors, but we do not do the pruning, transplanting and mulching for the projects we design. Landscape contractors — licensed through a separate process — are the ones who actually install landscapes, and gardeners and landscape workers perform maintenance. Landscape architects often collaborate directly with landscape contractors to ensure that projects are built to the intent of the design.

We work with the big picture

Landscape architects are trained to think about landscapes as systems. The flow of water, the relationship to the greater watershed, the interplay of light and local climate effects are all critical aspects of a site’s context.The site plan here is for a residential landscape designed for a 5-acre property in Louisiana with watershed sensitivity. Landscapes do not exist in a vacuum, and it’s the landscape architect’s job to work within the site context to design places that fit the big picture.

We have technical landscape expertise that is up-to-date

In addition to drawing the pretty plans for beautiful outdoor spaces, we do the nitty-gritty stuff, like figuring out grading plans and technical details for drainage, materials, finishes and layout dimensions. The saying “the design is in the details” rings especially true for residential landscape architecture. The runnel meeting a pool of water here is a finessed design detail that works with the overall design plan. How specific materials come together, what the best practices are, what the most up-to-date techniques are and what unique solutions are best for an individual site and the client are all considerations that play into drawing technical details. We stay current on proven techniques through continuing education credits that are required by the state for our continued licensure.

Our technical expertise goes beyond merely knowing about current trends

Improved plant knowledge is a great example of the value of continuing education for landscape architects and greatly benefits clients. Through classes we receive expert advice from research horticulturalists on the ever-changing status of various plants. The horticultural world is vast, with new cultivars being developed in response to diseases every year. Landscape architects stay up-to-date on horticultural issues and use that knowledge to design landscapes.

CARBO Landscape Architecture, original photo on Houzz

CARBO Landscape Architecture, original photo on Houzz

Landscape architects are experts in sustainability

In fact, we were doing sustainable work long before it became a popular concept. In the photo here, a boardwalk cuts across a designed stormwater management feature with lush plantings. This project recently won a design award from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the national professional association for landscape architects in the United States.

ASLA uses the phrase “green since 1899” as a tongue-in-cheek catchphrase to say that landscape architects have been creating environmentally minded work in the form of landscapes for a long time. Not all landscape architects have sustainability as a primary focus of their work per se; however, many of the best practices used by landscape architects are driven by ecologically sound principles for vegetation, stormwater, material use and microclimate effects. Look for the ASLA affiliation badge here on Houzz to find licensed landscape architects.

Landscape architects have many ways of approaching design

We work across a wide range of styles and expertise, from artsy to technical and flamboyant to reserved. This funky metal fence was designed by a landscape architect for custom fabrication by a metalworker.

Ask your landscape architect candidates what landscapes and concepts are sources of inspiration, as this will have a great impact on what the landscape architect will create for you. Is it the vista of a wide-open prairie or the calm of the deep woods? For some, the design inspiration is cultural and references things like fine-art painting or textiles. For others the inspiration might stem from historic Italian villa gardens or formal modern lines. At the end of the day, we are creating something new in the landscape, and we draw from various influences to create our work.

Do you need to hire a landscape architect for your project?

If you aren’t sure, just ask. Landscape architects field questions from potential clients all the time. With so many specialties and areas of expertise among professionals, it’s a good idea to speak with a few landscape architects about your project to decide which one is the best fit. Some landscape architects focus on small, urban courtyards, and others specialize in vast agricultural estate properties. No matter what your property is like, there’s a landscape architect out there to meet your needs.

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