Once upon a time I was commissioned to produce a master plan for a pedestrian plaza, from which a contractor would implement the work.

From idea through implementation: working together to make the design vision a reality

By Elinor Markle

Once upon a time I was commissioned to produce a master plan for a pedestrian plaza, from which a contractor would implement the work. In my mind’s eye, the plaza I designed would have four chess tables and eight stools for the players, similar to the arrangement that graces Central Park in New York City. The chess playing area would be visually set apart from the rest of the plaza by a wide band of black pavers. It seemed a simple and straightforward idea to me, but when I went to look at the finished work, the simplicity had given way to an interpretation I did not recognize.

Why did this lovely little piece of my design get muddled, when the rest of the construction went so beautifully? The answer can only be one thing: a failure to communicate. The reason my vision did not become reality is because the contractor and I did not communicate after my plans were handed over to the clients.

How I wish I had kept in touch with the project to learn of the construction schedule. I wish I had crowded the contractor a bit and showed up on site during the implementation of this plan. I would have been polite. I would have been there for him to tell me something such as, ”We do not have enough black pavers to do the band like you showed,” or, “The client has changed his mind,” or, “The wall is going to be higher than the table and no one can sit on it and play chess”. But I wasn’t there, the contractor did not call me to tell or ask, and the client did not hire me to observe the installation. The resulting layout is not useful for its intended purpose, and it nags me from both functional and aesthetic standpoints.

The big lesson learned is that, as the designer, I must take the responsibility to communicate clearly at every step of the process.

First, I must communicate to the clients what I have designed for them, so that they believe in my vision. I should stress to them early in the project that I want to — and they need me to — be a part of the installation observation. If the contractor raises concerns over implementing my design with the client, the client will be more likely to call me to provide solutions that fit the concept for the plan.

Second, I must make effective drawings, details and specifications for the construction documents, to guide the contractor in his bid and his installation. This is so basic, but a designer must not take it for granted that every contractor is as good as the best contractors. Some information should be repeated in the bid process in order to be clear, as I will illustrate in another example.

Third and fourth, if possible, I should be a part of the pre-bid meeting and the bid selection process, so that the competing contractors can ask me questions before they commit their price. It is often a touchy situation between contractor and designer, but each one showing respect for the other’s responsibilities and capabilities will go a long way toward getting a good project in the ground.

Fifth, I should go to the site and be available for questions that come up in the field. A site visit presents the best opportunity to be assured that installation is done according to the specifications and with the proper materials. Seeing the techniques and work ethic of the contractor can sometimes help me design a similar future project, and learn who is committed to getting a job done right, and who just wants to get done. Further, the ordinary conversations that occur on a job site visit can make everyone feel more at ease and more likely to admit confusion if confusion exists. Nowadays, I include this observation in my design price, and make sure that I am available to the client and the contractor in a timely manner.

Last of all, I should review the final installation and make comments as to whether the installation complies with the design, the details and specifications that I prepared and communicated throughout the entire project. Most clients do not know what to look for in a landscape installation to determine that they have gotten what they paid for.

You would think I had learned my lesson on the plaza project, but no, I still had at least one education session before me. A large building renovation project was required by the local planning commission to install hundreds of feet of landscape buffer between their parking lot and residential neighborhoods. My clients were not developers, but people who had just the one (very large) project. I do not blame them for trying to get the most for their money, but the mess they bought could have been a beautiful landscape.

 The photo of the poor little redbud depicts a plant that should have never gotten on the job site, but was in fact installed there along with many more like it. The landscape and irrigation contractor did not follow the specifications calling for plant materials that were first class representatives for their species, and of the specified size. All plant materials were required to comply with the current American Standard for Nursery Stock (ANSI Z60.1), and I specified the sizes the way Section 1.1 requires, using caliper for shade trees, and height for ornamentals, without calling out that they must be balled and burlapped.

The contractor my client hired for this project had never heard of these standards. He did not research or communicate with me to learn about them before he bid the project. Therefore, he provided cheap container-grown stock for all the trees. I was not a part of the pre-bid or the bid selection process and there was no opportunity for interested contractors and me to discuss the expectations for the job. If I had been there to communicate with all interested bidders, the problems with the nursery stock might have been avoided. Timely communication could have made clear the competence of the contractor and the requirements he must meet. Now I demand that clients include me in these bid processes to protect the quality of their project and to see my vision become reality.

My goals for every installation are essentially the same from project to project. I want very much to discover the client’s needs, to conceive of a plan that meets those needs in a responsible manner, to communicate the design elements and installation techniques to the contractor effectively. I want the project to look and function as I envisioned it, because that is what I promised my client. I want to get the project out of my mind, into the ground, with all concerned feeling like winners and proud of the result.


Elinor Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at elinormarkle@aol.com