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Landscape Architecture: FAQ

What is Landscape Architecture? The word landscape is ambiguous, somehow inferring that landscape architects pull weeds and mow lawns. In fact, landscape architects design outdoor spaces with the same methodology used by architects to design buildings. Landscape architects create beautiful spaces that are not necessarily defined by walls and ceilings; spaces that can be more abstract and implied through thoughtful use of color, texture, and other design elements. Landscape architecture is a gray area that connects people to the environment, thus forming a dialogue between built and natural interests.


Landscape Architect Qualifications: Landscape architecture has been designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a STEM profession, meaning the discipline is heavily rooted in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Paths to licensure can take anywhere from six to eight years, and include a 4 - 6 year college degree, 2 year internship under a licensed architect, and a series of exams. Practitioners are held accountable to rigorous standards of practice by governing boards and agencies, and must satisfy continuing education requirements in order to stay current and maintain their license. 


Who Can Practice Landscape Architecture? In Connecticut and New York, only licensed professionals may carry the title and practice the craft. Moreover, It is illegal for an entity to provide architectural design services unless it is owned and managed by a licensed architect or architects. It is also a conflict of interest for a landscape architect to work for a contractor because, in the event of an owner / contractor dispute, architects are tasked with functioning as impartial mediators. Therefore, hiring a construction company that has an in - house landscape architect, although seemingly convenient, can undermine your project.


Why do I need a landscape architect? Projects located in or near regulated areas require the involvement of licensed professionals in order to obtain approvals from governing agencies. Examples of regulated areas include wetlands, coastlines, and steep slopes. Overlapping zoning constraints like building setbacks, easements, coverage allowances, and stormwater management requirements may further trigger the need for a landscape architect. In essence, landscape architects are able to maintain the integrity of their clients' programs while fully addressing physical, environmental, and regulatory concerns.

What Are Regulatory Agencies? Regulatory agencies are established to protect human health, safety and welfare, or HSW, as it relates to environmentally sensitive features like wetlands, coastal areas, and steep slopes. Examples of regulatory agencies are the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), the Coastal Area Management Commission (CAM), the Inland Wetland and Watercourses Agency (IWWA), and the Planning Board. Because regulatory agencies will only consider applications and materials prepared by licensed professionals, architectural designers are required in order to obtain approvals. 


What is Zoning? Zoning refers to general regulations that apply to all properties. Examples include setback distances from property lines to various man - made features like houses and swimming pools, allowable impervious surface coverage (as a percentage of a lot), and height restrictions for buildings, fences, and walls. Zoning is a system of checks and balances that help to level the playing field, keep things fair, and prevent activities on one property from adversely affecting the properties around it. Without zoning someone could open a night club, gas station, or junk yard next to a single family residence.

What is a Variance? In nearly all towns, variances are governed by the Zoning Board of Appeals, or ZBA. A variance grants permission to build or do something that would otherwise not be allowed because of zoning restrictions. In recent years, courts have been very clear that a variance must be predicated on a hardship inherent in the land. For example, a swimming pool may be located within a building setback envelope if it can be shown that it would otherwise harm a nearby wetland. Conversely, a variance would not be considered to allow a swimming pool on a lot that is already maxed out on allowable building coverage.

Project Costs: Just as a doctor studies an MRI prior to advising a patient on a course of action, a landscape architect must first study a survey, along with local zoning and building code, prior to advising on costs. Surveys often reveal cost - impacting variables that are otherwise hidden from the naked eye... building setback lines, wetlands, easements, and septic systems to name a few. Cutting corners in an effort to save money always translates into higher long - term costs, whereas spending more to do things correctly translates into greater savings down the line. In other words, a stitch in time saves nine.

Budgetary Considerations: A client can stipulate a budget, or line in the sand beyond which they are not willing to go. This approach, however, can be limiting and LDC recommends more flexibility for clients who wish to explore the best possible options for their programs. The quality | quantity | cost triangle lends perspective, whereas a client may pick any two items, but the landscape architect gets to control the third. If a client wants a large inexpensive patio, the landscape architect gets to control quality. If the client wants a large patio with quality materials, the landscape architect gets to control cost.

Project Time Frames: Architectural projects can span months or years depending on their scope and complexity. With regard to residential projects, consulting services can take anywhere from six to eight weeks per office. If the project is in a regulated area, town meetings and public hearings may be required. Time frames to obtain agency approvals are determined by the number of agencies governing the project, when and how often they meet, and the conditions of approval for each. Time frames are always contingent on services and response times by others and, therefore, difficult to advise on.

Deadlines & Expectations: Expectations for completion dates should be rooted in reality, and never on arbitrary concerns like finishing a swimming pool in time for a graduation party. Completion dates are predicated on services and response times by others, and a host of other variables outside of anyone's ability to control. The COVID 19 pandemic saw personnel shortages, supply chain disruptions, and entire towns out with the sniffles. Regulatory agencies, in an effort to mitigate the effects of climate change, are constantly moving the goal posts, thereby presenting a target that takes longer for consultants to engage.


Program Changes: Landscape architects can accommodate changes to an owner’s program at any time; it is important to note, however, that changes become more costly and take longer to execute as a project unfolds. Even a seemingly minor change can trigger a systemic ripple effect with revisions to architectural drawings, drainage engineering, proposed surveys, construction contracts, and material orders. If the project is located in a regulated area, changes can initiate another round of reviews and approvals from relevant agencies, thereby adding considerably to overall time frames and project completion dates.

Landscape Architect vs. Architect: Both are highly qualified licensed design professionals with nearly identical backgrounds in terms of education and training. Whereas architects design habitable structures and the spaces contained therein, landscape architects design outdoor spaces that connect people to the environment. Hiring an architect to design outdoor spaces would be as ill advised as hiring a landscape architect to design indoor spaces because it takes a life time to master the skills required to do one or the other, but impossible to gain proficiency in both.


Landscape Architect vs. Engineer: Landscape architects are systems specialists, blending form and function while maintaining the integrity of their clients' programs in code - compliant designs that are harmonious with their surroundings. Engineers are in the weeds specialists who are focused primarily on function, or making things work. A landscape architect may design the shape, size, and location of a swimming pool and patio, but it is an engineer who determines how much concrete and steel are required in order to make these features structurally sound. Architectural design projects often go hand - in - hand with engineering services.

Landscape Architect vs. Landscape Designer: Although many landscape designers have extensive knowledge of plantings and other types of landscape features, none are able to sign and seal drawings or represent their clients’ interests to obtain approvals from regulatory agencies. Landscape designers do not require any formal education, training, or license, and are not accountable to any standards of practice. Anyone can call themselves a landscape designer. Moreover, landscape designers are not qualified to design complex multidisciplinary systems, or to choreograph the process across teams of consultants.


Landscape Architect vs. Online Design Service: Online design services reflect a paradoxical relationship where an increase in profits is inversely proportional to the quality of services provided. In - person interactions are often completely eliminated, with boiler plated templates applied to a client's interests, and drafting services outsourced to countries with cheap labor. If you are looking for a gourmet meal with great service, hire a landscape architect. If you are looking for a # 4 at a fast food joint, hire an online design service. The best way to save time and money on a project is by hiring a licensed landscape architect at the onset. 

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