May I Have Your Attention?

For the here and now, let it be known that all of us landscape architect types feel we are pretty good at doing something in our practice of creating beautiful places. No matter what is said, no matter what is done while exercising our creativity, it is unlikely that we will waiver from that attitude quickly...or without argument.

Managing construction is a big part of a landscape architect's job.

There is a large faction of us out there that thinks design is where it's at; therefore, we concentrate a great deal of our effort on strictly being creative--a process that seemingly never ends on some projects.

Others amongst our ranks are prideful in the detail and clarity of construction plans, turning creativity into reality, thereby making the design buildable and, consequently, as the designer envisioned.

And then some of us prefer to don the hard hat, safety vest, and waterproof boots...accept the weather conditions as inevitably inconvenient and deal with the construction trades with the best intentions of doing right by the owner, designer, and builder.

It is that aspect--the construction administration--that I enjoy.

A landscape architect really needs to be well rounded in all aspects of our work, and here are a few examples of why I say that:

Recently, several projects under construction at the same time accounted for nearly all of my working hours. Each project had its own set of issues, constraints, circumstances, and field changes necessary due to (mostly) unforeseen challenges.

The commonality of all the projects were:

1. The design needed to be tweaked once construction unveiled a number of unanticipated issues.

2. The contractor had not been held accountable for his work up to a certain point in his progress.

3. Management by any definition was lacking.

4. Field experience of all parties was not just needed, but was "holy cow needed," from folks with the right kind of knowledge and will.

Case in point:  A general contractor, one well-experienced in architectural construction, was contracted to reconstruct four baseball fields at a city park. Improper oversight of the construction quickly resulted in inverted infield grades and the sodding of fields with a workmanship better suited to a lunar landscape.

All was eventually resolved, but not before many a heated debate under an uncomfortable summer sun--and a significant loss of time and financial investment by all parties.

Another project found a contractor ignoring the design and plans during construction. Of the three Crapemyrtle varieties specified, he decided to install trees in the order they came off the delivery truck, wherever they hit the ground, and with little regard to contractual responsibility and design integrity.

When questioned (caught), he argued that there was nothing out of the ordinary with his work, perhaps thinking that surely no one could tell the difference in plant varieties of these then-dormant, leafless trees.

They were indeed checked, and after five months of contractor pleas and reasoning not to, are now being replaced at no cost to the owner.

One contractor tried to one-up the design in the field by offering a more economical, constructable solution to screening an unsightly utility issue. His idea ended up pricing out at twice the cost of the designer's suggested field design directive. Interestingly, the final resolution is being negotiated.

About the time you are ready to throw up your hands and proclaim that you can build it better, along comes a good contractor...a refreshing contractor...a by-the-book contractor who builds the design, does so in keeping with the plans and specs, practices resolution protocol and procedure when issues arise in the field, and rightfully claims a proud ownership in his part of the entire process when finished.

Ahhhh, I will have a few more of those, please, however many you can spare!

Why is it that some contractors do questionable construction things? Are they merely chasing shortcuts and alternatives better suited to their business bottom line? When it comes to design and construction and usability, do they truly know better than the owner or landscape architect?

How about this: Do they simply gamble on not getting caught? Perhaps they reason that no one will compare what was built to what was on the plans, to what their bid-turned-contract obligates them to do.

As a construction administrator, how do you get the contractor's attention, yet encourage continued construction progress and cooperation? Are you able to maintain the support of the owner while gaining the contractor's confidence in how you conduct your business?

Are we as a profession negligent in our training of a construction-intelligent generation of new landscape architects?

So many questions in need of answers. And probably so many answers to the few questions presented.

I hope the weather is like your favorite contractor and affords you an enjoyable weekend. Please give it some thought over the next couple of days, and then by all means, let me know.

Tim May is a professional landscape architect and LEED AP for TNP in Forth Worth, Texas. He can be reached via email at tmay@tnpinc.com or by twitter at @TMay82