Design-Build Thrived In 2020. Will It Continue?


It’s not news that COVID-19 has people spending more time outdoors, and it put a renewed emphasis on outdoor projects in 2020. Not only was landscaping deemed an essential service, but after a shaky few weeks at the start of the pandemic, landscape design-build firms found their businesses were booming. But with vaccines currently being distributed and an anticipated return to some form of normalcy, will the trend continue?

Whether residential or commercial, the emphasis in 2020 wasn’t on big, splashy projects, but rather on simply providing comfortable, usable spaces that allowed families to get out of their houses and into the fresh air. Even better, designer-contractors see at least a few of these trends continuing in 2021.

outdoor projects
Design-Build projects did well in 2020 as clients turned to outdoor enhancements. A BrightView project in Colorado Springs.

The Big Surprise

Call it unexpected. Call it a shock. Call it quirky. Whichever word you choose to describe last year’s business climate in the design-build market, it’s safe to say it was a surprise. That’s the word Terry Morrill, owner of Sun Valley, CA-based Pacific Outdoor Living, uses. “There was a very short time lag when COVID first came out, but then it just kind of exploded,” Morrill says. “We ended up with record sales after a pretty slow start. The leads started picking up and we did just great.”

Across the country in South Windsor, CT, Ryan King, an award-winning designer with Bahler Brothers, Inc., uses the word “awesome” to describe that company’s level of business. “February and March sales were almost half of what we normally see, so we were starting to get a little nervous,” says King. “But I think once people realized they were going to be stuck at home for quite a long period of time, they started realizing they wanted to improve their backyards.”

At the outset of the COVID pandemic things weren’t quite so rosy with commercial contracts either. Blue Bell, PA-based BrightView Companies has more than 175 commercial landscaping offices around the country, and Thomas C. Donnelly, President of BrightView’s Development Services, says some sectors of its client list were particularly hard hit. “Where we saw the most significant impact of the pandemic was with some of our amusement and hospitality clients,” Donnelly says. “They had to shut down operations, so they’ve slowed some projects and deferred other improvements and enhancements into 2021 and 2022.”

On the other hand, the company is seeing a lot of activity in its larger residential development. “We’re seeing masterplan community work of significance in places like Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Florida,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of activity in a large scale.”

In the backyard, many homeowners were looking for something that didn’t necessarily incorporate all the bells-and-whistles. Frank Mariani, CEO of Lake Bluff, IL-based Mariani Landscape, uses the word “tweaking” to describe what many clients were doing. “I think they were looking at their garden in a way they’d never looked at it before,” he says. “They wanted to extend their living space from the interior of their homes, but it was more adding enhancements. It might be hardscapes, or softscapes, or lighting and irrigation. We were very busy.”

Bahler Brothers’ King says his most-common project was patios. “They didn’t want to put in a whole great backyard; they called because they wanted to get out of the house,” he says. “They wanted to have a nice place to sit, grill some food, and have a table. Some added a small fire feature.”

Pacific Outdoor’s Morrill reports a similar interest from his clients, although being in California, people weren’t afraid to go a little larger. “We probably saw more big projects,” he says. “People were going for pools and outdoor barbecues.”

Shifts In Thinking & Practice

Aside from better numbers, it was far from business as usual in 2020. Morrill says the biggest speed bump to his increased productivity was getting plans reviewed by local government officials.

And everyone agreed that keeping employees and clients safe brought a host of new challenges. Mariani says his team’s resilience is what impressed him. His management team would gather daily to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis and come up with a game plan, recognizing that the following day, it could change and be worthless.

It also gave some of Mariani’s older rolling stock a workout. “We had equipment on the road that we would never have used in previous years,” he says. “But, in order to have fewer people in a truck, we used what we had.”

BrightView’s Donnelly says not only did some locations begin limiting the number of workers that could be on a particular job site, but it really became a whole new work environment with social distancing and an emphasis not just on worker safety, but on health. “It’s a very significant shift in thinking,” Donnelly says. “And our people had to comply not just with the protocols we’ve established, but also help the general contractor improve his protocols. Everyone has to look out for the health of each other.”

outdoor projects
Mariani Landscape enhanced a beautiful view.

Bahler Brothers

outdoor projects
Hardscape projects from Bahler Brothers, Inc. included a firepit and pool with hot tub.

Mariani Landscape
This stunning and tranquil landscape project by Mariani Landscape is the perfect antidote to COVID-era stress.

The Year(s) Ahead

With vaccine distribution continuing, people are beginning to believe the worst of the pandemic will soon be over. But is that true, and what happens next? It depends on who you’re talking to. Because BrightView serves larger commercial and institutional accounts, Donnelly says they’re busy looking at the long-haul—not just 2021, but into 2022 and ’23. He sees some fundamental changes in business, including the building of more warehouses and distribution centers to serve a growing e-commerce market. All will need landscaping.

Donnelly also sees office buildings changing as some parts of the workforce return. “I think there’s going to be a more collaborative-type campus environment, with indoor and outdoor amenities,” he postulates. “The landscape industry will benefit significantly from the opportunity to get employees outdoors.”

On the residential end, opinions are mixed. Pacific Outdoor’s Morrill believes once people go back to work and begin traveling again, they will spend less on their landscaping. Though he’s confident home swimming pools will remain strong in Southern California.

Bahler Brothers’ King agrees with Morrill, but he thinks 2021 will see people still being cautious and staying home. “I think this year people are still going to be focusing on home improvement and boosting the value of that house with a better outdoor living space,” King says. “If anything, I see them spending more.” One number that backs that up: Bahler Brothers’ bookings for this summer are running at least two months ahead of 2019 figures.

Mariani is even more optimistic. He thinks the pandemic may have taken people back to a simpler era when spending time with friends and family was more important than in the recent past. “I think that’s going to continue to be a focus for a lot of people,” Mariani concludes. “Even when it’s safe to travel I think people will be looking at extending the amount of time they can enjoy their outdoor living spaces. That means lighting. That means shade in the summer. That means extending the season with heat, whether it’s a fireplace, a fire pit, or heaters. It’s outdoor kitchens. I’m anticipating another good year.”

Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, CA.

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