Dos & Don’ts Of Landscape Design-Build


Practices to embrace and mistakes to avoid for project success.

I have had the great fortune of working in the Green Industry for over 45 years (I started when I was very young!). In that time, I have had the great honor of working at some incredible companies, with leaders of the industry, and in all parts of the country. I have learned many lessons on how to be successful in design-build. More importantly, I have learned mistakes to avoid (and yes, I have made some big ones myself). I could fill a book with these lessons, but here I will provide just some highlights.


I started my career designing and selling landscape design-build projects. I will start with some lessons I learned that still stick with me. These principles apply to those starting off in the Industry as well as owners hiring people new to the Industry.

Do work as an apprentice. When I was hired for my first job, I worked as an apprentice to Tom Lied, one of the founders of the National Association of Landscape Professionals (which was ALCA at the time) and a great designer and businessperson. This proved to be a better route than being thrown to the wolves and making a lot of mistakes. Learning the design-sales process in a sheltered environment was invaluable. In the six months I collaborated with Tom, I developed a solid foundation. If you are hiring a new design salesperson, I encourage you to introduce them to the position by having them collabo-rate with a senior member of your team. It will pay dividends in a short period of time.

Don’t “beg” for the job. When just starting my design career, I was hungry to get involved in some larger projects. I went on a new call and the clients told me they wanted to add a pool, a large patio, and extensive screen plantings. I was literally salivating at the prospect of landing this project. Apparently, the client was astute enough to see that I really wanted the job and flat out said, “I can see that you really want to work on this project. How bad do you want it?” I told the client that I would waive the design fees and give him some preferential pricing on the job. (Big mistake!)

Two days later when I checked in with the client, I was devastated to learn that he went with one of our competitors. When I asked him why he did not choose me and our company, he said, “I could see that you were too desperate to get the job. I was unsure if you could handle it.”  This story has a happy ending though. The client ended up hiring me two years later to “fix” the other contractor’s mistakes based on a great referral he received from an associate.

Don’t have preconceived ideas of a project. Another mistake I made early in my career was to think I knew what the client wanted before asking them. For instance, I once drove up to a fantastic lakefront English Tudor and saw the front of the house obscured by large, overgrown Pfitzer junipers. I knew immediately that they had to go. I rang the bell and started doing a walk through with the client. Before the client could get a sentence out of her mouth, I said, “I know why you called us—you want to get rid of those ugly, overgrown junipers.” She looked at me in shock and said, “I could never get rid of those junipers. My mother planted them and I have been trimming them into beautiful Bonsai shapes for years!” Needless to say, I did not get that project.

(Photo: Adobe Stock / Pixel-Shot)

Project Management

As my career evolved, I became more involved in management, first taking on departmental management and ultimately divisional management. I quickly realized I needed to acquire a broader set of business skills. My degrees in landscape architecture and horticulture did not prepare me for the larger roles I was taking on in the companies I worked for.

Do learn financial management. As my responsibilities grew, I started feeling like a fish out of water when it came to financial management. While my degree in Horticulture included just a few business courses, my Landscape Architecture degree didn’t include any. Luckily, two of the companies I worked for used Frank H. Ross as a financial consultant. (Ross is a highly regarded financial consultant for contractors and a partner in 3PG Consulting.)

Frank would come in twice a year to work with us on budgeting and pricing. I learned how to build a 12-month rolling budget, what my breakeven costs were, and how to price our projects to not only cover overhead, but to make a nice profit on the work we did. Every time Frank came in, I felt I was getting an MBA in Finance! No matter where you get your financial education from, I encourage you to make it a priority. This is where you can best impact your business.