Make it green: Short-term thinking has taken it's toll

This is Part Two of a two-part essay on design, art and professional practice — which sounds ethereal until you buy a home in landscape Hell or wonder why your taxes are buying dead trees.

We learned in Part One that design includes a fundamental “artistic” component: “Design involves the resolution of a problem statement by allowing function to define form, and allowing a message carried by an artistic element.”

This is a problem.

Why? This column often tackles public improvements, mostly on horticultural grounds, partly because the artistic element is distressingly obscure.

What is the difference between an arresting and pedestrian design? Choice of species and relative arrangement. If you think that is easy, stop reading, fold up the paper and go for a drive. Go over to Waterside Shops wher

e the prepossessing magic of fewer than a dozen species will beguile, where you will find a background ambience of endurance and quality and ease and safety. One simply feels upscale.

No room here for tawdry variegated arbicola.

The design is simple and it is not simplistic: Any plant material change diminishes the whole. No substitutions can be tolerated.

How does a project like this one actually happen? An enlightened owner and a talented designer is a very powerful combination, resulting not only in Waterside, but in Central Park, in the Sydney Opera House, Tiburon entry, Pelican Marsh entry, Bicentennial Park…well, on and on. What is the advantage of this infrequent marriage? Heart-stopping design. Lower maintenance costs, lower replacement costs, lower irrigation costs, too. And actually, lower initial cost, too.

This is the situation that is faced by many upper-level designers, and I might as well call it out exactly what it is: Clients are not often open to the wonders that can be created. They are blindsided by fees, ignoring the longer-term costs just as certainly ignoring the magic.

This is most often manifested quite simply: If you hire designers based on fees, you will simply get what you deserve and you will pay and pay and pay.

This isn’t complicated. It most certainly does not mean that fees are not important.

More than fees

These projects take time, effort, and talent to create. A professional office capable of this level — and this by no means includes every office — will have expenses. Rent. Payroll. Profit. Is there a fee premium? Often, yes, but it is usually marginal. And it certainly buys value. Smart buyers of design services know this. They choose the best designer and then they negotiate fees within a well-known industry standard. In the long run costs are lower.

My own experience in the “marketplace” will illustrate. Very frequently HOA clients shop design services as for potatoes, thinking a potato is a potato. If you care about the quality of the built environment, it is maddening.

I see many projects go through the years, committee after committee after committee, iteration after iteration, each failing either through imperfect design sense or, more frequently, failing because the designers had no clue about plant material longevity and maintenance. Nowhere is the maxim about doing it right the first time more apropos than in planting design.

Projects mentioned here over the years abound.

This is mostly caused by ignorant buyers of design services, who frequently pit talented designers and, well, hacks.

Whence public sector?

The public sector ought to be leading, but it is not.

Have a look at the number of “square plants” populating our medians as an example. Over the course of a few short years these “boxes” will be so beat up they will need replacement. And guess what? The same boxes. Again.

Guess what else? We also have many instances of dead plants because adjacent plants have overtaken smaller neighbors. This has already happened on Vanderbilt Beach Road west of U.S. 41. And again on the same road, near Livingston Road, have a look at saw palmetto and Green Island ficus planted a few feet apart.

How did you like paying for those dead ficus?

We have a case here, most egregiously by Collier County Transportation, of repeatedly using the same designers who create this time and again.

Why?

They have the ability to hire the best, but they do not, partially hamstrung by selection criteria heavily favoring incumbents, partially lacking simple leadership. A large part of the selection process includes the ability to crank out the admittedly complex technical drawings — but this an easily acquired skill set resembling a trained monkey act.

Why else? Because short-lived plantings with sky-high maintenance costs have become part of the norm, that’s why.

More: There is a lack of a master plan for the county that in any way supports the “sense” or “feel” of our resort county because design leadership simply isn’t present, or sought after.

Where is the disquisition? Where do we go to learn the intent of these enormous and expensive capital outlays?

Design is not opinion.

Michael Spencer will be teaching two classes in the Fall 2 sessions beginning in November at Barron Collier High School’s Adult Education program: plant identification, and residential design. Please see www.collieradulted.com for details and costs. You can also email Michael: ms@msadesign.com.

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