As you read this keep in mind that landscape architects specify material that will live in each spot, at full mature expression; they help insulate you from less-reputable contractors; they explain why money is spent here, not there. They show you micro-climates. And much more. They explain the functional issues. This part of design is not opinion, people.
Each meeting with a new homeowner's association (HOA) client requires establishing trust. I must bring out from each committee member what is really wanted and needed without coloring the result with my own prejudices.
This is real money
Many communities have hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars in the physical plant. Sometimes, the committees know this, but mostly they don't.
Of course, volunteers on landscape committees have little or no specific knowledge. The thinking is this: bids will insulate me from charlatans. Nowhere is this less true than in landscape design.
It's different in the case of roofing, or paving, or painting, or any other of the thousand things required to care for aggregated buildings where little design is involved.
Caring for common areas is sometimes the most expensive line item in the annual budget. Mulch costs, too, frequently stand out as a large number. One would think that these facts would initiate a comprehensive look at the issues, but that's not what happens. Most often, new committee members simply re-bid landscape maintenance, allowing each bidder to self-specify. The committee often depends on the advice of maintenance companies for advice about best practices, and about suggestions for new plant material.
And why not? The maintenance companies are the closest resource for the committee members. There is a huge need for reliable information for these people.
What are the issues? Think of it this way: often, the HOA has as much or more money in plant material, lighting, and other common area improvements than they do in paving or building painting. And yet, performance expectations for plant material are low. Imagine paint that peels after a few years. Would there not be outrage?
Yet, we see plant material so poorly specified that a portion dies every year. Or, perhaps worse, new plantings have a hidden maintenance burden that dwarfs the initial capital costs. Why is it hidden? Because the committee isn't equipped to make the decisions about plant material, that's why.
Who is? There are 3,000 plants available in Florida, and without at least 15 to 20 years of experience, a designer has no chance of getting it right, or must depend on a list of 100 or so plants.
Maintenance companies are not so good at planting design. Neither are my colleagues, often; this column has frequently pointed out laughable plant choices in medians and elsewhere. And now that these plantings have grown a few years, and had an opportunity to exceed available space, we are treated with square plants. This is low-bid design. Do you like it?
Further: the quality of maintenance that we frequently see is, charitably, poor. Why? Simple. The HOAs have driven the price down to the point that the work quality is awful. And don't start that 'free market' nonsense with me. There's no free market when one side hasn't a clue about contract requirements.
In truth the physical plant is being ravaged and nobody notices. Why? Low expectations. And once common areas have deteriorated to the point that quality becomes obvious to the casual eye, huge amounts of money have been wasted. Wasted.
Most HOAs will phase the work. This is fine, but a reserve system is better. Even properly specified plants have a natural lifespan. These are known and easily planned.
Still worse, there is a sense that all landscape architects 'know' plants. They don't. LAs are often not even trained in planting design. Surprised? You should be.
Is it possible to 'bid' designers? No No No No! And neither is it needed. Bidding assumes that all LAs are equal (see above). Collier County has a good system in place, though poorly managed: they choose based on proven design ability. The idea of 'bidding' architecture is appalling, really. If a community insists on the 'three prices' rule, pay each a modest fee ($5,000 or so) for a partial Master Plan, and then let the plan be presented and discussed.
I will follow up with how to assess these pans with a series of questions that each community should ask.
Don't forget that I will make a free presentation to your group, showing how to save money and how to reduce mulch costs. These presentations always engender many, many questions, and are fun for all — even me!
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture since 1979 and is president of MSA Design Inc. Learn more at www.msadesign.com or contact Michael by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.msadesign.com. And watch for his forthcoming book on tropical plants.