From little things, big things grow: how landscape designers and pool builders can forge healthy relationships
For our eleventh Industry Roundtable, we spoke to several landscape design specialists (both designers and industry representatives) to get their take on what makes for a harmonious working relationship with a pool builder, and what a landscape designer can bring to the table.
If, as a pool builder, you’re going to work with a landscape designer to construct a backyard poolscape, what do you need to do to make it work for everyone?
First and foremost, communication has to be clear, our Industry Roundtable experts said. This is a no-brainer, but since it has such a significant impact on both the process of construction and the end product, it bears repeating.
“Communication is the key. If everyone talks to each other about what part they’re doing, including the client, who’s responsible for what part, then everyone can work together and achieve the best result in the end,” said Phil Antcliff, landscape designer and owner of Antscapes, a residential landscape design, construction and maintenance company.
“You’re going to come across problems along the way as well, and that’s even more important for everyone to just get together and talk about it and achieve a result. So I’ll always say communication between everyone is always the best way to deal with it.”
Landscape design firm Secret Gardens has worked with many different pool builders over the years, design manager Mark Curtis said. The best relationships the company has formed with pool builders have one thing in common: good communication.
“You’ll tend to gravitate towards a company that you do have a good relationship and a good understanding with, and part of that is communication,” he said.
“Without proper communication and expectation of deliverables, the whole thing just falls apart.”
Of course, face-to-face interaction is a key part of communication. But when both parties are working on multiple projects, it can be difficult to remember exactly what changes to the pool coping you agreed upon at a meeting three weeks ago. Adrian Swain, owner of ecodesign and The Other Side Landscapes, says having a paper trail can cover you in these situations.
“Minutes, if you’re having meetings, are very important. We had a situation not long ago where the client went to a pool builder separately to the landscape,” he said.
“There was a kick-off meeting with the designer on-site and certain aspects were discussed and agreed upon, and we went and did the landscaping and the pool builder went and did the pool. They just happened to have a lot of pools happening at the same time and what they had agreed to and what was discussed just sort of went out the window, and there were some things that happened that weren’t meant to happen.”
AILDM (the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers) occasionally deals with disgruntled consumers who are unhappy with the project that’s been delivered. AILDM administrator Maureen McKee said these situations invariably arise from poor communication.
“The main ones that we’ve had, it’s been a breakdown in communication. There was a case we had in Victoria where the person didn’t have the best command of English and they had an agreed design and then they’d go on-site and start changing things verbally. And as Adrian was saying, if you haven’t documented those changes and agreed to the changes in design, then you’re really heading for trouble — and that’s what happened,” she said.
“It’s a contract. And if you don’t manage the contract correctly, the wheels will fall off. If there’s no communication, no matter how experienced you are or what documentation you have, [it will end badly],” said Swain.
“There’s people who can go out and build off the back of a napkin — extensive landscaping — and have a very happy client. But then there’s people who can have the most rigid contract and they’ll stuff it up every day of the week. I think it comes down to your goodwill and your integrity and your willingness to maintain a good reputation.”
You’ve got mail
The channel of communication can impact how your message is received. While it’s important to have a paper trail to keep track of agreements and changes (and email might seem to be the best way to do this), electronic communication isn’t always the best medium for getting your message across.
A suggestion or query that can be perceived as quite reasonable and respectful in person may be misunderstood or even presumed to be aggressive or condescending when delivered via email. The intended tone of a statement can be easily lost in translation from speech to text, no matter how thoughtfully worded an email might be.
“We’re having far more problems with that in the association, we find, than anything else — the electronic communications,” said Daniel Beeby from the LNA Master Landscapers Association. “It’s caused more problems than anything else. We’ve had a few email wars lately with things just flying back and forth.”
“It pays to write it at night, think about it, then [read it] again in the morning, then send it,” said McKee.
You can diffuse a misunderstanding within seconds if you’re face to face, but via email, a client could stew on it for half the day (or even longer) before they respond to you — at which point it’s going to take far more work to talk them down and rebuild the relationship. You can always follow up a face-to-face conversation with an email if you need a record of your conversation.
All the communication in the world will count for nothing if it’s not underpinned by respect — respect for the client, respect for the design and respect for all other parties involved in the project. It’s also important to respect the process. Designs do change along the way, and you’ll need to be flexible but still transparent in your communications.
“The communication is very important. And underlying that, I think, is just the respect of the different people’s roles and how things integrate,” said Swain.
“Things always change in construction, and just due to different things that happen along the way in the process. We’ve found that respect is very important. [Ideally, you’ll] say, ‘Okay, we need to change this; what do you think about that? How is that going to impact the rest of the project?’
“I’ve found that quite rare. I’ve probably found one company that has been able to entertain us in that regard, that’s said, ‘This is what we’re thinking. What do you reckon?’ All the others just go, ‘What’s the easiest, quickest way that’s going to make us the most money?’ And it’s unfortunate, because it’s not respectful for the client as well. The original design that they’ve come up with may be second tier to the outcome. So I think respect for the client and the other people involved in the project is vital.”
Integrity of design
Respect also includes appreciating what each party brings to the project. A landscape designer brings a diverse skillset, incorporating horticultural know-how, project management skills and that certain je ne sais quoi that transforms a pool and yard into a stylish poolscape.
“Being able to implement a master plan and then maintain the intent of the design through the process, from the design to construction, I think is very important,” said Swain.
When a landscape designer and a pool builder work alongside one another but separately, there’s a risk that they will both diverge from the original design intent, Swain said. The result? A pool and landscape that don’t fit together seamlessly in the way that they would were one party responsible for overseeing the entire job.
“I think there’s a bit more integrity of the master plan if you combine the [landscape design and construction]. I see the benefit of combining the two. There’s one person who’s answerable for the lot,” he said.
Where a pool builder might look at a backyard and see it in the context of where a pool might go, a landscape designer or architect can conceptualise the entire space: how the pool will fit in the overall backyard, and how it will be enjoyed both as a visual component of the space and as a physical asset to be utilised.
“Having that holistic approach to the garden, and enabling that pool to settle within the landscape, is by far, I feel, a better approach to just isolating the pool as its own exercise and seeing how that would fit within the landscape,” said Curtis.
“I think, ultimately, the better result for the client is to see that integrated with a bit more of a holistic approach to access to the pool and usability of the pool and so on, so from the onset, all of those details can get accommodated.”
“People are more interested in their lifestyle and the lifestyle of their homes, from the inside to the outside rooms, and barbecue areas and then onto the pool, and they want this holistic design throughout the house,” Beeby said.
This is where the pool industry can fall behind landscape designers, Beeby said — often, the focus is simply on building a pool, rather than creating a lifestyle for their clients.
Seeing the forest for the trees
It’s important to remember that a landscape designer brings some significant, specialised skills and knowledge to the table that other parties cannot — namely, extensive horticultural knowledge. As we all know, trees and plants can either be an asset to a poolscape or spell disaster for it.
“One of the advantages of going with a landscape designer is that they have that knowledge of tree preservation — what can stay, what can go, how it’s going to grow — because one of the issues of having a pool is shade and light and all those things and when you have a landscape designer, they know the tree that looks like that now, in five years’ time how it’s going to grow, how it’s going to develop, how it’s going to impact on that whole backyard,” said McKee.
“If you’ve only got a little bit of space in a backyard and there’s three trees there and only one has to be retained, or one is protected, it’s useful to have the knowledge of what’s not protected,” added Swain.
Fencing rules is where this knowledge really comes into its own: knowing what can and can’t be planted in the non-climbable zone is vital for ensuring a new pool is compliant from the get-go.
Aside from maintaining the integrity of the original design, having a single party managing the entire pool and landscape makes the project more efficient.
“It’s just to do with scheduling and project management, really. I think a landscape architect or designer is pretty well placed to have an overview of the whole process, and schedule the right trades on-site at the right time,” said Swain.
“It removes a bit of double handling — two lots of electricians, two lots of plumbers, that sort of thing. So I think if you can look at the overview and project manage, I think there is some savings [to be made] if there is one contract.”
It’s important for both the pool builder and the landscape designer to have a clear idea from the outset of who’s responsible for what — where does the pool end and the landscape begin?
“The most common one is that every pool builder has coping in their price, but then if you’ve got to do some tiling around the rest of the pool, then you need to have the same product,” said Antcliff.
“So often if we’re working with a pool builder, we’ll get them to take the coping out of their price and we’ll include that into our tiling price, because you need that same product across the board.”
For landscape designers, having ultimate control over the project doesn’t just make for a smoother construction process; it also means that they can ensure they’re delivering precisely what it is that the client asked for — rather than something that’s been translated differently by each party involved in the project.
“I’m sure pool builders could quite happily build a pool every day of the week, but the result that we’re looking to achieve is that overall integrated landscape and pool scenario, and that’s where I guess we add value over a pool builder,” said Swain.
“Design’s always a challenge, I think. You’ve got set constraints: the existing pool, or the sewer line, or the existing tree. So I think it’s just getting the best outcome within those challenges. And that’s where the overview of the pool and landscape has its greatest advantage. You can use the different challenges as opportunities, rather than just ‘Oh, this is where we can squeeze it best and most cost-effectively’ and that’s where it’ll end up — which, often, we see,” said Swain.
“I saw a pool last week and the steps were on the far side of the pool, away from the house and entry. It just wasn’t even logical on any level. And the spa was a fully plumbed spa, but there was no seat in it. It was just a sort of 500 mm wading pool, which was interesting. This was like a kiddie bubble pool or something. It was very wrong. And you think, well, obviously someone got paid to do that.”
The whole enchilada
Clients are increasingly seeing the benefits of engaging a landscape designer who can not only design but also construct the poolscape.
“I think the wiser client is foreseeing what decisions need to be made and getting someone like us in at an earlier stage to start to integrate that process,” Curtis said.
“By and large we’re seeing more clients now engage us from an earlier stage, wanting to incorporate a pool within the landscape. They’re seeing the value in the two going hand in glove.”
However, Curtis acknowledges that a holistic landscape design (not to mention the premium that this skill incurs) isn’t for every prospective pool owner out there — nor should it be.
“There’s some that just don’t fit that bill and just a straight pool build is all that they need or can afford. And we shouldn’t forget that either. We are talking about a process that is quite involved and ultimately quite expensive for clients, but I think in general what’s by far a benefit for a client now is to engage one company and one company alone to handle all relationships, design, project management — the whole lot,” he said.
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