PROBE TO DISCOVER

May 26, 2011


Refuse to be turned out in the front yard like a dog while your client holds you on a leash demanding ‘what would you do here?  Make me a pool under that tree.’

Fletcher Steele

Challenge #1:          many years ago I had the opportunity to do a design for a couple who had a comfortable back yard and a realistically sized budget for the project.  During the first meeting and consultation, where the clients could talk about what they were hoping to get out of the design, they told me in no uncertain terms that they wanted nothing that would attract birds or butterflies.  The wife was deathly afraid of anything that flew, and with any mention of birds or insects she would state in very certain terms that she wanted nothing of the sort in her new garden, not even harmless little hummingbirds.  So I had to design a landscape that could not include any flowering plants, no birdbaths or other water features, and no places a bird could (hopefully) find to build a nest.    This was the opposite of what every other client I’ve had usually requests.

Solution:        this is where your plantsmanship comes into play.  Remember that all color in the garden does not have to come from flowers.  Walk through your local garden center or take a walk in the forest and you are surrounded by various shades of green and the colors/hues of bark.  The yard was on a slope that was parallel to the house and new decking and patios were needed to use the space effectively.  The color of timber and paving materials should be a complement to the plantings.  What we achieved was a garden of quiet and calm based on a simple palette of the color green.

Challenge #2:          within the last week I had the opportunity to meet with a landscape contractor and potential client in Sacramento.  The contractor had done a direct mailing to solicit business and the scope of the project required the services of a landscape architect – hence my being brought into the picture.  We had a set appointment time and arrived promptly and rang the bell.  We could see through the house to the back yard where the client was working on some carpentry projects, so he very likely did not hear the doorbell.  Consequently we went around the side yard to where he was working.  Long story short – he ignored us for about 5 – 10 minutes – other than a very cursory acknowledgement of our arrival, and continued working on his project.  Eventually he paused (by this time I was walking around the yard) and he and the contractor shook hands – I returned and was introduced.  The rest of the “meeting” consisted of the homeowner telling us what had to be done, how he was not particularly interested in ordinances regarding greenbelts (his home overlooks the American River) and basically contradicting everything I was asking or suggesting.  The contractor had another meeting and left us to discuss the project and scope of work.  By this time it was obvious that he was not someone I would be able to build any rapport with.  I explained how I conduct business and that I would send a proposal for the design work.  At this he told me that he and his wife (she was not present at this meeting – a bad thing) would need to see a concept plan before they would sign on to anything and at this he went back to his project leaving me to go on my way.  Foolishly I agreed to prepare a concept plan (at no charge!)  before I left.  Bad mistake!

Solution:        needless to say I considered this an awkward situation.  I was invited onto the site by the contractor – not the client – and the contractor was there due to a direct mailing – not because the homeowner knew him or his work.  Fortunately two other projects came into my office within the next couple of days and I was able to remove myself from the prospect of  doing any design work for someone whose project I had absolutely no interest in being involved with.  I have always believed that the homeowner needs to be the one to make first contact – preferably through knowledge of your work and reputation.  This situation offered neither and consequently the homeowner felt he had a business advantage over me.  This should never be – client and designer/architect MUST respect each other and see eye to eye, otherwise it will never work successfully.

The moral of these stories is:          you can be certain that during your career as a landscape designer, you will meet many different kinds of people, with all sorts of wishes and constraints for their garden.  As much as you may hope and pray for the kind of client who makes no demands and is happy with whatever you come up with, just as many of them will be the opposite.

You will meet potential clients who want a completely maintenance-free garden, or a retired couple who want a child-friendly yard for their grandchildren, or someone who requires total wheelchair-accessibility.  Or your client may tell you, as one of mine did recently, that her entire budget was $3,000.  Including the design fee.

When this happens to you (and it will), you can choose to chafe against the client’s constraints and demands while still taking on the job (and feel frustrated and as if you want to bang your head against the nearest wall)…OR…you can choose to accept the commission and view these constraints as a challenge to your creativity, an opportunity to test yourself and your skills and push your way through it…OR…you can accept that some people and projects are not worth the time, money and headaches (such as the one mentioned above) and remove yourself from the job altogether.

At the end of the day it is your job and responsibility to work WITH your client and create a garden that goes beyond their expectations.

As landscape architect Fletcher Steele wrote:

He [the landscape architect] probes to discover, not what she [the client] has, but what she dreams of having: not what she does but what she would like to do”

“Dreaming enables us to withdraw into ourselves for brief moments and rests us.  It is good and if the garden makes it easier and pleasant to dream, then it is a good garden.”

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