How to Choose a Landscape Professional
The difference between a landscape architect and a landscape designer
Have you ever wondered about the difference between a landscape architect and a landscape designer? Or which one is right for your landscape project? We asked two seasoned professionals—Mary Ann FitzGerald, a landscape designer at Pettengill Farm Nursery in Salisbury, Massachusetts, and Robbi Woodburn, a landscape architect at Woodburn & Company in Newmarket, New Hampshire—to shed some light on these two distinct titles.
A landscape architect has to take classes and pass a test in order to become licensed. A landscape designer doesn’t, though it doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t have comparable education and experience. “You may discover that even though they are a designer, they might do the work of a landscape architect,” says Woodburn. She encourages people to search for landscape architects on websites like Houzz, Granite State Landscape Architects, or the American Society of Landscape Architects, in addition to word-of-mouth recommendations. After you’ve come up with three or four that you like, Woodburn recommends interviewing them. “Be specific about the elements of their portfolio, and ask them to explain what they did on a project,” she says. “Try to determine their talents and level of experience.”
Most public places like college campuses and parks are done by landscape architects, so people often consider them to be more suited for commercial or civic projects, while landscape designers are better for residential projects, though this division is not set in stone. “There is a place for both of us,” says FitzGerald, who has worked on commercial projects as a designer and with the help of her husband, James FitzGerald, who owns FitzGerald Landscape Inc. “Municipal jobs have to have things defined and approved. An architect’s plan is most often required for municipalities. Designers are able to go with the flow and see where it takes them, and changes to the plan might frustrate them,” says FitzGerald.
Fixed Plan vs. Fluid Design Process
Another consideration is whether you’re looking to achieve a set plan or work with someone to achieve a creative vision, and both Woodburn and FitzGerald encourage you to interview professionals to find out what type of plan they use. “I find the architect is more structured and has a defined plan so it can be easily quantified and engineered by other parties,” says FitzGerald. “Their work has to be very precise. If your personality type likes things more defined, you may be happier working with an architect.” Indeed, Woodburn takes this approach. “What we try to do with a proposal is to be very specific. We listen very closely to the client and take everything they said they wanted and we list it out. We can be creative and flexible and responsive to the client in this stage. Then we create a plan that lists a step-by-step description of the work it will take to get to that plan. You’ll have surprises in the design process if they don’t write a detailed proposal.”
As a designer, FitzGerald looks at surprises as a bonus. “Sometimes nurseries get plants that are one-time-only plants—so I like to be open and flexible. There is more of an evolution, and I try to work closely with my clients to develop the whole picture.” She adds, “When I have a design, its more conceptual. When I get into the land, other ideas flesh out, because the earth isn’t perfect. When you’re actually working it, things come to life—distances, curves, ledge underground. It’s more organic.”
Both Woodburn and FitzGerald agree that no matter which type of professional you work with, the most important part is the relationship you have with them. Get to know their work, their ideas and experience, and make sure you work well with them and can communicate your ideas.
“Listening and understanding is a big thing. When you interview, it’s more trying to find out if you can work with that person and if there is an affinity between you and them,” says Woodburn. “Everyone is different, and you have to work with someone you like. The client needs to be comfortable. My job is to listen to what the client wants.”
She cautions against dismissing a contractor if there are things you don’t like in the initial proposal. “If there are things you don’t like, then call and discuss them before you write them off. It’s always better to try to go back and communicate your thoughts and see how they react. A good designer will work with their clients. It’s the client’s vision.”
FitzGerald agrees. “I always listen to the client and try to shape it according to who they are and what they need. I try to allow it to develop and facilitate their thoughts and ideas, and then begin to work on a plan around those developing images.”
Woodburn & Company Landscape Architecture, LLC