Collaboration In Landscape Design & Custom Home Design
Is there a significant benefit to a homeowner when the residential architect, landscape architect, and homebuilder meet early in the design and planning phase of your new custom home? Yes. In fact, everyone comes out a winner. A collaborative approach makes the best possible use of time and money. And that helps the designers to bring out the fullest expression of the homeowner’s wishes. The home design and landscape design can be integrated entirely to make the best possible use of the site for vistas and indoor/outdoor flow.
A custom home building project in Oakton Virginia is a good example of the collaborative design and construction process. The home design is by Kohlmark Architects of Burke with construction and project management by Arjay West of Falls Church. The project landscape architect is Howard Cohen of Surrounds.
We asked residential architect Tom Flach and homebuilder Arjay West to talk about how collaboration affects the flow of construction and the eventual outcome of the project. We particularly wanted to know how the landscape architect contributes in the early stages of design when the home must be sited on the property.
When building a custom home, what’s the ideal time to bring the landscape architect into the planning process?
Tom Flach: In a straightforward situation we may start without a landscape architect. Other times, I will bring in the LA, very early on—at the point where the client is evaluating a lot for purchase. The landscape architect will point out assets on the site such as views to emphasize or a specimen tree worth keeping. We might reconsider the placement of the house if that tree is important to the client. These are important decisions that can make or break whether the client decides to purchase a property.
Arjay West: It is never too early to identify your whole team and get them all together in a room. Everybody agrees this is how it should be done, but nobody does it. (Why not?) The owner drives the whole process and most of the time they are in a hurry. And you really can’t blame them for that. If they’ve got a construction loan on a property, the clock is ticking. It’s costing them money. They don’t want to spend time with an extensive up-front planning process. So we do it on the fly. That can be tough on the owner because they’ve got to stay one step ahead and keep up with the decision making process. There is a lot of pressure to hit your benchmarks in the custom home building process because everything is tied to a schedule.
How does the landscape architect contribute?
Tom: The residential architect always takes the lead on the design and in interpreting the clients’ desires. But feedback from the landscape architect is critical at the preliminary stage. You need them to walk the land and site the house.
Howard has been particularly helpful before I’ve even begun designing a house in terms of an ideal location and budget considerations on a difficult site. Typically, a civil engineer will site the house. Howard brings an aesthetic sense to that process. He helps with the decisions about what to keep and what to take away for the overall good of the project.
Arjay: Here’s an example. We took out a ton of dirt and lowered the elevation of this house by four feet because of the landscape architect’s advice. If not for Howard’s input and grading plan, the house would have related to the site in a completely different way. Now the owners will be able to walk straight out of the house onto the patios and swimming pool beyond. Otherwise, there would have been a series of steps and stairways down to the patio level.
Is there tension between the ideal and the pragmatic in a design and construction process?
Tom: You come in with your ideal vision and price it with the builder. Then the client either shares our view of its importance vs. cost of building it; or we start value engineering, taking out things that are less important to them to bring the budget into line.
Arjay: There is always a tension between form & function and between design & budget. Always. I think it can be a good thing because without limitations -whether budget or space available or timeframe- you can’t be creative. It is too wide open. That tension serves to provoke discussions that add direction to the process. If there are no limits, there is no direction. You end up with a completely disjointed outcome.
How does this integrated design approach affect the construction timeline?
Arjay: On many of my projects the landscape architect shows up long after I am done. This project is unique because the owner took the time to plan everything—not just the architecture. Because of that, I am better prepared for the landscape plan, interior design, electrical plan and all the things inside the house. So, before I pour concrete, I know about 80% of what we are doing. Most of the time I might only know 40% or 30%: where the house sits on the lot, the rough grading, location of the driveway, and what the house looks like. That’s it. On this plan, we had the location of the well, the septic field, the swimming pool, and patios all laid out. Nobody has to go back and change or move anything because we are all in sync.
Benefits of collaboration between homeowner, designers, and builder
Each party contributes their point of view and their particular expertise to the project. Working together makes for an exceptionally clear and disciplined process, which in turn produces an exceptional outcome for all.
This Oakton Virginia custom home project is ambitious and complex—and, it is just beginning. We will be following its progress and covering other topics in the coming year.
As you can see here, our clients Tom and Nancy are delighted already with the process so far.
If you dream of building a new home or improving the one you have, please feel free to contact one of our landscape architects. We’ll talk.
If you’ve been thinking about investing in a landscape design project, our eBook: Expert Guide to Planning the Landscape Design of Your Dreams, is full of valuable information to help you get started.