The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Design-Build Landscape Firm

Design-Build Landscape Contractors

5 reasons hiring one company to do both design and construction can simplify the process.

For homeowners who are looking to get a landscape project under way, a landscape design-build firm can streamline the process. Using a design-build service may have pluses and minuses, depending on the scope of work and goals of the project. Design-build companies are typically landscape contractors — some with a landscape architect on staff — who package a design service with installation.

What is landscape design-build? Design-build is a process by which one company provides the landscape design and installation services for the project, instead of those services’ being split among separate companies. A firm that provides design-build services is also called a design-build contractor or design-builder. 

Here’s what you need to know about how the process works and the pros and cons of using a design-build service in lieu of hiring a separate designer and landscape contractor.

1. You work with one company.

Pro: One obvious advantage of the design-build process is that the client works with one company for all phases and aspects of the landscape project. This means that your project may move more quickly from concept to installation than if you had hired a separate design company and installation company; there is some efficiency for dealing with just one company that can manage the process from start to finish.

Con: The whole project is under the direction of a company with a single perspective. Make sure your vision and goals are aligned with that company’s goals before hiring it to do the work.

2. The design process is simplified.

Pro: A design-build firm rolls the design services and installation into the full project cost. The design fee is usually listed as a lump sum in a line-item estimate for the work. 

Con: A design-build firm may provide a design plan that is not properly detailed. This is a problem if you wish to get several contractors to provide a price estimate on a design plan from a design-build firm. When you pay for a design plan, you own the drawings you will use to get the project built. Watch out for companies that have you pay for a design but do not transfer ownership of the drawings to you, or for design drawings that are not accurately detailed. 

A properly detailed landscape design plan is to scale with dimensions and materials noted. It also includes a list of specific plant species, quantities, spacing dimensions and container sizes. This ensures that you can take the same plan to another contractor for an estimate or bid and be comparing the same scope of work.

3. Design-build firms have detailed knowledge of construction methods.

Pro: Design-build firms are typically owned and operated by licensed landscape contractors who have years of experience installing landscapes. They are well versed in efficient building processes and the workflow for staging the project installation. They also have a wealth of knowledge about the best construction methods to complete the work. 

Con: It is rare for design-build companies to be exceptional designers. It’s just not the true focus of their work, because the main profitability for their business is the installation process. Contractors are not licensed landscape architects, though they may have a licensed landscape architect who works for their company.

4. Design-build firms are well connected to local wholesale nurseries and suppliers.

Pro: Landscape contractors who do design-build regularly order building supplies and plants. As a result, they are acutely aware of plant availability — which can shift at the wholesale nurseries. Looking to get your project built ASAP? A design-build firm will know exactly which plants and materials are available in large quantities for your project right now.

Con: Because they know exactly which materials are easy to procure, they may source the easiest — and sometimes cheapest — materials for your project. If you are looking for something special or have more time to work with a phased planting, the design-build process may not be the best for your project.

5. The cost is simplified.

Pro: Utilizing a design-build process reduces the design cost for the project, because the design is rolled into the overall project cost. Furthermore, the design-build process ensures that the entire project cost is estimated early as part of the design phase. 

Con: As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. You can absolutely get a well-constructed project by using a design-build firm, and some of the top-notch firms also have great designers on staff. However, you may not really know how much time or effort the designer spends on your project if the fee is listed as a lump sum. You also do not know what is truly driving the design decisions in the design-build process. Ease of building and availability of materials are likely priorities for design-build firms, and that’s different from the way a landscape architect might prioritize a native plant palette, sustainable stormwater methods or achieving a particular experience in the garden.

Hiring a Design-Build Firm

Interview questions. The screening process for design-build firms is similar to that for hiring a landscape contractor. There are additional questions to ask when discussing your project with landscape design-build firms, however:

  • How many projects do you work on at once? Larger companies can handle a greater number of projects at once, because they have crews and staff to work on each. Ask how many projects are managed at a time to help determine if the company has a high volume of projects, or if it is more selective in the projects taken on.

  • What is your anticipated timeline for completing a project of this scale? A design-build company, like most landscape contractors, pays special attention to labor budgets and can tell you an approximate number of hours or days required to build the project, and can include the time required for the design process.

  • Who will design the project? Is that person a licensed landscape architect or a qualified designer with previous design experience and training? This question is important if you are concerned about the quality of the design. If there is a landscape architect on staff, the company will probably produce a higher-quality design than a company without a designer on staff.

  • How do you charge for revisions to the design plan? Revision costs might be included in the lump-sum design fee or charged at an hourly rate.

Is design-build right for your project? 

There are times when design-build is perfectly suited to residential landscape projects. These instances include project scopes that are already precisely defined, like a new driveway, a porch renovation or the layout and installation of another specific, defined component. Design-build is also a great idea for homeowners who want to drastically simplify the design process. Perhaps you have been in the throes of a major home renovation and don’t want to put more time and energy into a landscape design. A design-build firm can efficiently lay out and install plants and paving in a relatively short amount of time. 

If, however, you do want to spend more time developing design options and creative solutions for your landscape project needs, you many want to consider a landscape architect or designer.

This article is by Houzz Editorial Staff writer Falon Mihalic. Falon writes about the landscape design and construction. She is a Landscape Architect in Texas and Florida and owner of Falon Land Studio LLC.