Business best practices: Designing for profit

Updated Feb 21, 2020
Photo: DuChene Design SolutionsPhoto: DuChene Design Solutions

“Designing” and “profit” may be two words that don’t seem to go hand in hand when used in the context of the landscape design/build industry. I am referring to establishing a practice of landscape design that promotes a profitable environment for a landscape design/build company and landscape design-only business. There are many steps you can take to help create this profitable environment: establishing the physical environment in which you work and the tools you use to do this work, how you manage and track the design process and how you approach the designs themselves.

The environment

Having a comfortable, organized and ergonomic workspace is crucial for productive design. Standing desks, for example, are a great way to reduce back strain from the typical “sitting at my desk all day” syndrome. And did you know the optimal viewing distance for any computer monitor is between 25” and 35”?

I see too many designers working in environments that work against them and not with them in their efforts to produce their designs. Working in a comfortable and clutter free workspace will do wonders for your productivity and overall well-being.

For those of you doing computer-aided design, using the right hardware for what you are doing is crucial. Utilizing multiple monitors, or at least a 27”- 32” monitor, will greatly increase the amount of work you can accomplish by providing more workspace for improved multitasking or running multiple programs simultaneously. If you have the means to invest in the right hardware, do it.

Buy more than what you think you need now so your computer can handle what you ask of it now and in the future. I suggest spending between $1,500 and $3,000 for a laptop that will do what you want. When buying a desktop computer that includes the computer itself and a monitor or two, expect to spend approximately $2,000 – $5,000 depending on how crazy you get with specifications.

Time tracking

Tracking labor and materials is a standard practice in the landscape industry. But what about tracking design time on projects to ensure you are not losing money before you even sell the job?

Tracking design hours is a very important yet under practiced task in our industry. We all have, or should have, at least some basic expectations of how long it should take our crews to do their jobs in the field, but just as important is managing the productivity of your design team.

Photo: DuChene Design SolutionsPhoto: DuChene Design Solutions

This allows you to accurately price your design fees, maintain a realistic design schedule and ensures you are not losing money during the design process. Even though you may be charging your clients for designs, you may be losing money before you even sell the job by spending more design time than estimated, which in turn will extend your design schedule.

A beautiful design is impressive and important, but if it takes too long to produce, there is a problem. Keeping time sheets for each project is a great way to track design, modeling and rendering time. It’s no different than tracking different tasks in the field such as patio excavation time, irrigation head installation time or paver laying time.

For example, if you work on a project that takes 10 hours to design and 16 hours to 3D model, these times should be tracked separately.  Design time, site inventory and analysis time and client correspondence and consultation time all should go into these calculations for design fees and time. This tracking will help you estimate how long future projects will take, allow you to accurately charge future design fees and maintain a working design schedule.

The design process

As I have had the opportunity to design for and consult with many landscape companies across the U.S. and Canada, I have learned a lot about how many of them operate very differently but are all trying to achieve the same goals: selling landscape work, making a profit, making their clients happy and doing things as efficiently as possible.

With this experience, I have come up with some common action items that I suggest all landscape companies try to execute to make the design process as easy and smooth as possible.

1. Maintain a well-organized file system. Computer file organization is crucial for efficient design. The better your computer folders are organized, the faster you and others will be able to access the information. For example, a client folder should contain subfolders such as before photos, scans and surveys, drawings, 3D modeling and possibly takeoff files or estimate files. Having these subfolders will allow you to quickly access files and will save you a lot of time in the long run.

2. Always ask for and make every effort to obtain a survey. This can save you a lot of site measuring time and is often needed for the permit process. Let your client know their design fee may be less if they are able to provide a good site survey. It’s amazing how they are miraculously able to find them when they know it will save them money!

3. Take accurate measurements of the area to be designed that allows you or your designer to easily prepare a base sheet. Do your site measurements on grid paper to help you make a cleaner and more readable sketch. Poor measurements not only create design and estimating mistakes, they can make designs take longer than expected or estimated.

4. Take more pictures than you think you need. Close-up pictures, as well as distant pictures, are very important. Don’t cripple your design process because you do not know exactly what you are working with because you didn’t take enough pictures.

5. Get good site elevations so you know what is involved with features like steps, walls and the terrain. If you are not sure how exact your drawing is in the process, do a good concept drawing and verify this drawing in the field to clear up any possible mistakes prior to finalizing and presenting the drawing to your client. This visit is a good time to possibly show your client, in person, how their design is coming along. They will appreciate this time you offer them.

6. Provide progress proofs to your client. The practice of progress proofs has kept my revision time to approximately five percent of the total design time. Don’t overload your client with too many or they will feel that they are doing all the work and will begin to doubt your confidence in your ability to create a good design.

Progress proofs show your client you are working on their project. They allow you to gather productive feedback along the way that will reduce revision time later on and they show your client you value their input and that you care that the project is something with which they are comfortable and they will be happy with. Progress proofs also buy you time in case your design schedule is backed up. It is amazing how effective of a pacifier a progress proof can be for your client when they know you are working on their design. Communication with your client through the design phase is crucial and often sets the tone for them of how the construction phase will play out.

7. Maintain good and constant communication between the design team and sales team. If you have questions about how your design will affect the sales team or construction team, communicate with them. Ask them questions and involve them so you know you are producing a drawing that is sellable, affordable and buildable.

8. Know what your design is costing as you design. Keep a sheet of general pricing of what your services cost. For example, have a sheet that gives you close numbers of what your patios normally cost per square foot, how much you normally charge to install specific plantings or even what an average landscape light costs to install.

This, of course, is an internal document and not to be shared outside of the office. Pricing by the square foot or linear foot is not the best way to price jobs to recover your costs and overhead and manage your labor and material, but a good outline of your services and close square footage and linear footage pricing is a very good way to make sure your design coincides with the budget.

Photo: DuChene Design SolutionsPhoto: DuChene Design Solutions

Progress proofs should not be sent out until you run quick numbers on what you are designing. The worst thing is to have a client fall in love with a drawing only to find out it is way out of their budget. This can be embarrassing to your client and is a great way to scare them away.  Once your client goes through this experience, you are at a disadvantage and you will have to now work harder to salvage the relationship and steer the ship back in the right direction.

I have heard contractors and consultants tell me that clients will “always find the money.” I don’t believe this, and I wish I knew who decided to coin this phrase. The way the world is today, people are counting every dollar, and many people truly only have a certain amount of money to spend, so the best way not to insult them or discourage them is to provide them with a product with which they are comfortable and that is within their means.

People do not always honestly disclose how much money they are willing to spend until they see what you can offer them.There is nothing wrong with trying to give them a little above and beyond what they requested but be smart and reasonable about it. I believe in giving someone 10 percent to 20 percent more than what they asked for in this process.

Your client will feel much happier adding things to a project than taking things out of a project.  This is a comfortable leap in budget while not scaring them away. Don’t ask, “How much do you want to spend?” or “What is your budget?” Customers don’t like this and it’s not a great way to extract a budget.

Instead, listen to what they ask for, make some suggestions as needed and tell them that what they just described will cost ‘X’ amount of dollars. This will set you up for a much more successful attempt of knowing how much you must work with as you experience either the “deer in headlights” reaction or one of acceptance of your estimated price of the project.

9. Your design will hopefully be built so plan for this. The following points are not to discourage creativity by any means but must be considered to make things run as smoothly as possible:

  • Source materials from as few vendors as possible to reduce the logistical nightmare that can result in having to “run all over the place” to get materials. Crew members and the production team don’t enjoy this, and it is not a good way to make friends with the production team. Source materials that your crews are knowledgeable in using. The more your crew works with familiar materials, the more their production efficiency increases. If you want to introduce new materials, try to do it on smaller jobs or do a training using new materials prior to using them on a real job such as at the office with some doughnuts on a Saturday!
  • Consider what tasks such as excessive wall block or paver cuts and design form can do to a job. Curvilinear patios can be more labor-intensive and expensive as your paver and wall cutting time can increase, and more waste will be created, which requires purchasing higher percentages of materials to compensate for this waste, etc.
  • Plant sizes and materials heavily affect the pricing of jobs. Do not let this fully dictate your design but keep it in mind as you lay out your preliminary ideas to make sure you are working towards a realistic budget that can be sold and built.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written by Patrick J. DuChene and was originally published in The New Jersey Landscape Contractor. Duchene owns DuChene Design Solutions, a landscape design, 3D modeling, animation and consulting company located in Ocean City, Maryland. DuChene is a landscape designer who has 25+ years’ experience in the industry and also specializes in consulting landscape contractors and designers with design, estimating and production efficiencies to maximize profits and time management.

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