If your landscape company isn’t large enough to hire a full-time designer yet, or if your current designers’ workloads are full, one option you can turn to is a design-only firm.
An example of one of these design-only firms is Four Seasons Landscape Designs, based in Jacksonville, Florida. While the firm is located in Florida, owner/designer Guy Richardson creates custom outdoor living spaces for landscape contractors and home builders located anywhere in the U.S. and Canada.
Richardson started designing as a hobby in 1990 after spending 10 years in the Marine Corps.
“It must have been in the cards, as my next-door neighbor had a small lawn and landscape business,” Richardson says. “He was very accommodating with my questions and clearly had a lot of patience, as I was always asking him why he did certain things in his landscape or how to use certain plant material as well as palm information, as it was new for me.”
He began to visit various properties and study their landscapes such as Leu Gardens, Disney World, Universal Studios and even the airport. By 2009, Richardson says he started designing as a side business after coming back from a trip to Ecuador.
“I left Ecuador totally rejuvenated and inspired to do what I felt was something I was here to do,” he says. “My thoughts were that life is too short to be stuck in a cubicle for 8-10 hours a day helping someone else with their success with little personal satisfaction. While I am at a desk doing design work, I can do it from anywhere I have internet access.”
Richardson opted to start his own design firm, as he says he wanted to create his own direction and future. He says he chose to stay on the design-only side, as it provides him the freedom of working from anywhere and combines his skill sets of design and horticulture.
“I just love the synergy that landscape projects bring,” he says. “Interacting with all stakeholders from owners to installers to subcontractors is simply invigorating to me. While I am making my own way and totally remote from the action, I still feel as though I am part of the team in making a project successful.”
Four Seasons Landscape Designs has a mixture of returning clients and one-off customers, which Richardson says they often end up returning when there is a need. He says landscape contractors often come to him over hiring an in-house landscape designer because of the cost.
“This is certainly a much less expensive avenue to take when they want to impress a customer when otherwise they wouldn’t have been in a position to bid successfully on a project, particularly when other contractors are using software as well for the larger projects,” he says. “What I do is fill a niche where companies either aren’t really large enough for a full-time designer, as well as to help those companies with designers, but the project opportunities are stacking up and they don’t want to lose out to the competition.”
Richardson says he gets his business through social media and word of mouth, but most of it comes from him reaching out to landscaping companies through sites such as LinkedIn and Indeed. The reasons why a company may need an extra designer can vary from simply one being out sick, or the company’s project backlog is building up.
“There are times when there is a need for 3D work for a client presentation that came up and the current designer(s) are on other projects that are just as important timewise, so they’re not available to do the work,” Richardson says. “In some cases, the design shops don’t have the skill sets to create the 3D looks that are desired for a 3D presentation, whether in the form of 3D screenshots or videos.”
For those with concerns over how Richardson is able to create landscape designs that are well suited for various regions across the country and Canada, he says he often gets this question.
His answer is he uses local nurseries as his major knowledge resource.
“I’ll call a couple of local nurseries and introduce myself, indicating I have a project in their area and would like to get an availability list, which is never a problem,” Richardson says. “In fact, they always tell me to give them a call if I have any questions with the plant material or quantities. Should the contractor have a preferred nursery, then I’ll call them and one other nursery as a backup. By designing from a local nursery’s plant pallet, you’re assured of creating a successful landscape that will thrive in that area.”
Communication is a major key to Richardson successfully creating a design that pleases both the landscape contractor he’s working with and the homeowners. Thanks to today’s technology, there are a multitude of ways to stay in touch with clients.
“Good communication is based on ensuring you’re making the meetings on time and ensuring your technology is up and running well before the meeting time so there are no delays, as the contractor’s time is valuable and it’s important to respect their time,” he says. “Should there ever be a schedule change, as things just happen that are out of our control, either the contractor or their representative contacts me to reschedule and vice versa, as it’s truly a mutual respect for our businesses.”
In his first meeting with a landscape contractor, Richardson says they will agree on what communication tools they want to use for conferencing and messaging.
“There are some with preferred methods of conferencing applications such as Skype, Google Talk, Zoom and Facebook,” he says. “Almost all will use email and texting whether SMS, Skype, Google chat or Facebook messaging.”
The majority of the time, Richardson works with just the landscape contractor or the home builder but there are times where he’s worked with the homeowner as well. He says he makes sure he knows what guidelines to follow before talking to the consumer.
“I make sure I know all the boundaries, as I am in essence representing the contractor and I want it to be in the best light,” he says. “It just means making sure what the contractor either wants me to avoid or cover, as they have already been in contact with their customer, so they have first knowledge of the project and their customer’s needs.”
As for how long it takes to create a landscape design for a landscape contractor, it will vary based on the project.
The process typically includes an initial review meeting to ensure everyone is on the same page, and then another meeting time is set based on how long Richardson thinks it will take him to complete a job.
“Of course, anytime between the scheduled meetings, I’m free to email questions, but when I do, I make sure I have reviewed all items and send all the questions at once. This is to keep the project moving without several stop and go intervals, as time and accuracy are paramount.”
Once the design portion of the project is signed off, Richardson says he is done with the exception of being available to make revisions or clarification.
When it comes to the pricing of his services, Richardson has three tiers: standard, premium and platinum, which outline the basic price point for each category.
“When discussing my prices with the contractor, we see how the project fits in the price models,” he says. “To be honest, there is mixing and matching to get what they need and based on the complexities of the project, we come up with the price, as it’s almost always somewhere between the two or three models depending on what is being done from each model.”
He says he always includes two revisions in the price that’s within the scope of the project.
“If there is another revision depending on the amount of time to make the revision, I may just let it go without charge,” Richardson says. “Should there be a scope change, then there is a change order made to cover adds and changes just as there is when building a house or a landscape project. The costs are there to not only pay for the additional work, which I’m glad to have, but can slow a project. It also helps to prevent or slow scope creep, as it’s almost always the customer doing this and is the one, in the end, paying for the changes.”
Richardson says he developed his pricing model based on his costs, his income and market value.
“What the market will support is perhaps the single largest factor in determining my prices,” he says. “If the supporting market price is lower than the first two items of covering my expenses and a living wage, then it’s no longer a business but rather a hobby.”