Are you thinking of engaging a Garden Designer, Landscaper or Garden Contractor, and wonder where to start?
You have reached a decision; you are definitely going to start looking for some Professional help to build your new garden. Whilst not expecting a Chelsea Gold Medal entry, you would like an easily maintained area in which to relax and enjoy the fruits of your hard working career. But – where to begin? Searching on-line for a Designer? Do I need to employ a Garden Designer? How do I find a qualified Landscaper? How do I know they will in fact be fully Professional?
Alan Sargent started his landscaping career in 1968 and has won numerous awards including Design and Build of more than sixty RHS gardens at the various Shows, and has been involved in working within the Gardens industry in a number of roles over the years, including RHS Chelsea Show Gardens Judge and as the Founder of The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) and The School of Garden Management, (www.tsogm.org) set up with the sole purpose of training management skills to contractors, including site etiquette and working together with the home owner.
In this first article, Alan will examine the ways in which you can direct and decide both the manner in which you would like to see the project proceed, and who to instruct to carry out the works in a sensible progressive programme to suit your timing, budget and any other factors that may be important to you.
For instance, you may wish to have the works completed in stages, according to your life style and life stage. Perhaps you have a very important family event, with strict deadlines to be taken into consideration. You may decide to do the planning yourself – or at least, have an input in the style and content of the garden. Perhaps you require only the construction works completed, leaving the planting aspect for your own green fingers.
Let us assume that you wish to explore the whole package – Design and Build, leaving the maintenance issues until the garden is complete. You will need to look at the scheme in three separate stages. The first task is to decide whether or not you wish to engage a Garden Designer. Designers mainly operate as individuals, but sometimes work as part of a Design Practice or team. Many Landscape businesses also offer Design, either design only or as a Design and Build package. Both of these options bring their own benefits. The Designer, being independent, will not have any preconceived ideas of working within the limitations – if any – of a contractor’s work force. He or she will design according to your wishes, and you then have to seek a firm to carry out the build. A Design & Build company may wish to nominate those skills and materials they are happiest to work with, but as long as both you and the company are satisfied with the plans and specification, there is not a problem.
It is therefore very important that you present the potential contractor (let us refer to the Designer and/or Landscaper as ‘the contractor’) with as much information as possible. If you imagine that everybody has their own ideas of the best or easiest way to do something, but you really want to see things completed in a programme to suit you and your personal circumstances, you should produce a Method Statement.
Method Statement – How to ensure that everybody is quoting ‘like for like’.
It is extremely helpful to the Contractor to have a clear set of instructions from you regarding the manner in which you would like the works to proceed. If you produce a series of instructions entitled ‘Method Statement’, first of all consider the access to site. Remember, these are your ‘rules’, and they should be the same for all contractors to follow when quoting to ensure they are all tendering like for like. If you have to share a driveway with the contractor, this fact should be noted, but with a proviso that (for example) access to the garage must be kept clear at all times. The width of the access gates is XYZ inches, with overhead power cables that may affect crane offload deliveries. The driveway is in good condition, with however many man hole covers also in good condition, and all skips or material deliveries must be placed on protective sheeting.
Access to the side of the house is only XX inches, with an oil/gas pipe fixed to the wall which must be protected at all times.
The patio windows have been recently installed and are in clean, undamaged condition. All windows must be covered in suitable protective sheeting when carrying out works that may involve stone chippings damaging the glass.
Water and electricity will be provided without charge for the duration of the works. All taps must be turned off at the end of the day. Machinery and equipment must not be washed down in the vicinity of any drains to prevent silting.
The length of the list may be as long as you wish. You should also consider including ‘site etiquette’ items such as the banning of radios, including personal headphones (as these affect the safety of operatives and others nearby, if they cannot hear properly), car or van parking outside the property (if room is restricted either on the site or blocking the street).
Toilet facilities may be an issue. On larger projects, a site toilet should be costed into the scheme, or perhaps a dedicated loo nominated for the duration, either in the house, or perhaps swimming pool or tennis court changing rooms may be available. Whatever the options, the Method Statement should include an item regarding muddy boots and general cleanliness!
It is helpful to produce a number of time/dated photographs of the garden, as a set of ‘before and after’ shots, paying special attention to windows and doors, fences and gates, paved areas if they are to remain, trees and shrubs, ponds and pools – anything that may be damaged should be recorded, and a copy of those pictures given to the chosen contractor at the time of signing the contract agreement to avoid any disputes at the end of the job.
Cover all options and thoughts.
If you produce your Method Statement as a schedule of everyday operations – how you would like to see the job carried out, and have this document available when you first meet a prospective contractor, it is also advisable to have another paper ready to present to him or her. This should be in the form of a mini-questionnaire, with headings and blank spaces left for the requisite information.
Name and address – telephone including landline – email address – insurance details – bankers details – web site – Accountants details.
All bona fide contractors will have this information available, perhaps not at the initial meeting, but the fact that you require this basic statement will ensure you only engage a professional firm.
There is no suggestion that you will be acting a part of the ‘Contractor Team’ by requiring this level of information. All you are doing is ensuring that you employ a bona fide designer and landscape contractor who will quote using the same working template. Having chosen your garden builders and agreed financial terms, a review of the practical aspects of undertaking the works may well be beneficial by mutual agreement.
Engaging a Landscape Designer or Contractor – Where do I begin?
You have reached a decision to employ a Garden Designer or Landscaper who offers Design & Build, and prepared yourself to engage with them in producing a quotation for the scheme. How do I find such a Professional?
In this, the second of a series of three articles, Alan Sargent, who has been building high quality gardens since 1968, Founder of The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL), The School of Garden Management (www.tsogm.org) and a retired RHS Chelsea Show Gardens Judge will guide you through the various ways of locating a suitable Designer and/or Landscaper.
Choosing a Garden Designer is perhaps the most difficult part of the whole process. Whilst it may be a simple matter of checking via the Internet, typing in ‘Garden Designer’, with perhaps a codicil ‘In the Chichester area’ just to reduce the number of likely candidates, you may be presented with a considerable choice of designers. If you like the look of a particular style of presentation, try to ignore pretty pictures of flowers and set dressed planters, and look at the quality of the actual plans. Very often, they may be accompanied by a lovely perspective drawing, and the whole package is appealing. Do not be lured into thinking that a set of pretty pictures is good garden design!
Although there are many hundreds of qualified and semi qualified designers who are members of either The Society of Garden Designers (SGD) or The British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI), and if they show either of those logos, you may be confident that they are competent designers, as both organisations are scrupulous in maintaining their membership credentials.
Landscapers, both Build and Design & Build
Similarly, Landscapers who are members of either The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL)(who are also likely to be members of Trustmark) and The British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) will have been thoroughly vetted and approved. They will carry full insurance, employ qualified staff and maintain the highest standards of workmanship and professionalism. This does not imply that those who are not members of either are not competent, simply that both APL and BALI members have been thoroughly screened before admission to the Associations.
For smaller contractors, especially those offering landscape works and maintenance many belong to The Gardeners Guild, which also has strict rules of entry. Everyone joining must have at least one formal Horticultural qualification, and are subject to a complaints procedure and pay formal subscriptions on an annual basis.
Be aware that others may claim to be ‘members’ of other professional associations, some of which are nothing more than Forums, with membership simply being a matter of joining without any meritorious selection whatsoever.
Many other firms will be perfectly sound, competent and confident, and not Association members, but as long as you have seen all relevant documentation including insurance and bankers details, and ensured that they are following your Method Statement (see first instalment), there is no reason why they should not be included in your Tender List.
Whether or not you engage a separate Garden Designer or opt for a Design and Build package, you will need to physically see samples of all materials proposed for use in the project. These may include bricks, paving, timber, top soil, plant materials, turf etc – every item that is scheduled or promoted for use in the scheme must be agreed in writing beforehand. All products, especially ‘hard’ landscaping materials such as paving should be seen, examined both for quality and colour (ensure you agree the product both wet and dry, as the colour variation may be extreme) should be placed into a ‘product library’ and kept on site. This is to avoid any misunderstanding regarding materials at a later stage.
Top soil is also very important. Samples should be inspected and a detailed analysis obtained from the supplier (they offer this service as a matter of course, without charge or comment) to prevent contaminated soil from being used on site. Poor quality imported soil could result in a considerable drop in the value of your property, so don’t be shy about requiring this information.
Turf should be nominated by the designer as being the correct seed mix for the site. Most turf will meet a minimum British Standards quality, but it is advisable to match the existing site soil with imported turf soil to ensure a compatible marriage between the two materials.
You should note all specification, especially regarding matters such a depth of concrete under paving, thickness of wall etc, to ensure ‘like for like’ quotations.
Taking up References
You should require at least three references from previous clients, especially from Landscapers. These should be fairly recent, and to the approximate value of your project. They should include name and address, and you would be well advised to write if possible, as you are more likely to receive a fuller answer, including any contentious matters that may not be comfortable to recall over the telephone.
Labour to be used on site
Given the wide range of skills required to build a modern garden, there is no reason why a contractor should not employ specialised sub-contract labour. A fully trained bricklayer, employed on an ad hoc basis will be faster, cleaner and cheaper than a capable but slow landscape operative. Certainly, expect specialists such as fibre glass installers, electricians and plumbers to be brought on to site. There should be no issue with this (normal) practice, but you will expect to see their insurance documents (Public Liability) and a note in the wording of the contract to the effect that named specialist sub-contractors will be used on the scheme should be made for the sake of regularity.
Care should be taken to avoid employing a company who relies on casual labour for general works. Even using an Employment Agency, the fact that the workers will not be part of a long term team, or have any kind of known background upon which their skills may be established by other team members, there is a risk of low productivity at the very least.
If you follow the simple rules as suggested in articles one and two, you should have a Designer, willing and able to interpret your requirements, and a competent, qualified and insured contractor signed up to build the garden of your dreams. All parties will be using the same set of rules of the game, and everybody content that each knows what is expected of the other in a timely manner.
Payment terms – likely scenarios
Obviously, the larger the project, the more likely a number of payments or instalments will be required. Most contractors require a Mobilisation payment in advance of starting work on site. The normal amount is based on a percentage rate of 10%, although others may charge 20 0r even 25%, dependent on the amount of materials to be ordered and delivered early into the project programme.
Any special feature or item that is bespoke to your project will normally need to be paid for in advance, especially if the contractor does not have an account with the supplier, or the product is of such a nature as to be of no use to them should you change your mind and cancel the item.
Stage payments may be requested at regular intervals based on time spent on site or the amount of work completed. A final payment request will be made on Practical Substantial Completion of the works (i.e. end of the practical part of the contract. Some contracts will be extended to take warranties and aftercare into consideration before releasing the final payment known as ‘Retention’ – usually 2.5% of the contract sum).
Having made the decision to employ a Garden Designer and appoint a Landscape Contractor, how do I ensure they interpret my wishes once they start work?
In this, the third of a series of three articles, Alan Sargent, who has been building high quality gardens since 1968, Founder of The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL), The School of Garden Management (www.tsogm.org) and a retired RHS Chelsea Show Gardens Judge will guide you through the various ways of ensuring you get the best out of your decision to trust the professionals.
Garden Designer or Design and Build Contractor?
Let us look at the practical aspects of engaging and instructing a Garden Designer, and their role in producing your garden. As the client, you will have to decide whether or not to employ the designer purely as the artist responsible for drawing up plans, in outline form only or more detailed planting plans and specification, and perhaps construction technical drawings from which the Landscape Contractor will take instructions and information. Having produced all ‘paperwork’, the designer’s work is complete, and should not return to site for any reason, unless agreed beforehand. This cut off point is very important, as the Contractor cannot be held responsible for any alterations that you may request during the building of the garden if such works are at variance to the designers original specification.
Once the designer has left the scene, they should not be invited back to inspect the finished work (unless agreed beforehand with the Contractor) and expect to criticise any aspect – including ‘official’ variations agreed between yourself as the client and the contractor. If the Designer is to give final approval to the project, they should be engaged in a formal manner as the Project Manager. This additional work is usually based on a percentage of the total contract price (10%), and is recommended for larger schemes, especially more complex projects that require artistic direction on a regular basis.
This statement may sound very officious, but it is important to realise that contractually, the Landscaper can only have one person in charge. That person will be nominated in the contract documents as being ‘The Client’ or ‘The Client’s Agent acting for and on behalf of The Client’, and as you can imagine, anyone arriving after completion and making adverse comments on any part of the works can cause problems!
Obviously, not every project will require this level of management, but even the smaller, sub £5,000 schemes should be treated in a professional manner to avoid expensive complications and legal problems in the future.
Landscape Contractor – Design & Build
Landscapers who offer Design and Build packages are responsible for all aspects of the scheme, including technical drawings and specification. Just because the firm is building the garden, they must produce working drawings to instruct their craftspeople in exactly the same way as a Garden designer. The firm is completely liable for all works, and often there is a legal requirement for specialists to be employed, including Structural Engineers to produce plans and drawing for those parts of the scheme that may prove dangerous e.g. retaining walls and load bearing structures. Some matters cannot be designed by ‘ordinary’ Designers, and require the input of qualified professional experts. New regulations entitled Contract Design Management (CDM) Regs came into force in Spring 2015 currently only covering ‘hard’ landscape elements. These are legally enforceable, and your Contractor and Designer should be fully conversant with them.
A Design and Build firm should be able to produce solutions to problems as they arise, with everything carried out ‘In House’ on a day by day basis, but it is advisable to have one named person in charge of the site, usually a Foreperson, and you should expect to engage with him or her at a personal level, exchanging contact telephone numbers etc to ensure a close rapport during the works. You should expect to be kept up to date with progress as often as you desire, and keep a note of all important conversations as they occur.
The person in charge of the site should maintain a Day Book in any event. This ‘diary’ will record all matters such as the weather, delivery dates and times, materials delivered to site and their provenance, staff numbers on site etc.
Materials and their significance in the future
We have already discussed ensuring that a Products Library is established with samples of all important materials to be used in the scheme. This library will ensure that only approved products are brought on site, but another element for the future well-being of the garden is the requirement for a list of suppliers and the provenance of such items as building sand – you will need to record the name/type of sand and the quarry from which it was purchased, together with information regarding the ratio of sand to cement (mortar mix) in case you ever need to extend or repair a project. This record will include a wide range of products, including bricks, paving, timber etc – anything that you may need to purchase in the future to ensure as close a match as possible.
Equally important is the name of plant suppliers. Even if you have been given a warranty against failure of plant stock, once that time has elapsed, you may wish to replace or add a tree or shrub and use the same supplier. (Be aware that even using the same supplier is no guarantee that plant material will match. This is especially true of evergreens such as Taxus and Buxus. Batches of plants from the same grower/supplier will vary from season to season although technically exactly the same specification)
Warranties and Aftercare
Having completed the project, the Contractor should provide you with aftercare leaflets or written instructions describing the various methods of pruning and watering your new garden. This will either take the form of a site specific schedule of all plants used in the garden, including fertilising and maintenance guides, or a generic document explaining the requirements of trees, shrubs and herbaceous in general. The watering guide should offer advice on amounts and times for applying water, and may even nominate the type or style of irrigation equipment.
Importantly, all written guarantees and warranties should be packaged and presented to you as part of the final Handover documentation and may include instructions for use etc, and again, the name and address of the supplier should be provided.
Whilst these articles may appear too complex for a simple garden makeover – too much fuss and unnecessary bother – consider the ramifications of simply going ahead and engaging a Garden Designer and getting someone in to build the scheme without due regard to the potential cost of making the wrong choice. Not only could you end up with something that was not to your liking, built in a manner that is not going to last very long, with unsuitable materials introduced to your property (including weed infested topsoil and container grown plants full of vine weevil!) and you may well find yourself involved in costly Court action trying to resolve an expensive and complex problem.
The legal phrase ‘Caveat Emptor’ – Buyer Beware – could have been written to describe the world of Landscape Gardening. Using sound logic and business sense should ensure you will have the garden of your dreams, designed and built by skilled passionate professionals.