10 Reasons Why Landscape Architects are Essential When Building a New Custom Home

Homeowners often work with design-build firms when creating a new custom home. These teams usually include project managers, architects, structural engineers, interior designers, and subcontractors like plumbers, electricians, and construction workers. However, homeowners often fail to hire a landscape architect or landscape designer when building their new custom home. Some homeowners assume they can either landscape the property themselves or hire a designer after the house is built. As with most DIY home improvement projects, landscaping without the help of a licensed professional presents a series of risks. Even minor projects like planting a garden, let alone building a deck or retaining wall, can have unintended consequences. Samantha Allen explains in her article "Ask The Contractor: 7 Landscaping Insider Tips You Need To Know" for Forbes.

Allen writes that "many people love gardening...[but] shrubs and flowers can cause a lot of damage if planted carelessly." For example, the strength of a concrete foundation "can be compromised to the point of failure if roots from a nearby shrub invade." Working with a landscaping architect prevents you from making costly mistakes that could damage your property. It also ensures every element of your landscape project is permitted and up to code. Working with a landscape professional could help you save money on cooling your home and maintaining your garden. Best of all, a professional designer will protect your home from flooding, erosion, and wildfires. This post explains why you should hire a landscape architect when building a new custom home in California or Washington State. We also present the difference between landscape architects and landscape designers.

What is the Difference Between a Landscape Architect and a Landscape Designer?

There are a couple of key differences between landscape architects and landscape designers. Education, approach, and project size/scope are three key differences. Landscape architects tend to study at the undergraduate and graduate levels, while landscape designers are not required to do so. Landscape designers usually deal with the horticultural elements of an outdoor space, while landscape architects deal with both hardscaping and soft capping.

Lastly, landscape designers typically work on smaller residential projects like backyards and kitchen gardens. On the other hand, landscape architects work on large-scale projects like commercial projects and design many residential landscapes. We explain the differences between landscape designers and architects in further detail below.

Education and Licensing

Landscape architects must have studied landscape architecture at the undergraduate or graduate level through an accredited university in most states. In California, all landscape architects have a Bachelor's degree, and many have Master's degrees. Landscape architects must also pass state exams and might also have to work under a more experienced architect for a few years before they can practice independently.

For example, a landscape architect cannot practice independently in Washington State unless he or she has graduated from an approved program and worked for at least three years under a landscape architect who is already licensed in the state. According to the California Architects Board Landscape Architects Technical Committee, the requirements are even more significant in the Golden State. The California Architects Board notes that "a candidate for licensure as a landscape architect must have a minimum of six years combined qualifying education and training/experience to be eligible to take the Landscape Architect Registration Examination (LARE)" in California.

Conversely, landscape designers are not required to graduate from an undergraduate or graduate program accredited by the American Society of Landscape Architects. However, Lisa Hallett Taylor writes in her article "Landscape Architect vs. Landscape Designer: What's the Difference?" for The Spruce that most landscape designers "have taken courses at a college, university, through an extension or certificate program, or online." Very few are wholly self-taught.

Approach to Landscape Design

As mentioned above, landscape designers focus exclusively on the softscape elements of landscape design while landscape architects focus on the hardscape elements. They often curate softscape aspects too. The HomeAdvisor guide “Landscape Architect & Designer Hiring Guide: Differences & Interview Questions” explains. According to HomeAdvisor, “landscape architects focus on the big picture…considering your entire property as well as its surroundings.” This means that landscape architects “treat your property as a system of interworking parts, from plants to outdoor living space.”

After analyzing the entire site, landscape architects will “draft comprehensive property plans for client review and planning purposes.” They will consider the existing structures and their foundations, drainage, grading, and disaster risk. Based on these assessments, they will research, propose, and source appropriate building materials and plants. In general, landscaping projects that require permits are handled either by a structural engineer or a landscape architect.

The role of a landscape designer is much different. In her article “Should You Hire a Landscape Architect or Landscape Designer?” for Angi, Alison Kasch explains. Kasch writes that designers “have extensive horticultural knowledge and/or nursery experience.” Designers are usually experienced garden designers who can “help you avoid costly mistakes, such as planting the wrong types of plants together.”

While a landscape architect typically works closely with residential architects and other members of a design-build team, a landscape designer might work closely with the homeowner. While designers “provide in-depth direction for the plants in your landscape…most do not include hardscaping plans like patios, walkways," retaining walls and other outdoor structures. Instead, they focus on soft landscape features.

10 Reasons Why You Need a Landscape Architect When Building a Custom Home

Why hire a landscape architect? When building a custom home in California or Washington State, hiring a landscape architect is essential. Landscape architects consider your house, health, safety, and the surrounding environment when designing outdoor spaces. They work with interior designers and residential architects to match your outdoor area to your home's architecture and interior. They work with local nurseries to choose the perfect native plants for drought-tolerant, low-maintenance gardens that protect against fires, floods, and coastal erosion. Depending on the complexity of your landscaping project, you might also choose to hire other professionals like a landscape designer or structural engineer to help.

#1 Designers Will Choose Features That Lower the Risk of Fire, Flooding, Coastal Erosion, and Landslides

First, designers will choose features that protect your property from natural disasters. Depending on the location of your property, your home might be at risk of damage from wildfires, flooding, coastal erosion, landslides, or earthquakes. From native plants and irrigation systems to retaining walls and permeable paving, landscape architects will choose all the features that help protect your home from disaster. Landscape designers can also help with this stage of the garden design process by advising which plants are best suited to your property and surrounding environment.

Firescaping in California Wildlands

A good landscape architect will also be familiar with your state and local government’s defensible space laws. In her article “Firesafe Landscaping: Defensible Space” for This Old House, Tabitha Suhkai explains. Suhkai writes that California law only requires homes in two zones to maintain a “mandatory 100-foot defensible space,” but recommends these perimeters for four zones. According to Sukhai, defensible space is “a specially planned and designed area around your home that provides maneuvering space for firefighters, serves as a barrier to impede raging wildfires from getting to your doorstep, and prevents house fires from spreading to the wild.” When designing a defensible space, hiring a landscape architect is essential because properly placed plants and structures could mean the difference between a home that survives and burns to the ground.

In firescaping your property, landscape architects will usually choose evergreen native plants that do not shed leaves, needles, or other debris seasonally. This keeps the land clear. They place these plants strategically around the property, ensuring a reasonable distance between short and tall plants that could spread fire quickly from one to the next. In her article “Weekend Design: How to Create a Fire-Wise Landscape” for the Times of San Diego, Eileen Kelly notes that architects will usually “break up large planting areas with a combination of fire-resistant plants and noncombustible materials.” For example, a stone pathway through your outdoor living space could function as “an effective fire break.”

Protecting Against Floods, Landslides and Coastal Erosion

If you build a custom home along the California coast or in the Puget Sound area of Washington, you might be worried about flooding, landslides, or coastal erosion. Houses built on hillsides in the Bay Area or the rural areas of California’s Central Valley are also susceptible to flooding and landslides. After a wildfire, these areas are even more vulnerable. Thankfully, specific landscaping techniques can help prevent floods, landslides, and erosion from impacting your property. Referencing the “Homeowner’s Guide to Erosion Control” from the California Natural Resources Conservation Service, Marty Nelson explains in an article for UC Marin Master Gardeners. Nelson writes that the slope of your land will affect which solutions are most suitable.

For example, “moderate slopes can be protected with less than a 33 percent grade with plants and mulch.” Nelson suggests a mix of native plants for best results, including “ground covers, perennials, shrubs, and trees.” Plants with strong roots that retain soil are preferable. Steeper slopes “will need additional structural support for stabilization,” which your landscaping architect should be able to design for you. These might include netting or wattles, which “retain the slope until plants can take over.” Your landscape architect will probably design a “retaining wall or terracing for the steepest slopes.” Your architect will likely also design a drainage system to divert stormwater.

#2 Professional Landscaping Adds Value to Your Home

In addition to protecting your home from harsh weather and natural disasters, professional landscaping can also add value to your home. Cam Merritt explains writing for SF Gate in the article “Does Landscaping Increase Your Property Value?” Cam Merritt explains. According to Merritt, “a well-landscaped home has a significant price advantage over a home with no landscaping.” Depending on the “home’s original value” and the type of landscaping project, improving your home’s landscape architecture could bump the sale price between 5.5 and 12.7 percent. Merritt writes that this “translates into an extra $16,500 to $38,100 in value on a $300,000 home.”

Valeri Kalfrin writes in her article “Adding Value Through Landscaping: The Homeowner’s Green Thumb Guide” for Homelight that the “American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) recommends investing 10% of your home’s value in landscaping.” According to a recent Homelight survey, “94% of top agents said that great curb appeal equals money in your bank account at closing.” Another recent study found that landscape design “significantly increases perceived home value.”

#3 Working with a Landscape Architect Ensures All Work is Permitted and Up to Code

As mentioned above, licensed landscaping architects keep current on all residential building codes. They know which improvements require permits and which do not. They also know what you can and cannot do with a property on sensitive land like wetlands or floodplains. Because architects might include a natural pool, patio, or retaining wall when designing your space, they will probably interface with your local Building and Safety Division. If you ever choose to sell your new custom home, you will not need to worry about disclosing illegal additions or improvements.

#4 Landscape Architects Will Create a Contiguous Space that Reflects Your Home's Interior

When designing gardens and other outdoor living spaces, a landscaping architect will consider the interior and exterior of your home. They will examine the building materials, color palette, architectural style, interior layout, and connection between the indoors and outdoors. Laura Gaskill explains in her article “10 Times to Hire a Landscape Architect” for Houzz. Gaskill writes that “landscape architects are skilled at creating designs that work with the surrounding terrain and the architecture of your home.” A landscape architect would not design a French formal garden – or Jardin à la française – for a mid-century modern home.

For example, Gaskill describes the gardens of a Hudson, New York home designed by Dale Schafer of Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture. Schafer “designed a garden for this modern home that complements the home’s architecture.” Quoting Schafer, Gaskill writes that the key in designing gardens for homes “‘is in keeping with the simplicity of the architecture — not competing for attention, but rather a complementary foreground to both the house and the long view beyond.’”

#5 A Professional Landscape Architect Can Create a Low-Maintenance Garden

By choosing native, drought-tolerant plants for your home in California or native tropical plants for your home in the Pacific Northwest, your architect or designer can help save you time and money. The key to a low-maintenance garden is picking plants that easily root and require few resources. Not only are indigenous plants low-maintenance, but they also attract local wildlife!

In conversation with David Godshall for her article “Two Prominent Landscape Firms on Designing a Small Outdoor Space” for Architectural Digest, Danine Alati explains. Alati writes that by “‘planting with at least 50% native species…your space will come to life with birds, bees, butterflies.’” This will make your garden “‘a source of joy.’”

#6 A Licensed Landscape Architect Can Help Reduce Energy Bills Through Passive Heating and Cooling

Adding a shade to limit sun exposure or a line of trees that blocks the wind could help reduce energy bills through passive heating and cooling. Architects consider this when sitting in your house and when designing the landscape. According to the US Department of Energy, “a well-placed tree, shrub, or vine can deliver effective shade, act as a windbreak, and reduce your energy bills.” Their resource “Landscaping for Energy-Efficient Homes” notes that “carefully positioned trees can save up to 25% of a typical household's energy.”

#7 Your Landscape Architect Will Know How to Design Around Septic Systems, Wells, and Other Features

Architects and designers must follow specific rules homeowners might not know about when working on properties with wells, septic systems, or drainage fields. For example, architects and designers must avoid planting large shrubs, vegetable gardens, or fruit trees near the drain field or septic tank. Instead, native grasses are recommended. Designers also avoid adding plants that might require fertilizers or other chemical treatments near drinking wells.

#8 Landscape Architects Can Choose Features That Help Reduce Noise

Certain landscape architecture techniques can help reduce noise from industry, traffic, and neighbors if you build a new custom house in the city. This is especially helpful in booming metropolises like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Shala Munroe explains in her article "How to Landscape to Block Noise" for SF Gate. Munroe writes that architects can "effectively block noise" by choosing elements that "obstruct the line of sight from your living area to the noise structure." They can do this in two ways: planting trees and shrubs or building an artificial structure like a wall or fence.

Those who choose to plant trees should pick "evergreen trees and shrubs because trees that lose their leaves in winter allow noise to penetrate." Munroe recommends trees like the Leyland cypress, "which can grow up to 4 feet per year in mild climates such as northern California." Planting shrubs around the trees – as long as this does not violate any fire protection regulations – can reduce noise by filling in sparser areas. Building a fence or wall also helps.

#9 A Good Landscape Architect Will Know What You Can and Can't Do if Your Property Backs Up to Protected Land

According to Lisa Hallett Taylor in her article "Landscape Architect vs. Landscape Designer: What's the Difference?" for The Spruce, these professionals "design and plan the restoration of natural places disturbed by humans such as wetlands, stream corridors, mined areas, and forested land." Taylor notes that their "education in and respect for historic landscapes and cultural resources allows landscape architects to work on preservation planning projects for national, state, and local historic outdoor sites and areas."

Because of their exhaustive education, landscaping architects understand how to design around sensitive areas. In her article "Why and When to Hire a Landscape Architect" for Hunker, Shelley Frost writes that landscape architects can help you address any issues if "your property includes sensitive environmental areas, such as protected wetlands or a location on a floodplain." These architects "work to make your property functional and attractive while also keeping the environment healthy." Any licensed architect in your state should keep up with "restrictions around those sensitive environmental areas to ensure you don't violate any regulations."

#10 They Can Help You Create a Year-Round Indoor-Outdoor Living Space

By working with the design-build team and consulting with the homeowners throughout the landscape project, landscaping architects ensure the space is compatible with the clients’ lifestyles. Over the last couple of years, function outdoor living spaces have become incredibly popular, complete with outdoor kitchens, dining rooms, and fire pits. Quoting Damien Harrison of Harrison Green in her article “Two Prominent Landscape Firms on Designing a Small Outdoor Space” for Architectural Digest, Danine Alati explains how architects help create seamless year-round indoor-outdoor living spaces.

Harrison tells Alati that discussing the project with the homeowners and “‘knowing how the client is going to use the space is key.’” He notes that “‘some gardens are to be viewed from the interior, some are a passive space to read the newspaper, some are for entertaining, and some are for all of the above.’” According to Harrison, designing an outdoor room is not much different than creating an indoor space, except for the weather-resistant materials one must choose. Harrison says that he plans outdoor rooms by considering “‘all dimensions: think about the flooring, walls, and ‘ceiling,’ and how these elements can maximize the potential of a space.”

Design the Perfect Outdoor Space for Your Custom Home with Element

If you plan to build a new custom home in California or Washington State, reach out to the team at Element Homes. Our team of designers, engineers, and other residential architecture professionals understands the unique challenges posed by the climate and weather of both California and Washington. Our project manager ensures you work with the perfect landscape architect or designer for your property. Get in touch to learn more today.

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