Why and When to Hire a Landscape Architect

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Is your outdoor space a mess? From drainage issues to sinking patio pavers, outdoor spaces can face many issues that keep the yard from being the functional and beautiful area you imagine — which is where a landscape architect can come in handy. Putting out some planters can spruce up your outdoor space, but sometimes, you need a professional to make big changes. Hiring a licensed landscape architect is an option if you have a large-scale outdoor renovation in the works, especially if you want to make structural changes to the natural environment outside your home.

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Not sure if hiring a landscape architect is right for you — or a little unsure of what it is that they do? Here's what you need to know.

What Is a Landscape Architect?

Landscape architects create a comprehensive design plan for an entire property that balances the aesthetics and the environment. They often work on a large scale to design things like city parks, golf courses, and college campuses. Homebuilders, community developers, and buyers of brand-new homes might hire a landscape architect to design the property's outdoor space after construction is complete.

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Landscape architecture usually takes a big-picture approach to create an overall design that's attractive, functional, and beneficial for the environment. Landscape architects research the site, including current features and the natural environment, to consider things like drainage and environmental concerns. Using computer-aided design and drafting programs, they create site plans for the property. Some landscape architects might also use geographic information systems to map different geographical features that can help with the design.

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Landscape architects must have at least a bachelor's degree from a program accredited by the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board. Some go on to earn a master's degree in the field. They must also pass the Landscape Architect Registration Examination from the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards to meet state licensing requirements.

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When to Hire a Landscape Architect

As a homeowner, you might hire a landscape architect when you buy a new home. Builders often leave yards bare, so you'll be starting from scratch. A landscape architect can help you design and develop the barren landscape into something beautiful that matches your new home. Landscape architects design features that can also ensure proper drainage and address other environmental issues to ensure your new home stays in good condition.

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Landscape architects can also help with your existing property even if you've lived there for years. Complex landscape situations, especially those requiring structural changes, are often ideal for a landscape architect. You might have landscape architects work on major issues with your property, such as poor drainage or slope issues requiring a large retaining wall. They can also be useful for projects like green roofs that require more than just planting greenery.

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Landscape Architect vs. Other Lawn and Garden Professionals

You might lump landscape architects in with landscape designers and landscapers, but each profession has a different part in creating beautiful outdoor environments. Landscape architects typically work on a larger scale, designing an entire property, park, or community rather than doing smaller, more focused projects. While you can hire a landscape architect for a residential project, they often work on larger projects for government agencies or communities.

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Landscape designers often have an undergraduate degree, but there's no set program or licensing requirements to become a landscape designer in the United States. This is similar to interior designers, who also don't need licensing in most areas. Landscape designers focus more on making the outdoor space aesthetically pleasing with softscape and hardscape features. Landscape designers can help you create an outdoor landscape design that's balanced, proportionate, and colorful with the right plants that fit your environment and needs.

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Landscapers and gardeners don't have education requirements. They might gain work experience and horticulture knowledge on the job or through classes. Landscapers do the actual work that landscape architects and landscape designers create. They install the initial features and can continue maintaining the landscape features with weeding, mowing, and fertilizing plants for you.

How Do Landscape Architects Help?

A landscape architect can help with all types of landscape and outdoor home design issues. They typically focus on the property and environment as a whole, creating a comprehensive plan rather than working on one individual project. Landscape architects can manage major structural changes, especially to fix issues such as drainage or erosion problems.

Designing Hardscape Features

Your home's hardscape features include the nonliving elements made from hard materials. This includes things like driveways, patios, decks, fences, arbors, gazebos, and retaining walls. These things might seem simple, but they require careful planning and knowledge of proper installation. High retaining walls on steep slopes can be particularly dangerous to DIY. A landscape architect can design a retaining wall that's secure and does its job properly.

Correcting Drainage Issues

A property with poor drainage or grading issues can leave you wading through water inside your home. Fixing the water issues requires someone with knowledge of proper grading and methods of controlling water. For example, the landscape architect might suggest permeable paving or a rain garden to reduce runoff. Proper grading helps direct water away from your home to keep it dry. Landscape architects have expertise in correcting those issues.

Outdoor Plant Design

While landscape designers can handle all types of plant design for you, a landscape architect can also incorporate plant design into the site plans. This can be especially helpful if you need the plants to work within the larger landscape renovation or if you want the plants to help address specific issues.

For example, you might ask the landscape architect for a xeriscape design to create a low-maintenance landscape with native plants that don't require much irrigation. If you live in an area with a risk of wildfires, you might want fire-resistant landscaping. The architect can also create a plant design that helps control water flow, improves drainage, or minimizes erosion.

Handling Sensitive Sites

If your property includes sensitive environmental areas, such as protected wetlands or a location on a floodplain, a landscape architect can help address those issues. They work to make your property functional and attractive while also keeping the environment healthy. A licensed landscape architect should also be familiar with the restrictions around those sensitive environmental areas to ensure you don't violate any regulations.

Landscaping Requiring Permits

Some landscaping projects require a permit just like indoor renovation projects. Some permits might require site plans approved by a licensed landscape architect. Using one from the beginning makes this permitting process easier, and the landscape architect should know the permitting requirements to prevent potential issues. Permit requirements vary by location, so consulting with a landscape architect can help determine what you need to do for major outdoor projects.

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Hiring a Landscape Architect

If you decide that a landscape architect is right for your project, ensure that you hire one who is properly licensed. Look for a professional who is a member of prominent organizations, such as the American Society of Landscape Architects, as a sign that he stays current in the field. Check on insurance and request proof of insurance before you start working with a landscape architect.

Checking previous work is also important. Ask to see a portfolio of past landscape design and architecture projects to evaluate the quality of the work. Look at the types of projects the landscape architect has done in the past to ensure she has work experience that's relevant to your project. Reading online reviews can also give you an idea of the professional's qualifications and can help you spot red flags.

Request cost estimates before choosing a landscape architect. Review any bids to ensure you understand the terms and ask any questions about the bid, process, or services before choosing your landscape architect.

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