April 18, 2002

Collaborating from the ground up

  • In successful projects, design consultants get together at the beginning
    Hough Beck & Baird

    Behind every successful design project you’ll find sensitive and collaborative site planning. These are the projects that go beyond technical and practical site requirements to become true “places,” instilled with collective memory, tradition and meaning.

    General factors of site design
    Natural/climatic features
    Climate, geological features, geography, topography, vegetation, earth forms, soils, water elements, sun, wind, views, noise

    Spatial experience
    Relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, circulation through these spaces, human experience of these spaces

    Structural, defining elements
    Shelters, walkways, steps, bridges, trees, shrubs, groundcover, site utilities, stormwater facilities, lighting, irrigation, drainage

    Intangible elements
    Aesthetics, subtle design character, socio-cultural and historical significance, program elements, laws and ordinances, budget, timelines, future possibilities

    More and more, design firms throughout the industry are giving priority to interdisciplinary efforts, so that the best design can emerge.

    A site does not become a place with the satisfaction of minimum design, development or economic requirements. “Build it and they will come” may apply on a broad, general basis, but does not address issues of quality that assure an enjoyable experience when they arrive. Quality emerges when planning and design professions adopt an approach to site planning built on sustained professional cooperation and discourse as well as creativity.

    Just as site design is an integrating process, many landscape architects, architects and engineers are promoting this process as a strong model for an integrated team approach.

    Site planning is the skillful art of arranging and creating spaces within a delineated boundary. These spaces are articulated by the placement, removal or addition of objects and programmed activities, and sometimes by encapsulating space within structures. Ideally, the process draws from a diverse knowledge base and addresses many elements: natural site features and climate, soil and drainage regime, engineering and planning principles, low-impact and sustainable development, economic and legal implications, behavioral and perceptual issues, and the physical and political structures.

    The landscape architect often embodies this broad range and often specializes in two or three areas of design. Architects, according to LMN Architects partner Robert Widmeyer, often team with landscape architects who specialize in a specific area of design such as athletic fields but can also address site design elements such as water quality treatment.

    The best site designs are a harmonious blend of planning, design and the site’s dynamic and living contexts. As a unique response to the features of the land and to the various scales of the project as well as its programmatic elements, they are products of a team effort by planners, landscape architects, architects, engineers, environmental scientists, and occasionally other allied professions.

    But often this ideal is compromised by the realities of standard practice. Conventions of the design industry may isolate and maintain rigid professional boundaries when in fact the process necessitates a more fluid and visible interaction between disciplines. This lack of transparency in the design and decision-making process often leads to a breakdown in communication and results in a fractured and disjointed site design.

    A tight budget may lead to sacrificing desirable features and paring down the team process. Timing becomes especially critical in this case, and a number of negative scenarios can impact the project. For instance, the architect and landscape architect may begin site design with little input of a civil engineer, thus omitting valuable information that may arise regarding soils, stormwater drainage, water quality and utilities. The architect might be brought in solely to compose a building without being able to inform its layout or affect its programming. The landscape architect may finally be called in to adjust the site to fit the plan and beautify the result with plants. And so on with the structural engineer, land use planner and interior designer.

    Each discipline may be brought into the process too late to effectively inform a creative solution to design challenges. Then, when an adjustment has to be made or a mistake or omission corrected, this incurs increased costs that could have been avoided if all parties were able to collaborate on the initial site design.

    But many members of today’s design teams take a more proactive approach. And with expertise in broad design concepts and the specific details of technical knowledge, the landscape architect is perfectly situated to act as the glue that helps connect the parts.

    The landscape architect is often expected to be able to navigate around, between and within other design professions. Landscape architects need to be capable of “moving outside” the typical scope-of-work and remaining flexible, according to Widmeyer, taking an active role in conceptual design, programming of spaces, and participatory design. Jon Taylor, associate principal of Callison Architecture, expects landscape architects to work from a strong conceptual base.

    Architect David Frúm, project manager at NBBJ, relies on landscape architects to add expertise in overall site planning, site layout and grading concepts, and involves them as early as possible in the site planning process.

    Engineers such as David Seman, principal at KPFF, expect the landscape architect to work collaboratively on issues related to site drainage, stormwater quality and slope stability. As part of the team, the landscape architect often facilitates the process by creating a preliminary site plan, including grading and drainage concepts.

    Ordinances, land use codes, design guidelines and development standards serve as a preface to site design. Strong understanding of land use regulations, ordinances, code, and design guidelines and standards allows landscape architects to pinpoint the appropriate levels of scale and detail for a project. In cases where the civil engineer is the primary consultant and the client is a developer, according to Seman, it is vital that he be able to rely on the landscape architect’s understanding of land use codes and ordinances in order to be able to maximize development potential.

    As part of the team approach, the client is considered part of the design team from the beginning. It is vital for the client to understand and participate in a thorough site planning and design process. As a consultant, the landscape architect views contact with the owner as essential to allow full coordination and participation to occur.

    In the end, design collaboration bridges the often guarded divisions between the design disciplines. It also allows assumptions to be challenged and serious, critical questions to be asked. It is in this atmosphere that truly creative work can emerge at the site, and a project can become a place.

    Dean W. Koonts is a landscape designer and Henry S. Boyar is a senior associate, both with Hough Beck & Baird Inc.

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