A Landscape of Design

How can we imagine and develop a more beautiful, yet functional world? How can design serve to achieve these visions?

We decided to address these questions, in part, through an introduction to the profession of Landscape Architecture. Sitting down with Erik Vangsness and Pabel Fernandez, two members of our Landscape Architecture team in Providence, Rhode Island, we learned more about the myriad of considerations that Landscape Architects apply to the development of the built environment each and every day.

Q: In your own words, what is Landscape Architecture?

A: Landscape Architecture is the design of outdoor spaces to achieve specific environmental, social, behavioral, and/or aesthetic outcomes. An emphasis is placed on providing varying degrees of form and structure to define outdoor spaces of different scales and programs, from expansive, pastoral park settings to more formal, enclosed courtyards. Landscape Architects can also incorporate interventions to existing physical, social, ecological, and environmental conditions to achieve a specific desired outcome.

I think people have the false sense that it’s just planting, whereas it includes aspects of many different licensed professions and other design sub-specialties. Landscape Architecture blurs the lines between Civil Engineering, planting, and artistry, among other areas of focus. Within all aspects of Landscape Architecture, our primary responsibility is to promote human health, safety, and welfare. Our involvement begins with initial data collection and client interviews and continues through construction administration —­­ It’s a very multi-disciplinary field in and of itself.

Q: What does a typical day in the life of a Landscape Architect look like?

A: It depends on what’s required for a particular project, but can involve just about anything.  On a given day, we may attend site visits and meetings with clients, formulate site assessments and analyses to document critical, site-specific conditions, draft plans and specifications at our desks, organize and administer design charrettes with community and in-house staff (where we sit around tables with blank pieces of trace paper over a base plan, trying to brainstorm appropriate design solutions), the list goes on. We’re managers, too. We manage project teams, budgets, contracts, clients, and customer satisfaction. We also perform construction oversight and bidding support for clients, to maintain clear lines of communication between our clients and contractors. At the end of the day, it’s also our responsibility to develop future Landscape Architects, so training and development are important parts of the job as well.

Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your field?

A: I think the main one is that we are gardeners who plant flowers and maintain lawns. Furthermore, many believe we don’t understand construction. Being at SMMA is a huge advantage, because I think people look at Landscape Architects in a multidisciplinary firm very differently since we have constant collaboration with other design professionals. I would say another misconception is that a lot of people think that the landscape can be designed as an after-the-fact element — that we can just come in at the eleventh hour, throw a few plants in, and ‘pretty’ a site up. That’s certainly true to some extent, but we need to steer people away from that thinking. That’s why working in an integrated firm from project inception to completion is so successful, it produces a more coordinated and cohesive design.

Q: How has working in an integrated design firm benefited your work overall?

A: We get involved in the conversation earlier on, so we can help direct and inform the design. An integrated firm is going to have better opportunities to produce projects that exhibit a harmony between buildings and other structures in the landscape. In effect, Landscape Architects can serve to draw the architecture of buildings out into the landscape and produce strong connectivity between indoor and outdoor spaces. It improves the functionality of built works because in their fluidity, the site elements and the grading work together. Often, you can also reduce potential conflicts and errors that occur when many outside consultants collaborate. When everything is in-house, there’s more quality assurance and quality control. In the long run, this process will save clients time and money, because the design is occurring under one roof.

I think from a professional standpoint, we become better and more informed designers, because we learn a lot about related fields and their considerations directly from the other professionals that we work with. Too often, we tend to focus on how another professional’s design impacts us, whereas on an integrated team, we are equally responsible for being cognizant of how our design impacts other design professionals. Simply put, Landscape Architects in an integrated firm become more well-rounded designers.