How to choose a landscape contractor
Landscaper David Dodd advises on picking the right build team
There is a huge range of contractors to choose from when moving to the construction phase of a landscape scheme, so finding the right company for a project can be a challenge, especially when making the right choice is fundamental to the quality of the finished product.
As a garden designer or landscape architect, your own professional reputation is invested in the success of the scheme, as well as your client’s financial resources. Ultimately, it will be the client who makes the final decision, but you will usually be called upon for advice and guidance. In making recommendations, landscape professionals have a duty of care to their client to consider the competence of a contractor to carry out the complexity and value of the work.
When selecting a contractor, start off by making a list of those who may be suitable. This list should be compiled bearing in mind the scale, location and level of specialism required of the proposed works. Your list of potential contractors can be put together from a variety of sources including: recommendation; the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI); the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL); your own ‘Select’ or ‘Approved’ list; and the client’s list (if available).
The professional associations’ directories are a good starting point, and the BALI Directory, for example, gives some detail on each contractor’s area of expertise, typical projects, membership grade and geographical area of operation. Building up a relationship with a few selected contractors over time can often be one of the best ways of developing a collaborative working method, which can often benefit the client both in terms of cost and quality.
If a designer opts to use a ‘nominated’ contractor with whom they are familiar in a working relationship, they will usually be able to advise on cost-saving opportunities either during the design stage, or after the tender selection process has been completed.
A small and simple design with a limited budget may not be right for a large national contractor and vice versa. This is also a key consideration when putting a project out to tender. Companies of similar size and capabilities should be selected as they will have broadly aligned overheads and therefore the tenders can be compared fairly. Twenty years ago, a £20k budget would have been an enormous project and almost beyond me as a one man-band. However, with time and development of the business, I now naturally have some considerable overheads that mean would struggle to make a profit on a scheme of this size. At the same time, I would have to question our capacity to deliver a project of more than £3m without draining all of our resources.
On location, I have a cap on the areas that we cover as contractors. This isn’t done by miles, but by approximate travel time, which I set at one and a half hours each way. I’ve considered including additional travel time as either part of the working day or overtime. However, driving for more than three hours each day, combined with the physical demands of landscaping, isn’t fun for anyone; and it certainly won’t make us competitive if the job is out to tender. Working with a more local contractor means less time travelling, resulting in more time being spent on site. I think it’s also worth mentioning staff are generally happier working closer to home. However, if a project requires a higher level of specialism, then a contractor may well be prepared, or even expected, to travel further afield.
Specialist work may only be part of a larger project, but the main contractor will still require the knowledge and expertise to liaise and work with specialised sub-contractors. Bearing in mind the above, I still tend to find the best designers appreciate a contractor with good design, as well as construction, knowledge. If the contractor can fully appreciate the thought process that has gone into a design, they can often advise on best construction practices.
I would always advocate that designers have a face-to-face meeting with a contractor to have an open, honest conversation. Topics that should be broached prior to quotation or tender stage include: types of work undertaken; average size of recent or current projects; number of full-time employed staff (specifically contracts managers, foremen and landscapers); references for recent or current projects; details of Health and Safety Policy; details of any quality management system; details of relevant industry accreditation and/or membership; and details of insurances. Remember that inclusion of a company on any list is no guarantee of suitability; contractors should always be assessed on a project-by-project basis.
References can be one of the most important sources of information and could come either from the garden designer or landscape architect who oversaw the project, or sometimes the client themselves. Questions might include: the length of time they have known/worked with the company; who the contract manager for the project was; what communication was like; and how quickly the company responded to requests to rectify defects. You should also find out: what the quality of workmanship and site organisation was like; if there were unexpected costs, and if they were reasonably unforeseeable; and if the referee would employ them again.
To finish on a less comfortable note, I would like to report that I am still hearing about contractors and designers practising the dark art of asking for and offering ‘designer fees’. Let’s be clear – this is not a ‘designer fee’, it is a grubby backhander. It is disgraceful, and goes against every professional body’s code of conduct, including the SGD. We should never forget that we are supposed to represent the client’s best interests.