Landscape architecture question
November 17, 2008 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Landscape Architecture! I'm a student thinking about changing fields from IR to landscape architecture and I'm interested in all and any of your thoughts on the subject.

A little background: I'm primarily interested in urban design, however, as I cannot get a bachelors in urban design, I am going for LA undergrad. I have some artistic background, am fairly creative, and I really enjoy hearing new ideas about sustainable living and living green.

Before I take the plunge and switch, I'd love to hear what you know about the field, or (even better!) if you ARE a landscape architect, what the highs and lows are of the profession.

posted by pulled_levers to Education (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have some artistic background, am fairly creative, and I really enjoy hearing new ideas about sustainable living and living green.

Well, if it's anything like building architecture, all that will account for about 10% (if you're lucky) of your workload once you get out of school. The rest will be filled up with botany, sprinkler design and layouts, drainage, and researching what plants are allowed or required in what jurisdictions. In many instances, your role on a project will be so predetermined that you'll pretty much just be a drafter, putting plants wherever the owner or whoever hired you wants you to put them. For a while after school, if you work for a firm, you'll probably be doing irrigation details or just drafting up other people's ideas on CAD.

Your primary job as a landscape architect will be to solve problems, not be creative and artistic. A project will have a certain amount of requirements (as alluded to above) that you'll have to meet -- city codes, client's wishes, coordination issues with other disciplines, botanical issues -- all in additon to any aesthetic concerns. The aesthetic stuff is relatively easy, while all the other stuff can be a grind and is where the real work is. As a landscape architect, you'll hardly ever be the top dog on a project, unless the project is purely landscape (which I imagine is actually fairly common, depending on what type of work you get). The concerns of just about everybody else on the project team will most likely be met before yours, because their concerns will most likely cost/save more money than yours. There will be exceptions, but that's been the case on just about every job I've ever worked.

School's fun though. It's like highly advanced kindergarten, where you get to draw your own lines to color within and create your own building blocks.
posted by LionIndex at 4:10 PM on November 17, 2008

My dad has worked as a landscape architect for nearly 30 years doing primarily large suburban residential and commercial installation projects with some urban projects. He is old school and does very little computer work but does extensive drafting work by hand and knows seemingly limitless amounts about everything from the hardiness of obscure tree species to the height of the water table in a given neighborhood. He travels for work quite a lot and has built a very successful business out of one that suffered during the 1980s recession.

He does a lot of creative work for his own projects and is frequently recruited to do more practical and technical consulting for people who are more "designers" than architects, and even in this economy can still choose which jobs he wants based mostly on whether they will be good for the several hundred employees of the company. His clients are a mix of long-time estate and commercial jobs and some one-time or short term installation work, but the shorter jobs tend to be extensive tree installations rather than small plantings. He does a lot of manual and machine labor himself and spends a lot of time outside.

He finds several things about the work to be aggravating: First, as he and his company have accrued greater name recognition, he becomes the point man for any and all work done on the property, even by other firms. Sprinkler guys are dragging ass? Client asks my dad to tell them to get in gear. Client needs a large retaining wall done? If the company can't do it, my dad will know a guy. The upside to this is he gets paid above market rate for this sort of personal service and is able to maintain a large network of professional conducts who act as job leads for one another.

Second, he sometimes encounters clients who are unreasonably demanding (e.g., wealthy middle-aged women left home alone with an itch to continuously revamp their property) and are fickle, driving up costs and wasting time. I get the feeling this experience is common to all contractors, but it's something to watch out for. These jobs are a good hedge against a down economy, though.

Finally, the work has (relatively) slow periods and insane periods. Winter is a slow period in the regions the company typically operates because frozen ground makes planting impracticable. Summer is also slow because the heat and lack of rainfall increase the rate of planting failure. Spring into early summer and fall are overfilled with both new work and repairs/maintenance on existing projects.

If you don't start work with an established firm, the business depends on being reliable, building word-of-mouth, keeping a tight lid on costs, and pulling long hours. Drywall and driveway guys masquerading as "landscape contractors" with hideous red cedar mulch and overstressed Japanese maples are a dime a dozen in our region and most of them are either in default or do such shitty work that they get replaced by another company pretty quickly.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 4:35 PM on November 17, 2008

Heh. I just answered this question in another thread.
posted by goo at 4:49 PM on November 17, 2008

There are schools, like SNRE at U Mich, that focus on the ecological side of landscape restoration. Habitat restoration, green use etc. Maybe look into those. I have some friends who work in this field and they design stuff like user areas for the Park service, riparian trails for cities, greenbelts, habitat restoration projects, "woodland" parks, etc.
posted by fshgrl at 5:06 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I switched majors in college to landscape architecture and regretted it nearly immediately. I was interested in design and plants, but wasn't too fond of the rest of it. However, because my academic program was so hands on, I knew immediately that I wasn't interested and only wasted a semester-and now I know for sure that I don't want to be a landscape architect, so I don't regret trying it at all.

I lived with a girl who is now a landscape architect, and when we were looking for jobs, she was getting all sorts of offers, so at least when she was looking, grads were in quite high demand.
posted by mjcon at 5:17 PM on November 17, 2008

my training is in architecture, from a school where the LA and Arch programs are mixed for the first year of undergrad. I'm afraid I don't know what IR is, so I don't know where you're coming from, but I can tell you that (almost universally) people outside of the design fields have misconceptions about what design is and what the professions are like. So first off, throw out everything you think you know. Second, realize that design school is very different from design work. School is a sort of playground where you can explore your ideas and hone some basic skills, but the daily work of design involves a greater diversity of tasks and a good deal less freedom and creativity. That's not to say that you won't get to be creative, but "art" is only a very small part of a designer's job. Third, recognize that the design fields are desirable to a large number of people (I can't tell you how often I meet someone and their first comment is "you know, I wanted to be an architect when I was younger"), so you will have to work much harder than the average joe if you want to succeed.

All that said, If you want to see what landscape architecture is all about, tour some local firms. Culture varies dramatically from one office to the next. Large offices can be very different from small ones, and the project types each firm pursues may or may not interest you. If you think you're interested even though the first taste disagrees with you, don't give up. If one firm catches your interest, ask to do a week-long shadow or unpaid internship with them. It's not particularly common, but I think it should be. It's a great way to see how design really happens. Whether or not that translates into professional connections or future work or not, you'll have a better idea of what you are getting into. Also look into the LA program at your school and try to determine how it compares to other programs across the country: are they nationally accredited? Do they have internship programs and other support from the professional community? Are they working in concert with the other design programs in the school, or are they orphaned or ignored? Are they theory-oriented or technically focused, and does the program's direction mirror your own? These are only a few of the questions you need to answer before you dive into a new degree program, especially since your first interest is actually urban design. Would an urban planning program be better suited to your passions? Or architecture? Or Housing and community development? Or maybe you'd rather promote sustainable technology through public programs? The only way to find out is to do your own legwork and research. I can't give better advice than that.
posted by Chris4d at 12:24 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

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