Dollars by Design

So, your long-time maintenance client asks you to bid on the installation of a new landscape element on his property. You don't want to pass up the work, but you also don't want to get in over your head. What do you do? Like any service-oriented contractor, you jump in with both feet and estimate the job using the tried and true methods you apply to your every day routine.

But wait: What about that drainage running right through the middle of the new beds? By the looks of the design you're given, the landscape architect probably didn't know it was there. And who is going to remove the construction debris left from the contractor who just installed that new entrance? These aren't your every day maintenance problems.

As you soon discover, there are many elements to consider when estimating a landscape design. Unlike maintenance, which is relatively straightforward, installing a design is as unique as the site you are working on. And unless you are a design/build firm, chances are the players involved in a design project may not all be on the same page.

But there are some components that are essential to every design install. In this article, a few of The Brickman Group's in-house design-build experts offer their advice on some of the common challenges of estimating and installing a design. To look at a project from all angles, what follows is advice from experts involved in each aspect of the process, including Landscape Architect Lisa Farina (New Jersey), Estimator Gary West (Chicago) and Regional Production Specialist Joe Farina (Pennsylvania).


Q. What are some of the most important things to look for when estimating the installation of a landscape design?

  • Labor

    When estimating labor costs, be sure to include round-trip travel time to and from the job multiplied by the number of workers and the number of days on the job.

  • Site access

    It's important to know ahead of time if it is going to be difficult to get in and out of the site with the material you need to place on the site.

  • Hidden fees

    Including permits and especially bonds, the hidden fees can be very costly. You may not want to mark-up these items the full amount, but you should at least cover the time required to secure these items, along with interest if the bond is being held through the warranty period.

  • Subcontractors

    Make sure quotes you get from a subcontractor are as accurate as possible. To ensure this, work with subcontractors to make sure they have all the information they need to come up with a realistic number.

  • Plant material

    Aside from the mechanics of installation, you need a working knowledge of plant material and horticulture. “Designs on paper don't always translate perfectly onto a real live site,” says Joe Farina, regional production specialist. “For instance, the landscape architect may have called for a certain type of tree in the parking lot islands of that school you maintain. While the tree might be lovely to look at, its growth pattern might end up interfering with school bus traffic. And when that happens, who is the client likely to come back to: the artist who drew the original design, or the guy who is on site every week maintaining it?”


Q. What are some elements that are most often overlooked in an estimate?

  • Modifications for access

    You may have considered how to get your materials onto the job site, but did you also consider that you may have to move utilities or change irrigation to accomplish this?

  • Weather

    If the weather turns from a sunny day to a rain-filled forecast, will you still be able to use your equipment? For example, even though you have a skid steer with tires, should you put some dollars into the estimate for a skid steer with tracks?

  • Plant material

    Try to visualize the plan in 3-D. Will the plants fit into the space? What about in six months when they've grown in? If something doesn't seem right, clarify it with the designer.

  • Trees

    These ornamentals can be especially problematic. Often, they will fit vertically into a design but their root ball is too big to install in the space.

  • Freight

    “With fuel costs rising, this can significantly affect your materials costs,” says Gary West, estimator. “Be sure to check for fuel surcharges in the vendor's fine print.”

  • Retention

    Is the client going to withhold retention? And for how long? In many cases, this could be as long as a year, starting from the date of final acceptance of the job. Can you wait that long?

  • Associated (hidden) materials

    Installing a water feature? Have you figured in the pump? What about re-bar and wire mesh for concrete work? Sand for prep? As you estimate, visualize every aspect of the install so you don't miss any of these hidden materials.

  • Water

    Is the municipality in which you are working going to let you water your material during the construction process, as well as after? Or are you going to be required to pull a permit and water meter, and pay by the gallon?


Q. What are some common challenges to installing a design?

Because you might not be the only crew working on the site, you need to know the schedule of any and all other contractors working in your area of the job site. If their work precedes yours, it could change the way you carry out your work.

Just because a design is done on a CAD system or the designer tells you he or she did the site take-off, it doesn't necessarily mean that all the plant material, seed and sod quantities and bed preparation are accurate. Don't take someone else's word for it; verify it for yourself.

Also, don't be afraid to get a second opinion, especially if the job is complicated or beyond your experience. Have a colleague come with you to estimate. Then, both of you estimate independently and compare notes.

If there is existing landscaping to be removed, make sure you walk the site to note materials that will be removed, including potential disposal fees.

Does the plant schedule match the plan and what the client has approved? “If the plan says that there are 18 shrubs, but the client sees 25 circles on the rendering, he'll be expecting 25 shrubs,” says Farina. “The client purchases the design, not the estimate, so make sure you clarify any discrepancies before you get stuck footing the bill.”


Q. What most often comes in over budget?

Depending on how you estimate, a couple of rain days can kill your rental budget. Also, have you accounted for the return of the rental equipment? You or a crew member will need to return it on time, so schedule for that and the cost for the time it takes to return it.

Labor is the largest variable, especially on smaller jobs. Don't overload your crews with people whose total wages are going to exceed your composite labor rate.

Maintain control of your schedule. Pulling on and off a job several times before completion will kill your estimate. The best way to control this is by not going into a job before it is ready and knowing your man-hour days. The general contractor (GC) will try to call on you at will. Your best defense here is an accurate timeline for your operations, including when other trades need to be out of your way before you can move unimpeded through the job. “If they want you in on Monday, but the electrician won't be out of the way for another week, you may have a valid reason to push off mobilization of your crew,” says West. “Stating your installation requirements to the GC up front may help diminish bumping into the other trades on site, but keep in mind you are still accountable to meet the client's deadline.”

If the other trades on site are running behind, it can put you behind on your planting schedule. It can cost you labor hours if, for example, you scheduled spring planting and now it's July, and you get charged extra for plant material storage, not to mention extra labor because now the plants need to be summer-dug. Of course, some circumstances are beyond your control and you can normally ask the client to cover the additional charges. But it's best to provide for that in your original estimate so that it doesn't come as a surprise to the client half way through the job.


Q. You're halfway through the install and you find you're going off the budget rails. What's the best way to get back on track?

This largely depends on why you are off budget to begin with. Is it labor? Materials? Something beyond your control?

You may be trying to do a five-man job with an eight-man crew. If you catch this soon enough, reducing the crew size may get you back on track. You can do this on larger jobs, but on a smaller job it may be impossible to take corrective action prior to job completion.

If material cost overruns are plaguing you, examine where the overrun came from. Did you underestimate? Well then, you may have to just bite the bullet and reduce your margin on this one. But if the client added materials or operations in the course of the job, be sure to get a change order. And never fall for the old, “I'll cover you on a change order later.” Get them to sign off on the change before the extra work or materials get ordered.

A final note: Be sure to track your performance on every job, and use the lessons learned for future reference. Be specific with your notes so you can learn from every job. What made the job tough, or easy? What would you do differently next time? No doubt you will become more accurate with your estimates and your installs will go more smoothly the more experience you gain.

Margie Holly is the communications manager with The Brickman Group, Ltd. (Gaithersburg, Md.).

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