Saturday, 12 March 2011

Designers and Contractors

Do Contractors need Designers? 
This is the title of a seminar to be delivered by Mark Gregory of Landform Consultants and the London College of Garden Design at Landscape, the industry trade show to be held at Olympia on13th and 14th April.  It’s a question that caught my eye, as it addresses an issue that I feel is an unacknowledged elephant in the (exterior design) room, and given that it is eye-catching and that titles are copyright free, I have shamelessly pinched it.  Sorry, Mark.
I have no idea where Mark’s discussion will lead, but the fact that he is so closely involved with both sides of the design/build coin suggests that he feels as I do: that the answer is as much a ‘yes’ as it would be if the question were reversed – do designers need contractors?

There is clearly a need for high quality workmanship when building gardens – the effects of the weather mean that a shoddy finish is quickly apparent as pointing degrades, frosted joints split and badly drained surfaces freeze into ice rinks.  If garden structures are to have any longevity then there is no choice but that the build should be of the highest quality.  No garden designer would quibble with that, or expect anything less from the contractor they appoint to put their ideas into action.

Perhaps as a garden designer I am being overly sensitive, but I think I detect, at times an, at best, indifferent attitude to design among some contractors – for some, I feel, the answer to the question could easily be ‘no’.

On various threads, in different forums, the unvoiced premise behind some contractor’s  comments seems to be that ‘designers have never laid so much as a brick in their lives, what do they know about building a garden?  It’s all about pretty plants and farting about with coloured pencils – I can do that for nothing!’  Well, coloured pencils may well be involved, but that doesn’t automatically render (that’s a design pun, by the way) the role of design null and void.  

Anybody – client, contractor, designer – can walk into a garden and offer suggestions about the best place for a patio, which tree should come down and whether a pond is going to add anything to the space, but I would argue that for contractors to show their work at its best and for clients to achieve the best result for their space there has to be a degree of design input.  There are obviously well-qualified contractors with a highly developed sense of design who can create beautiful gardens without recourse to a designer, as there are designers with a wide experience of construction – in each case it’s the knowledge and experience of both aspects that need to be fused to create something of worth.   A jaundiced view of designers is no more constructive than the view of an architect, one of the tutors during my training, which was that contractors are essentially glorified navvies who will misunderstand a drawing if it’s at all possible.

I’d argue that the relationship has to be symbiotic – I have been working with a trusted contractor over the past year or so, who appreciates the clarity that a designer brings to a project as much as I appreciate nuggets of advice when I suggest something that might be more practically realised by employing a different solution.  In this way there develops a common approach, better designs are evolved and both aspects of the build are enhanced.

If you are one of the lucky ones, a contractor with a highly developed design aesthetic or a designer who loves to mix cement, you will know all this instinctively – if, however, you are unsure of your abilities in either design or construction it makes sense to seek out the skills of others who can offer complementary skills.  In a time of economic adversity it always pays to offer the best.
I can’t be at the seminar on 13th April, unfortunately.  It’s at 2pm  – if any of you go, let me know the answer!

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