How to design a project to budget?

Article by Damian Holmes

Landscape architects often must face the issue of designing to a project budget. Whether designing a small private residential garden or a large-scale park project, the client usually expects the design to meet the budget. This challenge can be complex, especially if you have a client who wishes to make changes or has a long want list. As design professionals, we must use various tools to meet the budget.

Know the Budget and Timeframe
When working with clients, they are often excited about their project, and budget can become a secondary consideration. The key is to ask the client what is the budget? And what is their time frame? Understanding these two factors can determine whether they have reasonable expectations. Clients often need help understanding the cost of commercial construction (in comparison to home/DIY construction) and how short time frames can increase the costs due to requiring more people (project managers, labourers, etc.)

Knowing the Project Objectives, Setting Expectations and Educating the client
Knowing the project objectives and the expected outcomes for the client is paramount to the success of a project. You must also set expectations around budget and time frames during the initial client meetings by educating them on previous project costs or current construction rates. Remember to highlight that prices can increase over time, as the market has experienced during the past three years(2020-2023).

As designers, we also need to educate clients on the need for various issues that can impact budgets and cost, such as:

  • Time frames – short or long time frames (years) can impact project costs.
  • Phases – design decisions and resolution are required at various project phases to allow lead time for ordering and supply. Also, to avoid redesign and rework, which can cause design variations(change orders).
  • Contingency – the need to set aside a percentage or amount for unforeseen issues or changes in project scope.
  • Materiality & Supply – some materials are more expensive than others due to the type of material, and supply cycles due to seasons or lead times.
  • Construction variations/change orders will have large cost implications, including materials, extra labour, supply and management.

Define the project scope
When working with a client, defining the project scope and providing a list of inclusions and exclusions is best. Often the budget is set on construction value, and they forget the cost of consultants (landscape architects, lighting designers, arborists, horticulturalists, etc.).

Know the site
Understanding the site and all the various issues can inform your design, and reduce the possibility of issues or unknown problems becoming apparent during construction. Having consideration for the information(surveys, service locations, etc.) used for your design and its accuracy may reduce unknown problems during the project.

Identify key items
Clients often have an exhaustive list of items they wish to include in the project. It is best to outline the key items (paving, walls, advanced trees, structures, lighting, etc.) and create a list of optional items (e.g. sound system, signage, water features, etc.).

After setting expectations and defining the scope and key items, it is possible to start the design process. During the design process, you should undertake the following.

Prioritise key items
When designing a project, there are often items that you know will have high costs (water features, large trees, etc.) and others that are low cost (lawn, mulched areas). You may determine that the entry area is the priority and will take most of the budget as the client wishes to make a good impression. However, you may see that the client is more interested in having a beautiful structure, and the entry area is a low priority. This prioritisation method can start to shape your design and be applied to various areas or elements such as paving (stone vs concrete, etc.).

Balance Design, Functionality and Client Aspirations
As designers, we need to ensure that we balance design, functionality, constructability and client aspirations. When designing a project, we can often get too involved in the design and lose sight of the budget constraints. Clients often have high aspirations for their projects, but we as designers need to temper these aspirations with small doses of reality (costs).

When designing a project, it is best to have options to meet the client’s budget. This may be as simple as having different paving options or tree sizes or could be more extensive with varying design options for some areas, such as the size of the playground or the number of play equipment or the play equipment supplier.

When designing a budget, it is best to start estimating(costing) the project early. Too often, as designers, we are afraid to undertake a costing or estimation as it may mean cutting back or changing the design. It is best to undertake a project estimation at the initial concept phase. This initial costing will allow you to quickly understand whether you are under budget, over budget or unrealistic. Depending on the client and project management process (and contract), you may wish not to share the initial estimation with the client, or you may share it to use as a tool to reset expectations. For large-scale or complex projects, it may be best to employ the services of a Quantity Surveyor to provide an estimation.

During the various phases of the project, it is best to undertake a revised estimation to determine if you are in line with the budget. To meet the budget, you may need to undertake cost-cutting or substitutions (often called Value Engineering). This is a process that many designers loathe as it can dilute the design; however, we also need to keep in mind that the client has a budget, and we need to ensure that we can assist them in achieving it.

Peer Review
When undertaking a cost estimation, it is essential to have it peer-reviewed by someone in your firm or colleague. Simple miscalculations, undercounting, or under-sizing can significantly impact your cost estimate, especially on projects with large quantities. Also, remember to account for lost time and wastage, which can affect your cost by a significant percentage.

Regular and consistent communication about the budget and estimation with the client is critical to a successful project. By keeping the client informed, you set and reaffirm the objectives and project design scope. Suppose you do not communicate the current estimation. In that case, when it comes to quotation and tendering, they may be in for a rude awakening that can lead to them becoming disappointed or angry, which you will face as the client’s designer. Alternatively, you may be surprised by the client, who will see the value of a design that has exceeded the budget and find the funds needed to reach the project design intent. This is more likely if you consistently communicate with your client about budgets and possible costs.

Collaboration and Industry Knowledge
Collaborating and maintaining relationships with Quantity Surveyors, industry associations contractors, suppliers, and consultants ensures that you know of any possible cost increases or season issues that will impact your project budgets.

Some landscape industry associations publish cost guides or similar rates for standard items. These can be used as a starting point, but there are various impacts (project size, season, etc) that need to be considered. Industry cost guides and online services allow you to estimate costs; however, you need to consider your local market and whether the service is applicable.

Learn and Record your experience
Learn from your past experiences, record them regularly, and share that information with design firm colleagues. Also, remember to create estimation templates and reference sheets for others to use and review often to ensure future projects are designed to budget.

You also need to understand your limitations (whether new to the profession or new to a typology) and ask others (colleagues, contractors, product suppliers) for information about project costs that you may have little experience with.

Designing a project to a budget may present challenges, but it can also be an opportunity to showcase your design skills and find innovative solutions. By implementing these best practices, you can create inspiring landscapes while staying within the project’s financial constraints.

How to design a project to budget? written by Damian Holmes, Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA) – 21 June 2023

DISCLAIMER: This article is for educational purposes only. The content is intended only to provide a summary and general overview of matters of interest. It’s not intended to be comprehensive, nor to constitute advice. You should always obtain professional advice, appropriate to your own circumstances, before acting or relying on any of that content. This advice is general in nature.

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About Damian Holmes 3293 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at