What does the future landscape architecture practice look like?

Over the past year, we have seen a major change in how many landscape firms undertake the practice of landscape architecture due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In early 2020, teams were gathered around tables discussing, sketching, crafting and developing ideas together in physical space. Within a few weeks, teams were dispersed across various places (homes, sheds, garages, etc.) connected through the internet. Many firms have since reevaluated the practice of landscape architecture and how they design. These turn of events will reshape the landscape architecture profession and provides an opportunity to explore the future.

The future of practice will not be defined by one type of practice. It will include various business models as each practice (existing and new) finds its niche within the landscape architecture market. Various factors will impact landscape architecture practices, including local and global market trends, finance models (public, private and private/public partnerships), and client types, to name a few.

These explorations seek to give background scenarios for possible different landscape practices and how they may adapt to the future. These explorations are generalisations that provide some understanding for students, new professionals and a contextual frame for the discussion. Your firm or ideal firm may be one of these, or it could be a hybrid of the various typologies. This exploration seeks to look at the various types to provide discussion for the landscape profession.

Traditional
The traditional practice of one founder or several founders who craft landscape designs for their clients with a design ethos or style that they have been honed over the years to win work. They use traditional methods (pen, paper, marker pens, physical model) to create, make and develop their designs. Everyone works in the office together from 9-5 every day, side by side, they hire staff from the local educational institutions and other local traditional firms. The traditional firm uses the same few favourite consultants that on every project. Over the past year, they may have used cloud services and chat applications to collaborate and share files, but they yearn to go back to normal as soon as possible. They will continue using the same business model and will still be successful at winning and building work.

Progressive
The progressive practice works in an office (or maybe two or three offices) and may also have people working from home due to family commitments but still spend most of their time in the office to collaborate on designs, ideas, models, etc. They use a hybrid of traditional techniques design and computers, CAD software, photoshop and modelling software (Sketchup or similar) to develop designs. Their designs differ from project to project based on the site context and client requirements. They seek to create unique, sustainable designs in collaboration with a wide range of consultants they often work with based on the project typology or expertise needed. Over the past year, they have used various technologies to collaborate remotely, in the office and out on-site. They wish to incorporate some of the learnings and workflows they have developed and seek to continue developing these tools in the future. These practices will continue to evolve and push forward into the future; their business model will also likely evolve based on market needs and changes in the industry.

Multi-discipline (the one-stop-shop)
A large office of many disciplines, including architects, engineers, landscape architects, graphic designers, and other production staff (technicians, drafters) who develop landscape architecture as either part of projects or singular landscape projects. Their strength is the multi-discipline approach and winning work due to this approach and thier size. They hire talent to fulfil project needs and based on experience or career development opportunities.

Over the past year, they had employees working from home due to the numbers of employees and the office spaces not allowing for efficient social distancing. With some employees returning to their offices wherever governments guidelines allow, these firms may be reviewing whether there is a need to have large offices and whether some roles (especially technical or service roles) could permanently work from home or a hybrid with some days in the office. Their business model will continue to be the same because they have the talent and financial resources to take on and complete large scale projects that many small to medium landscape firms cannot take on. However, they may increase their partnerships with small firms for design or local resources for local projects.

New Approach
The new approach practice has a central office (or series of local offices in different places) with people working from home, universities, project site locations, teams, and remote shared office spaces. The majority of their team is remote and works together by using the latest tools available. They hire based on education and talent and have a talent mix of different skill sets, not location. These include landscape architects, designers, drafters, CAD modellers, project managers, data analysts and programmers. What talent they can’t hire in-house, they seek out through partnerships and outsource work that they see as not core to their design approach.

They develop designs based on site context and client requirements using numerous approaches (hand drawing, iPad sketching, CAD, modelling, parametric design, generative design, data analysis, machine learning and other in-house or open-source tools) to develop design solutions. They seek out work across their city, surrounding towns, state and country (and overseas) based on the typology. Their business model is to adapt and scale for large projects through partnerships with other firms or through service providers.

Changing typologies
These typologies describe many of the landscape architecture practices across the world (of course there are exceptions). Some firms may include different elements of each (work environment, design approach, hiring style, etc). However, these practices have had to adapt to COVID-19 by moving to working from home and utilising the internet to communicate and collaborate. Many will seek to go back to “normal” as soon as they can and will incorporate some changes to the way they work with clients and their collaborators. Others will see this as a turning point in how they practice landscape architecture and will seek to adapt and change.

The future

As previously alluded to, COVID-19 and the general shift to greener, more sustainable economies will change landscape practices. The changes have impacted how we work, meet, and collaborate with our clients and allied professionals.

Financial vs Strategy
Many practices are undertaking a full review of how they practice landscape architecture. These reviews will be viewed through two different lenses, financial and strategic. Firms using a finance lens will seek to reduce costs by reducing space, outsourcing work (similar to 2008-2009), reviewing the team composition (too many seniors? not enough juniors? fewer business development people?) and look to see if there are ways that they can grow financially grow the firm by increasing efficiency. Other practices will look to strategy as a way to survive and thrive in the future. They will question everything they do and assess whether it is still the right way to practice in a post-COVID world. They will question their methodologies and approaches and determine how they will adapt and differentiate their practice and move forward.

People
How people hire and who they hire may change. In the past, many firms hired people from the same city or same schools, but due to many factors such as the increase in overseas students (who often return home) and a shortage of local people with the right skills becoming harder to find will push firms to seek out people from across the country, the continent or world to become part of the team. This shortage of talent will also make firms more open to flexible work environments and arrangements.

Work Environment
Many firms operate with office environments as the main method of collaboration and designing. However, with many people (including consultants and clients) seeing the benefits of working from home (family time, productivity, etc.) or remote work, firms will become more open to allowing people to work in a myriad of ways, including fully remote, alternate days in the office, working flexible hours (early starts, late starts, late finishes, etc.). The traditional office environment will survive, but it will need to adapt to the way people wish to work.

This may include less face to face meetings, more review and development of a design through digital format (pdfs, Bluebeam) etc. and looking to incorporate some of the systems and processes they develop during COVID-19.

Technology
The changes to how we work have evolved, including collaborating through digital boards and screens with different devices, visiting sites remotely via video, exploring surrounding areas via high-resolution aerial photography combined with point cloud and movement data. Technology is having an increasing impact on the way we practice.

Data will impact the future of the profession, whether collecting data through 3D scans, analysis of visitation through sensor data collection, testing designs using calculators, tools. Data and machine learning will be used for creating design forms, developing planting palettes, selecting materials and other design processes. Creating and testing design variations will be use tools currently being develop and able to adjust design easily based on new data or client requirements. Numerous tools will be developed over the coming decades that will change the way we design, build and assess projects.

Currently, we are starting to see these changes incrementally in how we design but also assess the success of a project. Whether it is through analyse of basic visitation data from before and after a project is built, or going more in-depth in analysing the performance of the design combined with visitation, social media, client satisfaction and more. Stakeholder participation will also increase in the future through providing greater access, we have already seen this over the past year as community consultation sessions went from physical town halls to digital forums.

All this technological change may seem scary to many and they will not be happy that it is changing the profession, but these conversations we are having now are similar to those in past periods of change, whether it was mechanisation (horticulture) or hand drawing moving to CAD, CAD moving to 3d-rendering, Parametric design, CAD moving to BIM and so on. There will always be technological change and it will be up to schools and firms on whether they embrace or turn away from these changes and trends.

Business Models
Charging by the hour for design is a business model that may change (and already has in some firms) as it often doesn’t represent the true value that landscape architects bring to a project. Many other professions are highly technical and the value they bring can be seen in whether the object or system performs, whereas creative fields are often undervalued. How business models will change is to be seen, but the practice of landscape architecture will need to change business model to survive beyond charging by the hour.

A large number of firms are small in size and don’t wish to grow beyond a certain size to maintain their culture and have minimal management. However, they often also feel the effects of economic change. In the future, as firms will be more connected, we may see many more firms set up joint ventures or agreements to collaborate or share projects to flatten out these periods of fast growth and decline that often make or break firms.

Another model that will impact practices is the need to diversify their income streams through offering services such as data analysis, modelling and more to clients or other firms. These are dependent on the firm and their ability to undertake business development during growth periods to ensure that they have different incomes that can assist in levelling out the ups and downs of the landscape industry in their city or region.

Future of landscape practice
This exploration of the future of landscape architecture practice was to provide a discourse for the profession. Some may see these explorations and points as condescending or too generalistic; however, that is not the intention. Moreover, it was to provide points for the profession to discuss in the classrooms, studios and offices at their Monday morning meetings, morning teas, Friday drinks, lectures or other forums.

The future will see changes to the way that we practice landscape architecture, many of the typologies outlined (traditional, progressive, etc) will continue into the future with small changes or radical change, it is dependent on how practices adapt. There is no denying the future will bring change, firms and people can push against it but sooner or later the changes will catch up with you and make changes to the way landscape architecture is practiced.

There will be new typologies of practices that will evolve as landscape architects embrace technology, adapt to change, and seek new areas of practices that currently don’t exist. Landscape architecture is an enduring profession that has evolved and developed over the past few hundred years and will only grow stronger in this ever-changing world.

What does the future landscape architecture practice look like? – was written by Damian Holmes, Founder and Editor of WLA.

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