Eight Lessons for Recent Graduates

A six-week backyard transformation. image: Lindsey Tabor

A backyard transformed
image: Lindsey Tabor

I am a 2011 graduate of Ball State University’s BLA program and I am proud to say that I work in the residential design field. However, if you had asked me four years ago where my future would take me, I would never have guessed correctly. Let me explain why.

Of the many lessons learned and attitudes absorbed in an undergraduate landscape architecture program, there is one that is especially contagious – the stigma against residential design as a valid career choice. It may start in the form of offhand comments from professors or a witty T-shirt boasting “I’m an LA and I won’t design your garden!” No matter the avenue, this stigma may be detrimental to the career of a recent graduate.

In LAM’s May 2013 issue, editor Bradford McKee suggests that LAM’s readers might want to take medication before reading the magazine to treat the symptoms of what I like to call “Residential Design Phobia” (RDP). He thought they would “recoil at the thought of something they consider too close to housework.” While this is not a new reaction by any means, I agree very strongly with a subsequent letter to the editor on the topic of this stigma. Alan Burke, a landscape architect from the Seattle area who has been practicing in the residential sector for over 20 years, expertly points out that the editor’s veiled apology for creating an entire issue dedicated to residential work only perpetuates designers’ distaste for it. I agree wholeheartedly with his statement, “While design/build and residential work could instead be a bedrock of training, you ensure that no self-respecting landscape architecture graduate would be caught dead doing it.”

Sadly, I myself contracted Residential Design Phobia in college. However, the last two years – the first two of my career– have proven to be the best course of treatment for the ailment. While working at a small residential design firm in the Washington DC area, I’ve learned that residential design might well just be the answer to many recent graduates’ prayers.

Eight Lessons Recent Graduates will learn from Residential Design:

  1. Residential design is personal. Public work is thrilling to work on and visible when built, but imagine the satisfaction you will have when a happy residential client thanks you for improving their home, and by extension, their quality of life.
  2. It is a business. Remember all of those courses you took to learn how to run a business? Neither do I. Take an opportunity to work in the residential sector to learn firsthand all you can about writing contracts, determining a fee, drafting emails to clients, and working on site with the construction team.
  3. Clients and contractors want hard facts and logical decisions. What better way to learn how to communicate with them than to practice, practice, practice?
  4. Can you think of one project in college that required you to design within a particular budget? When a homeowner is willing to pay for improvements on their property, budget is everything.
  5. Simple designs work best. Often the design solution is staring you in the face.
  6. Not everything goes together as easily as LEGOs. Construction details that you draft have real-world applications. Spend as much time on construction sites at the start of your career as you can.
  7. Working in the residential design field requires a multitude of skills. Since the design team is often smaller and more hands-on, each member is required to diversify his or her talents and accept more responsibility than at a firm that works in the public sector.
  8. You will never be bored. It is common to be juggling up to a dozen projects at once. While not lacking complexity, residential projects move toward completion more swiftly than projects in other sectors. This provides more opportunity for creativity and collaboration.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned since graduation. The keystone to all of this, however, is a willing mentor. Luckily, the small size of most residential design firms is conducive to fostering successful business relationships between recent graduates and design veterans.

I can only hope that more future designers give residential design a chance. It might just be what they have been waiting for. I, for one, am happy to have been cured of my own case of RDP.

by Lindsey Tabor, Associate ASLA

3 Responses to “Eight Lessons for Recent Graduates”

  1. M Marlowe Says:

    Such a interesting take on the field. I really enjoyed reading your article. You have a very good writing style and that will take you far in your career. Good luck, Lindsey.

  2. William Harris Says:

    Thank you for a very thoughtful, incisive article, Lindsey. I too practice residential design after many years in the commercial/urban design segment. Residential design is every bit as challenging and rewarding. My only reservation is that I wish that more people could enjoy some of the residential landscapes I’ve worked on through the years!

  3. Greg Pierceall Says:

    Greetings and wow I missed this article when it was released. Congratulations on your efforts and great perspective on site and landscape design. It is interesting that when one googles “site design” today, landscape architecture projects do not come up, but technology does.
    I have taught site and landscape planning for thirty years and it is very satisfying. Your view, passion and practice is not for all . For those whom enjoy the diversity and engagement with clients this fits the bill. All too often designer’s forget we have clients and let the artists in us take over the project. My best to you in your practice and career.
    Greg Pierceall Professor Emeritus Purdue Landscape Architecture


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