Working with Pirates

Even in the contractor's nurseries, the standard of care does not reach the level that the design landscape architect may expect--schedule control, procurement and construction documentation should be clear and complete. image: Edward Flaherty
Even in the contractor’s nurseries, the standard of care does not reach the level that the design landscape architect may expect
image: Edward Flaherty

You may wonder what it’s like to work in the cradle of Western Civilization—the trading posts between the East and West, the Middle East and North Africa, and, for millennia, primarily a landscape of traders.

But first, we’ll start with something you may be more familiar with. Large nurseries like Monrovia, Keeline Wilcox and ValleyCrest often have rows upon rows of trees, shrubs and ground covers, each properly pruned, grown to near perfection and available in seemingly unlimited quantities in any size you want. Selecting plants there is the same as going down the breakfast cereal aisle in a large American grocery store—huge selections, multiple sizes of each, in massive quantities. Just like cereal boxes, the plants in these nurseries are labelled, well displayed, properly set out and all uniformly healthy. That sophistication and mastery of horticultural and logistics processes—integral to plant growth—is a spectacular achievement that some landscape architects never fully appreciate—until they worked with the pirate landscape contractors of the Middle East.

In the Western Region of Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, a large new town was under construction and street trees were part of the infrastructure work. That was the first time some landscape architects had seen—on a competitively bid, huge project scale—plants being grown in used, empty tin cans. Always rusting, the cans rarely even had drainage holes and were always stacked cheek-by-jowl to save on land rental costs. Plants were hand watered seemingly by chance. Pruning equipment? Just never around.

Cropped trees; a desire for mature trees often comes with abusive horticultural practices at the source locations--simply to reduce shipping costs. image: Edward Flaherty
Cropped trees; a desire for mature trees often comes with abusive horticultural practices at the source locations–simply to reduce shipping costs.
image: Edward Flaherty

The captain of these landscape operations was almost always a French, Belgian or Afrikaner character—a Kepi blanc escapee at best, or at least suitable for a starring role in a Werner Herzog movie. Everyone who worked for the captain was a day laborer at the cheapest rate.

OK, my friends, where does the landscape architect start? How does the landscape architect get the design built according to specifications? What does the landscape architect do on this kind of job site? And how can a landscape architect overcome these issues on a foreign project?

The horticultural side of landscape architecture has been, in recent years, often the first line of expense cutting in American university programs, for whatever reasons. And unfortunately, at the procurement, construction and maintenance parts of the project process, horticultural issues always become prominent—especially true when there are large project plant quantities measured in millions and when opening day is a major marketing and social event.

Even in the contractor's nurseries, the standard of care does not reach the level that the design landscape architect may expect--schedule control, procurement and construction documentation should be clear and complete. image: Edward Flaherty
Cramped crowns; even in the contractor’s nurseries, the standard of care does not reach the level that the design landscape architect may expect–schedule control, procurement and construction documentation should be clear and complete.
image: Edward Flaherty

Propagation; growing of plants in containers; basic pruning for natural form; disease, insect and pest control; feeding and watering; transportation; seasonal awareness—these are all horticultural basics that travel well between foreign countries. Unfortunately, the keepers of basic horticultural principles are too often still at university horticultural departments. On the project site, the landscape architect must be fluent in horticultural basics or have a documented horticultural consultant standing in.

Control of these horticultural issues must start with the construction document drawings and specifications. They must be accurate, correct and complete. Then, to ensure that those documents are not undermined by misdirected cost savings attacks, the landscape architect must be present during the qualification process for contractors and suppliers, then for verification of plants and their quality in the project nursery, then periodically as the plants are grown in the project nursery, then for assuring their quality before shipping and to receive the plants on site. The landscape architect should always attach a plant maintenance specification for the installation contractor that contains full and practical detail including scheduling and personnel. Then the landscape architect should review the potential permanent maintenance contractors, and prepare bid documents for permanent maintenance. The landscape architect should be part of the selection team and review the landscape maintenance quality on a quarterly, semi-annual or annual basis.

image: Edward Flaherty
image: Edward Flaherty

Above all, the landscape architect—during the contractor’s original installation, during contractor maintenance and during permanent maintenance—should have the fiscal responsibility to sign off on line items of every invoice before any payment is made. Similarly, for all payment applications and penalty clauses involving schedule and payment, the landscape architect should have line item signatory approval. Without this financial control of the landscape process during construction and maintenance, the landscape architecture design intent will be out of control.

The landscape architect, to have a chance to succeed on a large foreign project, must have control of horticulture and money. In conclusion, this question must be asked: if the original landscape architecture design intent cannot be controlled, then how can that design carry a sustainable label?

by Edward Flaherty, ASLA, who is currently writing a series of landscape novellas. To learn more about his work, visit flahertylandscape and flahertylandscape on YouTube.

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