At the ASLA Annual Meeting & EXPO in Denver last year, I attended several “Inside the LA Studio” education sessions were I was at once intrigued and captivated by the unique journey each leader took to establishing a successful landscape architecture firm. How does an emerging professional make the transition from education to practice? In particular, what are the critical elements intersecting the formation of a successful landscape architecture firm?
To learn more, the same four questions about organization, culture, vision, roots, and process was put to the leaders of successful landscape architecture firms that differed in size, structure, and culture. The responses showed a pattern of critical elements essential to building and maintaining a vibrant practice.
In general, the best firms we interviewed had a vision, refined within an area of expertise that resonated with their core values. Most developed the type of projects they wanted to work on, based on their central philosophy and didn’t stray from it, while each leader knew the limits of their expertise and actively sought to fill any void in knowledge to create a diverse team of professionals. Using a vision and passion expressed as the core theology of a firm to drive all business decisions, from client selection and project management to employee structure and affiliated professionals, was the most important element to developing a successful firm.
The three critical elements you must have to build a vibrant practice which emerged from our interviews with successful firms:
- Have a central philosophy within an area of expertise that resonates with your core values.
- Know your limits and develop a diverse culture of professionals.
- Align your vision with your firm’s process for client selection, employee management, and project development.
We chose to profile two firms and the unique journeys each firm’s leader took to their present success. Both firms are very different in size, geographical focus, and experiential background. In Part I of Building a vibrant practice: Critical elements to success, we will profile the firm Biohabitats, and in Part II we will feature the firm LLG International.
Biohabitats– Principal Keith Bowers, FASLA
Biohabitats is a firm with a mission some might find audacious: to restore the earth and inspire ecological stewardship. The firm has been working towards that mission for more than 30 years, helping communities improve water quality, protect and increase wildlife habitat, restore degraded ecosystems, and reconnect people to nature through ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design.
Since its founding in 1982 by Keith Bowers, FASLA, Biohabitats has grown to become one of the most highly relevant ecological design firms in the country. Biohabitats’ interdisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and designers embraces a collaborative relationship with other like-minded firms, where applied science pays a pivotal role in addressing some of our most complex ecological and social problems.
Recognizing that nature is a dynamic force that affects people as much as it is influenced by their actions, the team at Biohabitats approaches every project with the understanding that outcomes (whether they be a restored stream, a natural wastewater treatment/recycling system, a living shoreline, or a sustainable campus master plan) are most powerful when they support whole, living systems that lead to ecological, cultural, and economic benefits.
Q&A: Tell us how your practice started, how it is organized, and how you created a work culture.
When I was in college, only a handful of people had been engaged in what we now know as ecological restoration. Upon discovering Dr. Edgar Garbicsh, a University of Michigan professor who was developing techniques to restore tidal marshes along the Eastern seaboard while on sabbatical in the 1970s, I knew that I wanted to restore ecosystems. That prompted me to start Biohabitats in 1982.
Two years later, the Maryland General Assembly passed Chesapeake Bay Critical Area legislation, which generated a demand for the type of work I wanted to do. Within months, Biohabitats was working with Chesapeake Bay area municipalities to restore wetlands and streams and develop local land use programs. With the passing of Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act in 1991, that work quickly expanded to forest ecosystems. As the work expanded, so did our staff, services, and offices.
Recognizing that a synthesis of perspectives is essential for designing and sustaining an ecologically and socially just landscape, we have built our practice on the disciplines of restoration ecology, conservation biology, and landscape ecology. As a result, our core services include ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design, with crosscutting services in coastal resiliency, integrated water strategies, and urban ecology. To provide our services, our staff is comprised of landscape architects, ecologists, biologists, soil scientists, geomorphologists, foresters, water resource and ecological engineers, GIS technicians, and CADD technicians.
In our work culture, I think what is most striking is the unbridled passion for ecological democracy – the notion that all life on earth should have an equal stake in our collective future. But even more important, Biohabitats’ mission transcends our basic needs and aspirations; it speaks to a greater good where all life on this planet can not only co-exist, but thrive. When describing the Biohabitats’ culture, our employees often use words like “Down-to-Earth, fun, innovative, ever-learning, and collaborative.” We view ourselves as a learning organization, so we are always offering opportunities to gain knowledge, whether that be though formal meetings, brain gardens (brown bag lunches), or informal walkabouts (where we explore ideas without boundaries).
Believing in open-book management, we also share our financial performance each quarter through “Tribal Council” meetings. While we celebrate the diversity of our backgrounds and expertise, we are solidly united by a deep commitment to our mission, a genuine passion for the natural world, and a shared, holistic perspective that views all life—not just that of humans—as having intrinsic value.
How does your practice take a leadership role on projects and establish collaborative relationships with multi-disciplinary partners?
We believe all projects should lead with the recognition that the foundation of all life is based on a healthy, intact, and connected nature. Our role is to help clients, design teams, and stakeholders understand the value of conserving, restoring, and regenerating ecological processes. Many times we take the lead role on projects where ecology plays a prominent part. On others, our role may be complimentary or in support of other primary objectives.
In nature, symbiosis is a critical survival trait that builds function, integrity, and resilience in living systems. Likewise, we strongly believe collaboration-with other team members, clients, peers and stakeholders-is essential in the work we do.
Define your business process for screening new clients and project development?
When considering opportunities, we ask ourselves a lot of questions. First and foremost: is this work in line with our mission to restore the earth and inspire ecological stewardship? Knowing why a client wants us on the project is also important. If they seek a whole systems approach to problem solving, planning, and design-one that incorporates an understanding of the local ecology from the beginning of a project rather than as an afterthought-then we become very intrigued. If, on top of that, the client stimulates our thinking, and is open to mutual learning and adapting as we proceed through the work, well, that is a very desirable partner for us. At that point, we look at the nuts and bolts needed to effectively execute and manage the project including capacity, skill set, and experience.
One of our strengths to enter projects from many different vantage points in combination with our design-build capacity, demands that we integrate our services in multiple ways.
What advice would you give to young professionals starting their own practice?
Know your vision and stick with it, even if it seems audacious. In the early years of Biohabitats, many people were not so sure there was a market, or even a need for ecological restoration. It turned out that having that vision, a vision that transcended an immediate desire to make a living, turned out to be even more powerful and fulfilling than I could have imagined.
Independence is great, but interdependence is much more powerful. Today’s challenges require answers that are not confined to a single discipline. Know what you don’t know, and build your practice to include and foster collaboration among scientists, engineers, designers, economists, communicators, and of course your trusted partner (the quiet one who has amassed 3.8 billion years of R&D experience: nature).
by Cheri Stringer, Affiliate ASLA, MS University of Colorado, APLD Certified member, Owner of TLC Gardens LLC