At the ASLA Annual Meeting & EXPO in Denver last year, I attended several “Inside the LA Studio” education sessions where 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 that intersect in the formation of a successful landscape architecture firm?
To learn more, the same four questions about organization, culture, vision, roots, and process were 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.
We chose to profile two firms and the unique journeys each firm’s leader took to their present success. In Part I, we asked Keith Bowers, FASLA, Principal of Biohabitats those four questions. In Part II, we will profile the journey of LLG.
LLG International Co-Founder/ Principal: Jeff Lakey, ASLA, CLARB, MLA
At LLG we recognize that attaining sustainability means respecting the reciprocal relationships inherent in living systems. As we all know, our species has leveraged our economy with industrial thought models and fossil fuels to its detriment. An alternative is hinted at by ecologist Stephen Harding in his book Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia when he says, “You start with life, with human life and the life of the planet, and ask, how can we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?” I think it nicely summarizes the obvious limits to quantitative physical and economic growth.
With these ideas, LLG is developing international planning, design, and construction solutions modeled on the integrated processes of living systems. We provide ecological planning, urban design, and landscape architecture services to clients—from traditional land and formal organizations to fully integrated on-site biologically organized production and purification systems.
We are looking to design sites to sustain people with closed loops of energy, water, food, waste, and wildlife, on-site. Our target clients are primarily those who are operating facilities at a significant scale and aim to meet stringent “net-zero” sustainability goals such as: the generation of renewable power, the production of food edibles while eliminating fossil fuel toxicity, processing of waste materials locally and on-site to be used as a resource for heat, fuel, and soil development, and wastewater biosystems that support plant and animal life while providing on-site clean water sources for a variety of uses.
Q&A: Tell us how your practice started, how it is organized, and how you created a work culture.
I worked as a planner and integrative design strategist for an unusual variety of organizations after receiving my degree in landscape architecture from Oregon State University and Harvard. My most important lesson from this experience was to design based on a central idea, not unlike writing, where “the idea” is the arbiter of a design’s clarity and strength. I also learned to appreciate the multiple solution authorities present in all projects from key faculty in landscape ecology and colleagues of Ian McHarg. These experiences shaped my thinking of LLG’s organization and mission.
The culture of our firm evolved over time to encompass international projects that integrate a systems view of life into the design of cities for human health, well-being, and ecological integrity—especially projects where design development was founded on a “life” paradigm, driving the project focus and ultimate solutions. Our firm is small and our structure is intimate, diverse, multi-cultural, and best described as integrated groups with a strong emphasis on a balance of talent and diversity.
While our teams began international projects starting in Egypt in 2005, it was not until 2009, through several sponsored competitions overseas, that our international focus became a reality. The firm was founded the following year in 2010 and in response to what I perceive is an urgent international need for idea-driven design to integrate living biological support infrastructure within developing cities. We continue to be involved in projects on an international scale in Egypt, India, China, and the US.
How does your practice take a leadership role on projects and establish collaborative relationships with multi-disciplinary partners?
We look for opportunities to work with professionals that share our fundamental goals and philosophy, no matter their original discipline. My favorite architectural client in Denver says of me, “Jeff is the only landscape architect I know who gets it.” By that, he means I understand idea-driven design, but also that I understand “no silos” team roles and organization. At LLG, our core vision allows us to either take on team leadership and share it or stand under others, depending on the nature of the project, the site, the client, and everyone’s roles.
Define your business process for screening new clients and project development?
Although we work for diverse client types, we like our clients to be a good fit within our firm’s vision and philosophy. Often a dialog with the client will establish our compatibility to engage on a project. We ask a lot of questions, whether it’s a systems approach to biology, ecology, and site engineering. If the client is open to an approach that acknowledges the importance of integrated systems with ecological integrity, it’s generally a good fit for us. Yet, we will work to “bring them along” with information if they are simply exploring opportunities in green infrastructure and buildings.
If we find a good fit we start by developing a “site story” for the project, often referred to as inventory, analysis, and programming. A common point of departure is to document the ecological and cultural forces acting on the place before organizing the structure and function of new use, character, or construction. That applies equally to both previously open or previously developed sites. We then work to author further chapters of the “story” based on the client’s goals. Together we look for the best ordering system and its fit with their goals.
What advice would you give to young professionals starting their own practice?
Know yourself first. You do your best work when you follow your passion, interests, and experience. This comes from knowing who you are as a landscape architect. Who are you? What is it that moves you? Stay true to your own interests and desires—when you are in harmony, your passion and expertise will carry your success.
Understand business. I suggest that even from the entry level to consider positions with an employer doing what you think fits with your own interests and desires. If you pursue the private model, prepare yourself by befriending, in addition to design staff, a firm’s operations and management employees so you understand the business side of professional design services.
To succeed you may want to differentiate yourself from legions of others who are available to provide services cheaply where the quality sought is often not high. To win work on the basis of talent will be more rewarding than to win on the basis of lowest fee.
Stay inspired. Inspiration means to bring in spirit. The creative world is one where ideas are being conveyed in ways that may inform your own work. Expose yourself to creative works and the works of those who make things. Arts and humanities are a tool through which we establish our human connection to design. Without it, your designs will lose balance and cultural significance.
To all those emerging professionals starting a landscape architecture firm in the future we wish you all the best.
by Cheri Stringer, Affiliate ASLA, MS University of Colorado, APLD Certified Member, Owner of TLC Gardens LLC