Damn The Torpedoes

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

Today I helped an architect friend of mine design the landscape for his recently remodeled midcentury ranch home. A few weeks ago, I also helped him construct a deck he had designed for the home’s front door. The deck was maybe the most interesting one I’ve seen in person. A long cantilever, intersecting volumes, slats, all the details one might expect from Mies van der Rohe. He did a great job of expressing the design language of the home, and I was excited to be a part of finishing up his vision, not to mention the enjoyment of working with a friend and frequent collaborator.

In my market, the opportunity to work on projects with an established and well-defined design language is rare. During the 1950’s-1960’s, modernism came roaring in to my city and many gems were designed and built here. Many of them still remain, albeit in increasing states of deterioration. We have Frank Lloyd Wright’s only built residence in Florida (Spring House), single-family homes designed by notable architects, and several fantastic Brutalist structures (the most prominent being the Wesley Foundation at Florida State University, which was sadly demolished earlier this year). Modernism came in fast, and then all but vanished just a quickly.

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Them

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

That feeling when everything about the project is moving along smoothly, and then ‘Them’ show up. Them have their own ideas and opinions. Them have their own sets of rules and guidelines that must be given adherence. If only Them would stay out of this, the project would be a smashing success and everyone, including Them, would celebrate and admire. By ‘Them’, I of course mean HOA’s (Home Owners’ Associations).

HOA’s became prevalent out of the Post-War era in the rise of Suburbia. It was the Eisenhower-an period of America. A 5-star general in the White House, and over 8 million Veterans returning to civilian life. Suburbs sprang up to house the millions of returning Veterans and their families, with communities modeled from base housing. Efficient, clean, and above all else – uniform in appearance and function. It was a simple time of mass prosperity and bright futures. So naturally, in the mindset of that post-war culture, local governance was needed to maintain the order and aesthetic of these newly created communities. Right now, if you surveyed every single professional in residential service, I would bet that the issue of HOA’s comes up for the majority.

Navigating clients, city/county ordinances, State law, contractors, and the ilk are sometimes enough to give you heart palpitations (I speak from actual experience). Throw in the local HOA demigod clipboard-wielding neighbor and you have a recipe for… well, early retirement.  However, HOA’s are a reality which we must face.

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When to Say No to a Client

image:  James Hughes
image: James Hughes

I’m going to be painfully honest with you- I am very good at making prospective clients angry. It’s a skill I have developed over the years of countless consultations. At first it bothered me, making me question my people skills and client relations. But as time passed I came to realize that in actuality the quality of my clients was rising significantly, and my relationship with those clients was stronger and more fruitful. The basis for this ‘skill’ was in my learning to utilize the word ‘No.’ It’s like magic. I consider it one of the best tools I possess in the professional toolbox. So if you don’t mind, I would like to take a few minutes of your time discussing what I believe is the most positive word in a designer’s lexicon – No.

When I first broke out on my own I took every job and commission that came my way. Back then, it was quite literally a matter of sink or swim and every dollar counted. Many of those early projects were challenging. More than a few of them were less than profitable, yet all of them were valuable lessons and opportunities for me to grow professionally and establish my reputation. I’m also not ashamed to admit (now) that some of those early projects never made it into my portfolio. At the time, I had a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. If Mrs. Smith wanted a Greek column in the garden at her Tudor home, who was I to question? And if Mrs. Smith felt my time was only worth so much, as long as it put a few more dollars in the family checking account, I was (begrudgingly) ok with it. Those were the days of survival. That being said, I’m going to skip past the great recession days, where most of us had to take whatever we could get and fast forward to talk about the here and now.

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Navigating Troubled Waters

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

This month, James Hughes joins me as Co-Chair of the Residential Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network. James and I met, albeit virtually, after a letter I sent to our members about issues the Residential PPN hoped to address in the coming year. As you will soon realize, James has a sophisticated and seasoned approach to managing Trouble Clients. He also brings energy and creativity to the PPN. This November in Denver, James will lead the Annual Residential PPN Meeting and I hope many of our members can attend so we can set the agenda for more topics to investigate. James is the principal of his own firm, James Hughes Landscaping, in Tallahassee, Florida.
–Jennifer Horn, ASLA, Residential Landscape Architecture PPN Co-Chair

If you’ve been in the business for more than 5 minutes, then chances are they’ve already made you question your passion and commitment. We’re talking about Trouble Clients. These are the clients that can never seem to be happy. As soon as you’ve addressed one issue and resolved it, they immediately shift to something else that makes them less than satisfied. Maybe they micromanage you, or perhaps look for technicalities they feel keep them from paying your invoices. Whatever the situation, Trouble Clients are a very real thing, and dealing with them is truly a skill set any professional should possess. While client satisfaction is most definitely a high priority, there is a fine line between pleasing a client and protecting your reputation and sanity. I’ve spoken about Trouble Clients with several professionals, and have come up with a few suggestions on how to navigate these troubled waters.

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