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When Your Contractor Is Not Familiar with Ecological Design

by Amanda Sloan, RLA

You’ve designed a nice ecological landscape, but the contractor hired to build it is not familiar with ecological practices. What to do?

After 26 years designing ecological landscapes and working with contractors, often on public jobs, I’ve developed some strategies. Of course, as an ecologically-minded landscape practitioner, I try to surround myself with professionals who work from this same frame of mind – and that includes contractors. Being an ELA member helps me get to know landscape contractors and other team members I can trust to incorporate environmental stewardship into their work. At conferences, gatherings, and through the ELA Newsletter, I meet landscapers, nursery managers, lighting and irrigation specialists, invasive plant managers, and many others who I can invite to join my team…and trust they will be “gentle on the land.”

But there is one significant piece of my work where this kind of choice is completely out of my control. This is the area of public work: municipal, state, and federal landscape projects. When municipalities and government agencies put out a Request for Proposals for construction of a landscape project, laws can restrict them to hiring the lowest bidder. With bidder choice thus restricted, there is no guarantee my careful, on-paper design will be understood and carried out by an eco-knowledgeable contractor. At that first kick-off meeting with the construction team, we ecological designers can be very surprised at the types of practices we consider well accepted, but that municipal landscape contractors do not know!

How to Get to Ecological?

What can we do if the contractor is not aware of ecological techniques or does not care to use them? Under these unconducive circumstances, are there ways (short of argument, ordering elements to be redone, or stamping the entire punch list with a “fail”!) to support an ecological process?

The Mandatory Pre-Bid Meeting is where, as a designer, you can lay out the ecological essentials for contractors wishing to bid on your project.

For me, it starts at the beginning. Including a Mandatory Pre-Bid Meeting at the beginning of the process is a first strategy. This is a meeting occurring after the municipality has your completed design documents in hand, but before any bids to construct the project are received. It includes the interested construction bidders, the designer, and town personnel. It is a step that is crucial, but that can easily fall victim to a town’s time and budget constraints, so the designer needs to insist on it. Any contractor who wishes to bid on constructing your landscape project must attend this meeting. At the meeting, besides a site walk, the designer should go carefully over the design drawings, explaining specifically what ecological techniques and specifications are to be used. Point out clearly that bidding contractors will be held to these practices. This way any bidders who cannot go along with the ecological elements in the plans are discouraged. Bidders who put in an intentionally low bid, with the idea to take short-cuts with ecological items once on the job, are also deterred.

Keep Checking In

Second, once the winning construction bidder is chosen, a Pre-Construction Meeting should be held with the contractor, designer, and municipal conservation agent and public works personnel. Again, a site walk should be included, in which wetlands and other necessary environmental protection, such as tree protection, is pointed out and emphasized. Again, the set of design drawings should be gone over with the contractor sheet by sheet, with ecological techniques described thoroughly. Sometimes contractors assume your design package contains old fashioned “off the shelf” details; emphasize that your designs are custom crafted with the environment in mind!

When the contractor didn’t carefully read the Grading Plan, this rain garden went wrong! The drawings showed the correct grading that would drain storm water collecting on the parking lot into the rain garden. Incorrect execution resulted in inches of water that could not drain over a berm. Fortunately, the situation was quickly corrected, but with extra expense and time wasted.

Third, frequent “construction observation” visits should be a formal part of the contract the designer has with the municipality or agency, while the landscape is being constructed. Designers need to check materials and methods contractors are using and be firm about rejecting unacceptable materials and practices. Often in large municipal projects there is a formal “submittal” process in place, in which materials samples must be OK’d by the designer before being installed, and this helps a lot.

When To Be Concerned

I have found several red flags to look out for when the goal is to do a municipal project ecologically:

  1. Some contractors only skim over construction drawings, to get a general idea, and then use their own fallback methods to construct, notwithstanding your careful drawings. Their own methods can be dated, can differ widely from what is shown in the drawings, and may not be ecologically based. An example is the use of landscape barrier fabric in rain gardens. Except under very particular circumstances, this is a no-no because the fabric clogs. I never show it in my rain garden details and often include a note that says, “Do Not Use Barrier Fabric.” Even so, I have often had to ask contractors to remove the barrier fabric they’ve just voluntarily laid down in the mistaken belief that all rain gardens use barrier fabric!
  2. Some contractors have not done their “quantity takeoffs” carefully when they place their bids. This means they have not looked carefully at the design drawings for exactly what quantities of specific materials, and hours of work, are required. This is a problem for properly executing ecological designs, when the specific materials and methods are not accounted for. In my experience this can result in the contractor trying to persuade the designer to OK, in the field, short-cut, non-ecological methods and materials as the project progresses.
  3. Bear in mind (with empathy) that there is a percentage of the adult population in the U.S. who, for reasons such as language barriers, disabilities like dyslexia, or illiteracy, cannot read English. That’s right: a small number of contractors cannot read design documents and drawings. If you sense this may be a problem, use intuition to communicate clearly each ecological construction step. Recently, I brought my own equipment and materials to a site and demonstrated a technique for a contractor who I sensed could not read my details.

    For an ADA compliant, permeable, eco-friendly woodland trail on Cape Cod, this detail clearly shows boulders set at the sides of the trail to prevent wheelchairs from leaving the path.

    But the contractor could not or did not read the detail and set small rocks as shown.

    After a demonstration by the landscape architect, the contractor set boulders correctly at the edges of the path.

These suggestions are just a start toward successful interactions with your contractor on municipal and government projects. As an ecological designer you may have many more to add to the list! Ideally on any landscape project, the client, the designer, regulatory officials, and the contractor, along with any subcontractors working under them, can cooperate harmoniously to build a beautiful, functional and ecologically sustainable landscape. But, like so much in society today, the old way of constructing and maintaining landscapes is deeply ingrained and revolves around a business model. As contractors not already aligned with ecological methods are prevailed upon to start using these methods, they will begin to see that – if only for the success of their businesses – it makes sense to do so.

We all need to remember that it takes education about ecological methods to become familiar and comfortable with them, and finally to become a trusted expert. Just as ecological designers can act as a “push from behind” to help mainstream contractors make this change, organizations such as ELA offer an inducement through educational programs. ELA conferences often include hands-on seminars to learn new techniques; ELA webinars are also very helpful in this respect. Recently ELA has been developing an online educational series in Spanish, targeted for contractors who want to be sure all staff members know how to work ecologically.

Expanding the field of contractors who are comfortable with constructing ecological landscapes benefits everyone. Landscape contractors with these skills will be the successes of the future, especially on the public, municipal, state, and federal level.

About the Author

Amanda Sloan, RLA, ASLA, is a Massachusetts-based landscape architect with more than 25 years of experience on ecological projects. She has worked with design firms both large and small, most recently on large public landscapes with BETA Group, Inc., a multi-disciplinary design firm. She specializes in parks, rain gardens, multi-use trails, and native plants.

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