Landscape design or architecture? How do you choose your contractor?


How do you choose a contractor?

Ah! The big question! Who do you need to contract to help plan and install an outdoor space that is meant to make humans – you! – feel comfortable to relax and move around in? While both careers originate from the same parent, gardening, there is one considerable difference. Scale. The scale or size of a project and responsibility that comes with it is what separates these two professions.

Where architects take on large and complex projects that involve both the environment and structures and must be knowledgeable about issues such as grading, construction elements and drainage, a landscape designer, on the other hand, typically has more knowledge in different aspects of gardening and specialised plant knowledge – they focus on the flora.

© Contours Design Studio


Landscape design, like most professions, has a very simple origin: cultivation or gardening. It has been around for hundreds of years.  One of the most famous gardeners, André Le Nôtre, was entrusted to create and renovate the gardens of Versailles in the 17th Century. These estates were designed to represent one’s wealth, but also to cultivate trees needed for the French fleet, the King of France, who would be able to harvest trees from one’s land as needed; so landscapes doubled as cultivation fields. Fast forward 4 centuries and the practice has grown into a full-fledged career that can be studied at university level.

Photo: Wikimedia
The king of gardeners and Gardener to the King, André Le Nôtre was the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France.
Photo: Pinterest
The Gardens of Versailles occupy part of what was once the Domaine royal de Versailles, the royal demesne of the château of Versailles.
Today, landscape designers (LD) design on a residential scale. This encompasses all work needed by a private client. Most LDs are associated with a preferred landscape contractor and often times these designers are part of a contracting company and offer a comprehensive design and installation service (like Contours Design Studio). The LD works with clients personally, collects the brief directly from them, perhaps visits local nurseries together, and gets a good understanding of their different styles, budgets and and desired final look and feel.
Photo: Canva


As the name suggests, landscape architecture is the design of outdoor spaces for use by the public. The need for the profession was born out of the industrial revolution when there was a mass migration of people from rural areas to the city. Almost all land was built up and when people had down-time, the only green spaces available were the cemeteries, which filled up with people on Sundays, having a picnic on or near graves, and children playing between tombstones.

In modern-day, landscape architects (LA) generally design at municipal scale. Estates, golf courses, waterways, large environmental remediation projects, public parks and public open spaces. As a landscape architect, you need to have completed a Master’s Degree in the field and be registered with a professional governing body in order to claim the title. These governing bodies all have a code of ethics and professional conduct and most importantly, represent your profession on a governmental level. This means that the work designed by a landscape architect has to adhere to standards and there is a certain public liability that the LA carries with their project. LA’s always represent the client and usually work in a design and project management capacity. They will generally appoint a landscape contractor to install the project on the client’s behalf through a tender process and then proceed to oversee the installation of the project.
Photo: Canva
Photo: Wikimedia
The person to popularise the term landscape architecture in the 19th century is Frederick Law Olmsted, also known as the father of landscape architecture in the USA. The name might sound familiar if you are native to Manhattan or know about its history.
Photo of Frederick Law Olmsted’s best-known gardening project:
Olmsted designed and oversaw the installation of Central Park. This is probably one of the most famous man-made landscapes of the 19th Century.

A successful landscape design is one that needs no instructions, it is easily navigable by everyone and allows freedom of movement.


Landscape architects and designers both design on human scale and therefore are often responsible for making people feel comfortable in a space. People avoid badly designed spaces, it’s that simple. Look closely when you navigate around your city, there might be some parts that are never occupied and it very often has to do with the way the open space is designed.   

Designers use trees to scale down buildings and make it more comfortable for people. The canopies act as a ceiling, whilst shrubs and groundcovers soften the hard concrete jungle and reduce the ever-looming heat. But no-one would ever stop and sit in a public square while eating their lunch and think, I wonder who designed this space, simply because it works so well.
Photo of Rooftop park in Bulwark Sint Jan, Oslo:
Photo: Canva


I think the biggest challenge of being a landscape designer or architect is that one works with living material. There are definitely inert materials like hard surfaces, street furniture and lighting, but the most variable factor is plants and trees.  You see, working with an element that is alive comes with a host of challenges. One has to simulate soil conditions that are favourable to those plants, or alternatively, only select plants that like the specific soil conditions of the site and make sure they get enough nutrients, water and sunlight. Then, plants in a constructed landscape have to be maintained if it is to thrive and continue to look its best. This means there is a need to feed it regularly, cut back appropriately, divide as necessary, uproot and replace, manage pests, and so the list goes on.  In the history of successful landscapes, good management practices, affectionately known as ‘maintenance’ in the industry, is the key to the continued success of a man-made landscape. With all this being said, you can see there is a vast wealth of detail in both professions. 


© Contours Design Studio
Landscape architects rarely get involved in residential design, unless the project is of a large enough scale.
The rate for a landscape designer to design your residential space is much less than the services you would pay a landscape architect for.
Landscape architects have minimum fees set out by their governing bodies and these might be out of budget for a residential garden.
As a home-owner, you want to hire a landscape designer and preferably one that can offer you the entire service from start to finish.

“As is imitation to flattery, so is a landscape designer to nature. Being an avid user of the Mediterranean palette, whether it be plants, colours or textures, my mythical paintbrush is dipped in regions and I paint in themes.”

MARK MAC HATTIE is a landscape designer and blogger for Contours Design Studio. He has a Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture and a B.Tech Degree in Landscape Design. +27658057346


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