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The Green Scene in Landscape Design/Build: Sept. 2006

Love, War & Landscape Design

Bickering couples can turn landscape projects into a nightmare. Careful negotiation and good listening skills can keep designers from getting stuck in the middle. Sep 1, 2006 By: Brian Albright

Landscape Design/Build Landscape designer Scott Cohen can still remember a time when he didn't fully grasp the marital politics that are sometimes involved in a landscaping project, and what it could cost him. "It isn't something we've always been good at," says Cohen, president and supervising designer at The Green Scene. "I remember one project, years ago, where we were hired by the husband. He told us everything they wanted, but we never met the wife. As we began the project, it turned into a nightmare, because it wasn't anything that she wanted." Mid-project negotiations between husband and wife resulted in major changes. "We ended up having to go back to step one," says Cohen. "It was a $150,000 job that should have been profitable, but it was an absolute nightmare because both people were not involved in the project from the beginning." Scott Cohen at HGTV Filming 2008

As any landscape designer (or any other residential contractor, for that matter) knows, there can be big differences between what men and women want out of a home improvement project. And pity the poor contractor caught between warring spouses in the midst of an expensive landscape redesign. As Cohen says, while most of his work goes into the design, he spends a good deal of time "being a marriage counselor."Navigating the stormy waters of someone else's relationship is usually not on the list of services offered by most landscape firms, but for a project to be both successful and profitable, designers must learn how to mediate in these awkward situations. Men and women may want different things out of a design, and one person in the relationship may care more about the project than the other. Cost can also be more of a sticking point for one spouse than the other. It's important early on for the designer to find common ground, listen to everyone's concerns, and propose solutions. Women tend to prefer perennial flowers, while men tend to prefer more grass in a landscape. "I think a lot of times people go into the initial meeting thinking they feel the same way. 'We always agree on things' - They'll say that in the beginning," says Cohen. "They think they see eye to eye, but as we delve into the details and get into dividing the space in the yard, breaking it into outdoor rooms, and how we're going to use it for entertaining, we find that there are some strong feelings and differences in how they want to use the yard, what's important to them and where the dollars go." He said, she said Although each couple is different, Cohen says that there are particular yard and patio features that men and women tend to favor. "I can sit down with a couple and I know going into the meeting what the husband is going to want, and what the wife is going to want, for the most part," he says. "Men and women come to meeting with different images in their heads. My job is to get to the same page."

Based on his experience, Cohen says that women tend to focus more on ambience and visual impact, while men are more concerned with the size of their, uh, barbeques.

"When we're designing for couples, we often find ourselves in the middle of a tug-of-war," Cohen says. Bruck also sees some gender differences among her clients, noting that men tend to want more grass, while women prefer more perennial flower beds. "I have a hard time digging up people's lawns when a man is involved," she says. But whatever they're looking for in a design, make sure both parties are present during the initial planning meetings, and get them on the same page for the project moves forward. "Sometimes one person will have very hard time understanding the value of the other person's wishes," says Judy De Pue, APLD, owner of New Vistas Landscaping in Goshen, IN. "They will usually agree on the basic shape and form, but not always. Sometimes if it gets difficult enough, I will actually say, 'I think at this point you folks need to work through this a little bit more before we resume the planning.'" Men love their big barbecues

Making both spouses feel included is extremely important. "Sometimes a husband will come in and say, 'It's OK, I know what my wife wants; don't worry about it.' That meeting is an absolute waste of time," says Cohen, noting that women make most of the financial decisions in most households. (According to many statistics, even though women on average earn less than men in the U.S., they control 80% to 85% of household spending.)

Bruck leans on her own experiences with contractors in her work. "My husband and I have a way of bickering in front of contractors, I've noticed," she says. "If we have a cabinet maker or somebody coming over, we end up going against each other and we don't form a united front. I do value when a contractor just listens to us. My job as a designer is to go back to the drawing board and make everybody happy. It's a challenge."

Making It Work

Landscape designs, large and small, go more smoothly when married couples are jointly consulted. One way to keep these disagreements from killing the whole project is to identify who is the decision maker in the household. "That's not necessarily the person who makes the appointment," says De Pue, who adds that it's important during the planning meetings to make eye contact with the clients, and make everyone feel involved. The designer also has to appear neutral, so that one spouse won't feel outnumbered. "Make sure both sides feel they were heard, and their opinions were taken into consideration," says Cohen. "Otherwise, you don't earn the job." "My advice is to let them play out the disagreement in full without saying anything," says Bruck. "When they are completely finished, make a general statement like, 'I'm sure I could make you both happy.' Listen to everything they are both saying.
Scott filming with HGTV
It will offer you a clue as to where they're coming from, why they're disagreeing, and who needs to be bowed down to a little bit more.""Be patient with people's differences, and try to help then find points of agreement," says De Pue. She cites one project where the wife wanted an open design for parties around a log cabin, while the husband wanted the home to be hidden and sheltered by trees. De Pue came up with a design that incorporated an open lawn flanked by 14-ft.-tall spruces to provide privacy. A little levity doesn't hurt, either. Cohen takes his clients through a detailed design questionnaire before starting a project, and says that usually things go pretty smoothly. For bickering clients, Cohen has designed another document. "It's a tongue-in-cheek thing," he says. "I have a typewritten letter that describes the difference between landscape design and marriage counseling, and how we bill differently for those services. Marriage counseling obviously costs a lot more." Couple relaxing on Baja shelf

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