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In the October 2005 issue of WaterShapes, I discussed a project that had tested my abilities and helped me to grow as a landscape designer.

To that point in my career, I had functioned mainly as a designer focused on planting design. It was quite a step for me to accept the greater responsibility that came with a project that put me in charge of work on the total environment – pool, spa, deck, outdoor amenities and artwork placement as well as the planting plan.

I knew going in that project management is a challenge no matter the size or scale of the job. Coordinating various trades, anticipating schedules and materials needs, making on-site design decisions and covering all the bases involved in bringing a project to fruition always requires a high degree of focus and concentration.

In a high-profile project such as this one, however, the stakes were unusually high – an interesting time for me to step beyond a design role and take the lead on the entire job. Indeed, I’ve noticed that becoming the point person for the design/construction project led me to make adjustments to my way of thinking as well as my usual approach to tasks at hand.


Typically, I develop a design, perhaps consult on hardscape installation and then supervise the overall planting installation. This allows me to exercise control over the placement of plants and the look of the final product. I have always worked with (and around) other contractors who understand my plans and take responsibility for the overall installations and often are willing to defer to my guidance on certain design details.

For this particular project, I operated the same way I usually do when we started: I planned the planting, made suggestions about hardscape features and incorporated shapes, locations and suggested materials into what I was doing – but I fully expected to leave the installation and project management to someone else.

As the project moved forward, however, it became clear that I had to become more involved in the actual installation and that, in fact, I needed to take charge as both designer and project manager. As I wrapped my mind around that and accepted the responsibility, I recognized my decision had some obvious rewards.

For one thing, exercising control over the project as its on-site manager enabled me to become even more deeply imbedded in the design process. It was no longer a matter of drawing something on paper and then handing it to someone else. I soon discovered that nothing on this job site was ever quite that easy.

What I came to see was all the small design details that make the difference between a good project and a great one and that having control over those details as a project-managing designer gave me the control I needed to move our work to a higher level. As we’ve all experienced, everyone interprets plans differently: If you want your design interpreted the way you intend, you need to be involved at every stage of the project.

The inside ledge of the pool, for example, needed to be as dark as possible in order to visually disappear. Someone needed to research materials and make suggestions – and it turns out it was me.

The material needed to be slip-resistant, as people and dogs would be walking on it. It also had to be workable enough to function as a proper edge in a perimeter-overflow system. Then there was the finish: If we used a stone, it could be cut and/or it could be honed or flamed to get what we wanted. We actually tested a number of different surfaces as part of the decision-making process.


I felt like I was in school again – and I took advantage of the opportunity to familiarize myself with the issues involved in creating a good, sound watershape design and develop an understanding that it isn’t simply a matter of deciding to use black granite.

No, the process was also about the size of grout joints, the elevation of the spa’s slightly raised dam wall and the overall maintenance of the perimeter-overflow illusion. It was about the shapes of corner pieces and how they would affect the illusion as well as the functionality of the pool. It also had to do with determining the slope of the edge pieces, again for appearance and functionality.

All of these decisions drove home for me the point that top-quality design requires constant nurturing and attention if great results are to be achieved. Creating a watershape is considerably more intricate than executing most hardscape and planting designs, but what the process demonstrated to me most was that my availability on site and dedication to managing all the details made a huge difference in the success of our labors.

To be sure, project management of this sort is about spending lots of time on site, research, networking and, most of all, interacting and taking responsibility with the client. That role with clients is crucial: It means being available to address the client’s frustrations and even anger and may seem like a lot of bother – but again, it definitely has its rewards, including:

[ ] More money. Obviously, if you’re going to accept more responsibility and devote more of your time to a project, you need to be compensated appropriately. We may be in this business for the love of watershaping, but we need to pay our bills and be financially rewarded for the work we do.

[ ] Better designs. Drawing plans and handing them over to others leaves them to interpret the design in their own ways. Assuring your vision (and ultimately the client’s vision) gets built requires personal involvement. Moreover, your being on site to make small design decisions will yield better results.

[ ] Great collaborations. Working with design-savvy contractors teaches you an incredible amount about the construction process and in turn will help you create better designs in the future. Understanding perimeter-overflow plumbing, for example, enables you to make decisions that can make for truly superior designs.

On this project, for example, we had a large surge tank with an unsightly cover. We knew we wanted to hide it by putting it beneath a pathway – we epoxied a slab of bluestone to the cover so it looks just like another stepping stone – and I had to work closely with the contractor to ensure exact placement of the tank.

[ ] Networking opportunities. As I’ve written in the pages countless times, our business is all about referrals and communication and positive working environments translate into future work. In this case, many different trades were involved, all with significant referral possibilities. I’ve already been brought in on other projects with some of the professionals I worked with on this project – and it’s only just starting.

[ ] Education. I learn something new in my work every day. I don’t expect to build a better mousetrap any time soon, but I find that the information, approaches and techniques I pick up by paying attention to what’s going on around me is helping me become a better designer. Simply knowing (as I do now) that the black plaster we installed will require specified treatments that other plasters may not allows me to avoid not only the pitfalls of using certain materials, but also enables me to inform my clients and make projects run more smoothly.


My favorite question from my clients is “How come nothing’s happening today?” With each new project I take on, I’m better able to answer that question intelligently.

Familiarizing themselves with all the steps involved in completing a major project is something I don’t expect my clients to do. For my part, however, I do expect myself to become better versed in processes so I can be a more effective project manager and a better support for my clients.

The people who pay us can be very demanding of our time, energy and design or construction abilities. Under the best of circumstances, the most important qualities you can offer them are patience, understanding and honesty. These are the keys to developing trust, a better product and, ultimately, satisfied clients – something for which we all should strive.

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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