David Supple of New England Design & Construction sits down with Colin Hand of a Blade of Grass to talk about landscape architecture and the design-build process.
How does architecture and building coexisting within a single project? Find out during the interview.
View a Blade of Grass landscape design portfolio
Transcript of Episode 12
David Supple: All right, welcome to the Design Build Show. I’m here with my good friend, Colin Hand. And-
Colin Hand: Hi, how’s it going?
David Supple: We’ve had a bit of a hiatus. So thank you very much-
Colin Hand: Hey, no problem.
David Supple: For getting us back on track with the Design Build Show. We’re here at the Union restaurant … is that what it’s called?
Colin Hand: Yeah, yeah.
David Supple: Union Restaurant in Newton. Great restaurant.
Colin Hand: Newton Center, yeah.
David Supple: Newton Center. And the purpose of this show is really just to educate people on design build historically. The architect built and so historically things were design built I’d say about 90% of the people out there that I talk to are not even aware of it and have the idea that the architect and builder are separate and that’s the way it’s always been. But it has not been. That’s really not the case. And design build is really just getting back to the way that it has been for the majority of history.
So Colin works for Blade of Grass and Blade of Grass is an amazing landscape company, design build landscape company. We had the good fortune to collaborate with them on several projects. The first one going back eight years or so?
Colin Hand: Yeah, eight years.
David Supple: Yeah.
Colin Hand: Almost a decade.
David Supple: Yeah, yeah, and you know he’s got a baby face, so eight years ago, but even more so, right? But I actually just the way I think do you remember I thought you were the owner of the company?
Colin Hand: Yeah.
David Supple: I just assumed he was just the way he carried himself, the level of responsibility he took for the projects. He really just took ownership for it and does an amazing, amazing job. And so do you want to talk a little bit about how you got into the industry?
Colin Hand: Sure. And just to elaborate on that, I think one of the things that we think is really important at Blade of Grass is that everyone kind of takes ownership of these projects. They’re personal in nature because one of the things we were talking about that’s great about design build is that you’re there through an extended process and with these projects a long time. So if you don’t treat them with that seriousness-
David Supple: Yeah. You do own it.
Colin Hand: You own it. You’re there.
David Supple: There’s nobody to point the finger at.
Colin Hand: No. There’s nobody to point the finger at. And you’ve got to be … it’s a good thing to be thinking about how your thoughts translate into reality. And that’s a grounding thing for somebody who started off in the design world more than the design build.
David Supple: Yeah. So how did you start off?
Colin Hand: So I was originally on a track to become a landscape architect. That’s what my schooling was in. Good old U Mass. Go Minutemen! But I graduated in an unfortunate year, 2008, and you had to be kind of crafty to figure out where your place was in the working world in the middle of that recession. And I had been working with Jim, the owner of Blade of Grass, through school during the summers doing maintenance on gardens and they were starting off doing some of the build projects in house.
David Supple: So you graduated. What was your degree?
Colin Hand: So I have a Masters in Landscape Architecture and we started off doing some patio work and some plantings, and it’s blossomed from that three man crew and a Bobcat and a dump truck. We’re all the way up to seven or eight crews at one time installing landscapes. So what really got me hooked is that before I started doing the design and build portion, all the people I talked to that were working in these architecture firms or had been working at them were talking about how it was a really big bummer to spend a portion of your energy and your life dedicated to a project that never gets green lighted.
Design build, you go into a project with the intent to build it. And you’re going to see your results. That’s inspiring and transformative for somebody who loves design. But it really let’s you get your hands dirty. You know what I mean? That’s the best.
We literally in landscaping do.
David Supple: We just had lunch and this didn’t come up, but now I think we’re going to spend the rest of the show on it, which is the point you just brought up. Which is very common. I want to get the percentage. I want this to be tracked and surveyed. And I want to know the percentage in architecture that does not build, whether it’s landscaping or homes, which is what we do. What’s the percentage that go on a shelf versus get executed? I’m just guessing, but you said that was one of the things. Because I hear it too in our part of the industry. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, it’s going to be this amazing project, but it didn’t happen.”
I hear that an I’m like … because what’s the percentage of your projects that get executed?
Colin Hand: Well once people agree to do design work with us, our hit rate is between 90 and 95%.
David Supple: That’s very high.
Colin Hand: It’s very high.
David Supple: We’ve never had a client pass away, knock on wood. But it’s like something major happens where it’s like … and for me, the reason is, it’s very simple. That’s the dichotomy. That’s a difference. And the difference is the mindset. The difference is … and it’s not just the mindset. Obviously these architects want these projects to be built, but they actually don’t have the full skillset to be able to set up a project for success. They don’t know what things cost, so they’re … and this is a generality. It’s not true for all architects. But generally, I think it is.
Colin Hand: If you’re drawing up a fix bit contract to do a project, you’re going to know how things cost. You’re going to have your pulse on what materials cost, what labor costs are. And you’re going to want to build in those conversations from the very beginning because the most beautiful design in the world that fits a site perfectly still has to come in underneath those budget constraints. And really, it’s the first spot that we would encourage people to start thinking so we’re not going to go down a rabbit hole. Which is frustrating for the homeowner especially because they have a time frame in their mind, and spending six weeks on a concept that has no grounding in a budgetary reality is not benefiting anyone.
David Supple: Right. And we’re responsible. So we’re not going to … where as an architects, they’re just getting hired to design. And so they’re not responsible for the build, and so they’re not responsible for the cost. And so anything they communicate, there can be an intention or a budget goal, but there’s no accountability behind that. And that’s problematic. And also, I think a big part about it and a huge benefit of design build for us it getting to set up the project while we’re designing it.
And you guys have trades. I think we probably have more trades. But that collaboration is very much design build. We’re having our plumber and our electrician and our HVAC contractor and any specialty tradesmen we need to consult on in the design. It’s like we’re setting it up. It’s a similar thing. Whereas an architects doesn’t have those resources.
Colin Hand: Right. And we’re looking at it from the aspect of you’re catering to all of the home owner’s needs, because we’re mostly residential, and you’re dealing with usually a handful of people at most. So their needs are first and foremost going to be, is this going to be feasible? It’s like they trust us to come up with a recipe that satisfies all of those cravings. They want something beautiful, they want something that’s built in an amount of time that’s reasonable, and they want to know that their costs are controlled. We all want that in anything we’re going into. So yeah.
David Supple: I want to … if anybody is watching this and you know where to find this information, is it 50%? I want to know if this is tracked anywhere.
Colin Hand: Yeah. I think it’s one of those things that might be a sore subject. Because you never want somebody to roll out these beautiful plans and just be like, they’re covered in dust because nothing ever came to it. And I was speaking a lot from people who work not necessarily solely residential, because I think that we … when you separate design build, residential field has a little bit more of a … they go in knowing it’s going to have something to develop. There’s none of these feasibility … you very rarely have somebody do a feasibility design on a landscape. It happens, somebody might want to buy a house and see what they can do.
But usually, it’s, “Let’s get a design together, let’s work a budget, let’s pick finishes, and let’s go.” So that’s …
David Supple: Yeah, right. Like when it’s a larger project, there might be boards involved and some sort of-
Colin Hand: More people who can ice pick it. (laughs)
David Supple: Right. That’s true.
Colin Hand: Yeah, I would love to know that too because it was one of the things that as a young, moldable mind that drove me to this direction. Because I want to see my efforts come, to life to see that they’re enjoyed and used. That’s a huge part of it. When I’m putting pen to a paper, that’s the goal, is that somebody is going to smile at it when it becomes 3D. They’re going to be in that space.
David Supple: Yeah. Not smiling at a piece of paper.
Colin Hand: Not like, “Oh, that’s colored really nicely. That’s a really nice rendering.” It’s like. “I’m out there every Friday night enjoying my patio because it’s so beautiful. It takes my stress down.” Those are the types of things that I got into this business for.
David Supple: Yeah. I can’t think of another industry where it is separated as much as in the past 150 years as it has been. Because the actual product is the actual space. It’s not the drawings. And so if you think of a chef, a chef who only wrote recipes, it doesn’t exist.
Colin Hand: That’s a great analogy, actually.
David Supple: Yeah. And the training of a chef. Like an architect doesn’t build. I went to school for architecture, and I didn’t know how to build. That was the thing when I started to work as an architect, I was like, “Wait, I want to tell this guy how to build and I’ve never built before?” It completely didn’t make sense. It would be like a chef never having cooked and just writing the recipes.
Colin Hand: See, I was lucky. We actually had one class where … actually we had a couple. But it was taught by a landscape architect who had a design build. Mike Davidson at U Mass. And he was really, really smart and explained to all of us early on in our academic career that traced paper is only so much of this profession. You can have layers and layers of trace, you can think it all through, but if you don’t know what bolt goes to what nut, you have a failure point. You got to know how it’s built. And he really let us know, and I gravitated towards it, that there’s a whole other half of this that needs to be baked into your train of thought.
David Supple: Did that inspire you to do the summers at Blade of Grass?
Colin Hand: It kind of did. Yeah. I wanted to see how things were getting put together. It helped me become a better designer. That’s the flip side of it. When you know how the things are put together at the small scale when you’re working with your crews that are installing these things, you learn so much more than you could with studying plans and blueprints.
The best laid plans always need to be rewritten once you hit the ground. I don’t remember what famous general said that. It might’ve been Eisenhower or something. But you can plan to the nth degree. The vari abilities of once it goes to construction, not trying to scare anybody, but it’s just natural. Somebody is going to see it. They’re going to see it in a different way. They could be looking at it in a better way, and oftentimes your crews that are building it have those ideas.
And being design build, that is a huge benefit because I can call up any one of our project managers on site. We know our vernacular. We’re all working toward the same goal in multiple ways. You just get so much more from that interaction than you being satellite from each other.
David Supple: Yeah. There’s a connection there and a continuity. Continuous motion. It’s one entity still.
Colin Hand: Our practical knowledge as designers grows and the eyes of our crew, I’ve noticed as they stay with us, become more in tune to the aesthetic as well. It’s kind of a cool thing to see.
David Supple: There’s kind of a loop there.
Colin Hand: There is.
David Supple: Because design build could be one guy or one woman who designs it and the builds it, but it’s a bit limiting in terms of how much you can execute in that fashion. But our companies are more … we have specialists in certain positions, but there’s a string that continues on wherein there’s handoffs. And that’s a crucial thing for us, just that handoff. Our project-
Colin Hand: It’s where you lose the relay race, is on the handoff.
David Supple: Seriously. For us, we want to get our project manager before they start to know the project better than the designer. They’ve torn it to pieces, our package that we turn over, so that they’re fully prepared and they know the project just as well. And they can go to the client and show that. When you were just talking about the installers, we were having lunch, you mentioned … and I never thought of this before, but with a … you do a lot of masonry, right?
Colin Hand: Yes we do.
David Supple: And just the artistry involved in that. Because you could plan out the wall, but then when it comes time to actually take the pieces of stone and build it, there’s some artistry there.
Colin Hand: Oh, there definitely is. Yeah. And when we were talking, I was thinking. The designer’s the inventor. And the installers, for us being masons, are the artisans. They’re the craftsmen. They’re the ones that can take it on a micro scale and make it beautiful. You can detail out a wall, but when you go to pick through that pile of rocks … I can’t do it. It always blows my mind. These guys can go look at a stone and with a couple hammers blows, make a perfect piece that has seams that fit tightly on four sides. And that is artistry. It may be a lot of physical labor, but there’s no less art in what they’re doing than what the designer is doing.
And when all those people are collaborating and communicating, that is a huge strength of design build. What is it, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole? You’re taking people who can build and people who can design, and for us, people who then nurture and maintain these landscapes, and they’re all-
David Supple: That is the third part, right?
Colin Hand: Yeah. So there’s three parts for us because we always like to think of ourselves as a design, build, maintain company. Because the maintenance is going to be there longer than anybody else that was on the site. And for them to be cued in to what the design goals are and how things are built really allows these living landscapes, because we deal with a lot of plantings in addition to the masonry, are growing to their full potential after the designers kind of put the pencil and the trace away and the masons are onto the next job. You have people that understand what it takes to get this plant to become beautiful for them. How to take care of, it sounds silly, but a lawn. It’s one of the bigger things you see in a design, and we make sure that’s cared for.
David Supple: Yeah. It reduces the vari abilities too. If you designed it, you installed it, when you’re in the maintenance, it’s like you know what you’re dealing with there and the client has that … they don’t have to go find somebody else that’s not familiar with it and what have you.
Colin Hand: And also it’s the same thing we were just talking about with the install crews. If they’re working with, and in a lot of cases, friends with the designers, they have an investment in seeing each other succeed. Sometimes, and not trying to be negative about the other construction methods, there’s no finger pointing that a homeowner sees when you’re dealing with everyone from the same company, but everyone from the same cultural aspect. Because every company has a different way of looking at things. You get a united front.
David Supple: Yeah. Totally. That’s one of the things … even when our jobs don’t go perfectly, not all of them do go perfectly.
Colin Hand: It would be really hard to do that.
David Supple: But I am always … and the client may not even know it. It’s just a point of pride for me that we’re taking care of it. This client’s never going to have to … there might be an issue, but we’re going to handle it. And they’re not stuck in between these two entities or what have you, then it’s their problem. It’s something that we can take on. That’s probably the best thing you could ever reply to a customer service problem is, “We’re going to take care of it.”
Colin Hand: That’s right. Not even, “I know what it is.” It’s, “I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to find out and we’re going to take care of it.” And that is so crucial to a successful business.
David Supple: Now this isn’t the way it should be, right? Because our projects have been very collaborative in terms of … we’re typically get together in the design phase. But you were mentioning it’s not uncommon for you to come in on the tail end of a construction project to take care of the landscaping. So you have a unique perspective in that. What do you see in terms of … separate from the landscaping, these people just built a home or did a major project, in terms of the method in which it is executed, whether it’s separate architect and builder or a design build, do you notice a difference or differences there?
Colin Hand: So I find that … it’s funny. We were talking about this, is that sometimes … there’s many people who have a successful dynamic with the architect separate of the builder and the landscaper. A lot of times, you can link that back and you can see that those groups worked together.
David Supple: Totally. They’re design build.
Colin Hand: They’re design build.
David Supple: Even though they’re separate, they have the mentality. They have the mentality of being outside themselves, 100%.
Colin Hand: All those positives that they gain are from operating in sort of a pseudo-design build methodology. They know how they work together, I’m sure the architect has a relationship with the builder. He can get some costs going sooner than later, the landscape designer architects have been brought in sooner so they can kind of see how the house is sited and voice their opinions on any potential issues that might be caused by … sitting on the site, sometimes I’ve been on sites where nobody’s thought to the elevation of the foundation. And we show up on site and there’s a drainage issue, and the builder said, “I poured it where it was supposed to be.” The architect says, “Well the house is being built the way I drew it.” And then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Well somebody needs to solve this drainage issue for us.”
And now it’s outside, and now it’s the landscape design architect’s problem. Where it’s like, maybe there was a better solution earlier on, rather than forcing something on them. It might’ve been the best place to solve it, but that’s an example.
I think there’s a lot of situations unfortunately where … a house builder or house remodel has got to be one of the most stressful things our clients goes through in life. I like to think of it as we’re probably dealing with the only investment emotionally and financially that is anywhere close to family. They’re not probably close for most people, but if you went to tier to, it’s going to be the house. So you got a lot of emotions there, and one of the things that becomes really challenging for any homeowner is they’re not the experts, and all of a sudden, they’re stuck in the middle of trying to pick a side.
And unfortunately, I’ve seen that happen a few times. I’m not going to say any examples. What ends up happening is, they don’t want to deal with it. So they’re going to divorce themselves from the most problematic portion, or the one that they need the least. And unfortunately when a house is being built, who’s more important to that process being completed? It’s going to be the builder. So I think that that’s a potential situation that I’ve seen that is not a good side of the alternative to design build. I don’t know if we want to go into methodology here. The AB.
David Supple: Oh, like design, bid, build.
Colin Hand: Oh, design, bid, build. Okay. DBB. (laughs)
And there’s just that portion of it. There’s also, when I see builders end up having to be the guardians of the purse strings on projects, because they’ve got the contract. And they know that they have to come in under a certain budget, and they have to start redesigning in motion, because there’s always going to be some contingency. You hit ledge, something like that that eats up a portion of the budget.
So the builder is then working with the client to redesign, only for no other reason than the homeowner doesn’t want to spend more money on some redesign. Normally when we have something like that come up in house and we have to switch gears, there’s no new design cost. The designer’s out on site with the installers and we find out a workaround that either stays within budget, or if it’s an improvement, a little bit of a change order.
So and that always happens. I don’t see how you could design something so well that you wouldn’t have to have that conversation. And I think it’s unfortunate for some of the architects because I know they’d love to be on site and help out with these decisions, but-
David Supple: They’re a little disconnected at that point.
Colin Hand: But they’re disconnected at that point for various reasons, and I’ve hard architects say they go back to a house after it’s been built, just on a whim, and they don’t recognize some of the things that have happened. And who knows why that happened. Hope that was a little bit roundabout answer.
David Supple: No you did. And you see things now with construction managers on bigger projects, but even in … where companies that just build, there’s these design build hybrids that are becoming very popular now, particular in residential where it’s like the architect or the client brings on their builder at the same time as the architect. So there is that collaboration and people working together. And that is very much design build, where it’s just this mentality of making sure all of the parts of the puzzle are accounted for. Because most architects today are not able to. They’re not trained. They’re just missing skills. I know it because I was there.
And design build is really a way to … and there can be design build companies that are not great. And there’s a bit of … it’s a “popular” thing now. I feel like everybody’s calling themselves design build, but you really want to look at what is the person’s track work record, and it’s just this … what is the person’s level of accountability and responsibility for a project?
Colin Hand: And also, I think the other thing when you’re looking at it like that, because I do think that in the landscape sector, there’s a lot of people who can say “I design.” Well show me a grading plan. “Well, I don’t do that.” Well if you’re designing it, that’s the third dimension.
I think that … where am I going with this basically. Sort of lost my train of thought. It’s 28 minutes in for the first lost train.
David Supple: Thought we were only 20 minutes.
Colin Hand: You know what, I think that gets down to the point what you were saying about … there’s the hybrid. I think that what I would say is where everyone needs to get is you got to understand your partner on a project. And I think everyone strives to have a good partnership with their clients. If you don’t, that’s the first thing you should work on. Go get some work on that. But the second thing is for us, our partners for building are right nextdoor in the next office.
But if you have an architect or a builder who knows the value of having those people involved-
David Supple: Yeah. Great architects, great builders, they want that. They want the collaboration. And they don’t call themselves builders, but they’ll be like, “Hey, we should get this builder involved early because they can consult.” And great builders want a great architect on early on so that they can design. Because they don’t have the skill. They’re not calling themselves designers because they’re not. They can’t … they don’t have that skillset to imagine and create this amazing project.
Colin Hand: And I think learning about the install side has … it gives its own set of headaches, because all of a sudden, things that designers don’t have to think about as much, you know, schedule, budgeting, become your realities, and those are some emotional topics for people. (laughs) But I think knowing that stuff and heading it off and being really honest on those fronts at the very beginning eliminate those headaches. And you can’t speak to those knowledgeably without being interfacing with your builders or having them nextdoor, which we’re fortunate to have.
Because I look at something sometimes and think, “Oh, it’s about a week’s worth of work.” And my head of construction looks at me and says, “Colin, that’s nice, but we’re probably going to need a couple extra days.” “Oh, why?”
And then he explains to me, “Oh, there’s access over here.” A number of things that I look at in 2D or even in a sectional drawing and aren’t available at the front of my mind to say.
David Supple: Awesome. Well appreciate you being on the show.
Colin Hand: Yeah. It’s fun.
David Supple: Any parting words?
Colin Hand: Stay safe, and design build.
David Supple: That’s right. It’s just a less riskier proposition. And whether it truly is design build like our companies or you have separate entities but the collaboration is there from the beginning, you just want to make sure you have all those components for a successful project being tracked from the get go. Because they may not be, and you may not know it until it’s too late.
Alright, thank you.