Landscape Contractor or Builder

 In Garden Design, News

I write this blog in good faith and from my own experiences of using landscape contractors and designing for clients who have insisted on using their builders. The intention of this blog is not to belittle builders. It is about learning to use the right trades for the right jobs. The blog is to guide people in making the right decisions so costly mistakes can be avoided. All examples discussed within this blog are real situations.

If you need heart surgery, would you see a dentist? If you had a problem with your teeth, would you go to a heart surgeon? Both are in the medical field after all. Yes of course they are, but both have their specialist knowledge.

Would we ask a landscape contractor to build a house for us? I do not think any of us would go down that path and I do not think a landscape contractor would take on such a task. So why is it that we feel it is ok to ask a builder to construct a garden? The answer is two-fold. Firstly, most clients do not know any better, so they are reliant on the honesty and good advice of the trades. Secondly, the builder’s quote is likely to be cheaper. A good question to ask is ‘Why is the builder cheaper?’


Credit: Solarex Imaging

This Venn Diagram says it how it is. Pick only two but be mindful of the result. Which two would you pick?

Clients of mine asked me to refer a landscape contractor to them. They wanted a drive laid. The contractor gave them a quote. The response was that they had a builder who could do it for less than half the price. The only way to achieve this is by not constructing proper and correct foundations. Skimp on the foundations and the drive will collapse. This does not mean all builders would do this. However, if the correct methods and materials are being used, there would not be such a huge price difference.

Sadly, my advice was ignored, and the builder was engaged. Within a year, there was a request for the landscape contractor to come and sort out the drive that the builder laid as it had collapsed. Needless to say, the landscape contractor declined to sort out a job poorly done by someone else.


Credit: theconcretehero.com

An example of what can go wrong if foundations for a drive are not constructed properly, wrong materials used, or compaction not carried out properly. If water intrusion, then occurs, the situation steadily gets worse.

Getting the wrong trade to do something that is not their field of expertise will cost you more in the long run. A skilled, knowledgeable builder will build a great house or extension for you. A skilled and knowledgeable landscape contractor will construct an equally beautiful garden for you. The two trades have similar yet differing skill sets. Landscape contractors know about materials for external use, how these can be affected by the weather, and what measures to take to mitigate these effects. Indoor and outdoor materials do vary.

I am currently working on a project where the client’s builders are not aware of soil management. Why should they be? Heavy site machinery has caused compaction of the subsoil. Excavated soil to be reused on the site should be correctly stored and not moved around from area to area. Landscape contractors are aware of soil management and how soil needs to be handled and stored. They can deal with compacted areas. Landscape contractors know to which depth the subsoil has to be broken. This task also needs to be carried out during the right weather conditions.

If done incorrectly or not at all, the possibility of drainage issues arise. Drainage in gardens is a big issue in the UK, exasperated by soil compaction, trees and hedging removed, and dropping water tables. Creating basements and adding excessive hardstanding areas will affect the way water travels. Water has to go somewhere and for anyone investing in a garden, you need someone that understands all of this to prevent issues occurring going forward.


Photo Credit: Manoj Malde Garden Designer: Darren Hawkes Landscape Contractor: Bowles & Wyer

Over 40,000 pieces of hand-cut slate were used in this garden to create the platforms, sculptures, and steps within this garden. This not only requires skill and patience, but a real understanding of the material used.

With drainage, there is a lot of talk of soakaways. How is a soakaway built correctly? Where does it need to be located in the garden? What size does it need to be? What size drainage pipes need to be used and how they need to be laid.


Photo Credit: Clive Gillmor

This water feature was to be finished internally with fiberglass. It is finished with a butyl liner. The overflow pipe that is included in the specification and construction drawing has not been installed. The copings were supposed to be in sawn sandstone to make a statement of the water feature. These have been done in the same porcelain as the patio. Note how the coping is not the same depth all the way around. The point gaps were specified as 5mm and not the colour as in the photo. This water feature now overflows when there is heavy rain.

Another example is where a client chose to use the builders building their large extension, to do all the construction work for the garden so they only had one construction team on site. On speaking to the builders, it was clear they did not have the skills required to construct the garden. A full set of specifications with construction drawings were provided so that the builder had the correct information to follow. We were not engaged to monitor the build. On a site visit much further down the line, it became clear the builders had ignored all the specifications and construction drawings. The water feature was finished in butyl liner, although our drawings stated fiberglass. There was no overflow pipe installed.

Sadly, the builder’s ‘we know best attitude’ has resulted in the water feature overflowing when it rains, and it now has to be emptied with a bucket. The copings around the water feature do not follow our drawings so it lacks the finesse that it should have. Had we been engaged to monitor the construction these issues would have been caught in time. The builder did the bits he wanted to but none of the geogrids were laid for the gravel areas, borders were not shaped, edged, or prepped ready for planting according to the plans.

The client approached us to find a landscape contractor to finish the rest of the work in the garden. We declined. Had a landscape contracting company been engaged the garden would have been constructed from start to finish inclusive of all the hard landscaping and soft scaping.


Photo Credit: Pollyanna Wilkinson

Notice the level of the drain that has been installed. How is the surface rainwater going to be able to get inside that drain to be carried away?

Laying a patio may seem like laying a stone or tile floor indoors. It is not. A patio has to have a fall so that the surface water can be directed away from the property, either into some drainage or into flower beds. Some patios may even require a cross fall. The fall has to be calculated properly. An incorrectly laid patio can raise many issues.

Landscape contractors are mindful of the fall of a patio dependent on the size of the area being laid, the material being used, and any level changes. One particular client whose garden I designed, had a builder who built his patio. The fall was too exaggerated, and the client could not put his teak garden furniture on it. The builder’s solution was to cut a couple of inches off the legs on one side. Of course, the client was not agreeable to this. When we were engaged, the landscape contractor had to lift most of the patio to set it right. The client’s money was wasted simply because the wrong person had been engaged to carry out the work.

Some important consideration that a landscape contractor will know when laying a patio

  1. What thickness a slab should be if it is to be used outside.
  2. What slippage rating a slab must have for it to be safe to walk on outside in wet weather
  3. The correct levels of foundation to lay for particular materials.
  4. The fall that needs to be used for particular materials, length, and width.
  5. Does the patio require a cross fall?
  6. Is porcelain laid in the same was as limestone?
  7. What pointing gaps are needed depending on the edge finish of the slabs
  8. If a surface is to remain permeable what are the important considerations for the foundations and the pointing.
  9. How should the edge be finished especially if it meets a lawn or a planting border?
  10. What questions need to be asked of the suppliers with regards to the slabs
  11. If clay pavers are included in the design and they all vary slightly in their dimensions, how will the look of a perfectly straight line be achieved?


Photo Credit: Manoj Malde

This site is very badly compacted. The company carrying out the works do not know how this needs to be dealt with, what machinery needs to be used, what conditions are needs for decompaction to be carried out effectively, and to what depth the subsoil needs to be broken up before topsoil can be brought in to be laid on top. They are not landscape contractors so it would be unfair to expect them to know this.

Similarly, not all electricians know about outdoor lighting. I have come across some very honest electricians who have said it is not their field of expertise. There are certain regulations in place about how outdoor electrics need to be installed. Remember, in a garden you are dealing with the elements. Electrics and water do not mix. The correct type of cabling needs to be installed and at the correct depths. You do not want the gardener driving his fork or spade through the cables. What type of junction boxes need to be installed and what height should they be set at?

Speaking to other garden designers the consensus happens to be that when builders are employed to construct gardens, the designer has to do a lot more site visits to make sure the plans, specifications, and construction drawings are being adhered to and the work is being carried out to the level of finish required. These become additional and unnecessary costs for the client.


Photo Credit: Jonathan Buckley Designer: Manoj Malde Landscape Contractor: Living Landscapes UK

My simple advice is, engage the right trades with the right set of skills for the job. It is an investment that you are making in your home, so you want to have peace of mind.

Large micro-cement platforms installed in this garden require certain weather conditions to carry out the process properly. Beautiful attention to detail within the shadow gaps between each platform where each level is positioned on top of the other.

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