How to take your design/build projects to the next level

Photo: Rusty Williams
Photo: Rusty Williams
Photo: Rusty Williams
Photo: Rusty Williams

Nate Negrin recalls being in college with a dream of working in the landscape industry. But while at Cornell University he drifted away from that goal and went the business management route. He worked in the financial services industry for more than 10 years, focusing on the agriculture and farming sectors.

Seven years ago Negrin decided it was time to get back to his dream. He bought a landscape company and now he is the owner of SouthernEEZ Landscaping, serving the Charlotte, N.C., area. “Here I am,” he says with a smile. “There have been a lot of challenges, but it’s been a lot of fun.”

After dreaming of a landscaping career during his college years, Nate Negrin has achieved his goal. (Photo: Rusty Williams)
After dreaming of a landscaping career during his college years, Nate Negrin has achieved his goal. (Photo: Rusty Williams)

One of those challenges is helping his customers navigate exactly what it is they want. SouthernEEZ does 60 percent commercial and residential landscape installation projects and 40 percent landscape maintenance. His company is growing fast, and to make sure his company and his clients are on the same page, SouthernEEZ meets with clients early on to discuss the client’s vision.

But Negrin has learned, sometimes the vision can change after ground is broken.

“You’re standing at the top of the mountain, it can either go down or on to the next peak,” he says. “A lot of our clients are referrals. They come to the project in different mindsets. Some of them are like, ‘Here’s the plan, the budget and we’re going to stick to that.’ Others, every step of the way, they’ll write a check for an upgrade because they’re going to do this once. Let’s get that retaining wall, let’s do this right, right now.”

Negrin says he isn’t much of a salesman but he does express to his clients that there is a cost associated with getting his team on-site. He’ll explain to a client that there are upgrades he would spend money on and things he wouldn’t spend money on.

“It’s an investment, and they’ll never have to make the investment again,” Negrin says. “We’re borrowing from the bank once, so let’s do it.”

Landscape Management spoke with professionals about those moments when a design/build project goes from its starting budget up to the next level, and how to make sure that a change in plans is a success and not a failure.

The magic of design/build

“One of the magical components of the design/build world is the opportunity, in the middle of a project, to make an adjustment,” says Joe Majerus, owner of Landmark Landscapes in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. “It’s these unique little features that will take a project over the top.”

Landmark Landscapes was deep into a 3-acre project on Elkhart Lake, a main house with a neighboring guest house. The clients were particular about what they wanted, Majerus says, but at the same time great to work with.

The project changed after the family went on a vacation to Hawaii and came back with a new idea for their lake home.

“They said, ‘Oh my gosh, we just got done with this Airbnb! They had an infinity edge hot tub … we have to have one!’” Majerus recalls. “We’re neck deep in this project and we already have nine pounds of copper in a five-pound sack. There’s no way. (I asked), where do we even put a hot tub on this thing?”

The initial feelings of doubt subsided once Majerus saw that the county was willing to work with him on updates to the design. His team came up with an “ingenious” design to install the hot tub in a hillside right outside the main outdoor living room. Eventually, a gas fireplace, a built-in grill and an additional patio space along with the infinity edge hot tub took the place of what was originally planned to be a garden.

“It was a major add-on in the middle of the project, when we already had all the permitting done and everything had been thought through,” Majerus says. “And then, boom. We have to do this and do it now. The beauty is, had I proposed the concept, they never would have gone for it … I wouldn’t have even known if it was possible. But because of our design/build process, and because of our willingness to be communicative and change course midstream, we were able to tack on this little gem that has now become the focal point of the landscape.”

Landmark Landscapes hit a home run with its Elkhart Lake project, despite some unforeseen changes. (Photo: Landmark Landscapes)
Landmark Landscapes hit a home run with its Elkhart Lake project, despite some unforeseen changes. (Photo: Landmark Landscapes)

Rolling the dice

While the Elkhart Lake project was a huge success for Landmark, Majerus says in the past a client changing direction could cause a project to fail. Why? Because it wasn’t clear what the project would now cost. Things changed when Landmark did two things: started working with Aspire and added the “while you are here” clause to contracts.

“‘While you are here’ are the four most expensive words in the English language,” Majerus says. “People get excited and they say, ‘Oh, while you’re here, can we just add this or that?’ The clause is us being proactive, just saying that when this happens, this is what it’s going to cost.”

By adding Aspire software, changing a work order mid-project requires a foreman to contact the project manager to create a new work order for this add-on project. Not only is it proactive and transparent, Majerus says, but it also makes it easier for the client to say ‘yes’ to a smaller number added on to the larger overall budget.

“With adopting Aspire, we’re way ahead of the game — we can add three hydrangeas, or we can add a $30,000 water feature, but we can communicate exactly what kind of costs the client can expect the request to add to the project total,” Majerus says. “Early in my career I always wanted the extra work, but it became a rolling of the dice. If the client is upset with the unexpected project price at the end of it all, you’re in trouble. After all the material is in the ground, all the labor is paid for, it is not the time you want to find out the request is more than the client wanted to spend. I’d much rather find out early if they don’t want to incur the extra costs.”

This space was originally set to be a garden, before a mid-project change turned it into this outdoor grill and chill spot. (Photo: Landmark Landscapes)
This space was originally set to be a garden before a mid-project change turned it into this outdoor grill and chill spot. (Photo: Landmark Landscapes)

Run the play

When it comes to favorite tools in the industry, Brian Gray, operations manager at Precision Landscape Management in Greenville, S.C., says he appreciates how quickly technology has taken the industry to the next level. He keeps his eyes peeled for any tool that can simplify a process.

One thing he does not want to simplify is the process his company uses to make sure all the design/build projects are fully understood from department to department.

“The best tool you can have is an extremely well written process. We have 40 people here, we have several sales staff, there’s a bunch of moving pieces. As a designer, you take that vision from the client. How does it get from the client’s head, to the designer’s head, to the project manager’s head … how can we make sure what we designed, we actually create?” Gray asks. “The only way is to have a very well thought out process. Everyone knows from point A to point C, and what’s happening in between.”

At Precision, there’s a saying called, “run the play.” That saying basically is a rephrasing of “follow the process,” Gray says. They changed it to “run the play” because “process” is an overused word, he laughs.

“I’m from a lawn care background. Lawn care is very simple. You schedule it, you produce the work and you’re done,” Gray says. “Design/build still blows my mind with the amount of moving pieces, and the scheduling and the weather. And then all of a sudden the materials — the price of river rock goes up. And we have to have sod delivered. It’s a living thing and we have to be sure we don’t prep too soon or too late! Having that process built into our company is one of the best things we’ve done. ‘Run the play.’ The sales guy, the project manager, the crew leader, the crew, all the way to invoicing, everyone knows what everyone else should be doing.”

Plant the seed

Landmark has its own saying — “plant the seed.” When a customer mentions to the designer interest in, say a water feature, but it doesn’t make the final budget, the foreman is alerted in case the topic comes up again.

“You have to be present; you have to listen for cues,” Majerus says. “You can seize those opportunities when they’re presented. Because you will always find those opportunities in these projects.”

Negrin adds that typically customers are happy when they decide to go to the next level. He mentions the project featured on this month’s cover as a perfect example.

Negrin says the developers had a budget but realized the opportunity an extra investment might have on the final selling price. The developers requested seed and straw for the yard.

“Once we got out there and got the quote finalized, I said, ‘hey, for this much more you can do sod and the house will sell immediately.’ We started small … by the time they’re done they’ve spent more, but it’s perfect and they don’t have to second guess it.

“There was a wow moment, the way that (sod) turned out versus seed and straw,” Negrin continues. “You’re going to fall in love with it when you look out at it and their buyers did. I tell them, let’s make some smart decisions and spend a little money and we’ll never have to look back.”

Photo: Seth Jones

Seth Jones

Seth Jones is is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. A graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Seth was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. He has more than 23 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories.

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