I attended a BALI designer forum recently, which was intended not only as a networking session for BALI registered designer members, but also as a joint session between designers and contractors to talk through shared issues and to find common ground. It was entitled ‘Designers in a contractors’ world – a foot in both camps’. Ironically, this rather accurately describes Bowles & Wyer, so I was there not quite sure which hat I was supposed to have on. It was an interesting day. Quite early on, there was a list of ‘pet gripes’ that had been gleaned from designers about contractors and vice-versa. These were fairly predictable, although there were a couple of classics, such as: “why do you keep putting specification clauses in that you copied from a college spec , that have no relevance to this job?” (from a contractor); or “please read the documents I send you” (from a designer).
Following a breakout session, we came back together to discuss the roles of designers and contractors. There was a brisk discussion around the issue of designers supplying plants. This was partly sparked by one of the contractors’ comments that we had seen earlier. Pat Fox noted that when he was asked about this issue, Andrew Wilson had opined that ‘Garden designers should stick to garden design’. She was of a different opinion, that if there was an element of profit in the supply of plants, then why shouldn’t garden designers be entitled to that?
My own view is that in principle, Andrew is right – garden designers should stick to garden design; if they are struggling to make that pay then they should be charging more. I realise that in the fairly rarefied atmosphere of the upper end of the London and South east market (that I largely work in) it is easy to talk about this with the luxury of choice and that for many this may be the only way that they can survive. David Robinson put forward a spirited and well-argued view on exactly that point, saying that in the market that he worked (largely the West Midlands) the fees were not on their own enough to support a garden designer and that plant sales were a necessary part of the business model.
Of course, I am also aware that many people will take my saying ‘Garden designers should stick to garden design’ as hypocritical in the extreme, because I am engaged in contracting and design build. My point here is that it is better to strike a clear position rather than cherrypick the bits that suit you. Although this allows higher profit levels, I see a number of disadvantages. First off I think it offers clients a confusing situation. Either a separation of design and construction, or one organisation doing them all – these are very clear positions, with little left to chance. Secondly (and linked) is the matter of liability envelope. If a plant is supplied by the designer to the client, but the delivery is taken and the plant is planted by the contractor, then it is not exactly clear who takes responsibility if something goes wrong. Of course, if the designer takes full responsibility then this is not a problem, particularly if he/she also plants the stock. However, in my experience this has not been the case. Often designers want to select and take the profit on plants without the responsibility. Because contractors (like designers) work on a tight margin, in reality the contractor is likely to price in some attendances and loss of profit into the job, so the client will end up paying more in any case. Which perhaps argues the point that they should be paying realistic (i.e. higher) fees in the first place?