Maintenance Matters

Ensuring project integrity over the long term takes tact and tenacity.

By Wendy Gilmartin

Keith Murphy and Erin Webb collaborating at 3North in Richmond, Virginia. Photo courtesy 3North.

After months and possibly years of design development, on-site meetings, contractor discussions, submittal reviews, and long days drafting construction documents, the project is finally unveiled, the ribbon is cut, and handover completes the timeline. Or not? The time after a turnover can become its own stand-alone phase after all else is completed. How do firms ensure plants will be cared for, gutters cleaned, controls checked at the appropriate times, and that there are enough (or any) return visits accounted for in the fee? Three firms in different regions explain their approaches to maintenance and client relationships. Interviews have been edited and condensed.

San Diego
Kurt Carlson, ASLA,
Senior Principal
Brooke Whalen, ASLA,
Senior Associate
Stephen Nunez, Associate ASLA,
Senior Designer and Planner

Does KTUA have a postoccupancy procedure once a project is built?
Stephen Nunez:
One of the other designers in the office and I have been interested in postoccupancy, because it gives the designer feedback and it’s kind of in the vein of [Hideo] Sasaki’s method, where he uses research as a continuing part of the design process. We’re interested in getting feedback so that we expand our expertise as designers and so we can make better design decisions in the future. We were looking at not only the physical performance of the site and the plants, but also if the decisions we’ve made are supporting the durability of the site—like whether people are shortcutting through our planters. As users are affecting the site, they’re changing and adjusting the way the furniture is laid out and the way that paths are laid out, and things of that nature.

Are you providing questionnaires for the end users, or do you survey the project? How is that data assembled and analyzed?
We identified four components to focus on; the first and most obvious is the physical performance of the site, the materials, and the plants. Then there’s behavior mapping, which is more of how users use the site. Interviewing staff is another aspect, interviewing some of the maintenance staff, too, finding out what the problems have been, what they’ve had to replace. And then, lastly, talking to our client and just seeing how pleased they are or whether they’ve found certain portions of the products that have been really successful or whether there are some things they feel could have been done better. So, we want to connect on all levels, not just what we can see.

Kurt Carlson: This doesn’t sound like that big of a deal now because most firms do their own irrigation anyway, but irrigation used to be farmed out in the 1970s. In our firm, we always had somebody who oversaw all of our irrigation, and that is really helpful in terms of the maintenance, bidding the project, the things that are really important for the project to succeed, which are usually the things you don’t see. Those are things like irrigation, the soil mechanics, soil amendments—the areas that a lot of contractors, in order to try to get the job, cut back on. Our specs have to be really exact in terms of spelling out what needs to be met in order to meet the anticipated quality of the project.

Brooke Whalen: I would add that often, at least in Southern California, we’re finding that the landscape contractor negotiates and becomes the maintenance personnel. It’s to their benefit to make sure the plans were followed and everything got installed properly in order to reduce their maintenance efforts in the long run.

Let’s talk about the team and relationship with the contractor and certain vendors. It seems like that’s really key—to be able to work with those you trust.
Well, for years we’ve had a preferred landscape contractors list, and then we’ve had a not preferred landscape contractors list. And we have done everything possible to get the contractor that we want. Now, on the private side, that’s a little bit easier to do. On the public side, it’s a low-bid contractor and so, right away, it’s very important to have those preconstruction meetings with contractors, making sure that they understand what our expectations are in terms of submittals, checkpoints, project starts, where you want to see the review periods, checking the pressure on the irrigation mainline, and finished grade around the project itself. At the end of the project, we’re telling them, “Okay, we’re going to have a prewalk and then we’re going to have the final walk, and then the walk after the final, a postmaintenance walk.”

Whalen: We do have a lot of good relationships with a lot of different contractors, and that allows for flexibility when an issue comes up in the field and perhaps a little more collaborative approach. The contractors that we prefer, they’re focused not only on making money, but are the ones who are really passionate about the project and in making sure that it gets installed properly.

Richmond, Virginia
Andrea Almond, ASLA,
Senior Project Manager
Jay Hugo, ASLA,
Managing Principal

How has the conversation with clients changed over time in regard to maintenance?
Jay Hugo:
Figuring out ways to either conserve budget for maintenance or to expand budget to address maintenance is a somewhat new territory for a lot of our clients. I think many project budgets are so constrained, you kind of figure out how to get across the finish line, and to then start talking to your clients about significant maintenance reserves or even maintenance endowments in some cases can be a challenge. But at the same time, I think we’re finding people are more and more receptive to it. We have a number of clients who are working their way toward conservancy models where there are in fact maintenance endowments, but in some cases, we’re having clients set aside as much as 15 or 20 percent in their project budgets just as an allocation for maintenance reserves.

Andrea Almond: Particularly on public projects with limited budgets with the city, the number one complaint that they’re getting from citizens is about lack of maintenance on public projects, parks, streetscapes, and trails. Now, the city has to provide a maintenance plan that’s reviewed as part of the design review process, and it helps everyone understand that, through partnerships or contracts or internal staffing, they’re committed to actually maintaining these new pieces of infrastructure that everyone is so excited about, because there’s been a lot of disappointment in the past.

Hugo: It can be a challenging conversation, especially if the baseline project budget is already a challenge, but private sector donors in particular want to know that their investment is protected, and I think they are willing to invest. Particularly if they are investing funds that are for public spaces, they’re reassured that maybe some of these private sector nonprofits are engaged and they’re taking care of things. We definitely find it in Richmond, that this private sector funding of maintenance has really been bridging a gap. We were finding that design was getting constrained because of the municipal staff’s inability to take care of public spaces. We’re already struggling at the most minimal level of maintenance, so how can we take it beyond that? Really, the only way to take it beyond was to introduce another type of funding.

Was there a specific project or instance when your approach was adjusted or a lesson learned that’s now integrated into your approach?
One would be a substantial public park project that we’re working on together in Richmond called Monroe Park, which was significantly constrained by public funding. What evolved was a three-way partnership between the City of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and the Monroe Park Conservancy. In this case, VCU has stepped up to be the maintenance partner of the project. The city will put in all of its municipal infrastructure and the conservancy will put all the amenities on top, and then VCU will take care of it. That project could not have proceeded without a maintenance partner at that level—somebody who’s got the resources and also is entirely vested in the outcome because it’s in the middle of their campus.

Almond: We have found that when we’re trying to do green streets and sustainable stormwater infrastructure, the utilities department and the public works department’s biggest disconnect is understanding how to maintain those projects. There are lots of groups that want to partner and help fund and build these streetscapes, but then the city has to maintain them, and yet the projects are specialized pieces of infrastructure, and that’s when things kind of fall apart. I think they’ve acknowledged that, and I think that’s part of why they’re embracing this idea of different types of partnerships moving forward.

That’s interesting. Have you ever participated in education sessions or done outreach to partner groups?
I personally have not, but there are local nonprofits that are working on projects like that with the city, and when we’ve been working on green streets, they have done training sessions and then offered up educational sessions to city staff. It doesn’t seem to be super successful, as far as making a shift in how things are working. I think it just would take a bigger commitment of training from the city for that type of thing to work. But we’ve seen lots of instances of attempts being made.

Site Design Group Ltd.
Hana Ishikawa,
Design Principal
Brad McCauley, ASLA,
Managing Principal

The team at work in the studio at Site Design Group Ltd. in Chicago. Photo courtesy Site Design Group Ltd.

What about developer-driven projects? When there’s potentially a lot of value engineering, how does that affect the contract?
Brad McCauley:
Fortunately, being around for a few years, you generally only have to go through an argument once. You make a good case for it—for instance, what’s better, a tray system versus the built-in-place system for a green roof? Just putting together the pros and cons of long-term maintenance: Here’s the estimated survival rate of this, here’s how much you’re going to spend in five years by maintaining this. It’s generally been at least enough to get some type of irrigation system on a roof. It’s about arming our team with the arrows in the quiver to attack these questions when they come up in a meeting.

Hana Ishikawa: I think we’ve also been pretty lucky in that often the developers we work with notice and understand the value of the landscape around them. They understand that the landscape component is a big marketing piece for them. They look to us for what they can maintain, what we can do within their budget, and they’re pretty understanding of what’s possible. It’s about giving them those options and helping them determine what they can maintain and what they really can’t.

How does maintaining project integrity start to drive design?
It’s almost become second nature to understand what organizations or what people are able to maintain, and in the private sector as well, of course. In the public sector [you have to ask] whether there’s irrigation, whether they’re going to have monthly maintenance, is there going to be someone always around to help out? Is it a residential landscape where there are going to be more eyes on it and perhaps someone maintaining all the time? These are questions ingrained in how we design our landscapes all the time. We’re always trying to enhance our planting plans to make sure we use what’s tried and tested, what works well in growing this palette of plants, and what can work under any maintenance situation.

We also recommend letting them know how much maintenance will need to happen on a certain type of landscape. We’ll recommend three years of maintenance for prairie, native prairie, or meadow types of landscape, because we know that’s what’s required for the planting to get fully established.

McCauley: We’ve actually created a document that we use on all our nature play spaces or playground spaces that talks about the wood elements and the expected longevity of materials and the annual maintenance, and what clients can expect to spend as far as percentages of total cost and all those good things. I guess one interesting thing that makes it a little bit tough, if you look at project budgets—and maintenance is usually one of those things to go when you only have X amount of dollars—compared to places like New York and San Francisco, Chicago is definitely on the low end in terms of what clients are typically going to spend on a nice, open civic space or even a private, open-space amenity. So we really focus our efforts where we think we’re going to get the most benefit for the client and for the user.

Ishikawa: I personally enjoy working with these constraints, because it’s a bigger design challenge for us.

Wendy Gilmartin is a writer and architect in Los Angeles. The founding principal of Wendy Gilmartin Architecture, she teaches in the College of Environmental Design at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona.

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