As most external projects have an element of soft landscaping, a strategic approach to effective pricing of trees and shrubs for landscape works.
Every new landscape project involves some component of soft landscaping works. This is the key area of every horticulture based contracting business where clients have faith in their landscapers’ and gardeners’ expertise to carry out soft landscaping works correctly. If you consider that other contractors in the wider construction industry such as civil contractors and traditional builders are increasingly turning their hand to patios, driveways and other external works once carried out exclusively by landscapers, soft landscaping is really the only barrier between them. With fewer projects starting on site over the last few years, and the lines defining each industry becoming eroded, landscapers really need to use their expertise on trees and plants to their advantage.
The planting of trees, shrubs, and hedging should be one of the more straightforward components of a landscape package to estimate, as all the information such as sizes and numbers are usually given to you along with a drawing showing where each one is to be planted. Compared to, say, estimating for a new path or driveway where you have to calculate breaking up the existing surface, determine formation levels and the depth of dig, calculate the volume of excavated material to be taken away, calculate the filling required, the amount of paving require, formwork for concrete paths etc, pricing plant tenders should be an easy job. In order for landscape contractors to submit accurately estimated and successful soft landscape tenders, a consistent approach is required in order to ensure that costs are covered and a level of profit is achieved to ensure the business survives.
The first step is to examine the drawings, relevant specifications and planting schedule. The majority of specification documents are generic and you may have seen them before but it is important to ensure that you are familiar with the specification for each individual project and ensure that important information is not overlooked. Assuming you received a detailed planting list, the next step is to send off a schedule of required materials to suppliers. You should send that list to reputable suppliers you have a good relationship with and have dealt with successfully on past projects. Two or three suppliers is sufficient. If possible send the suppliers the list in a form they can edit such as Excel or Word, as it will save time for both them and you. If reproducing the list in a digital format, take care not to omit any items or details.
Once you have received the supply quotes, analyse them carefully. Don’t just look at the bottom line; study the individual items to see if there is a large price disparity between suppliers. Are they pricing to the required specification? If there is a large discrepancy between suppliers, contact the lower priced supplier to see if the rate quoted is correct and to specification. Obviously if you are satisfied that all suppliers are pricing the same materials to the same spec and you are happy to deal with the lowest priced tender, you can use their rates as your base rate when building up your tender rates.
The drawings need examination too. Contractors should analyse the conditions of the location where each tree and plant is to be planted. This will have a bearing on the cost of planting operations. For example, planting into the side of a steep bank will be slower and more demanding on resources than planting on flat level ground and therefore will have an increased cost associated with it. Similarly planting materials, such as rootballed trees into established grass areas, will cost more that planting the same tree into fresh unseeded topsoil. The reason for this is that established grass will have to be protected during the works. Often contractors use sheets of plywood to prevent damage to existing grass. This can be a time-consuming process but is less expensive than the alternative of patching up damaged grass, and as experienced contractors know, this is not an option. Another often overlooked consequence of planting into existing grass is the volume of surplus excavated material generated when planting rootballs. Removal of this material and associated costs need to be calculated as it is a slower operation and one that can affect productivity.
Traditionally, quantity surveyors measure landscape works in Element (80) of standard Bills Of Quantities (BOQ). If you have received a BOQ as part of the tender package, it is important that this document is completed and returned to the client. Often the tree planting pits are not measured but are described and packaged together as an item or at the beginning of a ‘planting’ section where a note indicates that the rates below are deemed to include...” and then proceeds to describe the planting pit from the relevant drawings. Failure to carefully read these notes is a massive oversight and can prove costly, especially if there is are any special requirements associated with the planting pits. Such special requirements can involve the supply of urban soil mixes, tree pit irrigation systems or porous resin surface finishes.
It is important that any discrepancies between the drawings and the BOQ should be notified to the client and relevant members of the design team. This will reduce the risk of disputes once a project starts, which from an ethical point of view is good business practice. Contractors might think they have a card up their sleeves to look for extra money through variations or omissions in the BOQ but the drawings will always supersede the pricing documents. In any event, this country is too small to attempt to pull a fast one on the landscape architect, designer or client.
If the cost of preparing the planting area is not shown in the BBQ as a separate item, it needs to be calculated and added to the unit rate for each plant and tree. The first step is to establish exactly where the landscape contractor is beginning his contract from. Is the main contractor supplying and spreading the soil to the required depths or is this part of the landscaper’s works package? Main contractors typically supply and spread the topsoil but it is always best to ask the question. One point regarding this that should be bore in mind is that measurements in the BOQ won’t separate out the different areas on the site. For example, an area at the side of a bank which needs ….cultivation by hand will be lumped together with shrub beds on the flat ground that can be worked with a machine. When you are estimating such items, it’s important that you separate out as best you can each different area and calculate an average rate to submit in in your BOQ.
The final item that is usually measured is the supplying and spreading of bark and other mulches. It’s a straightforward operation but one that is time consuming and labour intensive. Shrub beds planted with hardier landscaping plants are a lot easier to mulch around than perennial plants, comma added for example. Buying mulch in bulk is more cost effective than buying in or tonne bags, but make sure you’ve considered costs associated with access and storage on site.
If a BOQ is not supplied with the tender and only the drawing is sent out, a ‘bottom up’ approach is needed for estimating such works. Using this approach, you literally calculate all your costs associated with planting starting from the bottom up and divide it into the number of trees and plants. You should keep the costs associated with planting trees and plants separate as they are really two different operations.
Maintenance is something that can appear in Element (80) too and it is usually for the normal 12 to 18 months defects liability period.If it appears on the BOQ, price it accordingly and do not leave it blank. If it is not on the BOQ, you should ask the main contractor or client about retention on the project. Over the years I have often had discussions with clients about this and argued the point that contractors should not be responsible for plant materials if the maintenance is not undertaken by the original contractor. Say landscaper A carries out the installation works and landscaper B is employed to carry out the maintenance but there is 3% retention held for the period of defects liability for landscaper A. This 3% is subject to landscaper B carrying out his maintenance duties property and ensuring all trees and plants survive the liability period. If they don’t, what happens then? The original contractor misses out on the retention. I don’t think this is fair and needs to be examined by all parties in the industry.
It is the supplying and planting of plants and trees that sets landscapers apart for other industries and you should be using it to your advantage to promote your business and improve your bottom line. As my father told me repeatedly when I was younger, money doesn’t grow on trees, but you can makes a sustainable profit by planting them, once you calculate your costs and profit margins correctly.