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Weak Foundations

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Weak Foundations

Weaknesses and inconsistencies in planning requirements from local authorities are damaging the landscape sector and the Irish landscape.  

The Irish landscape contracting industry is a still in its infancy, having only sprouted in the early 1960’s, with the seeds being sown by pioneers such as Sir Basil Goulding and early contracting companies like Power’s of Waterford. They paved the way for the modern day contractors by influencing Architects, developers and others of the importance of landscaped spaces and softening of new developments with tree and shrub planting.

While the design of these early schemes would have largely been the vision of contractors, the involvement of Local Authority planning departments and associated protocols meant a formal approach to landscape design was required. This in turn laid the foundation to the modern day planning process, which requires a landscape masterplan submission prior to planning permission being granted and which is responsible for the vast majority of commercial landscaping activity.

The guidelines set out on Local Authorities websites regarding valid planning applications make some reference to the obligation of a landscape plan for new developments; however the reality is that the imposing of such requirements upon applicants and level scrutiny of submissions differs greatly from county to county. While one Local Authority will consistently request a landscape plan for every development, be it a one-off house or large commercial development, a neighbouring Council may only request a landscape plan for larger projects  and even at this the request could be dependent on the attitude of the individual planner.  Once a plan has been submitted it often seems it’s a tick the box exercise for most with only the limited number of Local Authorities with a dedicated Parks Departments having the expertise to inspect and evaluate landscape drawings.

This inconsistent approach of dealing with landscape plans causes problems for all parties, from the design team all the way down to the landscape contractor and on to the end user of the developments. From a design team point of view, the lead agent is more often than not the Architect, who appoints a range of specialist engineers, a quantity surveyor, M & E co-ordinators, a planning consultant, a fire consultant…but when it comes to appointing a Landscape Architect or designer, its often a “wait and see approach” that is taken before such an appointment is made. When a Landscape Architect is employed early in the design phase, their influence can have a positive impact of the development by ensuring the landscape is a key consideration throughout the process, leading to successful landscape schemes to the benefit of everyone.

I have yet to come across a new development where there is no requirement for landscaping or external works. For every new build there is always hard or soft landscaping required. For larger projects a qualified Landscape Architect will be appointed as part of the design team. However for smaller projects  the Architect will take it upon themselves formulate a landscape design by colouring up their drawings and draw a few circles indicating the proposed position of the first tree that appears on Google. The problem arises when the contractors go about building the design and find out that the tree spec’ed up is only found on the internet and certainly not in any Irish nursery.

This acceptance of tolerating unqualified professionals to provide landscape plans needs to be curtailed and discouraged from continuing in order to improve the industry. An Architect wont design and sign off on a foundation design for a new apartment block, yet they often take the liberty of designing a landscape scheme, which can sometimes be more complex than some foundations if seen on building sites over the years. Only when qualified Landscape Architects and designers take control and champion the cause will the situation improve for all parties in the industry as it is them that design schemes that work, its them that can ensure high standards  on the contracting front, its them that know when contracts are carried out as per specifications.

The primary source of conflict and frustration within the industry is the prevalent practice of contractors completing contracts not up to specification particularly with regard to soft landscaping. This occurs for a number of reasons. Often the budget has been spent and as a result it’s the landscape budget that is seen as an area where cost savings can be made. The original designer may not be involved in the site works and so a few short cuts are taken in order to get the job back on budget. Maybe the design team don’t understand how trees and plants are specified and the difference between a 14-16cm and a 20-25cm tree or indeed the difference between a Betula Pendula or a Quercus ilex. The Architect, Quantity Surveyor, site clerk, just see 1 No. tree and they are happy with that. If a competent Landscape Architect is employed to see a project through, they act as the safety net to ensure the design is fully complainant with their vision. 

A simple solution to such practices would be the introduction of a certification scheme. There has been a lot of discussion in the general construction industry since the introduction of Building Control (Amendment) Regulations, 2014 which came into effect 1st March 2014. These regulations are currently under review regarding one-off dwellings but for all other types of developments the regulations require owners to appoint a Design Certifier to designs and an Assigned Certifier to the actual works to new buildings. As the title of ‘Landscape Architect’ is not a ‘protected title’ under the Building Control Act are not qualified to act as Assigned Certifiers under the legislation.  In other words the people that are qualified to sign off on landscape schemes are not able to highlights the regard the profession is held in by the decision makers. Instead they can only advise Architects and other certifiers if a scheme is up to standard. That is of course if they are involved at that stage of the project at all.

I recently worked on a small commercial project where there were 175 inspections carried out by the Architect in order to complete the certification process. This included visually inspecting everything from the underside of the foundations to the top of the roof; but not the 40 odd heavy standard trees that were planted outside on the street at a considerable cost. These were not certified as there is no requirement to do so even though they were contained on the planning drawings and in the granting of the planning permission one of the conditions stated that the landscape plan was to be implemented in full in order to reduce the visual impact of the scheme. There is a major flaw in the regulations and in my opinion needs to be changed for the good of the industry and local landscapes. Only when Landscape Architects are required and empowered to sign off on schemes will the situation change of us all.

The biggest critics of the landscape industry I know are members of it. One sector blaming the other for the problems that affect us all. It is clear that in order to improve conditions of all sectors, standards of work and the perception of our small industry within the bigger construction family when need to not only change our own attitudes but also the professions that impact upon us. Local Authorities, planners, Architects, Engineers and developers need to get the message from us of the importance of our small innovative industry and the value that it can add to any project. Only then will the Irish landscape sector mature and grow to become an equal member of the construction industry and treated with the same respect as other members.