For this blog, we are stepping into the shoes of our Landscape Manager Alex Haerle. Alex’s job is all about helping people to turn their garden dreams and ideas into reality – and at the same time taking away their headaches about their landscape project. We thought you would be interested to hear more about what’s involved.
What do you see as your main responsibilities?
I have a dual role as Designer and Project Manager. It probably splits about 20:80 with most of my time spent managing landscape projects / teams (with an extra 10% needed to cover the unplanned tasks that come up!) This may be building to our own, in-house designs or to designs created by other professional designers. The type of project can vary significantly, from installing a water feature to building a large garden for a country house, commercial Head Office or a public space.
What does a typical workday look like?
On any given day, with my Project Manager ‘hat’ on, I will be doing some (or what feels like all!) of these things: site visits to ongoing contracts, liaising with designers by phone/email, handling new enquiries, working up estimates, ordering materials, producing planting plans, visiting plant nurseries and solving ad hoc queries with projects as they arise. In addition, I have one or two design days per week. There’s also a lot of ‘business as usual’ that is not directly project-related – such as interviewing or inducting new staff, managing our vehicles, monitoring our health and safety compliance and staying in touch with previous clients.
There’s really no such thing though as a typical workday, week, landscape project or client! For example, at present I’m project managing a small residential rear garden for a retired couple who are looking for a low-maintenance way to enjoy their outdoor space. At the same time, over the last 4 months we have been building a large garden for a substantial new property – the landscape designers are Taylor Tripp, and I’m liaising with them regularly to ensure they are fully up-to-date with how the project is developing.
There are however some golden threads that run through every landscape project – the quality of the work, controlling costs and getting things done on time in the right sequence. Those are the three project elements that I spend my time and energy on.
What do you enjoy most about managing landscape projects?
Ultimately, delivering a beautiful garden to the client and designer is very rewarding. It’s so satisfying to transform an uninspiring space into a thriving, beautiful place where people want to spend their time. It’s good too to know that much of our work will continue to develop and bring enjoyment to people for years to come. Positive feedback from clients is always really pleasing and being awarded recognition over the years by both BALI and the SGD is a real accolade to everyone involved. On a day-to-day basis, one of the things that I most enjoy is leading teams of people that between them have got deep construction knowledge and experience. I can rely on their core competence to get most things done effectively and efficiently and this undoubtedly plays a big part in keeping my ‘to do’ list under control! It also means that my role as Project Manager is more about getting involved at key decision points. I also really enjoy collaborating with different professional designers to create gardens. Over recent years I have worked with Julie Toll, Andrew Wenham, Cassandra Crouch, the Jarman Murphy partnership, Jilayne Rickards, Peter Reader and Taylor Tripp, to mention a few! There are many more whose work I admire and would like to work with in the future. As well as differences in design styles, it is interesting to learn how designers can differ in how they work with us. Some like to be very hands-on and are often on site, sometimes literally rolling their sleeves up and getting ‘stuck in’ – others are more detached from the actual build and rely more on good communications via email, drawings etc. Obviously, there’s no right or wrong, it’s all about being able to understand their preferences and interpret their designs sensitively.
What do you find most difficult or challenging about managing landscape projects?
Mistakes happen sometimes. We all know it but it’s still horrible when it occurs … as my career progresses, I feel as if a large part of my mental work is about anticipating what could go wrong in order to prevent it as often as possible. What I’ve also learnt is that the sooner you deal with a mistake by coming up with a realistic solution the better.
What skills, knowledge and experience help you most in your job?
I hope that I apply good leadership skills with my team members (of course, you would need to ask them to find out!). These are the people working on site, all day, every day, dealing with various challenges and often affected by our ever-changing weather. They are skilled craftspeople and I have a lot of respect for their abilities and knowhow. On the whole, I see my role as leader being to support them and make it as straightforward as possible for them to do their best work.
I need to be able challenge people at times too. This might be my own team members, or a supplier, or even the client. This has become easier with time as I have grown to see that one of the best ways for me to add value in my role is to share my specialist knowledge and experience.
I also like everything on a project to be ‘just so’ – down to the finest detail. I genuinely think this helps in our industry! We are sometimes up against the poor reputation of construction companies regarding quality and service, and we are very keen to overcome that ‘bad press’ by ‘wow-ing’ our clients.
What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to work in a similar role?
Get as much practical landscape project management and hands-on experience as you can. Make sure that you view each project as an opportunity to learn. This way you build up a mental database of problems that you may have previously encountered, which is invaluable every time you are faced with a new project. Developing your professional confidence in this way also helps to instil confidence in those around you – clients, designers, team members and suppliers. There are many decisions to make before and during a landscape project and learning to make those decisions incisively is vital.
Also, while having a project plan is essential, remember the importance of keeping an open mind. Plans change during projects and expecting them not to is a recipe for stress! Treating the project plan as a living document and being prepared to modify it in collaboration with others is a much more realistic (and enjoyable) approach.
Alex joined the Garden Company 7 years ago and – with his team – provides a domestic garden and commercial grounds landscaping service to clients in Hertfordshire, North London and surrounding areas. Client sites range from privately-owned gardens (large and small) to business parks and public spaces (find out more here). Prior to joining the Garden Company Alex spent 8 years at Frost Landscapes designing numerous gardens in Milton Keynes and nearby villages. Alex studied Landscape & Garden Design at Writtle College in Chelmsford and traces his career choice originally to a patch of mud in his back garden given to him by his mum around the age of 6 or 7 – closely followed by taking on responsibility for his own allotment plot.