You’re heading to the first meeting of a new installation. As the landscape lighting contractor, you’ll be joining the landscape contractor or designer, the irrigation contractor or designer, the hardscape contractor, and maybe even additional contractors. Together, you’ll create the landscape of your client’s dreams. But achieving that dream landscape can be smooth sailing, or it can be a rough road filled with miscommunication and pitfalls. These tips from landscape lighting professionals will help you avoid the bumps and establish yourself as a true industry pro.
Communication is king
One way or another, everyone involved in a new installation will figure out a way to get it done, no matter what, says Dave Underwood, CIC, CID, CLIA, president of Chesapeake Irrigation & Lighting in Millersville, Maryland. But that doesn’t mean the process will be stress-free.
Every project is different, depending on the size and complexity of the project, the general contractor, the client and the other players involved, he says. Effective communication from the early planning stages of the project is the only way to guarantee that everyone is on the same page.
“Having good coordination from the top, whether it is the landscape architect, the home builder, the homeowner or someone else who is running the project, is important,” says Matt Carli, lead designer for Moonlighting Landscape Lighting Systems in Charleston, South Carolina. “Several months before the contractors come in, we have a preconstruction meeting, where we review everyone’s plans and identify any potential hurdles we could have in terms of lighting.”
While some business tasks are easily accomplished through email or telephone calls, in-person communication where all the various trades are represented is especially helpful in the planning stages of a new installation.
“Because all our trades are hands on, when you’re on-site and can visibly walk around and talk about what will be impacted by various trades, you can really dig down into the details,” Underwood says. “We go in with a positive mindset and try to remind everyone that we are on the same team. It’s not a competition, and the more we help each other and coordinate, the smoother the project will go, which benefits everyone.”
In the early planning stages, conversations with the hardscape contractor, the irrigation contractor, the tree planter or arborist, and the person pulling electrical permits will be especially important. Ideally, during these conversations, potential conflicts or oversights can be caught early and remedied with some planning adjustments.
“We have to create an infrastructure for lighting under the concrete, patio or pavers prior to installation because once they pour concrete, you’re done, and you can’t go back and lay conduit,” says Nels Peterson, owner of Nordic Landscape Lighting in Minneapolis. “But, the important thing is staying out of each other’s way, because you don’t want to show up with six guys and a truck full of lighting fixtures and wire on the day they’re planting trees or leveling the land.”
While careful coordination will ensure that each trade is able to complete their portion of the work at the appropriate time, it also opens up the possibility of saving both time and money.
“The irrigation contractor usually goes in and trenches all over the property, so the installation of landscape lighting is difficult without coordinating,” Peterson says. “I’ll often ask if we can work at the same time if they’re doing open trenching, so we can lay our cable instead of having to tear up the yard twice. That saves the customer money and us time and effort.”
Give and take
As with any relationship, building a strong working relationship with other contractors requires some give and take, and being willing to offer assistance where possible is a good way to build trust.
“Lighting is typically the last part of the project and a lot of the work is done at that point,” Carli says. “Typically landscape and hardscape contractors supply their own conduit, but a lot of times we will drop off the conduit or work alongside them. We try to let them know that we aren’t necessarily expecting them to do all the work.”
Offering assistance in the form of labor or materials is also a great way to ensure that your lighting installations needs are being fulfilled.
“The electrician might need a conduit installed, and electricians don’t usually have trenchers, and you might need a couple outlets installed,” Underwood says. “I’ll tell the electrician that I’d be happy to provide you a conduit, and don’t forget that I need an outlet over here, and he’s much more willing to make sure it happens because he is getting something out of it as well.”
Underwood says that he makes sure that all necessary lighting materials are on-site as other contractors are completing the rough-in phase of their work. If you’re able to be present during that construction phase, Underwood says you can then make sure that there will be no surprises when you arrive for your installation.
“They appreciate that they are getting guidance from the lighting contractor to rough-in their equipment,” Underwood says.
Finesse the conversation
Because new installations rely so heavily on careful coordination, problems will undoubtedly arise. When you’re part of a network of lighting and irrigation professionals, the last thing you want to do is throw another contractor under the bus. Though things are bound to get sticky at times, handling them with finesse is always the best approach.
“Our kind of work is at the end of the project when there is no time, money or patience left from anybody,” Underwood says. “But the other trades don’t work for me, so I can’t tell them what to do.”
When problems arise, handling them with some finesse will leave you in the good graces of your clients and the other contractors on the job. Working through issues typically means that you’re approaching the person who is running the project with your concerns.
“I will say that I realize everyone is busy, but we missed an opportunity to communicate on a need, and now we will need some help from the landscaper or the hardscaper to remedy the issue,” Carli says. “Being careful in terms of how you word it is important, so you’re not directly pointing fingers.”
Sometimes, no matter the approach, the burden to remedy an issue will still fall squarely on the shoulders of the lighting contractor. In that case, taking on additional responsibility, whether for extra cost or additional labor, will sometimes be the best business decision.
“We try not to make waves as contractors, we try to leave a minimal footprint,” Carli says. “Knowing that a homeowner doesn’t want to hear bad news, if we can rectify a problem, we don’t mind taking that on. You sometimes have to tiptoe around the issue so no one gets upset, and if you’re able to take it on and take care of it so it makes everyone’s life easier, no one gets hit with change orders. If you are willing to take a hit to avoid losing future work, it’s worth it.”
Building project collaboration tips
Offer coordination fees
A successful project is everyone’s ultimate goal, and more communication and coordination between contractors and designers leads to a smoother process. To that end, offering a coordination fee to the architect or another contractor can be a useful tool for encouraging project collaboration.
“Sometimes I will offer a coordination fee, typically only to the landscape architect,” says Nels Peterson, owner of Nordic Landscape Lighting in Minneapolis. “That softens the reservations, especially if they feel like it will make more work for them. I always let them know I’m willing to compensate them, and then they become an advocate for you on the project.”
Everyone is working hard on a new installation. Showing appreciation for the hard work of another contractor or labor crew is a simple but meaningful gesture. Buying lunch or a case of beer at the end of a long week is always well received.
“You’re speaking the language of contractors,” says Dave Underwood, CIC, CID, CLIA, president of Chesapeake Irrigation & Lighting in Millersville, Maryland.
In addition to showing appreciation in the moment, being gracious to other contractors is a great way to strengthen your network and build strong relationships should you find yourselves on future projects together.
Lend your own labor
More hands make light work, and showing your willingness to be a team player will build good favor with other contractors. If the masonry crew is unloading stone, and you can lend some manpower to help, Matt Carli, lead designer for Moonlighting Landscape Lighting Systems in Charleston, South Carolina, encourages it.
“If we can lend a hand, all our jobs get taken care of,” Carli says.
Focus on the client
Without the client, no one would be working on the job. Keep your eye on the finish line and your focus on the client.
“No trade wants to get the decision-makers involved if they don’t have to,” Underwood says. “Sometimes you have to work it out amongst yourself or eat extra labor or materials. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Expect the unexpected
Coordinating schedules is difficult, and in the landscape and lighting industries, it is especially difficult.
“Anybody who does contracting outdoors has to consider the weather, and in a seasonal business like ours, it is hard to get the timing to work out perfectly because everyone gets really booked,” Underwood says.
Schedules will change and problems will creep up.
“You’ll just have to adapt,” Underwood says.