June 24 2019 06:00 AM

Keeping the lines of communication open between landscape and irrigation professionals is critical in creating new, well-functioning landscape projects.


While searching for components for a bathroom remodel, I fell in love with a vessel-type sink. Unlike a traditional sink, it sits atop the vanity like a bowl. I thought I’d told the contractor how it should be installed. However, the message had not gotten through to the subcontractor who built the vanity nor to his workers. So, I was in for a rude surprise when I walked in on them just as they were dropping my fancy new sink into the big hole they’d cut in the vanity top.

Obviously, there was a communications breakdown here. My little sink problem was easily remedied, but when the project is much bigger, like a house, a commercial development or a government building, it’s absolutely essential that all the professionals involved effectively communicate and understand what each other and the client are saying.

Oh, yeah … how about an irrigation system?

Landscape architects want the plant material they’ve chosen to install on a project to survive and thrive. So that this will happen, they’ll specify the types of irrigation components they want: drip, micro sprays, conventional sprinklers, smart controllers. They sometimes will specify the brands of the components they want to use.

When things go well, that which is specified is exactly what gets installed — but then there are those other times. Part of the problem lies in when the different stages of a project are completed. Typically, irrigation is the very last thing on the list.

“In many cases irrigation is an afterthought for some landscape architects and contractors,” says Dan Aeschliman, CID, president of Commercial Irrigation and Turf Inc., East Peoria, Illinois, a firm that designs, installs and maintains residential, commercial and golf irrigation systems.

“Yes, we’re usually the last to come in,” agrees Lisa Rudish, a design associate at EC Design Group Ltd., a Des Moines, Iowa-based irrigation design firm.

Ideally, she and the irrigation designers in her firm will establish a conceptual plan early on. “If we’re doing the irrigation design for a big bank or mall development we need to get our sleeving materials in there and marked so the people starting from the ground up on the bare land know that in advance. Then, after the sod and plant materials have gone in, they need to be watered, so we get our stuff in and get things turned on right away.”

Tom Whitlock is president of Damon Farber, a landscape architecture firm in Minneapolis that works on about 150 projects a year. “Depending on the scale of the project, often the irrigation won’t be designed until the construction process is done. Usually the general contractor will sub it out to a construction firm or an irrigation construction firm and they’ll develop a drawing that we will review.”

When everyone communicates

“I hate to sound like a cliché, but communication is everything,” says Jim Davis, ASLA, CID, the owner of Landtech Design, an irrigation design firm in Indianapolis.

Often, a variety of subcontractors are involved in a project. A meeting between everyone involved just before the first shovel of earth is turned is the best way to avoid a “too many cooks” type of scenario like the one Whitlock describes: “The electrical contractor will put all of his wiring in to feed the site lighting, then the irrigation contractor comes in — and he ends up cutting all those electrical lines to install his pipe. Or, it happens the other way around; the electrical subcontractor comes in and cuts through all the irrigation pipes.”

To avoid this sort of outcome, Whitlock says there needs to be good communication and coordination between the installing contractor, all the different subcontractors, and the landscape architect and irrigation consultant. “It’s all about coordination and having the right people in the room.”

Rudish says that when her firm gets connected with a landscape architecture firm, even if it’s one they’ve worked with on hundreds of projects, the first step is to have several meetings. “They give us their base plan and we’ll work with that,” she says. “Then they’ll make adjustments after they’ve met with the property owner and we’ll make our adjustments accordingly.”

Whitlock says that preconstruction meetings are a routine part of his firm’s quality control process. “And it shouldn’t be just between the landscape architect and the irrigation designer. It means talking to the mechanical engineer who’s working on providing the building’s water source and the electrical engineer that’s responsible for installing the control system.”

… and when they don’t

It’s vital to talk through issues with all the contractors and subcontractors so that they understand why things are designed the way they are and get a good grasp on the whole project before they start working.

“For instance, we may be trying to preserve an existing tree and minimize the damage to a particular zone,” Whitlock says. “But the subcontractor just sees a straight line going from point A to point B. They’ll say, ‘I don’t understand why the irrigation is designed this way — why is the main line going around this area of the drawing? Why don’t we just go along this line?’ — and they’ll go ahead and install and cut all the roots of the tree.”

Whitlock adds, “[One of the scenarios we have seen over time] is where you know that there’s not been proper coordination during the design process. So maybe the landscape architect and the irrigation consultant have done everything that they believe is right, but they haven’t coordinated with the mechanical engineer.”

“Say for instance there’s an assumption that we’re going to have a 2-inch water source coming out of the building, but the mechanical engineer only designed a half-inch one, so all the calculations and all the equipment that’ve been specified won’t work. That’s the kind of issue you can run into when there isn’t proper coordination.”

When communication and coordination is lacking, an irrigation installer can show up at a job site only to find that a concrete barrier has been constructed where pipes were supposed to go.

“That happens all the time,” Rudish says. “Someone puts up a retaining wall with a big footing. When you call them on it, they’ll say, ‘We didn’t know you needed to get your irrigation from here to the other side of that wall.’ That’s the kind of stuff we encounter a lot. Then we have to meet with the group and find a way to work around it and resolve the issue.”

Whitlock stressed that the irrigation professional who does the installation needs to know enough to ask the right questions. Often there are gray areas as to what should be installed, and sometimes the installing contractor will go ahead and choose something without consulting the landscape architect.

“While we have some very good irrigation installers in our market, many of them are used to residential applications and don’t know the right questions to ask when it comes to commercial projects or they just assume things,” says Whitlock. “Then when we’re out there inspecting, we’ll find spray heads where there should have been drip emitters, like on a plaza where the owner holds events and now people are getting sprayed because the installer didn’t understand how the owner is going to use the site.”


Taming the ‘wild west’ of landscape irrigation

Jim Davis, ASLA, CID, owner of Landtech Design, an irrigation design firm in Indianapolis recalls the time he was reviewing a commercial project on the penthouse of a building with an extensive green roof that needed an irrigation system. “Despite it being a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design project seeking Gold certification, the landscape architect didn’t talk to an irrigation consultant.”

But the system that was installed didn’t come close to meeting the requirements. “The installers weren’t irrigation experts, they were green roof installers,” says Davis. “They didn’t know they’d needed drip emitters, micro sprays and rotator heads, and had installed regular sprays with NPR nozzles and rotors. They also didn’t have a base controller. Reviewing this, I said, ‘Oh gosh, what have I gotten myself into?’”

Tim Malooly, CIC, CLIA, CID, president of Water in Motion Inc., Minneapolis, an irrigation consulting firm and a former Irrigation Association board member says, “Landscape irrigation is the wild west” and is a proponent of the IA’s certification programs used to establish competence among those who design and service landscape irrigation systems. More information about certifications available for landscape irrigation are at www.irrigation.org.

Doing due diligence

Aeschliman says a good landscape architect will make an installer “jump through the hoops” and provide the right components. They’ll make them submit the products they’re planning to use and make sure the irrigation system’s demands won’t tax the capacity of the heads.

“There are some good irrigation consulting firms that focus on commercial and residential turf-type irrigation systems and they do a pretty good job,” continues Aeschliman. “There are some good small landscape architecture firms out there too and some bigger high-end guys that really do their due diligence. If they put together an irrigation design, you’re going to have to provide everything they specified, and believe me, they follow up.”

Patrick J. Beam, ASLA, CLARB (Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards), owns Beam Designs LLC, Dublin, Ohio. He also uses the term “due diligence” in describing how his firm makes sure that what they’ve specified is what will go in the ground. “You can see that in the bidding process,” he says. “They’re bidding based on cheaper components or something other than what you’ve specified and you can reject those substitutions before they’re installed.”

Rudish’s firm does a “punch sheet.” “That’s where we go through the whole system piece by piece and zone by zone, making sure the controllers are talking to the valves properly, that all the nozzles are working, all the heads are popping up and all the valves are opening properly,” she says. “After the design is done and the specifications are made, if the installing contractor has put the wrong products in and things are not up to the specs, they have to fix it. That’s not the owner’s responsibility. Only after a project is complete and everything is in good working order, working the way it was designed to, will we sign off on it.”

Whitlock’s firm won’t draw up the irrigation design but will produce what’s known as a “performance specification.” This involves drawing a line around an area on a site plan indicating, “We want this area irrigated.” Then his firm will provide specifications that outline the expected performance of the new irrigation system.

“That document will specify what sort of control system we want. This is especially important if there’s a sustainability aspect as far as water conservation or the performance of the system itself. Then, once those standards are in place and we get a general contractor on board the contractor will submit shop drawings that respond to the drawings that we created.”

Aeschliman says that when irrigation components aren’t strictly specified (and the installer’s feet aren’t held to the fire) the result is usually less than optimal. “The owner can end up receiving the cheapest thing that the installing contractor can build. That’s what it takes sometimes to get the bid low enough to get the job, but most of the time it works out very poorly for the owner. And it will cost more money in the long run, too, if it has to be redone or altered later on.”

But even when the specs are clear, they can still be ignored. “I’ve seen design specifications where a landscape architect will say you’re supposed to have this type of controller, valve or pipe — but the problem is that there’s no one to verify that those exact things get installed,” Aeschliman says. He adds that a landscape architect that’s truly managing a project will require the irrigation contractor to submit drawings that include all the architect’s specs. “But,” he adds, “many times the architect doesn’t do that.”

“The problem is that the folks that are saddled with construction administration don’t always know what to look for,” says Tim Malooly, CIC, CLIA, CID, president of Water in Motion Inc., Minneapolis, an irrigation consulting firm. “That includes the general contractor.”

Regulatory compliance

Whitlock says for a project to be successful it’s important to include the irrigation consultant or contractor in the conversation from the very beginning “especially given the complexity of regulations, with all of the new requirements around water conservation and stormwater management.”

Consultation with a civil engineer and at times, a hydrologist, may also be needed to address all the various regulatory requirements in a creative way that takes aesthetics and the budget into account.

Permits can be another stumbling block. “When you’re dealing with a precious resource like water, you have certain limits,” says Rudish. “We’ve done irrigation systems on landfills; those have certain requirements that have to be incorporated into the specs.

We have to qualify our contractors to make sure they know what sort of permitting is needed and all the different things that could be encountered. We have to know all the aspects of something to go forward with our bid documents.”

Malooly recently had a last-minute request from a developer who thought everything had been lined up for his project in the Twin Cities, “but the authority having jurisdiction said that their plans were woefully inadequate. All they had was a boilerplate description of a reuse irrigation system on civil and landscape drawings and a balloon around the areas of development to be irrigated by stormwater.”

Malooly says that unfortunately that sort of performance-based approach (minimal callouts on plans and skeletal written specs) is commonly practiced throughout the United States. But performance-based specifications just won’t pass muster when there’s a promise to manage stormwater based on low-impact development requirements and it’s time to obtain a permit. Then the client’s project will be delayed.

At that point, the pressure is on for an expert like Malooly to come on board as quickly as possible. That expert will have to do the required work so the required permits can be obtained and the project can move forward.

Once again, it comes down to communication.

“That’s very important at the planning stages of a project, especially if it’s large and it’s going to involve water harvesting or reuse,” Malooly says.

There’s an outdated saying that goes, “One can never be too rich or too thin.” With regard to a construction project, we could revise that to say: “One can never have too much communication.” We can take that one step further and add “or too much landscape and irrigation expertise.” When landscape and irrigation experts come together and their advice is heeded, a successful project is usually the result.

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at maryvillano@igin.com.