Is innovative design critical to land development?

Article By:

Founder | Chief Innovation Officer

Let’s be honest land development is a tough business. The costs are high, the payback is pending, and the risks are daunting and numerous. Land developers often need to acquire vast acres of property years, if not decades, in advance and most certainly well ahead of figuring out exactly what to do with the land. They wait patiently, observing trends and development cycles, waiting for the optimum moment to launch into a new project.

Developers are like magicians: they create successful, desirable neighbourhoods out of wild, agricultural or industrial lands as effortlessly as pulling rabbits out of hats. And growing urban populations all over the world rely on the magic of development to provide desirable places and spaces for multiple generations to live, work and play.

However, developers need to be masters of their game. After acquiring land holdings years before the development starts, they have to navigate through challenging layers of municipal negotiations and development agreements. They must concoct a vision for their project that is aligned with their potential clientele and future buyers, orchestrating in detail the transformation of raw land into a finished community. This can include underground infrastructure, roads, pathways, parks and developed green spaces, recreational and healthy living amenities, and brand identity features such as signage, fencing, lighting and way-finding objects. Developers must put together timelines, pro-formas and financial models in painstaking detail to ensure that every step of the way all legal, municipal and financial obligations are met, satisfied or maintained. The consequences of a single dropped ball can be cataclysmic to the deal. But at the end of the day, with all that is at stake, developers need to be skilled at creating a viable and attractive vision, carefully managing all aspects of the project through to the end. 

The developer’s team:

With so much directly on their plate, it’s obvious that the developers don’t do everything by themselves. The business of development creates opportunities for a number of expert consultants who provide services to the developer in support of their daunting aspirations. Planners, urban designers, civil engineers, licensed surveyors, and landscape architects are among the motley crew typically brought on to assist in transforming a developer’s vision into reality. The following are brief descriptions of what these roles entail:

Planners (the policy guys)

Planners are usually bought on in the initial stages to help with securing broad government or municipal approvals, mapping out or designing land use plans (or development structure plans), and navigating the intricacies of multifaceted development agreements.

Civil engineers (the detail guys) 

Civil engineers work out important details like the location and capacities of surface run-off drainage, the design of underground sewer and water lines, exact road alignments, design and construction specifications, and natural gas, electricity and cable services utility coordination. They typically also handle elevation or grade changes and design a topographical master plan for the development.

Surveyors (the legal guys)

Surveyors take the development structure plan and break it down into legal entities called lots. Road, infrastructure and green space corridors not intended for final sale excluded, every lot in a land development project is intended for eventual sale. The surveyor’s lot plan becomes the legal framework for developer sales, lot ownership, building construction, and eventual community building.

All of these roles are essential to the success of the developer’s vision for community building and include much more detail than has been presented above. From a marketing perspective, however, I find that two roles stand out as being critically important to the success of the developer’s project: the roles of the urban designer and the landscape architect.

Urban designers take the development structure plan to a more refined level, sketching transportation corridors (vehicular, cycle, and pedestrian, etc.), identifying in broad strokes where different building types may be located and defining what the general form and character of the developed spaces might look and feel like. The urban designer is typically involved in developing and administering design guidelines for sub-developers (often referred to as architectural guidelines). Their work is critical for establishing the parameters of what the look and feel of the built environment will become. Furthermore, a keen understanding of the buyer’s sensibilities, market leanings, architectural styles, visual communication and construction method is also critical to this role. 

A well-planned neighbourhood structure is one that encourages residents to walk, jog and bike (or merely interact)—activities that increase the sense of security, neighbourhood interaction, healthy living, and social engagement. An experienced urban designer will create well-articulated design guidelines that provide builders and sub-developers with the confidence to move forward, and in turn, provides end-buyers (homeowners) with the faith that the value of their investments will not be tarnished by inappropriate adjacent development.

Landscape architects primarily provide design and manage construction for all public domain amenities within a development such as playgrounds, parks, plazas, water parks, roundabouts and median plantings, active and passive recreational green spaces, entry monuments and fences. They may also be brought on to develop green space or forest management plans, natural infrastructure plans, wetlands, and retention or detention ponds, etc. The landscape architect must create the first and most lasting physical and natural attributes that support the developer’s vision and communicate the promise of the neighbourhood to its potential future inhabitants.

Having beautifully designed public spaces and amenities is often the strongest pull for potential end buyers. We find the clearest indication of what a developed environment will evolve into its landscaped environment, and the landscape architect clearly articulates the manifestation of a development’s brand. The landscape architect is also uniquely responsible for public safety within the development’s public spaces. All landscape amenities need to meet or exceed local requirements and public expectations for accessibility and safety because safe, well-designed public spaces and amenities are the core building blocks for the transformational magic of turning the bare land into a tightly woven community fabric. 

With great (design) power, comes great responsibility

Achieving the developer’s desired vision and business goals can be a daunting task. While many consultants within the development team will each have specific duties for a project, the urban designer and landscape architect roles are arguably somewhat more challenging—and the risks of failure much more visible. Here are a few lessons learned along the way: 

The novelty of design makes every project unique

Underground infrastructure, road profiles, and other forms of civil infrastructure are relatively standardized, and no one chooses which neighbourhood to live in based on the length or even the quality of the underground infrastructure installed there. Similarly, there is no competitive positioning for virtually all of the products of municipal planning or legal surveying work. These professionals can repeat standardized techniques and practices with predictable results, whereas precisely duplicating a set of design guidelines, a front entry design, park playground or neighbourhood plaza design would completely nullify the neighbourhood’s competitive advantage and could be grounds for design contract termination or worse. 

One of every developer’s top currencies is time

Developing professional, accurate and actionable design guidelines is critical, but providing timely ongoing feedback during the architectural design approval process is also vital. Timely and actionable feedback can be the difference between keeping the sub-developers (builders) happy and losing them to other competing developments. Similarly, maintaining the design schedule is a critical piece of the developer’s overall plan. Completing a comprehensive design process, while adhering to schedule is exceptionally valuable to the developer and sets the stage nicely for the construction period to proceed well.

The other top developer currency is, of course, money

Remember those pro-formas and financial models I talked about earlier? Well, the urban designer or landscape architect has to provide (or accept) a budget for the urban design and landscape elements within the project. Successfully maintaining budgets is an essential skill that we can only hone (usually) through raw experience. Closely related to time, financial cost overruns that we cannot recoup in any form of added value to the end-buyer can turn a beautiful dream into a harrowing nightmare. Things that tend to bloat budgets include municipal demands, unexpected environmental conditions, fluctuating material costs, or additions and design changes. With experience, many of these things can be anticipated, mitigated or budgeted.

Unfortunately, great design isn’t everything

In the world of development, the final product isn’t a pretty picture, a 3D model or a snazzy rendering. The final product is the built work. And therein lies the rub. The designer is responsible for not only producing a design that is novel, attractive and actualizes the developer’s vision and meets municipal requirements, but they’re also the one who chases after the contractor (oops, I forgot to mention him earlier) to make sure the work gets done as designed, on time and budget. The contractor often juggles several jobs and distributes the highest proportion of his limited resources to the client who bellows the loudest. The art of managing a landscape contractor is akin to herding cats, and while I’d like to believe there are exceptions, landscape construction tends to be much more of an approximate art than rigorous science. Weather interferences, the shortness of the landscape construction season in Canada’s prairies and the northern USA, and distraction from other projects are all excuses for disappointing construction performance.  

Urban design and landscape architecture are critical aspects to building complete communities. Creating and implementing the vision of a new community is a multifaceted and challenging job, fraught with challenges and hurdles every step of the way. The secret sauce really does lie with the design disciplines, both urban and landscape. Every development is unique and has its own genius loci (special sense of place). While every other aspect of land development may remain reasonably similar, creating the unique magic that inspires people to invest in a community and a new home (often the single most significant purchase of their lives), falls in no small degree on the shoulders of these two disciplines. If you are a developer, finding experienced, talented and knowledgeable urban and landscape designers is an exceptional compliment to your project and will yield returns over and over again. Invest wisely and watch the magic unfold.

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