Creating a collaborative future in the landscape industries?

As a practice, Studio 31 is built on the strength of our relationships. These might be with clients, architects, suppliers or contractors, all essential in the smooth running of our practice and achieving the best outcomes for our projects. So too though are the relationships we hold with other landscape professionals and this got us to thinking about the shape, form and provenance of these relationships.

When we set up Studio 31, like anyone setting up a business, it was a risk. We had a vision, we believed in that vision and we knew the skill sets of the core team here were strong but no matter the strength of your component parts there is always that worry about your first project coming in.

Around this time, another local landscape architecture practice offered us some freelance work. We tentatively accepted this and the fruits of that alliance were many. For them, they could employ reliable and experienced landscape architects to work on their projects. They could meet the demands of a busy time in their project calendar whilst not having to take the financial risk taking on a new member of staff. For us it gave the opportunity to subsidise the income of our fledgling business whilst developing greater specialist skills and knowledge in an area of landscape architecture our business wasn’t focussed on. Fortunately for us, our business took flight quickly and our freelance work came to a mutual end but long term (and perhaps more importantly), we had also nurtured a new professional relationship.

Why are we telling you this? Well as a now established practice, we have taken this experience forward and now give other freelance designers a similar opportunity. As an example, we currently have a part-time freelance designer whose experience and expertise complements those skills we have in house and he can draw from our practice focus on health and sustainability whilst he sets up his own innovative new practice.

There is much scepticism in relation to employing freelance designers; the risk of being able to find a good one, cynicism around the rationale for their freelance work and concern regarding short notice periods and protection of work. Our experience though has been a positive one. Sure, there are contracts in place and the necessary documentation but there is also mutual trust and respect. There is the sharing of knowledge and experience. The opportunity to gain a new perspective on our practice vision and build mutually beneficial relationships.

Because of our connections with freelance work old and new, we have built lasting relationships with landscape professionals and we are able to both draw on each other’s knowledge and experience and also, at times, share work between us. We have been involved in receiving work that is outside the remit of other practices, passing on work which is not within the vision of ours and joint tenders to win projects which would benefit from collaborative innovation. Hopefully too, we have helped support other professionals in their future career and been a catalyst in some imaginative and important visions for the future.

With the president of the landscape institute launching the #chooselandscape campaign earlier in the year, we wonder about the value of freelance work in encouraging people into the landscape architecture profession. Freelance opportunities have the potential to allow people to develop skills across the many varied disciplines of the sector and work alongside the passions and enthusiasms of a diverse range of practices. This route for some people allows them to not only develop a diverse skill set but also discover the area of landscape architecture which most appeals as a career pathway. At the same time, practices themselves can build relationships long term with other professionals who will go on to find careers in many different areas of the landscape industry from LA practices large and small to roles within private organisations and public bodies. Many of these practitioners are highly skilled and have substantial experience both here in the UK and internationally.

Of course, no freelance design team will ever compete with the many advantages of a core and close knit permanent team who have a shared vision and emotional investment in that practices’ future. However, with the economy ever uncertain, perhaps a move to collaboration rather than competition between landscape architecture practices could lead to a new kind of environment. An environment where practices can help and nurture each other through times of both abundance and hardship. An environment where creative and cooperative CPD programmes could be developed and best practice shared. An environment which supports people to take the next step in their career and an environment which values collaboration and makes that a part of the future direction of the landscape industries.

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