Daily Journal of Commerce: Oregon landscape architects capitalize on their green edge
Author: Reed Jackson, Daily Journal of Commerce
Posted: May 25, 2012

Read the original article in the Daily Journal of Commerce here

Jeff Schnabel, president of the Oregon chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects Oregon chapter, works on installation of a vertical garden in the Shattuck Hall Ecological Learning Plaza at Portland State University. The down economy has not affected landscape architects in the Pacific Northwest as much as their peers in other regions, according to Schnabel and others. (Photo by Sam Tenney/DJC)

Sustainability has become a hallmark for many building industry firms in the Pacific Northwest. And some Portland-based landscape architecture firms have learned in the past few years that it is a competitive advantage outside of the region.

When the recent recession struck, no building industry sector was spared from fallout. But nationally, landscape architects were hit the hardest. Since 2007, they have lost more jobs than any other profession in the building industry, according to a study released recently by the American Institute of Architects.

Many Oregon landscape architecture firms, however, say they’ve been able to buck the national trend because they have expertise in sustainable design, specifically in regard to stormwater management and green roofs.

“There are extraordinary regional differences in terms of unemployment rates in landscape architecture,” said Jeff Schnabel, president of the Oregon chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “The landscape architects in this region have national and international recognition for skills and abilities in terms of doing innovative work that other regions might not.”

The skills and abilities of local firms are attractive to developers in other regions seeking to build projects with minimal carbon footprints, Schnabel said.

Often, developers settle on generic roof and water systems, sometimes simply using holes filled with gravel to contain runoff water. But local firms can individually tailor systems to environments, said Doug Macy, president of Walker Macy, which does a third of its work out of state.

Walker Macy prevailed over a number of San Francisco Bay Area firms for a marine science campus project at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Macy said the firm won the bid because it was the only candidate that would provide an on-staff mechanical engineer to handle the project’s complex seawater system.

“We’re a little bit ahead of the curve; when hiring someone from the Northwest, the perception is that these folks have more of a track record,” he said. “Local architects export their ability to be cost effective and innovative as possible.”

Because of their experience, Northwest firms have established long-standing partnerships with companies that develop projects in other regions. Walker Macy, for example, performs projects for Vulcan Real Estate, a multimillion-dollar company that primarily develops properties in Washington and Arizona.

Jeff Schnabel, president of ASLA's Oregon chapter and an assistant professor at Portland State University, works in the Shattuck Hall Ecological Learning Plaza. (Photo by Sam Tenney/DJC)

On a smaller scale, TERRA.fluxus, a two-person firm owned by Jason King, has a partnership with a roofing company in California. The firm, which recently designed a green wall for a medical center in Oakland, Calif., and has another project set to start soon in Los Angeles, is able to maintain this partnership because of its innovative work, King said.

“When you’re looking at an economic downtown in Portland or Oregon, it isn’t going to affect (landscape architects) as much because they go other places to do that work,” he said. “Being able to go down to California and to offer a lot of the lessons we’ve learned in Oregon is definitely a market niche that helps to get, keep and expand business.”

Landscape architects outside of Oregon have suffered greater cutbacks because of their dependency on housing projects, according to Nancy Somerville, executive vice president of national ASLA. Somerville acknowledged that Oregon firms, which “have been in the lead for awhile,” are staying afloat in part because of sustainable design expertise.

However getting work in other cities is not always easy, said Melinda Graham, principal at Studio. Clients often believe landscape architecture is region specific, she said.

“The design profession in the Pacific Northwest has specific sets and knowledge basis that are exportable, but clients often relate landscape architecture to plants, so they say, ‘What does an Oregon firm know about the desert of Arizona?’ ” she said. “You have to be able to educate your client to let them know that we are a design profession and can adjust to specific regions.”

The ability to educate clients and the public is another reason why Northwest firms are coveted by developers in other regions, Macy said.

“It’s our ability to communicate on how we deal with stormwater and other strategies (that is appealing),” he said. “(We explain that) these problems become an element of the design landscape that you deal with, but you can deal with them in a creative way.”