Howard Roberts, owner of the full-service pool and landscape design-and-build firm Liquid Inc. and Liquidscapes in Pittstown, has completed thousands of projects over 45 years—and has a lot to teach.
“As an artist, I fell in love with this industry at a very young age; I started my company at 18. I’m a big believer in doing what you love. I’m also all about quality and consistency over quantity in my professional and personal life,” he says. “If there is one frustration that still lives inside of me after all these years, it is repeatedly seeing constant and costly mistakes made that can be avoided. My approach and goal has always been to educate, inform and raise awareness to anyone I meet, so that they receive the value they deserve and desire.”
Here, Roberts discusses the due diligence people should do before embarking on major outdoor design projects.
What do you most want people to know?
The goal in any business is to get to know your clients, their needs and what answers they need us as professionals to provide. This puts them in a position of strength to make good, “valued” decisions.
I think our industry can do a better job and the consumer/client can have a better understanding of the process so they can achieve the results we all want, which is value—both short- and long-term.
What I find is that most decisions are driven first by emotion, not fact and reality. This is a huge gray area, because we don’t know what we don’t know. Emotions and enthusiasm are wonderful. However, emotions have to be balanced with an understanding of the process.
It’s human nature to oversimplify what we don’t know and understand because we don’t know the extent, layers and steps involved. So, the thought is: How hard, involved and complicated can it be?
Ironically, I’ve also found that all the information available on the internet creates more confusion than it helps to educate people. I’m seeing clients make the same mistakes and I’m having the same conversations regarding the process or what matters as I did 40 years ago.
What do you recommend clients do?
First, they need to slow down, which I find to be the hardest part for most. Second, they should embrace the process and get informed and educated. They should know the critical things that impact their goals, desires, results and pocket.
What is the first thing a client should do in your process?
You can look at the results and consistency of the outcomes of our projects to see that the process is successful. I first provide a 60- to 90-minute consultation and site visit with clients for a nominal fee [$300].
Before we meet, I share our process and explain why the preparation on their end is so valuable to the success of our meeting. The meeting defines the project and allows the client to walk away with great value and insight.
The first item needed is a copy of their most recent and accurate survey. Most of these are very generic. Eventually, we will need an “as-built topographical survey,” which provides all the existing conditions and grades. The town needs this survey to make sure the client is currently compliant with local zoning. We need this survey to ensure that our design and costs will be true and accurate. In addition, we recommend a zoning study to see where the property currently stands with factors such as setbacks, building and impervious coverage and easements.
It seems like this due diligence is important before even purchasing a property.
Yes! I cannot stress this enough: When purchasing a property, no one thinks about zoning or compliance. They see a property, but don’t think about the limits and what controls those limits. Over the years, I have had to explain to a number of people why they purchased the wrong property or how the limits of their site will greatly impact their intended goals—and be costly.
This is why I have assisted many of our clients in assessing and evaluating a given property before they purchase it.
After ascertaining that the survey and zoning allow for the project, what comes next?
I ask clients to make a wish list of their needs and wants in order of priority. I call these the “must have,” the “like to have” and considerations that the client wants to share. The goal here is to balance the clients’ wants vs. their financial expectations. We want to capture what is most important to them. Plus, there will be items they are not thinking about or aware of that are required and have costs associated to them as well. It is my job to explain and fill in those gaps.
What are other considerations clients should take into account?
They should think about functionality and livability. How do they intend to use their new pool? What type of activities will be going on? The responses to these questions are huge in the development of our designs. They want to make sure these outdoor spaces conform to how they intend to actively live with them. The more specifics we can flesh out, the better. I’m a big believer in a lot of upfront dialogue, which eliminates guessing later at the drafting table and surprises.
If they can’t communicate this in words, I ask them to create an image board of pictures that they gravitate toward.
What financial considerations might clients miss?
We will discuss the approvals needed, other disciplines and professional services beyond our own—we are certified as landscape architects, pool designers and builders, and landscape contractors—and the amount of time to execute the project.
Once a client has all this information in front of them, I want to know their budget and the comfort level of what they want to spend. I’ve built over 5,000 projects in my career. If they don’t know, I can provide a strong idea and sense of budget.
It is crucial for clients to understand how their goals conform to the property they own or want to purchase. Getting us out to the property early is key to determine if the project is possible, if there are alternatives and what the client would be looking at in terms of time and cost.
Learn more at LiquidScapes.net.