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No matter how finely honed your architectural design skills may be, there’s no challenge quite like designing a landscape. Forging elegant patterns out of brush, parks, gardens, grass, and lawns is a sort of wide-scale version of Bonsai—using human planning to turn nature into art.
But even if you have a passion for gardening, the answer to “how to become a landscape architect” can feel like a unique skill in its own right. Here’s what you’ll need to know if you have dreams of designing everything from lawns to city parks.
What Is Landscape Architecture?
A landscape architect is responsible for the design of natural-world areas—think parks, gardens, playgrounds, lawns, campuses, and other wide open public places. And while architects like Frank Lloyd Wright win praise for integrating their designs into the natural surroundings, the job of a landscape architect connects more directly to nature.
In this case, you’re designing where nature goes.
It’s easy to picture a life spent in the outdoors, tending to plants, and getting plenty of much-needed sun. But landscape architects are still architects, which means they spend a lot of time in offices doing the important work of designing and planning.
What Does a Landscape Architect Do?
The landscape architect is responsible for designing the external settings that define an open area like a park or garden. This is similar to any other form of architecture, but with one obvious difference. Rather than using steel beams and porticos to define your spaces, you’re using the tools of the planet itself.
A landscape architect plans walkways, gardens, hedges, tree positions, and even the overall layout and topography of a space. The result can be a seamless experience that still feels natural, despite the extensive planning that goes into it.
Have you ever walked through a park and wondered who was responsible for getting everything to look so beautiful? Chances are, a landscape architect was behind it all.
How to Become a Landscape Architect
Just like a landscape itself, it can take a significant amount of planning and work to go from an empty space to a finely cultivated result—but it’s more than possible. Here are the details on how to become a landscape architect.
Design Degree and Education Requirements
Landscape architecture usually requires at least a bachelor’s degree, typically with a focus in landscape architecture itself. In fact, depending on what state you’re in, a bachelor’s degree may be required to gain your landscape architecture license.
The Landscape Architect Registration Examination (L.A.R.E.) is a good starting place for most people who are thinking about landscape architecture. To pass this exam, you need education and study in inventory, analysis, design, landscape grading, drainage, and documenting the construction—essentially the entire process, from A to Z.
From there, you can then apply for the appropriate licensing to begin your career in landscape architecture.
As for the types of degrees you should get? Landscape architecture is your best bet here, although you may also get value out of a horticulture degree. However, keep in mind that horticulture focuses on the plants themselves and won’t prepare you for a career in actually designing landscapes.
Experience in Place of Degree
Some careers don’t require a degree to get started. Landscape architecture does. You’ll need a license, but remember that the requirements may vary in your state. At the very least, you will need to seek out education to take the appropriate exams.
There’s no substitute for real-life experience, which often comes in the form of starting out as a novice and working with someone experienced who can show you the ropes. Unlike a career like graphic design, it’s difficult to build a freelance portfolio of landscape architecture as you learn. For many, the traditional path is climbing the ladder of experience after acquiring a license.
The Average Landscape Architect Salary
How much does a landscape architect make? There’s good news: Landscape architects tend to earn higher average salaries than most people. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 median pay for landscape architects was over $70,000, or about $33 per hour.
This is the result of the uniqueness of the skill set—it takes considerable time and investment to get yourself licensed. That means that landscape architects can sometimes be in high demand. High demand often means high salary. This drives up the median salary over jobs that may not require this kind of upfront investment.
Keep in mind that the BLS statistics are a median across the entire country. Not every landscape architect job description is the same. In your state, incomes for landscape architects may deviate from nationwide statistics. At Salary.com, for example, landscape architects in Wisconsin can expect a median much closer to $90,000. In California, that number jumps to $104,000 per year.
Needless to say, the investment you put into your landscape architecture education obviously does pay off.
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What Do Landscape Architect Jobs Look Like?
Landscape architecture can feel like a strange combination of salaried and project-based work. If you work at a landscape architecture firm, for example, you may notice that the firm picks up what feel like freelance projects. You’ll be living a hybrid existence: salaried, but tackling one gig after another as if you were a freelance landscape architect.
However, as you build your career, you might be able to branch out and work on your own. This means that you’ll be free to choose your own destiny.
The Standard Approach to Landscape Architecture Work
You’re likely already familiar with the standard model of getting work in landscape architecture. Go to school, prepare for your exams and licensing, and then begin applying for jobs.
The problem with the standard approach? Everyone else is using it, too. If you want to break into the industry, you’ll have to do things that differentiate you from the barrage of other applicants.
You already know the key steps. But what about reaching out to experienced landscape architects and asking them what they would have told themselves when they were 20 years old? Or 30 years old? You might be surprised at the variety of answers you get.
Also, remember that working at a landscape architecture firm means you’ll have bosses above you. That can mean that 30% of your time is spent making revisions simply because your supervisor wants to see them done. As a landscape architect, you’ll likely learn that depending on your client, your freedom for landscape designing is restricted by issues like budgeting, local zoning laws, and the expectations of the people doing the paying. Even so, meeting these challenges can be a rewarding experience—especially as you learn to work with them.
The Freelance Approach to Landscape Architecture
Assuming you’re fully licensed and qualified, there’s no reason you can’t branch out to handle projects on your own by beginning your own landscape architecture firm. This entrepreneurial approach can overlap with the freelance experience. You’ll take on “gigs,” negotiate pricing, and carry out the work—often with the feedback of your clients in mind.
You might also take on a consultant’s role. When a client hires an architecture firm, it’s possible this firm can subcontract some of the landscaping design to you. This means that you essentially come on board as an extra voice in the room. However, for many projects—parks, gardens, and the like—you’ll be the one in charge of the ultimate design while keeping your clients’ feedback in mind, of course.
Turning Landscapes into Works of Art
Should you think of yourself as a landscaper? An architect? An artist? Your best bet is to realize that landscape architecture is a combination of all three.
You’re part gardener, part architect, part designer, part artist. After all, what is a landscape architect except a designer and artist—but instead of using paint or marble, you’re using mother nature as your medium.
It’s not always easy. It takes solid education and licensing to become a certified landscape architect. But the good news is that if you want to do it and stay dedicated to the discipline, you’ll find there’s plenty of demand for someone who’s not only licensed, but knows how to make art come to life. In this case, the phrase is literal.
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