At the end of the day, a good budget conversation helps everyone. The client, irrigation consultant, landscape architect, general contractor, superintendent and landscaper better understand what’s expected of the irrigation system and of them.
“When you know numbers, you know what you’re doing,” says Bob Scott, president at Conyers, Ga.-based Irrigation Consultant Services. “It doesn’t have to be adversarial. Clients don’t want the lowest price, but the best quality of contractor. Their number doesn’t have to be low, but the reliability has to be there, and the quality has to be there. A lot of it is not what they want to spend, but what’s the impact of what they want to do with their project.”
IN THE BEGINNING. The first question Brian Vinchesi asks of any client when it comes to establishing a budget is, “Do you already have one?” But because irrigation and the landscape is often one of the last things developers think about, the numbers are often set up.
“Unfortunately, that’s already done before you get anywhere near it,” says Vinchesi, president and founder of Irrigation Consulting in Peppermill, Mass. “From the design side, you don’t always get in there early enough to give them a realistic budget. A lot of times, the trick is to get in as soon as possible.”
HOW TO SET UP THE CONVERSATION. Vinchesi recommends some key questions start any budget discussion: Are we going to use an alternative water source? What is it? How are we going to store it? How are you going to pump it?
“Break it down,” he says, so everyone understands what the system is going to have to do. On the commercial landscape side, the main focus is on water-saving components – smart controllers, pressure regulators, soil moisture sensors – and how much the client is willing to pay for those. On a golf course, the discussion centers on quantity. How many sprinklers will you need? What kind of coverage is necessary?
“On golf it’s easy. ‘It’s going to cost you this much and you don’t have it in the budget,’” Vinchesi says. “On commercial: It’s, ‘Can you afford it?’ It’s a matter of laying it out and is that what they have the money to do?”
Scott says the best way to start the conversation is to let his clients start talking and then be quiet. “A lot of it is just listening,” he says. “I have a philosophy that we’re constantly learning, but we’re also constantly trying to improve.”
SHORT-AND LONG-TERM PLANNING. The old saying goes: Pay me now, or pay me later. In the world of irrigation design and consulting, this means the difference between higher-ticket system with more robust components and a cheaper system that will cost more to maintain in the long run.
“One of the things the consultant is trying to do is build a system that has reduced maintenance in the future, and those systems cost more,” Vinchesi says. “You’re going to pay for it now, but it’s going to last longer and have less maintenance cost.”
Scott uses a car metaphor: “If you buy a Mercedes, the cost of maintaining and fueling is a lot different than a Honda,” he says. “Again, I try to disarm them with the cost, but … what do they want out of the product?”
KNOW WHERE YOU COME FROM. Scott says much of his work in building budgets for clients comes from his previous jobs. Similar projects in terms of geography or size or scope can help inform his calculations for a new job.
Some of Scott’s top unforeseen budget busters include problems with water quality and availability. An increased reliance on reclaimed water has complicated design and cost of systems, which now involve more filtering and treatment components than in the past.
Scott comes from a landscaping background – he ran an irrigation and landscaping business with his brother for a few years in Georgia – and approaches the budget conversation fully aware of what the system has to do.
“In the commercial sense – we’re taking plant material from a nursery or farm and putting it in a landscape. So that plant in a farm is fertilized and watered and it’s used to that element. What you’re doing is taking it into a different element,” he says. “That was the reason we did irrigation. The cost of hand-watering was exorbitant, even then.” He cited some jobs where 40 percent of the maintenance budget was paying crews to water plantings by hand multiple times a week.
But, in the end, Scott recommends whatever makes sense for his clients. If hand-watering is cheaper than an installed system, then do that. And he’ll also recommend not watering – as long as it makes sense for the client and what he wants for the property.
“We’re here to work the numbers on their behalf,” he says. “If you can hand-water cheaper than we can do putting in a system, do it. The easiest way of saving on irrigation is not irrigating. Where can we not irrigate? How can we do that? Surprising enough, turfgrass is one of the easiest things to maintain and the easiest to water, but the (non-turf) plant material takes less water.”