Setting His Sites With a Collaborative Approach
Don Wihlborg, principal of landscape architecture firm Wihlborg Design, shares his philosophies on working together to achieve on-site construction efficiencies.
Don Wihlborg has been a licensed landscape architect for more than 40 years with an extensive background in landscape architecture and a side specialization in irrigation design. He has designed hundreds of projects in the arenas of high-end single-family residences, multifamily housing, shopping centers, schools, parks, office complexes, hotels, and 44 projects in the San Francisco Presidio. He has been designing irrigation systems since 1968, and has systems in the Middle East as well as hundreds in the United States including large Veteran Administration cemeteries.
While his background is landscape architecture, Don doesn’t tackle projects from just that perspective. Rather, he stresses the importance of taking a holistic approach to each and every project—and to working with and learning from all the other players on a jobsite. That has been his focus for many years in the business.
Knowledge Is Power
Don’s philosophies about best practices have their roots in his decades of experience seeing what goes on in every aspect of a project. He explains, “Typically, it seems like everyone knows something about the site, each with their own specialty. However, especially when the sites and utilities get more complex, nobody really knows all the impacts on the different utilities, plantings, hardscapes, water features, lighting and other surface aesthetics. My goal is to make sure that all site items are coordinated. This will help keep costs down for the owner, improve contractor efficiency and profitability, and shorten the construction time.”
Don continues, “So, here I am, a landscape architect and everybody thinks I do only plants and irrigation—but truthfully, that hasn’t been my main focus for 30 years. I’m more interested in making sure that everything fits together before construction begins. The problem is that the first utility in the ground, if in an unfortunate spot, dictates what happens to each subsequent layer of other utilities, hardscape, irrigation, planting and lighting. Many times, I have found a catch basin partly in the middle of a walk, or a utility line right in the middle of the most important tree’s rootball, or the transformer is in the most important visual spot of the project.”
By that time, though, it is too late or expensive to correct the initial problem and, Don says, “We have to ‘bob and weave,’ and my job becomes coordinating the necessary changes that can still make the project feel good.”
He adds, “When we are brought into a project it’s usually later on in the process, and now we have to fix a whole bunch of things. What’s on the surface is what everyone sees, but it’s really the things underground that are most important to get right from the beginning—where are they going, what are they doing, what impact do they have on everything else on site, how do they all coordinate with each other?”
The Sooner the Better
It is this concept of coordination that is at the heart of how Don looks at a project. One suggestion he has is to bring in a resource, like he provides, earlier in the process so that rather than finding problem upon problem after the fact, issues can be found and dealt with before problems arise, in the early and subsequent design phases.
Coordination Is Key
Piggybacking off of this idea, Don also remarks that while after 40-plus years in business, he knows a lot—yet he doesn’t know everything. That’s why he is very vocal about the fact that projects work best when people learn from one another and coordinate the tasks at hand.
He says, “There is this idea that the architect knows everything and many will project that attitude. But the contractors and other consultants I work with have seen things I haven’t seen. The contractors have to solve things that come up in the field. They know a tremendous amount and if I don’t listen to them I’m probably going to miss something. When they bring up an idea, I want to hear those ideas because even if it’s not something that we can do, or not exactly what we want—it may springboard us to something else. Having the contractors involved is a team approach. They may have something that really helps the job.”