The PermaTrak featured designer article series showcases top performing landscape architects and engineers who discuss their design perspective, current projects, challenges and accomplishments.
This month's featured designer is Chris Moon from SWT Design in St. Louis, MO. His role at SWT is primarily that of a project manager for large-scale, nonresidential projects.
We talked with Chris about the structure of his design firm, tips for working with vendors and contractors, the Great Rivers Greenway project, and more.
Q: Tell us about your background and what you do now at SWT Design.
Chris: I graduated from Purdue University in 1995 with a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture. I've worked on several types of projects like healthcare, parks,trails and universities. I've been at SWT for 11 years now.
Q: What is the SWT Design team like?
Chris: We have 20 people in the office. 18 of them are in the design profession. We have one human resource employee and one office manager. We have two studios in the office. There are eight people in each studio and we try to keep the studios separate to keep everybody focused on the same projects. We'll have a project manager as the lead for the project, they’ll be the ones talking to the client and all the other consultants.
We will also have one or two production members working on the AutoCAD drawing. It is an open studio, and we have little breakout rooms. It's all about collaboration.
Q: So it sounds like everyone has their specific niche. What would you say is yours?
Chris: I have more of the expertise on the hardscape design. We have team members in our studio that do more of the softscape. Also, I do a lot of detailing as well. I’ve been doing that for 20 years actually. I'm scared to say that!
Q: I’m sure you work with a lot of different vendors in your line of work. What advice can you offer to other designers who select vendors and specify products?
Chris: As a firm I think we do a really good job working with vendors. In my opinion they're as critical to the success of the project as anything because they have the details and supporting information. We say we want a boardwalk and then we'll give them all the information and they can actually make it happen.
Vendors bring in products to check them out. We also go to site visits - we've been to many factory tours where we can go see the product being built.
We also do a lot of “lunch and learns,” which is a way for a sales rep to come in and show the majority of the office their product, as opposed to one or two designers at a time during business hours. That really works really well for this office. It's kind of a trade-off: they bring in lunch and then we spend our lunch hour looking at products. It's really a great way to start forming a relationship, which is important.
We want to learn about the product and make sure it's good for the project.
Q: What does your process look like when you’re starting a new project?
Chris: We show the client similar projects that we've built that relate to the project. Conceptually what are we thinking about? You’ve got to talk to the owner and see what they want; what's their goals and objectives?
Also, as a firm we like to be sustainable. It's just not “pour concrete and get it done.” It's using best practices for storm water prevention. We try to be environmentally sensitive to the natural elements. Sometimes that's not as easy as it sounds. The budget is sometimes a leading factor.
Also, as a firm we like to be sustainable. It's just not “pour concrete, get done.” It's using best practices for storm water prevention. We try to be as environmentally sensitive to the natural elements as possible.
You work a project through conceptual design creating ideas, and then into design development, which is kind of taking that concept and improving it, making it more feasible and real. Next is construction documents, where you get into the dimensions, and every little detail needed for the contractor to build a successful project.
Q: How does communication play a role in working with the contractors that build out your design?
Chris: The contractor is an essential part of the team; they make sure what happens on our drawings gets installed. If something's not going right, you want to try to resolve any of the issues via meetings or conversations. We're definitely trying to explain the intent behind it - what's needed and why.
Once they understand that, it makes more sense to them. Instead of just looking at the drawings and not understanding a lot of the history of the project. There is always a lot of background to why we do what we do.
For example, we’re working on installing a PermaTrak boardwalk, and we're placing six boardwalks that are 30 linear feet along this new multi purpose trail. I know I'm going to get questions about why we put that there. It's only because it's the low spot on the trail and instead of having just standing water slowly go over the trail, the water can go underneath the PermaTrak boardwalk and the trail can function a lot better. So, it's those kind of design elements that would not make sense to a contractor, but if I explained that to him it would totally make sense.
It's an upgrade to the design of the trail. It could have functioned without it, but it’s the fact that we can raise the trail up 18 inches, let the water go its merry way underneath, and then somebody riding their bike or running or walking won't have wet feet. That’s one of the things SWT does well- I think we look out for the best interest of the client, the owner, and the user.
"That’s one of the things SWT does well- I think we look out for the best interest of the client, the owner, and the user."
Q: What makes SWT different from other similar companies?
Chris: We've got a lot of experience in the office. We've got a real wide variety - people that just graduated, 5-10 years of experience, and people that have 40 years of experience. We work well as a team. We're flexible in that we can all manage a project, or assist in a project. We are very visual people as landscape architects. So we use 3D modeling to better understand what the sites are going to look like.
Q: What is your favorite part of a project?
Chris: Going to the job after it's complete. Looking at it, and really getting a feel for it. Is it really what was designed? Seeing it in real life is my favorite part.
Q: Tell us about the Great Rivers Greenway project and what you’re planning for the design.
Chris: I am working on the Shady Grove and Deer Creek Trail. It's an extension to a trail that already exists. The trail stops currently at Deer Creek Park. It will extend 1.3 miles in the city of Webster Groves which is a suburb of St. Louis. It's a 12-foot wide asphalt trail with a one-foot concrete curb on each side.
There's a 150 LF single span bridge that's going to extend over the Shady Creek, which will be a big piece of the overall project design. Great Rivers Greenway making the St. Louis region more accessible through trails, which is great.
Q: What advice would you give to someone just starting a career in this field?
Chris: One thing in our profession is starting to lose with the computer generation is the ability to freehand draw. Everything's done on the computer now with realistic renderings, and sometimes just a simple line drawing tells you a lot.
I think that's one thing that's getting lost in our profession. In general, we're a very small profession compared to doctors, lawyers and teachers. I would say, have some patience in working your way up in your career. I've noticed college graduates coming out of school are ready to just take the lead on projects. They need time to mature and learn how it works in the real world versus in college.