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The Facilities Professional’s Exterior Landscaping Cheat Sheet

What you need to know to keep up the outside environment just as efficiently, safely and thoughtfully as the facility within.

By Kate Rockwood

Just as the eyes are the window to the soul, a building’s landscaping is often a strong indication of what’s to be found within. If done right, the well-maintained, tidy and visually pleasing landscaping can telegraph many of the positive attributes to be found inside.

Michelle Egan, Powerhouse
Michelle Egan, Powerhouse

“It comes down to brand image,” explained Michelle Egan, Executive Vice President of Exterior Services at Powerhouse. “What does your facility look like to me as a consumer driving past? If the exterior is in poor shape, you wonder if the store is also poorly maintained or has reduced product availability.”

We all assess new people, places and situations based on split-second observations, and keeping your landscaping up to snuff helps ensure that this initial sense is a good one. According to Alfred Vasquez, Jr., Director of Facility Programs and Analytics for Dollar Tree/Family Dollar, “You only get one opportunity for a first impression, and it should be your goal to nail it through curb appeal.”

Beyond branding and impressions, exterior landscaping is also a major consideration in risk evaluations and local municipality compliance. And as FMs are tasked with both interior and exterior operations, they’ll want to keep some of the most important exterior variables top-of-mind. To speak to these concerns, we asked Egan and Vasquez, longtime exterior experts, to share the best practices they’ve adopted during their careers. These tried-and-true principles will give you the foundation you need to build — and maintain — a strong exterior presence at your facility.

1. It’s all about what’s right for your facility.

“Some companies want that best-on-the-block look,” Egan said. “Other companies, especially those who may work in a cost-saving space, may want to reflect a pared-down look to display they are economical. The key is reflecting what your brand is about.” You may adore the iconic ivy-laden former Fred Segal store on Melrose, but that chic retro vibe has little to do with the feel of your regional hardware store chain. Just as a plush façade isn’t fitting with a cost-savings store. The upshot? Make the flora and exterior features fit your organization’s focus.

2. Aesthetics matter — but safety, budget, scope and compliance matter more.

The core of an FM’s role is finding the delicate balance between quality outcomes and organizational limitations while putting a thoughtful plan into action. “It’s important to align image requirements to the project’s scope,” Egan said, joking that at the end of the day, champagne landscaping on a beer budget isn’t realistic. “It’s a cross section of scope expectations and a realistic budget,” she said.

Vasquez also cautioned against privileging what looks good over what fits your needs. When you’re determining which species to install, for example, he advises “consulting a horticulturalist, obtaining a few quotes from supplier partners and ensuring that the decision can be supported by your current landscaping program initiatives.” After all, there’s little sense in crafting a gorgeous exterior that you can’t effectively maintain or keep free of risk.

And risk is a major factor in protecting the company against fines from local municipal bodies and keeping visitors safe. Overgrown walkways and exposed roots pose a fall risk, while overgrown trees or shrubs can damage cars. Both scenarios can end in lawsuits. And companies need landscaping that offers no place for bad actors to hide. The list of risk considerations is endless and likely won’t be the same for any two organizations. That’s why it’s crucial to consult with safety-minded suppliers who know risk and how to mitigate it.

Of course, as the director of exterior operations, every FM will need to know what’s expected of their properties, too. Do the exterior plants conform to the region’s water usage limits? Are shrubs overtaking the walkway? Is the turf too high, inviting potential pests and local municipality fines? One of the surest routes to ensuring consistent adherence to local ordinances is to make your needs clear when signing on the dotted line, Vasquez said. “Your contracts should be structured to have very specific and inclusive scopes of work that clearly define expectations for successful compliance.”

3. Preventive maintenance is key.

Everyone knows that landscaping must be maintained. What varies is whether you’re thinking beyond this season or next. “Some do the bare minimum — the industry term is mow, blow and go,” Egan said. “But if you don’t properly prune the trees, they could cause damage in the next windstorm. Are you using pre-emergent herbicides that attack weeds before they grow with mulch to prevent them? Are you maintaining your irrigation system? All of these factors matter, because ignoring any of them can result in huge headaches and even bigger costs down the line.”

4. The name of the game: Location, location, location.

Say you manage exteriors for a retail organization with 1,000-plus locations across all 50 states. Should you divide your landscaping budget by the number of facilities, allocating the same amount for every site? Not necessarily. “The service frequency for landscape in Maine is completely different than what you're doing in Mississippi,” Egan explained. “You have to look at all the factors across a portfolio to decide the right maintenance frequency and plant material requirements.” You may choose heat-resistant indigenous plants for a site in Arizona or avoid plants altogether at a location in drought-ridden California.

After all, locations have differing needs based on context — and not just that of their native flora. If one site sits within an upscale strip mall with flowerpots beside every store entrance, its needs will differ from those of sites located on New York City’s Fifth Avenue or in a quiet Indiana suburb. As Vasquez says, “Horticulturalists are very important here, because they advocate for plants, shrubs or trees that have lower maintenance needs and high tolerance for the area’s most common weather events.” It’s your job to reconcile their recommendations with each location’s surroundings.

Finally, variations in approach can also be decided in part by finances, Egan said. “Some companies might decide to look at their highest revenue locations and allocate more budget there for enhancements, versus their other locations.”

5. The quality of your maintenance is as high as the quality of your partners.

Even the best-laid landscaping plans can go awry if the company you hire to execute them doesn’t cut the mustard (or the lawn). Asking questions at the outset helps ensure that you’re choosing wisely, Egan said. “Ask about technology — do they make it easy for crews to log services, report issues and communicate what's happening at each property? Ask about exterior expertise. Many facilities maintenance companies do plumbing or handyman work, and just add on landscape services without knowing the complexities. Ask about the industry experts they have on staff, like arborists, turf management or irrigation specialists.”

Vasquez had a few tips for the contracting phase: “Get references from current customers that are in the same arena as your business,” he said. “Get a heatmap showing their current client base. And finally, ensure that they have both experience in and bandwidth for the areas you are working on within your landscaping program.”

Even though exterior landscaping can bring with it a myriad of complexities, with an approach that considers your locations’ needs, constraints, goals and the right partners, you’ll be well on your way to a well-crafted exterior plan — one that tells the world exactly what your brand is all about.

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