The pursuit of excellence requires that we understand how people live life. When asked why, I defer to the fact that we live, work, and play in a world that has become ever more compartmentalized. Work life is separate from personal life, which is separated from spiritual life, and so on. We have grown accustomed to the division of work and focus on our own specialties.  Nevertheless, too often I see builders/contractors/designers stop with the client’s laundry list (The List) of desired features. They take it for granted that everything should go where the client wants it.

As their expert, we must look beyond The List and get to know how they live, understand what they are passionate about, evaluate what additional experiences they might enjoy, and anticipate how their needs will likely change over time. I like to know how they entertain. By becoming students of human behavior we can increase our understanding and ability to anticipate the needs and wants that are often not expressed. We begin to get in touch with what makes an experience “magical” for them. After all, regardless of what we are designing, it’s all about the EXPERIENCE.

One of the most important questions I ask a residential client is whether the project is an investment choice or a lifestyle choice: are they adding a custom pool and outdoor kitchen because they think it would be nice, will help resale value because everyone else in the area has one and its expected, etc. (“I want to be able to recoup the investment when I sell in 2-5 years”);  or are they planning to be in the home a long time (“This is my castle with my family, our family retreat, etc.”)? The answer will help me determine how to go about designing (how much do I need to reign in my outof-the-box thinking), and more importantly, the types of finishes, etc., that have significant cost impacts. I have had several clients, once they realize they do not intend to move and it’s about their lifestyle, become willing to increase their budget to get something they want. I do this by telling the client that I will produce 2 to 3 concepts that fulfill their requirements (the list) AND have additional features and considerations they may not have thought of – and together we will derive the final solution from those first run concepts taking the things they like and discarding the rest. Once they have a vision of their personal oasis, they realize the quality of life achieved exceeds the expense. I have had clients spend 300-400k on a backyard in a homogenous subdivision setting, almost equaling the home’s value. They were raising their kids there, self-employed and on-call so travel was difficult, etc, and therefore it was worthwhile for them to make their home their personal spa. They live in their back yard as much as time permits.

The Space to work with

Think Outside the Box

The pursuit of excellence requires the ability to think outside the box! For starters, we need to have the willingness and awareness to honestly assess our skill sets and shortcomings. Often we are blind to them. Right now I am asking a select few colleagues and clients to give me an honest, no-holds-barred assessment of my design skills, business skills, construction administration/observation skills, etc.  I’ve never been sued, hear great things from appreciative clients and the community, but I want to be better. Our clients deserve our best!

What else can you do to think outside the box? I can only tell you what has shaped me into who I am, both as a person and as a designer:


As a child I grew up in South America and was exposed to the richness of history and Spanish colonial architecture, Maya and Inca cultures, and terrain from high Andes to the Amazon jungle. I loved the people, the plants and the animals. I appreciate stone, wrought iron, and big wood. I learned early that we are the culmination of personal life events and experiences, and to value others more highly than myself.  When I was older I traveled in Europe and the Middle East. So, TRAVEL with an open heart, feeling the places as much as seeing them. Seek to understand what makes that experience special and how you can adapt it to your design and construction work.


The second thing – READ a lot. If you do not yet have a design and construction library, then start building one; and if you do have a library, keep growing it. Study the design styles of different cultures and periods in time.

When I was working with Belt Collins in Hawaii, we had a project in China. It was a business retreat with several clusters of cabanas. The interesting thing was that the client wanted each grouping to reflect a different culture/style. We researched and developed a Hawaiian cluster, a Mexican colonial cluster, an English cluster, a Spanish courtyard cluster (with Moorish influences), and an Italian cluster.  Seeing these various styles simultaneously, evident not only in the details but in the layout plans as well, helped me see and appreciate that good design comes in many forms. I tend to like and am passionate about Spanish, Mediterranean, and tropical styles and the spatial configurations and scales appear in my work. I also like the contemporary sculptural styles of design. However if I were asked to integrate a Miami beach art deco style into my work I would not hesitate to find a colleague to team up with because my understanding of the style is currently limited.


In order to excel we must be passionate about what we do. Love learning new things. Try to spend a little time each day learning something new about your community, something new within your field of expertise, and something you can apply immediately to strengthen your skillset. Develop hobbies – and if they feed your creativity it’s a bonus; and they may even feed your pocket book. Try woodworking, photography, calligraphy, or leatherwork. There are so many ways to express your creative side with the side benefit of being able to bless others.

Design Review

Design review is the process whereby I evaluate the design integrity, identify missed opportunities, and when possible, get a peer review (very important for one-man shops) Once the “final” design is complete and the experience established, I evaluate it for the following:

1. KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid: Evaluate the design for “kitchen sink” features – extraneous details or elements that are unnecessary and/or detract from the desired experience.

2. Flexibility: Things often get used differently than anticipated, and sometimes new needs/uses are realized. Can the design accommodate expansion, change of use, or function? For example: Does the pool deck only allow for table and chairs or a lounge at an angle? If the room is available, does it make sense to make the deck a couple feet wider so the client can switch where the couch/coffee table seating area is with the lounge area if they desired to do so in the future?

3. Infrastructure is an opportunity: Have you accounted for security feeds, audio, lighting, power? Depending upon your location, would the client benefit by having some exterior climate control features to extend the season of use, and does the design include them or be easily modified to add them? Does anything rely on a specific technology or company product to perform – and can it be easily serviced when that technology fails? (Everything fails at some point – question is what can we do with our design to limit what has to be torn out or changed to service that product/element/feature?)

4. When maintenance is difficult or a technology failure creates undue service issues a great project quickly loses its luster. Evaluating how surfaces, features, and products will be maintained can provide you with great insight into beneficial changes and details that you might not otherwise consider. A recurring issue can reveal a problem that needs a permanent solution – and this might yield a marketable solution and potential income diversification source.

5. Lastly, good enough is never good enough. Acceptance of mediocrity in anything, however insignificant, will ultimately come back and bite you. If in doubt, mock it up to prove the means and methods sound or unsound, then adjust as necessary.

The Pursuit of Excellence means setting your personal standards higher than those of your clients. Always perform above client expectations. Approach everything with the attitude that there is something to learn that is as important as what we have to share. Humbly accept that we have been given the gift of creating experiences for the benefit of others as our chosen professions, and share your passion for your craft wherever the opportunities take you.

Kurt Skinner Skinner

Design Studios Landscape Architecture, Planning & Urban Design