Richard Sneesby Landscape Architects
Richard Sneesby Landscape Architects

Budgeting for built elements

Here we look at how to cost for non-plant elements such as building structures, installing hard landscaping and artworks


Selecting the planting you like and that works for your soil, and designing a layout that allows you to use your garden as you want to: these are the two most important parts of creating a successful outdoor space. Furthermore, as discussed in our February and March issues, budgeting for both can, with care, be contained to suit you and you can do the work on your own. Building work can also be contained but is much more disruptive and can throw up unexpected events, such as changes to drainage, so, unless you are an experienced DIY-er, you are more likely to call in the professionals, building contractors and probably a designer.

Deciding how much to spend on building structures, hard landscaping, artworks and lighting can be daunting and for this alone, it is well worth employing a design professional skilled at designing to a budget. They will ensure you get the most beautiful garden that your budget allows, and so justify their fees.




Invest your money in the places you, or your visitors, will notice. First, focus on anything that makes the garden easier and more enjoyable to use: new paths, paved areas, steps, ramps, and flat areas on a slope. You are giving the garden a structural skeleton that will define both the way the garden is used and what it looks like. Also think about how you can introduce drama and energy: add water, lighting, garden structures, artworks, furniture and so on. Assign a quarter of your budget to the materials themselves and stick to that because, unless you are doing all of the design and construction yourself, the bulk of the budget will be needed for design fees and contractors labour.


As with any project, once you know what you want to achieve, do some research, and get some price quotes. Some elements may need legal permission or professional approval; a common requirement is approval for retaining walls, drains, sewers, and underground services, so, find out how much legal applications and consultancy will cost and set aside that money.




If your budget is small, then favour good design and layout over expensive materials. You can make an enormous impact by creating simple paths and surfaces for entertaining by using local gravel, or crushed stone, edged with treated timber. Timber is also a cost-effective option for barriers, screening and plant supports, and for steps. All of these can be made yourself, with basic DIY skills, and are a good choice for an informal, naturalistic style, while the wide variety of reasonably priced outdoor paints available can help you create a more tailored look.

For a more permanent solution, or where you want to create a garden with architectural qualities - from pergolas to pool houses - to keep your budget under control, you need everything to be properly detailed in advance and built by skilled contractors or craftsmen. The longer it takes to build, the more expensive it will be. Complex brick and stone work will cost roughly double that of rendered block work. Intricate paving involving a lot of cutting and complex patterns is much more expensive than simple shapes made by laying squares and rectangles next to each other. Skilled carpentry will cost more than flat-pack kits. It is about balancing the expected quality and finish with the skills required to achieve it and the budget available. If costs start to rise, then re-think the design rather than compromise on quality by using cheaper materials.




Plan your layout strategically. Building materials tend to be rectilinear – bricks, blocks, slabs, dimensioned timber and sheet materials – so are most cost-effective when building with straight lines; using them to create curves involves craftsmanship and extra work, which in turn takes time and is therefore more costly. If the design is curvilinear, use more flexible materials such as gravel, poured concrete, or dry-stone techniques.

Off-the-peg structures are cheaper and easier to build as they will be familiar to your contractors, but obviously may compromise the individuality of your garden.

Minimise your palette and use perhaps no more than three or four key materials. Look at examples of gardens made from local materials using traditional methods; this approach minimises transport costs and you will be making a positive contribution to local distinctiveness.




When using other gardens as inspiration, be careful to consider all the relevant factors. If your garden lies on a slope, for example, it will typically cost around 30 per cent more to construct anything on it than it would in a similar garden on level ground. Construction will be more difficult, good drainage design will probably be necessary and you may need to incorporate earth-retaining devices, as well as flights of steps. Ramps need more space, but are necessary for maintenance, and essential for users who find steps difficult or impossible to manage.

Similarly, building on difficult soils such as clay, soft organic soils, disturbed soils following construction, and those with drainage problems will require more complex foundations, deeper sub-bases for paths and driveways and more positive ground fixings for posts and garden buildings. Allocate sufficient funds for external advice and bear in mind that some of your budget be consumed by very necessary construction which is buried and not visible.


Lastly, when considering expensive feature elements such as pergolas, arbours, pools, outdoor kitchen areas and garden buildings, ask the manufacturers, suppliers and specialists about labour requirements. Installation costs could be high and you do not want a nasty surprise. Explain your access and site conditions and ask about product life-expectancy, as well what the maintenance requirements will be.


Rule of thumb rates for using a constructor


These figures are based on a skilled contractor carrying out the work with clear documentation about where, how, and to what level of quality the work is to be done. They include labour hours, profit, delivery, on-site storage and overheads. Materials costs will account for around 30-40 per cent of these rates. Put back a contingency fund of 10 per cent for simple flat sites and 25 per cent for more problematic sites.


Contemporary city garden (mainly hard landscape)

£200 -300/m²

Suburban garden (50/50 hard landscape/planting)

£50 -75/ m²

Rural garden (mainly planting)

£30 - 50/m²

Show garden (highest quality and bespoke design)

£400 - 600/m²


Factors reducing costs

Factors increasing costs

DIY labour

Professional labour

Simple cheap materials

Expensive materials

Local materials

Materials from distance

Good well-planned layout

Lack of clear goal

Simple layout

Complex layout

Minimal materials palette

Unnecessarily large number of materials

Off-the-peg materials and products

Bespoke materials and details

No site-based problems

Difficult site (slopes, poor drainage, inappropriate soils, difficult access)

Fixed price contract

No contract/hourly rate

Skilled contractor

Cowboy contractor

Local labour / craftsmen (using traditional methods)

Labour from distance (highly specialist skills)

Work by machine

Work by hand

Tried and tested techniques

Experimental techniques



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Richard Sneesby
Retallack Farm




TR11 5PW


07720 590533

01326 341430


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