While working for the city of McAllen as a landscape architect, Andrew Heffner realized the region could support a full-time business that catered to commercial, residential and public clients who needed a landscape architect.
Five years ago, he opened Heffner Design Team as a one-man operation. Today he heads a full-time staff of four designing landscapes with the aim they be “beautiful, functional and meet the client’s budget.” Licensed by the states of Texas and Michigan as a design firm, Heffner said his company has no interest in expanding into landscape installation. They supply their clients with a list of preferred landscape contractors, depending on project size.
Commercial landscape designs account for 50 percent of the company’s work with the balance split equally between residential and municipal/public projects. Permits for commercial and public (federal, city, county) projects require a licensed landscape architect to approve the landscape plans, signing off and putting their seal on it. Heffner Design Team is the only licensed landscape architect based in the Valley. “We often get calls when a landscape company goes to get permits.”
“The seal is a big deal,” Heffner said. “It gives the client assurance that they are getting a person with formal landscape education who is up on current trends and legal codes. They also get a well-thought-out design that meets their aesthetic requirements.”
A landscape architect fills the niche between the building architect and the civil engineer. “We review what is happening with the structure and with the land, so we balance the two,” Heffner said.
Among Heffner Design Team projects is the city hall courtyard in Rio Grande City, which incorporates wrought iron work, border brick and the town’s history as a river port. “I love the historical aspect, and we’re always trying to bring that into our design. In Rio Grande City, we used the ironwork scroll design to pull people into the courtyard from the sidewalk. It’s functional and moved people inside the space in a beautiful way.”
Heffner has handled landscape architecture for Texas Regional Bank in a variety of localities, but that doesn’t mean repeating the same design. “Each municipality has a different landscape code,” he said. “We try to maintain the plant palette and the client’s vision throughout using mostly native and adaptive plants.”
People shy away from native plants, concerned their landscape will look a thorn brush forest. “Our goal is to maintain an attractive landscape over four seasons. We find that native plants are sometimes the easiest to manage, but having knowledgeable maintenance staff is critical,” Heffner explained. Unfortunately, many landscape maintenance crews have a “mow, blow, and go” approach and identify all native plants as weeds.
“We want to find what works and what the client can take care of, rather than something hard to maintain,” he said. “We are always experimenting with new plants in our own test gardens.” The design team works with diverse materials to achieve design elements and might use century plants as accent pieces.
At Tres Lagos, Heffner and his team designed the development’s first phase with native plants such as mistflower, ebony, huisache, retama and included Montezuma cypress along the lakes with sabal palm accents.
Other Heffner projects include Curtis Park at Hackberry and McColl, the Mirabella apartment complex and 281 Office Center. “We’ve done beautiful things at The Shores on South Padre using sea grape and beach grasses.” The McAllen Dog Park, with its short-term storm water detention pond, is one of his favorite projects.
“Some cities have given parks and outdoor recreation a higher priority,” Heffner said. He sees great opportunities for hike-and-bike trails along irrigation canals.
Most of the residential clients who contact the Heffner Design Team are already aware of what a landscape architect contributes to a project and have been referred by satisfied home owners.