Although environmental modification by ecosystem engineers influences species distributions and abundances and ecological process rates, general determinants of the environmental states of engineered landscapes are not well understood. Here we develop a general, spatially implicit model of engineered landscapes that includes parameters driving engineer populations (demographics, environmental modification) and environmental decay. We show that average environmental states and heterogeneities of landscapes are the result of a balance between parameters determining engineering rates and decay rates that can be expressed as a net engineering ratio (NER). This ratio highlights the need to include environmental decay in ecosystem engineering studies. Moreover, it defines a significant engineer as one that can alter the environment despite decay and generates expectations for different kinds of effects on the engineer, other species and ecological processes depending on ratio values. Finally, it suggests that, in general, decay places limits as to what can be inferred about engineer population dynamics from environmental dynamics and vice versa.