Kirk Engle of New Jersey and Aron Hoffman of Hawaii are separated by the entire breadth of the continental United States and a fair expanse of the Pacific Ocean, but the two landscape professionals share the same opinion about the impact their use of landscape-specific design software has had on their businesses.

Engle, owner of the residential landscape company Dreams To Designs in Erial, New Jersey, calls such technology “a game-changer and a money-maker.” Hoffman, owner of the commercial outfit Groundskeepers Landscaping, Inc., in Kula, Hawaii, describes it as a “real attention-getter.” Both link their use of the latest software to the continued growth of their companies throughout 2010, in the face of a still-soft market not fully recovered from the Great Recession.

The goal of software companies from the outset has been to provide landscape contractors with an easily understandable tool that allows them to efficiently design and display a variety of computer mockups for potential clients. Such applications continue to gain industry-wide acceptance as today’s standard of doing business—especially as old-school contractors who preferred the handson approach retire and are replaced by younger computer-savvy counterparts.

Why you should embrace technology

When you get right down to it, it’s all about the money. It always is. Design software streamlines the process from concept to completion, allowing for the electronic exchange of information, whether near or far. Today, landscape contractors can work on one job within a mile of their office while simultaneously providing valuable assistance to another contractor thousands of miles away. Additionally, reduced time spent on designing each job allows companies to take on more work, yielding a beefier bottom line.

“It sells work—it’s that simple,” says Engle, a user of PRO Landscape since Drafix, Inc., introduced its version 9.0 nearly a decade ago. “I got the installation for every bit of design work I did this past year. Every time I took the time to use the imaging tool, I got the work,” said Engle. “I probably use the software more as a marketing tool, since I do mostly commercial landscaping. It’s incredibly competitive here, so when I walk into a business with a mock-up already done and hand them a binder with a before and after of their property, it really seems to get their attention.”

“With the market being so competitive, a tool like this really makes you stand out,” said Hoffman, whose company nearly tripled in size in the past year.

Len Hordyk of DynaSCAPE Software in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, the developer of one of an array of products available to landscape contractors, is blunt in his assessment of those companies still using manual processes. “What I would tell contractors who aren’t using technology is that they are wasting valuable time. Anyone still doing everything manually is not running a very efficient business,” he said.

“Using technology may not save a lot of time during the initial design phase, but where contractors will save a ton of time is on all the other things related to the initial design; tasks like labeling plants and doing take-offs.” Technology will definitely save time and money and the software you buy will pay for itself in a very short period of time.

David Sloan of Drafix echoed a similar sentiment. “The challenge for us is showing contractors the benefits of using software. Once the contractor becomes comfortable using the software, they realize this is another tool that can be used and one that will make money for them,” he said.

The technology certainly pro vides a “wow” factor that two-dimensional renderings simply can’t. For example, Engle said the ability to bring light fixtures into an existing design and then “turn off” the sun to allow a client to view their lighted property at night is very eye-catching and a major selling point.

Practical applications

Whether it’s homeowners or commercial site developers, they probably have, at the very least, a basic idea of how they want their property to look. Design software gives the contractor the ability to provide a crisp, clear rendering of any property based on the client’s input and also allows the client to consider elements they may not have thought of.

Engle said long-term relationships are forged when clients become active participants in the process, by having access to instantaneous information that allows them to see what will work and what may not be quite right for their property.

As an example, he cited a job he is now involved with. The client gave him the go-ahead to remove $20,000 of plant material put in by previous contractors that didn’t satisfy her expectations. Based on his conversations with her, Engle created a 3D conceptualization of her ideas.

“Look, a lot of contractors don’t understand a set of plans, so why do we assume homeowners will? When they see a 3D image of their property, they get it. When I showed this client the 3D imaging, she said, ‘Get all the other stuff out and go ahead with your work’,” Engle said.

“Generally, when I take off the junk, leave feature pieces and add my ideas and show a client, they ask, ‘When can you do it,’ and not ‘How much does it cost?’” Engle is also wrapping up a long-term renovation project, during which he has added landscape lighting, revamped the front and side yards and added a backyard butterfly ngarden with a seating area. That project led Dreams To Design to secure work at ten homes in a single cul-de-sac.

As a commercial landscape contractor who often juggles multiple crews simultaneously, Hoffman said that design software has proven to be a great communication tool that greatly reduces the possibility of mix-ups and mistakes.

“Everybody on the job knows exactly what they’re supposed to do. With realistic photo imaging, you know exactly what you’re going for and everybody knows what the project is supposed to look like. You just can’t screw things up, because the software breaks everything down and provides a great blueprint for the entire project,” Hoffman explained.

“Once you have built your database with pricing and materials in place, you can sit down and do a proposal in a quarter of the time that it would take to do with traditional methods. Along with having the visual imaging, that’s a huge advantage over the competition and really helps to separate you from the pack and to get the jobs,” he added.

Engle loves the flexibility that design software has given him. “Ninety percent of my work these days is done at the computer, and I have literally worked all over the country,” he said. “I don’t have to be onsite. I have a contractor friend in Mississippi who will email me a photo and text me with what the client wants to do. I do the imagery and email it back; he can pull it up on his laptop while he’s there with the client. I can email drawings and plans to the subcontractors who need them, and they can have them printed to scale.”

Ease of use

In addition to running a successful business, Engle teaches landscape design at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and utilizes design software as part of the curriculum. “The class takes you from an initial client meeting, to designing, to installing and maintaining.”

“I use the software because it allows students to actually see their work in a way I never learned when I took design class. They can plot in their design and then I can take their draft and show them visually on the computer why something did or didn’t work, such as why those red and gold flowers look pretty tacky in front of that particular house,” Engle explained. “I teach what I’ve done, not what I’ve read in a book somewhere. I tell my students that this is the product we use at my company and it’s how we make money,” he added.

Software companies provide video tutorials, quick-start guides, classroom training, web-based training and various levels of tech support, including call-in centers staffed by personnel available to answer any question, regardless of how trivial it may seem.

Hoffman, who considers himself a hair above average when it comes to his knowledge of computers, said he learned the program basics in little more than an hour simply by watching the companion video.

“The video shows you how to do everything and walks you through, step by step. You can learn the basics within an hour or so—it’s really that simple. It’s very easy to learn and to get up and running. I don’t think I’ve ever actually looked at the manual, which is good because I’m not much of a manual guy,” he admitted, chuckling.

Product improvement is a twoway street. as most vendors actively seek out user input on ways to enhance each upgrade and make their product as intuitive as possible. “My son was a CAD major; he worked for me and could make that program dance. He would call Drafix and offer them ideas and suggestions. Everyone’s input is considered and that has a tremendous influence on their upgrades,” said Engle.

Some available options

There are any number of programs on the market today, such as PRO Landscape, the DynaSCAPE Suite, Visual Imaging, the Realtime Landscaping array by IDEA Spectrum, and Vectorworks Landmark from Nemetschek, Inc. In addition, in some specialty areas, design software is available from Software Republic and Irri-soft.

Version 17.0 of PRO Landscape was released last month. It features three major components: photo imaging, a user-friendly CAD program, and an estimating tool. It also incorporates a night and holiday lighting feature and a streamlined EZScape toolbar that centralizes all tools and menus in one location.

“We’ve been doing this for 18 years, and the big thing for us and for our customers has been changing with the technology as it has evolved over time,” said Sloan. “All the tools and menus are landscapespecific with landscape terminology.

It’s very intuitive and almost as easy to use as playing solitaire on your computer.”

The most recent DynaSCAPE release includes plant list network sharing and hardscape labeling improvements. A major spring upgrade will feature the release of Sketch3D, an integrated joint venture with Google SketchUp.

“DynaSCAPE released version 1.0 in 1998 and our products have become widely accepted throughout North America,” said Hordyk. “DynaSCAPE is taught in almost 100 colleges and universities, and is also being introduced to students at the high school level as well.”

When it comes to utilizing available design tools, the next wave of industry professionals will be tech savvy and ready to roll with any software they choose. For those professionals still doing it the old-fashioned way, there is no time like the present to ride that wave or risk getting engulfed.

“Landscape contractors can’t fake it anymore, because customers can get information in an instant. It may not always be right but, as an industry, we have to take advantage of the new technology available to us,” Engle concluded.