Computer Design Software
There's nothing quite like a hand-drawn landscape design, slaved over for many hours, beautifully and meticulously drawn. You can put many hours into it, rendering every plant, every piece of stone, every water feature just right. When you get done, you've got a work of art, suitable for framing. But do you have a sales tool?
Like it or not, landscape design has entered a whole new era. You may have done well over the years with hand-drawn designs. But it is possible that you could be doing even better, and spending less time getting there? Perhaps the even bigger question is, are your competitors using it? Has gotten them more business-even some that should have been yours?
Someone designing with these products is able to complete their design much more quickly than someone else drawing designs by hand. That contractor can take a picture (of the property), do the presentation and close, all in one trip, while the other guy is still driving back to his office to get his pencils. Letting a client see immediately what he’ll be getting, not two or three weeks later, can clinch the deal for you.
All of these design programs are either based on computer-aided design (CAD) or incorporate many of its elements. Don’t get intimidated by those three letters. CAD is not the same as AutoCAD, the pricey and complicated program that engineers and architects—including some landscape architects—use. All of the landscape design programs we’ll discuss here are designed for use by you, the landscape contractor or designer. You don’t need a degree in CAD to use them.
There are 3D modeling and virtual walkthroughs in most programs. Many companies offer free technical support for the life of the program. All of them have video tutorials, either built in or on company websites.
Some offer classroom and even onsite training. The more powerful the software and the more features it includes, the longer it will take to learn it. Prices range from around four hundred to more than two thousand dollars.
It comes down to three Cs: Capability, Cost, and learning Curve.
First: capability. What’s the functionality of the software? Will it do what you need it to do? Second: cost. What will you get for your money? Features you’ll use daily, or will you be paying for a lot of bells and whistles you’ll probably never touch? Finally, learning curve. How hard is the software to learn? Will you need to take classes just to get going? Do you really have the time to learn such a complicated program?
One question I would ask myself is: Why should a landscape contractor buy design software in the first place? “The biggest and best reason is that it automates the process,” says Joe Salemi, marketing manager for DynaSCAPES Software Corporation in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.
“It shaves hours, if not days, off the work involved in designing a landscape.”
Are contractors who are armed with computer-assisted designs really making more sales? John De- Cell, president of Software Republic in Hockley, Texas, the makers of Pro Contractor Studio, thinks so. “No doubt about it. People are more used to technology now,” he says.
Providing a computer-generated design can put you one level higher than the other guy and make your design easier to sell. DeCell puts it this way, “As a contractor, there are three things you can be: the same as your competition, worse than your competition or better than your competition.” Having a computer drawn design should put you into that “better” category. “Customers are smart,” says David Sloan, sales and marketing manager for Kansas City, Missouri- based Drafix, Inc., the company that markets PROLandscape. “They know what kind of technology is available out there today. And the smarter customers become, the smarter contractors have to be.”
Design DynaSCAPE Design produces highly detailed, black-and-white 2D drawings that look like hand draw- ings, but have much more detail. You can even change the line weights. It includes a database of more than 1,200 items from all areas of landscape design, including natural stone, paving stone, mulch, swimming pools, ponds and water features. There are also outdoor lighting, irrigation and woodworking items.
Professional botanical symbols include trees, shrubs, evergreens, hedges, perennials and ornamental grasses. Symbols can be dragged and dropped. It also has the capability to add your own custom symbols and libraries.
Plant information comes from Horticopia, a partner company. This is a built-in online plant database that you access every time you add plants and labels to your drawings. For color, you need to buy an add- on program, DynaSCAPE Color. It allows you to add subtle colorings, textures, opacities and shadings to your designs. Salemi says that combining the basic Design product with Color “adds that ‘Wow!’ factor.” It enables the client to really see what you’re designing for them. You can get 3D modeling by adding another product called Sketch3D. This is an add-on to the popular—and free—3D rendering program called Google SketchUp.
But SketchUp is just a general drawing program. Sketch3D adds to it a catalog of landscape-specific 3D components such as textures, plants, ponds, pools, rose arbors and many more items. Shaderlight is another add-on program from a partner company. This allows you to add shadows to your 3D renderings. You can show the client what his landscape will look like at different times of the day or night.
You can’t do an estimate directly from Design alone. To do that, you’d need to buy DS Manage360, DynaSCAPE’s complete landscape business management tool. It pulls all of the materials from your Design drawing, does the materials takeoff and puts it into an estimate.
There’s a lot to learn, but the company provides self-paced video tutorials with the program. Expect to spend around $2,000, plus another required monthly fee for the updates, access to the Horticopia plant database and the help desk.
Of course, each add-on program also has a separate cost. But it may be well worth the price. “Many of our customers say that Design has tripled their sales,” says Salemi.
EARTHSCAPES, from Visual Impact Imaging in Youngstown, Ohio, allows you to work in a couple of different ways. You can use the program to complement your handdrawn design or one that was created with AutoCAD, or you can create the drawing solely using the software.
You can upload a photo of your client’s landscape, erase parts of it, then drag and drop items from the program’s library of 6,500 nonbrand-specific items onto the photo.
The library contains water features, paving stones, rocks, plant material and many other landscape elements.
EARTHSCAPES doesn’t include 3D modeling or walk-throughs. “In talking to contractors, many say that creating a 3D model often takes a lot of time, and isn’t necessarily required by property owners, or to sell a design,” said Anne Behner, sales manager.
Behner says her customer base— mostly landscape designers and landscape contractors—has been telling her that having a photo design of a project is becoming more of an essential when selling those projects or working with clients. This is more important to them than the ability to do 3D modeling.
How hard is it to learn? Behner says the photo imaging can be learned over a weekend; the site plan design takes about a week, even for those who’ve never used CAD before. “I would give myself a few days to play with the tools, get accustomed to drawing lines, importing your site plan and working with the symbols,” said Behner.
After that, you should be proficient enough to start creating your own designs. There are step-by-step tutorials included with the program.
A separate DVD contains instructional video clips.
Another training resource is an online forum which includes 150 tips. Classroom and one-on-one training via “remote screen sharing” over the Internet is also available.
The program also does estimating. These can be done in real time as you create your site plan, or by manual entry. EARTHSCAPES costs about $1,200.
Pro Contractor Studio
John DeCell is a former irrigation contractor. He used to spend up to five hours manually drawing out designs and creating proposals, until he created Pro Contractor Studio, which cuts the time down to about forty-five minutes. The software is designed for residential to small commercial applications and can create both irrigation and landscape designs.
Pro Contractor Studio creates CAD drawings, but it doesn’t do 3D modeling or walk-throughs. Says De- Cell, “Our guys are looking to create an installation document and a bill of materials, and sell a job.”
You can’t import a photograph into Pro Contractor Studio, but you can import a Google Earth image and capture it as a raster image. The program will scale the image for you.
Does it help sell jobs? “It helps tremendously, not just with the customer, but with estimating and materials takeoff,” said Amy Ping, a landscape designer at Enchanted Landscapes, a design/build landscape and nursery company in Richmond, Texas.
“It makes the whole process— from start to finish—much easier. The client can see the colors of the predominant foliage, the flagstones and the decking. It gives them a feel for what the overall project is going to look like. It’s hands down more professional than a hand drawing.”
You can put plants down in color, blend one color to another, add texturing and even make the drawing look like it’s been painted with watercolors. You can also add symbols.
Ping likes the ability to create your own symbols. She took a symbol for a spa and tweaked it so it became a symbol for a disappearing fountain.
The full license is about $1,200.
The program has regular updates throughout the year, which are free. Program upgrades are annual, and cost about $200. But to monthly subscribers, all upgrades are free.
In fact, the subscription option is one of the best things about Pro Contractor Studio. The full program is available for $30 per month. You can subscribe for a month and then cancel—there’s no long-term contract.
There’s a free online learning center on Software Republic’s website, along with video tutorials. Tech support is free to subscribers. Buyers get it free, too, for the programs’ lifetime.
“PRO Landscape does photo imaging, CAD, estimating and 3D rendering,” says Sloan. “The end result is that you sell more jobs.”
Brad Curtis, Landscape Management Services, Inc., a full-service design/build company with commercial and residential clients in West Jordan, Utah, would go along with that. “Ninety percent of the jobs we use PRO Landscape on, we sell. In the six years we’ve been using it, it’s increased my business tremendously.”
One of his largest customers, a big commercial development, was won over this way. “We were able to secure all of their work in a package deal—from installation to maintenance—by being able to provide quick 3D designs.” Previously, Curtis relied on “everything from hand drawing to dragging my foot in the dirt.”
PRO Landscape allows you to take digital photos and import them into your design. Then, you simply drag and drop items onto the photo from the built-in database of 11,000 landscape items. These include plants, tiles, stone, fountains, and many other materials, cross-referenced by the looks of the items, by the brand names, or by both.
The program also does irrigation, landscape lighting and holiday lighting design. It even has the ability to “turn the sun off” and give the customer a night view.
With its latest release, version 18, a tablet application that works on iPad and Android devices was added. Using your tablet device, you can take a digital photograph, enhance it with different drag-and-drop items with different kinds of looks, textures and colors, right there at the customer’s arm, and generate the bid as you go. Sloan feels that the iPad application is one of the major selling points of PRO Landscape, along with the size and quality of its database.
The 3D rendering capability allows you to take the customer on a virtual walkthrough. Using actual photos adds realism.
The company claims that the program is easy to learn and easy to use. They took care to remove CAD-speak—the engineering terminology—and replace it with terms familiar to landscape people. Video tutorials are built into the software. Curtis finds the program easy to use and fast to learn, with easy-to-understand tutorials. “Their tech support is great, too. They answer my calls or get back to me immediately.”
You don’t have to buy an extra program to do an estimate. “We’re the only (landscape design software) package that lets you create a bid right from the imaging,” says Sloan. “Usually, you have to do the CAD, then create the bid.”
There is also a free image service.
You can import a photo of a specific object, say, a tree in the customer’s front yard, and remove the background. You can do it in the program yourself, or send it to Drafix, and they will do it for you.
PRO Landscape costs about $1,500. Updates are made available annually, for about $300. Tech support is free for the lifetime of the program.
This program lets you do both 2D and 3D at one of the lowest price points available, about $400. No prior CAD experience is necessary to use it. “It’s really quite intuitive,” says Shannon Thompson, marketing and sales manager for Idea Spectrum, the Bonney Lake, Washington-based company that makes Realtime Landscaping.
“We have guys who have been drawing by hand for 30 years, who say, ‘I need something like this because I’m losing business, but I don’t have a lot of computer experience.’ With Realtime Landscaping, all you have to know is how to use a mouse, save, and find your file after you save it.”
One thing that is unique to Realtime Landscaping is Client Dream, a user interface. “It’s a play space for you and your client,” says Thompson. Once you upload your design to it, the client can insert notes about color, placement of items, or anything else. Thompson says that Client Dream can be a valuable tool. “It’s hard enough to set up meetings with people. Everyone is so busy these days. This way, a client can study your design in the evening as he relaxes with a glass of wine.”
But be careful. This two-way interaction can be a double-edged sword for contractors, as a customer could use it to take your design and show it to a competitor. One of the other software companies made a deliberate business decision not to include that sort of capability, because they “didn’t want to give the customer too much power.” Of course, you could use Realtime Landscaping without Client Dream — it's just an option.
There are four versions of Realtime Landscaping: Architect, Pro, Plus, and Photo.
“One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that in Vectorworks Landmark, you can work in one design environment the whole way through the process,” says Eric Gilbey, landscape industry product specialist for Columbia, Maryland-based Nemetschek Vectorworks, Inc., the makers of Vectorworks Landmark. (He’s also a landscape architect.) In other words, you don’t have to be in one module for designing, in another to render, in another to do the 3D modeling, and in yet another for estimating.
In Vectorworks, all those changes happen in one environment. A change you make in the 3D model is made simultaneously in the 2D rendering, and vice versa. “Other products may have a CAD side to their software, but there isn’t the sort of total integration that Vectorworks Landmark has.”
All this functionality comes at a price. Vectorworks Landmark by itself is about $2,000. Add Renderworks, and you’ll pay a few hundred dollars more. Renderworks allows you to achieve photorealistic rendering and to choose from a series of lighting, texture, and shadow settings. You can also turn colors into textures. Color palettes from Pantone, Benjamin Moore and other companies are included.
Renderworks lets you texture brick, wood and metal surfaces on the objects you’re designing to have them really look like brick, wood and metal. A brick wall without Renderworks will look like a solid color terra cotta wall. If you want to give it the look and “feel” of actual brick, you would assign it a texture in Renderworks, and it will look more like real brick.
But you’re not stuck with just a photorealistic look. Renderworks also allows artistic-style renderings such as pen-style sketches, “chunky” line sketches, or a watercolor look.
As for plant information, Vectorworks incorporates a database containing the entire Monrovia nurseries plant catalog. There are built-in, customizable worksheets and reports that do automatic estimating, and can update from any revisions.
This program has a variety of training options available, including classroom, online and even on-site training, for a fee. You’ll probably need some kind of training. It’s a complicated, powerful program.
The world of landscape design software is truly dazzling. What you can create now with your laptop computer would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Any one of these programs will produce a quality design that should be impressive to a client. However many dollars you choose to invest in such a program will surely come back to you many times over, in terms of business won. Take the time to check them out carefully and see which one best suits your jobs, your people and your company.