Feb. 15 2012 12:59 AM

IF YOU ARE A NEWBIE TO THE WIZARDY of digital software for landscape, landscape lighting, and irrigation design, be prepared to be dazzled. With a few keystrokes or a simple click, drag, and drop on your laptop or desktop computer, you can create exciting knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark photorealistic designs—and you can do it lightning fast.

If you’re like most landscape contractors, designing the landscape on paper and drawing up plans is not your thing. Your rough sketches don’t reflect what’s in your head. How many times have you visited prospective clients and asked them to envision how their landscape will look when finished? How many times did you not get the job? Did you ever think maybe it was because you didn’t get what you envisioned across to the client?

Now, more than ever, it’s easier for landscape contractors, landscape designers, and irrigation designers to present to their prospective clients a professional design in 4-color, a set of plans, a take-off sheet of materials, and a cost estimate—all with just a keystroke on your computer. equally as important, you can do all this in a very short time.

Once you start using digital software, you’ll marvel at this versatile tool that is extremely useful in design, pricing and sales. Plus, it’s a big help with increasing customer satisfaction. By showing a realistic photo of a landscape makeover, prospective customers get excited about what their future landscape will look like—before you install it!

So how does this timesaving, job-go-getter work?

Whether the project is a retrofit or a new installation, when you’re called in to visit with a potential client, you can get things started easily. Just import to your computer a photo of the house and the property surrounding the house that is to be landscaped, or you can import an existing base plan or survey map.

“You take the software right to the customer’s location, sit down at the front porch or kitchen table, and have real-world feedback,” says David Sloan of Drafix Software, Kansas City, Missouri. “Get your customers’ opinion on it right there. If they totally hate it, you know it right away, and you can change it to something they love, right in front of them, like magic.”

From there, you can work your design magic. You can erase, select, drag, click and drop on top of the plan, map or photo. You can use simple line tools to start. Choose your page size and your scale. Add extra oomph to your design using fountain fills, transparencies, legends, or special effects like watercolor to your design. And you can do it all without having the artistic skills of a Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth.

“It used to be, I’d use tracing paper, lots of erasers and hand coloring,” says Bud Surles, owner of Bud Surles Consulting Group, Inc., Jackson, Wyoming. Surles uses PRO Landscape from Drafix Software. He designs multi-acre, multi-million-dollar projects, ranging from resorts and golf courses to RV parks. “Now, it [the software] probably cuts down design time to about 80 percent. I can get the work to the client faster and I can take on more work,” Surles says.

“You get the design in your brain, and you begin to lay it out,” explains Surles. “The software is just a mechanism for taking what is in your head, and putting it on a piece of paper, except you’re using a computer.”

The drawing screen is a ‘what you see is what you get’ interface that shows the designers exactly what they will see when printing and plotting. Symbol sizes, colors, line types and scales all appear on the screen exactly as they will when printed out onto paper.

“I can select a line and type in 29.9 and hit a button, and have a line 29.9 feet long,” says Surles. “That’s where the software is so wonderful. If I’m going to do a road 40 feet wide, I draw one line the length of the road, type 40, and boom, I have a line parallel to the other. I have a road. That’s a wonderful thing.”

Here’s another wonderful thing. Calculations, estimates and pricing are made easy, too. With this software, you’ll be able to design a professional-looking plan with exact measurements and distances, as well as simultaneously create both a cost estimate and materials estimate.

For irrigation contractors, there’s RAINCAD, which can calculate total flow to total volume to distribution levels—even the number of pipes, fittings and solvents you’ll need. estimating is a breeze. Digital software allows you to assign prices to various items, and then when you use them in your design, the program keeps track of the quantity and tallies the cost. It eliminates the fear of underestimating or losing money because you forgot those spicebushes behind the house.

Chris Walter, owner of Computerized Landscape Design, Liberty, Missouri, says, “It’s made me a lot of money. For fun, I tested it: I had a buddy draw by hand, and I drew by computer. I made an estimate. He made an estimate. With the computer, it took me 50 percent less time for the design, and 25 percent less time on the estimate.”

“Estimating is the biggest pain. It’s drudgework,” Walter said. “I want to focus on designing, so I like the idea that with a click, it [the software] gives me an estimate based on the plan.”

Now the fun really begins. Digital software comes with a huge library of images. With such a dizzying array, you can easily exercise complete control over your design. Want to add texture to a concrete entryway? No problem—click and drag in some small boulders. Is landscape lighting a good profit center for your company? Just add fixtures to the photo with a click of the mouse.

Now show your customer what it will look like at night. No need for demo test lights and generators. Are you facing an unusual request, but can’t find the exact plant, tree, flower, or firepit you need in the software library? No sweat. Just add your own photo. It’s easy to personalize the software library with your firm’s signature plants and design features.

But, if photorealism isn’t your style, no worries. even though photos are all the rage, you can still use design software to render your plans in a variety of styles—as black-and-white line drawings, as blueprints, as a watercolor rendering. The software gives you options, so you don’t have to sacrifice your personal preferences.

Sometimes “a nice watercolor ignites a customer’s imagination better than something too realistic,” says John DeCell, president of Software Republic, Houston, Texas, manufacturer of RainCAD/Land Illustrator. “You can do jaw-dropping things, but frankly, it takes time to learn it. Many of our customers just want to do it simple, they want to do it fast, make money, and move on.”

Surles himself prefers black-and-white drawings. By way of example, he described the process for his lake makeover at Burnt Store Marine, Cape Coral, Florida. “Before I ever put pen to paper, I walk the land, I watch where the water is running.

I observe the terrain features. Then I come up with a schematic, usually a black-and-white drawing, and then a final color,” says Surles. “We show a lot of our work on top of Google earth, so they [clients] can see how the design fits in with the existing landscape.”

But if you really want to get fancy, you can impress prospective clients with three-dimensional images. Or even a 3D movie. Digital software allows you to zoom in and zoom out, even rotate your design from any angle. You can easily show different looks in one presentation. even let your client peek through a window. Yes, photo imaging software is that cool.

equally as important as the quality of the work is the amount of time it takes to do these renderings and plans manually. “It’s an asset to work quickly in this business,” says Jenn Rodriguez, a landscape designer for Ruppert Landscape, Laytonsville, Maryland. “Volume is everything . . . so having a program that gives good results quickly is critical.” Rodriguez uses the software earthscapes from Visual Impact Imaging; she works on 100-plus projects a year. Rodriguez recently designed an Amazon theme for a Six Flags America waterslide with a deadline of only one week.

However, when it comes to sales and marketing, digital software really helps. For example, Walter often lands work by driving around a neighborhood, taking pictures of houses that need to be landscaped. He does several quick 15-minute designs for free—all from his car. He then uses his quickie designs like a modern-day cold call or business card. Recently, he landed a $6,000 job by contacting a builder onsite. “I asked him if I could do a plan for him at no charge, and I ended up getting the job,” Walter says.

“If you’re like me, you don’t like the hard sell, “ says Anne Behner of Visual Impact Imaging, Youngstown, Ohio, manufacturer of earthscapes. “Don’t sell, show.”

Joe McCown of Amazing Scapes, Columbus, Georgia, uses earthscapes, and recently designed a riverbed in a 12-acre wooded backyard for a prospective customer in Midland, Georgia, who wanted the makeover to give to her husband as a Christmas present.

McCown didn’t think he had enough time to do it, but armed with design software and a Christmas spirit, he decided to play Santa. He quickly found most of the boulder and small waterfall images on Google earth, which he uploaded to his computer. Give-or-take, it took about six hours, and he was able to finish a photorealistic design in the nick of time for Christmas. McCown had the digital photo matted and framed—a perfect tool to help land a $30,000 job.

“She was so excited and appreciative,” McCown recalls. “And it’s exciting to be able to hand a client something like that, and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ That picture tells everything.”

That is the kind of excitement that translates into jobs, according to Sloan. You can even pump up your presentation, if you happen to own one of those cool new Apple iPads, Sloan adds. His company just launched a new free companion application to its signature software.

The new app will be available on other tablets in the near future, says Sloan.

Sitting down and working with your potential client is a natural way to build trust, and to impress your clients. This rapport with the prospective customer can be the difference that puts you ahead of your competitors, even if your project bid is more than theirs.

Todd Graham, a landscape contractor in Hockley, Texas, can attest to this. Graham uses RainCad/Land Illustrator, manufactured by Software Republic. “I presented my first landscape design to a homeowner, and I was $5,000 higher than my closest competitor, ” says Graham. “The lady said if my design is any indication of the work I perform, she has no problem paying $5,000 more for my services. I’ve been dealing with landscape drawings for the past ten years and I’ve never had anyone ‘whew’ over a drawing like this before.”

By using design software, it’s simple to tailor your design to your potential clients’ specifications. You can ask them in real time, what they like, what they don’t like, Sloan says. Then you can make the necessary adjustments.

“Having the picture helps the client prioritize what is most important to them, what elements of the installation they want to keep or to get rid of,” Rodriguez says.

Contractors can guide the potential customer by making knowledgeable, expert choices for the client to choose from. If the customer doesn’t like the azaleas, you can click on the plant menu, and offer them crepe myrtles. You’re acting more like a consultant than a salesperson.

Nothing brings home a contract faster than the pride of a client as he or she glowingly presents a printout of the design to their significant other. Letting the client take credit for the design is what puts you on top of your competitors.