Dec. 6 2018 01:26 PM

Landscape design software not only helps you create stunning outdoor vistas, it helps sell them, too.

If you’ve checked out landscape design software recently, you know that it keeps evolving constantly, adding ever-more options and functionalities. It’s become a powerful tool for time-pressed designers who appreciate it not only for the efficiencies it provides, but also for its value as a client communications tool.

Richard Fisher of Fisher’s Landscape Design in Clermont, Florida, has been in business for 35 years, and has used landscape design software for about 20 of them. He says that using software has enabled him to close nearly 100 percent of his business proposals. Before he started using it, his rate was only 50 percent. Double the amount of sales? Not bad!

“If the clients aren’t just tire-kickers who are just asking questions, I’ll sell a job to each and every one of them,” he says.

That’s just one of the benefits of using software, Fisher says. Before he began using it, the process of explaining to a client how a finished design would look was much more cumbersome.

“I used to carry around a bunch of books so I could show clients photographs, or I’d look images up on the internet,” Fisher says. “This saves a lot of time (not to mention back strain).”

The design software he uses, PRO Landscape, a product of Drafix Software Inc., Kansas City, Missouri, like some similar products, creates an accurate 3-D rendering and helps clients visualize how a design will look when completed. He can drop in specific plants, trees, bushes, grasses and hardscape elements (the program uses SketchUp for this) and get a client’s approval before any materials are ordered.

“I can take my laptop, and if the customer says he doesn’t want that row of bushes, I just click and it’s gone,” Fisher says.

Bob Pickering of R. Pickering Design Service LLC, Dallas, says software minimizes the potential for miscommunication. For example, a client says, “I want a palm tree here.” With about 2,600 species of palm trees available, it’s easy to see how a designer and a client might find themselves not quite on the same page. “You don’t want to order plants, have them arrive and hear a client say, ‘Oh, that’s what you meant? Well, I don’t like those,’” Pickering says.

Other information the software provides includes the estimated cost of items, a materials list and plant information to help create a bid.

David Sloan, sales manager for PRO Landscape, says the software is updated yearly, adding new plants, materials and tools.

The program has a library of about 18,000 plants, trees and other elements. One new tool allows users to more easily add a “soldier” course of pavers to a path or driveway, a move that previously was a fourto five-step process. You can also insert different circular paver patterns inside the design for a larger paver area.

Sloan says the company relies on its user base to suggest improvements. “We don’t sit in a lab and magically come up with stuff. A lot of what we add is based on customer feedback.”

Fisher says one issue he’s had to confront is keeping potential clients from taking his designs and then hiring someone else to complete the job. To solve that problem, he charges a 50 percent deposit for creating a plan. If the client hires him to do the work, he takes the plan fee off the cost of the job.

How hard is it to learn?

When considering landscape design software, ease of use should be a prime consideration. If it’s too hard to learn, it’ll just take up space on your hard drive.

Pickering has been using Pro Contractor Studio, a product of Software Republic LLP, Hockley, Texas, for about 10 years. It’s a standalone design program that does not require any computer-assisted design software to operate. It installs directly on to a computer and doesn’t need an internet connection to use.

The software is optimized for any-size residential and medium-size commercial projects.

Previously, Pickering had used Adobe Illustrator, which he says was more time consuming, and not tailored to the needs of landscape designers. It used to take him a full week to complete a single design; now he can produce four to five in that same time.

He’s been pleased with the support that Pro Contractor Studio provides and says the software was easy to learn by watching some of the 80 tutorials the company has posted on its website.

“I studied the tutorials, and I practiced and that’s how I learned,” he says. “You can be quick, you can be accurate, and you can still render a design artistically. I want people to look at my designs and say ‘Oh, this looks good.’” John DeCell, a former irrigation contractor, is president of Software Republic, and the creator of Pro Contractor Studio. He says his program makes many aspects of project design much easier.

“The software makes creating a design and calculating a materials list faster, more efficient and more consistent,” DeCell says. “Revisions are much easier by simply moving objects on the design screen versus erasing on a paper and redrawing. Calculating an area and/or the quantity of fill materials can be done in just a few mouse clicks. The software will quickly generate a complete and detailed symbol legend.” He adds that any visual elements that enhance a rendering are a benefit.

It also makes it easier for the client to visualize what he’s going to be paying for. “Visual functions such as plant fills, plant symbol outlines and combining and shadowing enable a more accurate vision of what the designer is creating,” says DeCell. “Clients can really see what the designer is envisioning.”

A slow hand?

Using software saves a lot of time over drawing a plan by hand. “Something that takes 10 hours should take about two-and-a-half hours,” says Sloan. Even so, many landscape designers still prefer drawing plans by hand for a number of reasons.

“Some folks are older and they’re nearing retirement, or they’re just very comfortable with what they’ve been doing and they don’t want to learn something new,” says Sloan.

DeCell agrees that some customers are deterred by the thought of having to get up to speed with technology. “Designers moving from hand designs to CAD software are mostly concerned about the learning curve,” says DeCell. “We have also heard potential customers express their concerns about the software’s ability to match their personal design style. This is something we focused on while we developed our software. The result is an easy-to-learn and very robust CAD engine specifically tailored to landscape and irrigation design.”

As much as some designers may be attached to hand-drawing their plans, Sloan says today’s consumers expect convenience. “The technology is everywhere,” he says. “Consumers know it’s available because they see it on HGTV. It may not be exactly the same, but the concept is the same.”

Garth Woodruff, program director for Environmental and Landscape Design at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, says teaching students to draw by hand is still very much a staple of the curriculum at his school. Students hand-draw designs until their third year when they are introduced to CAD. Woodruff says the practice of hand drawing helps students learn to be creative, to generate ideas quickly and to not become overcommitted to any particular concept.

“CAD doesn’t make a good design,” he says. “It’s just a tool that good designers use.”

Woodruff says there are proponents of both CAD and hand-drawing and each has its benefits.

“It’s easier with CAD to generate edits, to create multiple layers and to track information on a complex project,” he says. “But some people still like the softness of hand-drawn work. The audience is divided on whether it (CAD) is right or wrong. I see a lot of firms using both.”

Sloan says many of his customers have not packed their pencils away permanently. “To keep the artistic flair of a design intact, some designers will go back and color in their plans with colored pencils.” That little finishing touch might even help sell a design.

Moving to mobile

Today, everyone expects everything to work through their smartphones. PRO Landscape has a cell phone app for home users, but not for professionals. “We looked at having that (for professionals), but the screens are too small to be productive and to be able to see anything properly,” Sloan says.

Both PRO Landscape and Pro Contractor Studio will run on tablets. But Sloan says PRO Landscape still requires a trip to the desktop to finish a complex plan. “A tablet doesn’t have enough power to complete the process. You need to go to the desktop to do all the mathematical calculations.”

Even so, both Sloan and DeCell say the future of their products is in helping designers do their work while they are on the move. And though he couldn’t release any trade secrets, Sloan says his company is working on making its software more mobile-device accessible.

“I think mobility is the thing,” says Sloan. “Being able to make it more and more mobile is what everyone wants. The more people feel they are not tied to their desks the better off they feel they are.”

DeCell says that’s where his company is headed, too. “As far as hardware compatibility is concerned, we see our software moving to mobile devices (Android and iOS) in the near future,” he says. “We have many projects in the queue to improve the program’s functionality. The biggest addition would be the ability to import plans directly from mapping services such as Google Maps.”

Sloan says PRO Landscape can already import Google Maps, scans or photographs of a physical paper plan or even an overhead image of a property taken by a drone.

While CAD will never replace good design, Woodruff believes that it has improved communication between designers and clients. “CAD is clearly taking charge of design communication,” he says.

When it comes to finalizing a design, the experts agree CAD is helping designers and clients save time, be more efficient and move forward on a project in harmony. “It helps the client see what the designer is proposing,” Sloan says. “Like they always say, a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Annemarie Mannion is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers business, technology and the environment.

Many programs to ponder

There are many other software programs for creating landscape designs besides the two featured in the story, Pro Contractor Studio, from Software Republic LLP, Hockley, Texas, www.softwarerepublic. com and PRO Landscape, from Drafix Software Inc., Kansas City, Missouri, www.prolandscape.com. Here are three more you might check out.

Vectorworks Landmark, a product of the Nemetschek Group, a Munich, Germany-based company with U.S. headquarters in Columbia, Maryland, is a sophisticated program on the pricier side that involves a bit of a learning curve. It uses Building Information Modeling, which means a change in one part of a design is reflected in all the other parts. It’s added a long list of new features to its 2019 edition, including 3-D site model sculpting, hardscape components and flyover sensitivity. www.vectorworks.net

Realtime Landscaping Architect comes from Idea Spectrum Inc., Bonney Lake, Washington. Realtime Landscaping Architect is the most advanced (and the most expensive) of the company’s three professional design programs; the other two are Realtime Landscaping Pro and Realtime Landscaping Plus. Architect lets you create 2-D and 3-D renderings including yards, gardens, swimming pools, ponds, decks, fences, patios and more. It contains 17,000 objects, including 7,400 plants. www.ideaspectrum.com

SketchUp and SketchUp Pro are products of Trimble, a Sunnyvale, California-based tech company. SketchUp claims to be the “most intuitive, not to mention powerful, easy-to-learn 3-D drawing tool on the planet,” and that you can be productive with it in a couple of hours. However, it was not created strictly with landscape designers in mind, but for anyone who needs to produce detailed drawings of projects, which includes engineers, game designers and others. It accesses 3-D Warehouse, the world’s biggest library of free 3-D models. www.sketchup.com/3Dfor/landscape-architecture