Feb. 1 2008 12:00 AM

An old story about Michelangelo says that the artist was so gifted that he could visualize a sculpture in its entirety before his chisel ever touched the stone. The physical crafting of the piece was then only a matter of removing the excess to reveal the image inside. But while freehand may have worked well for Michelangelo, it’s pretty safe to assume that most of us aren’t quite at that level.

Not that there aren’t many talented designers currently working in the industry, but it can be tough to transform a struggling landscape into a functional, aesthetically pleasing space, especially when you’re juggling multiple projects. And failure to adequately convey a design can have disastrous effects, even terminating a project before it gets off the ground.

You’ve probably thought: there’s got to be an easier way than spending copious amounts of hours painstakingly sketching every tree, light and stone, only to have a client send you back to the drawing board the minute you’re done. Good news—there is. It’s called landscape design software, and it can help create vibrant designs, allow you to estimate more effectively and clinch sales.

In the past, people have been reluctant to use landscape design software either because they feared their designs would look too homogenized or lifeless, or they were put off by the hefty $1,000 price tag and figured that the investment really wasn’t worth it for something that could be done with paper and pencil.

Todd Hayden, a designer for Schmechtig Landscapes in Mundelein, Illinois, says that one question that should be asked of all new technology is whether the technology will be useful. “We ask, ‘Is it going to help productivity? Will it enhance the quality of the product that we present to our clients?’” For many contractors and designers, design software can do both. Sure, it might seem that design software is just another step in the digital trend. But when you find out what it can really do, chances are you’ll be just as surprised as your clients.

Can I really design with a computer?

Yes and no. Kirk Engle, owner of Dreams to Designs in Erial, New Jersey, who both designs and assists with installations, says that there’s one major caveat to these programs: “You need to be a good designer first. You can create a good design with these software programs, but if you’re not a good designer, or if you’re not willing to invest time and money in learning how to design, the software isn’t going to create a successful design. It won’t replace knowledge and experience. It’s a helpful tool, but it’s only a tool.”

Tim Thoelecke, president of the American Academy of Landscape Design in Glenview, Illinois, agrees. He says, “If you use the tool well, you’ll get a big payoff, but software can’t make a bad design good. There’s a big benefit to learning how to use the software properly.”

Learning these programs will be easier for those with design, computer- aided design (CAD) and/or computer savvy, and more difficult for novices. For an experienced person, the imaging component of software may take only a day or so to learn. The CAD component will likely take a week or longer. If you need more help, always check out the company’s website, where you can find instructional videos, tech support and a variety of training options. Some manufacturers also offer onsite sessions, but these can cost around $600-$700, plus transportation and accommodations, so be prepared for additional costs if you take advantage of a class.

That being said, there are a number of benefits to landscape design software, and the investment required to use it effectively shouldn’t be a deterrent. Hayden says that the programs seem more intimidating than they actually are. “Concentrate on learning a handful of controls that you will use over and over,” he advises. “Then learn one new thing each time. These programs can do a million things—but you might only need them to do 100.”

As you become more comfortable with the program, you’ll discover a number of features that can impact your designs. David Sloan, director of marketing for Drafix Software, Inc., in Kansas City, Missouri, says, “Our software allows you to design more effectively; that is, to show the end-customer something he or she can understand, not something architectural. You create a more visual representation of the finished product.”

For those clients who don’t think imagistically, a photo-imaging component will provide the closest approximation to the real thing that they’re going to get—without actually having the work done. Using pictures of your client’s property, a photo-imaging tool will manipulate the landscape to add color pictures of plants, trees, hardscapes, waterscapes and just about anything else you or the client might envision.

The images come from photo libraries that contain thousands of pictures. Photo libraries are also customizable, which, believes Paul Mulder, the landscape enhancements designer for Bemus Landscape in San Clemente, California, is one of the most important features. “You can distinguish yourself from the competition with a good plant library.” In order to create a realistic representation of multiple plantings on a steep hillside, for example, Mulder continuously adds to his photo libraries— up to five pictures of each species of plant he finds and/or uses. “This helps create the ‘Wow!’ factor when a client sees the design.”

Extensive photo libraries are only the beginning of design software, however. Need a curved wall? With PRO Landscape, for example, you can bend a picture to fit any shape or slope. It’s a snap to cover up existing landscaping in order to suggest new work. Night lighting and holiday lighting are also part of the package. Higher-end products let you show off designs in a variety of rendering modes and in 3D as well. With the 3D tool you can zoom in and out and rotate designs 360° to demonstrate the project from every possible angle, including from inside the house looking out. This vivifies the design and takes half or one-third of the time it would take to do a hand drawing.


CAD tools ensure accuracy and speed

CAD tools on landscape design software create blueprints of your designs with exact measurements and distances, ensuring accuracy and speed. While CAD designs generally don’t make big impressions on clients, they’re necessary for the actual installation. And to offset some of the intimidation of CAD, most landscape design software has tailored its CAD component to green industry terminology. Sloan says, “We’ve eliminated the engineering and architectural jargon in favor of commands like ‘place mulch’ or ‘draw a bed line.’”

These CAD programs include symbols for pavers, walls, grass, mulch and more. Entire irrigation systems can be planned with CAD. Houston, Texas-based Software Republic’s RainCAD irrigation design system includes a database of irrigation equipment from many large manufacturers. The system allows contractors to design in either English or Metric units of measurement. It also assists with sprinkler placement, zoning, piping, pipe sizing and hydraulic calculations.

As there is no limit to the size or scale of projects designed in CAD, it is workable for both residential and commercial applications. Thoelecke notes for phasing a project, CAD programs are easier to work with. “Many installation jobs aren’t done all at once. With software, you can draw the CAD master plan and then remove those areas not in Phase 1 when you print it. When you’re ready for Phase 2, you can just reactivate that layer rather than redrawing it.”

One of the most helpful features of PRO Landscape’s CAD tool is that once you complete your Image Editor file, the software will automatically convert the plant material to symbols and place them on the CAD drawing. It will even space plants according to your specifica tions. What would require much time and careful planning if done by hand is fast and precise with CAD tools.

Similarly saving time is a new product called GPS Designer from Visual Impact Imaging in Akron, Ohio. This device uses GPS and Bluetooth technologies to create site plans automatically. You preprogram the handheld tracking unit, called MobileMapper, with the symbols that you use in your site plans and prices. Then the GPS unit tracks your movements on the property and calculates the required measurements. To generate a site plan, all you have to do is wirelessly transmit the data to your computer, where the company’s Earthscapes software will draw the plan for you, properly placing the symbols, and prepare an estimate.


Estimate and sell better

Software with estimating capabilities allows you to quickly price and total the items you plan to use. As you generate your CAD design, the estimating feature will keep track of how much of an item you’ve used and calculate the total when you’re done. Anne Behner with Visual Impact Imaging explains, “With our Earthscapes, the designer assigns each plant a pricing structure that is quantified behind-thescenes.”

So if you incorporate into the design five boxwoods at $70 each, once you’re finished the software will already have calculated a total of $350. This streamlines the estimating process. You won’t have to go back and count each tree individually, and you can be sure that you haven’t underestimated, which can put a project over-budget.

Based on your CAD design, some programs also generate a list of the materials you’ll need, including spray heads. And to be extra certain that you’re not forgetting something, you can group together items that are associated with one another, reducing the potential for oversights.

To limit the time spent organizing and selling a project, Dyna-SCAPE in Burlington, Ontario, offers a quote feature that generates work orders and bid sheets, tracks every quote you submit, divides bigger projects into phases and creates reports. Its cost/profit analyses make sure that there’s a reasonable expectation of profit. Having standardized, electronic formats for these procedures and documents cuts down on the time spent weeding through piles of papers.

Sloan points out that “you can often recoup the cost of the software in only one job because it’s simple to upsell items that the client may not have thought of. For instance, if you do a front foundation redesign, you can present the design with plastic edging first and then show how much better it might look with an $1,800 retaining wall. Night lighting is another good example of an upsell that will pay for the investment.”

“The value of RainCAD,” explains John DeCell, owner of Software Republic, “is that it sets you apart from contractors who have nothing to offer but low prices. With a design, you can charge about $400 more because you’re actually educating your clients about irrigation.”

In such instances, a picture might be worth even more than a thousand words: try thousands of dollars. An effective design paired with the presentation tools available on some software design suites will convey credibility, thoroughness and professionalism. “If it looks good, the client will become excited,” says Thoelecke. “Presentation is a huge part of the sale.”

In addition to easier sales presentations, Engle notes how easy it is to work within a larger geographical range using design software. “I have to visit a site only once. After that, I can email the client designs—and make any changes in minutes. Once the client chooses a design, he or she can take it to the printer, who can print it to scale. The client then takes the design to the installer.”

But perhaps what makes landscape design software most effective from a business perspective is the flexibility that it affords your clients. According to Behner, “Being able to easily email any amendments or changes not only enhances your efficiency, it also shows your client that you’re committed and professional.” Responsiveness can also help your clients to feel like active participants in the process. And if they feel that you’re attuned to their wants, they’re more likely to solicit your services in the future.

The saying, “Work smarter, not harder,” could certainly be applied to landscape design software. With tools for quickly creating images, CAD renderings and water-tight estimates, these software programs are keeping the green industry growing. They won’t make you into a master artist, but they will help your designs have greater impact—on both the page and the client.