Imagine taking visuals of plants, trees, shrubs, hardscapes, water features and lighting and moving them around a computer screen to create a landscape. Then suppose just a few keystrokes could help one visualize a plant growing to maturity over a few years. Now envision creating a holiday lighting scene that comes alive with a keystroke.
Now think about how a potential client’s eyes would light up as he or she watches a barren or tired landscape instantly transform into a lush backyard dream come to life on a computer or tablet screen.
“By using landscape design software, companies can produce designs faster and communicate design ideas to customers in a more efficient process,” says Anne Behner Coke, sales manager for Visual Impact Imaging, Delray Beach, Florida. “They can tackle more projects, sell more projects and, therefore, increase their revenues.”
For example, she says, “The process of creating a hand-drawn design that takes a couple of hours could be replaced with a 30-minute visual design with software.”
No going back
Patrick DuChene, of DuChene Design Solutions, Somerville, New Jersey, provides landscape design services, 3-D modeling and consulting for landscape contractors.
Until 10 years ago, DuChene rendered drawings by hand as was his training. He switched to design software for greater efficiencies and to keep pace with sales and production.
“It was tough at first,” DuChene concedes. “For people who learn how to draw by hand, it’s a whole different kind of thinking than it is to be inside a computer environment. But once I got into the software and became comfortable with it, I realized there was no going back.”
Tim Hess, a landscape architect with Southern Landscape Group, concurs. The company, based in Evington, Virginia, has been using design software for the past six years. “Efficiency, estimating and accuracy in takeoffs are the big driving factors for us when it comes to using software,” he says.
David Sloane, sales and marketing manager for Drafix Software, based in Kansas City, Missouri, agrees that efficiency is a primary driving factor. “Once landscape designers learn to use the software efficiently, they’re going to break down the amount of time done on a drawing by more than half,” he says.
It’s easier to accommodate customer change requests using a computer in contrast to redrawing hand designs. In addition, when one person is both salesperson and designer, they have more time for other tasks when using software, he adds.
“You don’t have to be a designer to be able to create a design if you know how to use the software,” Sloane says. “Many companies hire architects to do drawings. They can save the cost on architects.”
Landscape design software can be used by anyone, Behner Coke says.
“Many contractors use it specifically for upselling or getting jobs they may not have gotten if they hadn’t had software,” states Sloane.
Some software programs feature photo imaging, which enables a designer to create a visual in less than 10 minutes by dragging and dropping high-resolution images of plants into a digital photograph of the project site.
AutoCAD offers a more traditional 2-D design using a blueprint-type view with pavers, lighting tools and irrigation design tools.
A scale plot plan enables a designer to start with a blueprint or a plot plan, and an estimating piece produces quotes.
Hess likes software that integrates inventory from suppliers to streamline takeoff and estimation. He says the only drawback is that the cloud-based estimation portion can be hindered by Internet availability and bandwidths.
A computer software-generated design is also a sales piece, enabling landscape contractors to show clients how designs will look on their properties, Sloane points out.
“Not only do you sell to more clients with that, but you find out what your customer likes and, more importantly, what they don’t like,” Sloane explains. “After the installation, there’s not going to be any surprises because you’ve shown them everything.”
Sloane estimates that approximately 30 percent of landscape companies still do landscape designs by hand. He says those who have switched over did so because they were spending too much time on drawings.
He adds that many companies using design software are finding that they’re closing nine out of 10 jobs instead of one or two.
What to expect
Expect to pay from a few hundred dollars to around $5,000 for software with more sophisticated features. Ask if there are any maintenance fees or annual or monthly renewals associated with a program.
DuChene says one advantage of subscription-based software is that it allows users to have the most current version and offers tech support.
Upgrades may be included in the original price or come with a fee. They are typically rolled out on an annual basis, with small changes to libraries or new buttons and features, explains Behner Coke. Major updates occur when Windows releases new operating systems or with the introduction of new plant material.
Those not paying for an annual maintenance package should expect additional charges.
It’s important not to buy an update for something that’s not needed, Sloane adds. Case in point: If a customer only does irrigation drawings, buying updated software that doesn’t include new irrigation features has no value.
Landscape professionals should consider price, ease of use and functionality when purchasing design software, DuChene advises. Don’t buy more or less than what is needed, he adds. Other options to explore: software that integrates 3-D modeling, color rendering and business management features.
When purchasing software, find out if a program can be customized to fit design style and plant material. Some landscape design software programs offer plant databases that include common and botanical names as well as care instructions.
Technical support is critical. It can be available by phone, email or a submitted ticket, indicating a problem. Some companies offer remote screen sharing capabilities. Some companies may provide free technical support for as long as the contractor owns the software.
The majority of those who purchase software take advantage of technical support, with most of the calls coming within the first 30 days after purchase, notes Sloane.
Behner Coke says most technical support issues are basic, such as how to save or email a file. Others may relate to moving the software from one computer to another.
To find the right fit, DuChene looked at software programs at trade shows and read articles on software. He focused on the quality of the graphics and the usability, and he did test runs. “There is a learning curve with software. I didn’t want to have to go through it again, because then you lose efficiency and productivity,” he says.
DuChene chose DynaSCAPE software. Hess, who also uses DynaSCAPE, says his company made the decision after networking with other landscape contractors who favor it for its integration of estimation tools.
There are a variety of training avenues to help navigate the learning curve, including tutorials, CDs, webinars, manuals and in-house training.
Behner Coke recommends that landscape professionals take an hour each day to dedicate to tutorial lessons. She says, “They’re going to get faster, design better and be more proficient the more they use it.”
When DuChene first got his design software, he learned two commands each night by taking an online class or watching DVDs. Within three weeks he was doing basic drawings, learning by repetition. He now trains other contractors how to use design software.
Southern Landscape Group has several employees trained to use the software. Hess says it’s user-friendly to the extent that a novice designer can transition from hand-drawn designs fairly easily.
Hess, with a background in hand drawing and AutoCAD, was a “hybrid” designer when he started using the software. “The selling point for folks still hand drafting is the cut down in the revision time, with the ability to make those changes at the CAD station and then save the new version without totally reproducing something,” he explains. “It’s a different way of thinking when you’re drafting or designing and getting the feel for where certain tools work and don’t work for you as you are drafting, because everyone has their own drafting style.”
The only drawback to design software is fear, DuChene states.
“People are creatures of habit, especially when it comes to their money,” he explains. “It’s hard for them to change gears and trust a different system, even if they know they might not be doing everything right with what they’re doing.”
For Hess, what helped eliminate the fear is the ability to show clients realistic images of potential landscapes, which has helped him sell more jobs. As he says, “We have found that to be especially the case in the past four years with the color rendering and even taking it a step further with 3-D modeling for certain clients.”