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Features - Technology

A 3D design can move clients from ‘maybe’ to ‘yes.’

November 5, 2013
Lindsey Getz

Landscape contractors already know nothing sells a job like a picture. Many clients often need that visual to understand the pitch. But turn that picture into a three-dimensional rendering and you can up the ante as the client becomes engaged in the drawing. In some programs they can even do a complete walkthrough of your design.

3D is a sales tool. The biggest benefit, says Aron Hoffman, owner of Groundskeepers Landscaping in Maui, Hawaii, is that 3D designs “separate you from the crowd.”

In a competitive marketplace like Hawaii, Hoffman says he relies on 3D software to provide a new angle and an edge over the competition. “Simply put, it helps me make the sale,” he says. “I’d attribute at least half of my success to the design software alone.”

Hoffman, who does 100 percent commercial work, uses 3D software as a marketing tool. His favorite feature is the photo-realistic mock-up capability. He will take a photo of a dilapidated property and use 3D design software to show what it could look like.

“Those ‘before-and-after’ designs have gotten me a lot of jobs,” he says. “And even if it doesn’t get me the job on the spot, it helps them remember me. I’ve gotten jobs in the future – even for other services, like irrigation – because they were impressed by my before-and-after pitch.”

Debra Mackie, owner of Gardens and Designs in Ayr, Ontario, says that she finds clients like to be able to visualize the project and may have a hard time doing that with 2D drawings. “The first thing they always ask is, ‘Where’s the front door?’” she says. “Blueprints can be hard for clients to read. But with 3D they can actually see everything the way it will be.”

True to life. There’s no doubt that 3D software can make a project look better in rendering form than it would in real life. It’s just important that the design remains as true to life as possible. “3D software can be very effective for giving you a feel for the space,” says Sean Miller, landscape architect with Estes Landscape Design in the Atlanta area.

“It gives the client a really good idea of what goes where and what the final design will look like. But you do have to be careful to also be realistic. If I were to put together a 3D representation of a pool that had a spa on an upper level deck, with a waterfall cascading from the spa to the pool, you could get a beautiful rendition of that in 3D with the sun making the water glisten. But in reality maybe the sun doesn’t always shine on that space – or maybe it’s even in an area that’s shadowed.”

Landscapers commonly run into a similar problem when showing a design in its final stage, with plants full-grown, as opposed to what it will look like immediately after installation. But 3D software can also solve this problem.

“One nice feature that some of the programs offer is that it can show what a property will look like in two years, five, years, or ten years – as opposed to just what it would look like when plants reach their maturity,” says Mark J. Schusler, assistant professor of horticulture at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. “It can help a landscape contractor explain that space is being designed for the ultimate size of the plant. Plants may be small now, but will grow to fill the space. I think software can really help (customers) visualize that process.”

Conclusion. In the end, it really is the differentiation factor that makes 3D so powerful. Mackie says that she, too, has gotten businesses as a direct result of her 3D designs.

“I sold a huge job just because of the 3D design,” Mackie says. “During the presentation they had told me they’d let me know in a few weeks. Within an hour and a half I got a call that I had the job. They told me that no other designer presented anything in 3D and that it was the key seller for them. Since then I’ve gotten several referred jobs from that one – and it was all because of the design.”

Leadership by design

After 20 years in, Drafix Software still innovates.

There’s a lot of distance between the proverbial back-of-the-napkin drawing and a large-scale CAD blueprint. And no visual on either end of that spectrum helps a contractor’s customer understand the impact and value of a finished landscape.

Two decades ago, those were really the only options available to professional landscapers.

A solution emerged with PRO Landcape Design Software, which was released in 1994 as the industry's first major piece of design software.

With PRO Landscape, a designer could upload a picture of a house and then add photos from a library of plants to create a rough before-and-after image.

Pete Lord, president of Drafix Software, bought and the software in 2001. Lord, whose background is in developing database software, took a solid landscape program and gave its component parts the ability to talk with each other.

“There were some really good starting pieces there, but the software just needed to be easier to use and all the pieces needed to be integrated,” Lord says.

At that point, contractors could create photo images of landscapes, and they could create CAD drawings of the project, and they could create bids for projects, but no piece of software had yet existed to pull them all together.

“We’re the only company that does everything all at once,” Lord says. “If someone finishes a CAD drawing, they still don’t have a bid. They still have to go count the plants.”

In the field. John Fitzgerald, owner of John Fitzgerald Landscape Designs, has been drawing landscapes for more than three decades. He made the switch to PRO Landscape six years ago to streamline his one-man operation and make it look more professional.

“I hand drew everything for about 30 years. And I’m never going back,” he says. “As my business was growing, I couldn’t keep up with it. It speeds things up like I can’t even explain. I don’t know how I did it beforehand.”

Fitzgerald – who is based in the Chicago area, but does work across the country – can now create and email designs to clients, subcontractors or architects in a fraction of the time it used to take sending paper or CDs through the mail.

20 years later. Next year, Drafix will unveil the 20th anniversary edition of its flagship software. Since the first days of photo-imaging and bid creation, it has come a long way.

The software now includes landscape lighting, 3D renderings of photo imaging and CAD design, customer proposals and the industry's first design app.

Now, contractors can take photos in the field and use the PRO Landscape app to build a landscape on screen and share it with the homeowner there in the yard.

Fitzgerald uses the app and says it’s dramatically sped up his workflow. He can photograph a site’s plat plan, add a few measurements and the software scales the entire drawing for him. What used to take a half hour now takes about a minute, he says.

And that keeps him ahead of the game and his competition.

“Competition is tough. People are expecting things to be quick and easier in terms of getting the information,” Fitzgerald says.

“As my clients are younger than I am, they are expecting it to be computerized. Architects I work with give me PDFs. It just keeps you ahead of the game. It just makes your business run more efficiently. It’s a time thing. It’s so easy.”