Best Software for Landscape Design
Realtime Landscaping Architect Software
As a professional landscape designer, I primarily use two software programs in my design practice: the first is Dynascape, and the second is Realtime Landscaping Architect by Ideaspectrum.
To develop a design, I first personally measure the site, even if there is already an existing survey for the property, as measurements for surveyors and measurements for purposes of landscape design are not similar. I take an accurate placement of the building footprint as well as all windows and doors, because this influences the landscape design, but rarely if ever serves the purposes of a legal survey of the property. - Which is why I do my own measurements. In addition, trees and significant shrubs are often surveyed. I like to verify these myself, and it is usually accurate, however I also need to determine with the owner which of these are to stay and which are to be removed. Other pertinent details are verified which could affect a landscape design. Not to mention, much of the unconscious design process happens for me during this crucial time while I am in essence "interviewing" and getting to know the site.
Then, I use Dynascape software to create the layout of the property and buildings, so that the landscape area to be designed is suitably represented on the drawing. Dynascape is a type of CADD program (CADD stands for computer-aided design and drafting). It supports the drawing of lines (vectors). While you can import images (rasters) and place them within the file, the primary thing you are doing with this program is drawing lines; accurate lines, which when printed, are to a certain scale such as 1/4" drawn = 1'-0" in the real world.
I further build the design entirely in Dynascape, a very useful design tool. Sometimes I still do studies by hand with sketches or using photographs, but it all ends up on the computer in the end, to produce a drawing for the client.
All-in-all, because of the templates, lineweight settings and ease of drawing of curves, adding plant symbols, and doing takeoffs of square and linear footages, this software program Dynascape is a timesaver. It also produces nice crisp legible black & white drawings which are legible and comprehensible to the layperson, so my clients get a better picture of what I have envisioned for them. The drawing is a great tool for discussion to further refine the design when meeting with clients. In many cases it is sufficient to hand off to a skilled landscape installer as well, without having to recreate a full set of construction documents.
Construction documents (sometimes casually called blueprints) are what builders use to build from; these are rather dry-looking and meant for one purpose and one purpose only: construction. Once the drawings are to this stage, the design has already been finalized - in larger projects such as commercial work and institutional work, several stages of drawing - from concept to further refined representation down to construction documents - are essential in communication between the design team, the owners and the municipal and government institutions involved in a major construction project. Many electronic files between the design consultants may change hands, and a common software platform such as Autocad is more appropriate for exchange of commonly understood files.
However, in skilled hands of a qualified, seasoned landscape installer, a conceptual drawing such as I produce with Dynascape is quite suitable for installation of the average residential landscape. I would further caution that if the landscape installer on a residential project cannot build without construction documents, that the installer might not be the best choice for a residential job, since people tend to like a softer, simpler landscape for their home; I have seen expensive jobs that look more like civic centers or hospital campuses than private estates, all due to hiring the wrong design and installation team for the job. If they have to be told how to plant and steak a tree, install expensive stone patios and other fine details, then you certainly do not want them learning these refined details on your project.
Realtime Landscaping Architect by IdeaSpectrum is the other software of choice. I use this software as a 3-D visualization tool. I take the drawing created by Dynascape, import it as an image, and pop-up the landscape from this flat image into a 3-dimensional virtual world. From there, I can demonstrate the project from any angle, walk through the site virtually before the project is built, and create movies of walk-throughs and fly-throughs, all useful to demonstrate the vision and the feeling of the project to the clients before it is even built.
There is good reason for the strong reviews of this software. It is extremely affordable, and surprisingly fast to render for its humble price point. In fact, it is so much faster than other platforms aimed at the professional designer, that I prefer it. It renders movies in minutes rather than in hours, and I can walk through the project at any point in its unfolding on the fly, to make changes quickly and see the results right away. Another strong point of this project is its soft rendering which gives a much better feeling of what a landscape experience is than some overly crisp harshly lit and angular rendering from other software platforms. The ability of the trees and plants to move in the breeze, the water rippling from a fountain with accompanying sound, the softness of the angles on the forms and atmospheric quality of light give more of an impression of the actual space that is being designed and how it might feel to be in that space.
The other huge advantage to this software is that it is incredibly easy to build an entire landscape quickly. The modules for building instant houses, decks, pools, ponds, and fences make drawing these items as simple as drawing a line. Clicking on the resultant objects opens up options to adjust finishes, materials and other options. In addition, the software can import anything you create in Google Sketchup. This means that any custom item you wish to create can easily be dropped right into the landscape. A custom awning, arbor, pot or planter, can be brought right into the drawing. Also this means that the entire Google Warehouse of objects other people have created in Sketchup and uploaded, is at your disposal. I have imported cars, buildings, plants and a myriad of items that I just didn't want to have to create myself. Also I have created a lovely Japanese-style custom arbor with translucent overhead panels into the 3-D drawing and it worked perfectly. While many of my colleages are still using Google Sketchup to render their entire landscapes laboriously, and with poor lighting effects, harsh angles and an overall "clunky" look, I am importing what I need from Sketchup or Google Warehouse into Realtime Landscaping Architect, and having it lit beautifully, rendered softly, and placed in a lovely landscape setting that took me far less time to produce. I can then on top of that create movies and walk-throughs on the fly and have the effects of breezes and sounds of water features, etc to further provide an enhanced virtual experience of the proposed landscape design.
The weak point of this software is that its terrain building is awkward and difficult to manipulate to render an accurate representation of the landform. They have promised that a new terrain module will be rolled out with the release of their next version planned within the next several months. I am really looking forward to that, in addition to other exciting upgrades. Other platforms can accommodate a topographic rendering from a topographical survey quite nicely, however Realtime Landscaping Architect has its own way of generating landforms that are somewhat intuitive but difficult when trying to wrestle it to stay put at the appropriate elevation. The walls are also tricky to wrangle if you want to represent a particular retaining wall at a certain height with a fixed top-of-wall and bottom-of-wall. Walls tend to pop up and down with the slightest adjustment to the terrain, even when you try to make the wall stay in place. The software takes a soft approach again, here to its disadvantage. This is why at this time it is strictly a visualization tool and not one that I can utilize to generate accurate construction drawings or even (at this time) accurate 3-D renderings. But since it is so quick to build a landscape and render the concept for the client instantly, its shortcoming here is balanced out by its quick landscape rendering to get the point across quickly and beautifully, and its otherwise incredible ease of use.
Realtime Landscaping Architect is an incredibly powerful 3-D visualization tool and a useful part of my professional design practice.
by Ami Saunders, MLA, Landscape Designer, Principal, SAUNDERS DESIGNS | Landscapes + Gardens