CAD takes off...Finally!

When Geoff Fenlong begins another day working on a variety of upscale landscape-design projects, you won't find him sitting at a drafting table. Instead, he'll be perched in front of a Pentium-based computer with 48 megabytes of RAM, a 4-gigabyte hard drive and a 17-inch flat-screen monitor. Fenlong, head landscape designer at Ward's Landscape Service (Erie, Pa.), is among a rapidly growing number of landscape professionals who have traded in their pencil for a computer mouse. For Ward's, a full-service design/build firm, the choice to add CAD--computer-aided design--was primarily to increase efficiency, both in drafting time as well as completing material takeoffs and cost estimates.

While the architectural and engineering professions have long recognized the benefits of CAD, the landscape industry in general has been somewhat reluctant to embrace CAD technology. CAD has not been a practical choice for many companies until recently due to the high cost of computer hardware and software, in addition to the relatively small number of landscape professionals who have had any kind of CAD training. Firms who were quick to outfit themselves with CAD stations in the late 1980s and early 1990s often found that they had no one on staff who could, or would, become proficient with CAD. However, with the plummeting price of personal computers, the development of competitively priced software and landscape-program graduates who began using computers even before they started riding bicycles, many companies are now finding CAD to be a sound investment.

CAD as a tool Ken Carnes, a landscape specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension in upstate New York, says, "Landscape companies are trying to become more efficient in all aspects of their business operations, including design preparation--which means reducing board time. With the drop in hardware and software costs, CAD has finally become a cost-effective tool--even for smaller companies."

And a tool is exactly what CAD is--nothing more, nothing less. As with hand drafting, it is simply a means to an end. The design, whether ultimately generated by hand or by a plotter, remains the vehicle that takes a site from where it is to where it could be. A designer can produce great-looking drawings by hand, which are actually of poor design quality, as can a CAD designer. Good design will be good and bad design will be bad, regardless of how it's put to paper. There is simply no substitute for understanding basic design principles, having a working knowledge of plant materials and knowing the best way to build that deck or patio.

Like any tool, CAD must fit your program when and how you feel most comfortable with it. It just doesn't make much sense to use it simply for the sake of saying you used it. Making the decision to incorporate some aspect of CAD within a business doesn't necessarily mean rejecting all traditional methods of design preparation. In fact, many companies who are using CAD successfully have been extremely selective in how they have adopted this technology within their business.

How CAD fits in Ward's uses the speed and efficiency of CAD in preparing base plans, designing hardscapes, developing planting plans and completing cost estimates. They also rejected using portions of their newly acquired software because it simply wasn't for them. According to Charles Weiss, design sales manager at Ward's, they wanted increased speed and efficiency but soon found that they were not willing to give up the high-quality presentation graphics to which they believe their clients respond. Therefore, instead of using the plant symbols provided by their software program, they sized and located all plant material using circles that they plotted in light gray rather than black. They transform the circles into plant symbols using hand graphics. Weiss believes that they now have the best of both worlds. "CAD has reduced our drafting time significantly," he says. "In today's market, everyone wants it right now. CAD allows me to get back to the customer sooner than ever before with a professional--and still hand-drawn--presentation."

Fenlong believes it is the precision and efficiency of CAD that make the difference. Area calculations, linear distances and material take-offs only require a click of the mouse. Cost files from suppliers allow him to dump material take-off quantities directly to a spreadsheet, saving vast amounts of time. Adds Fenlong, "CAD gives us the ability to be more accurate--it helps minimize human error. In a market that is so competitive, CAD allows us to be more precise in our estimates, which gives us an edge by allowing us to give the customer the lowest possible price without the risk of sacrificing our mark-up."

He adds that Ward's is in the process of acquiring a digitizing tablet so that they can trace portions of existing drawings into the computer, greatly reducing the time they need to produce a base map of a project. The tablet can calculate areas in much the same way a planimeter might, although much faster. Once you tape a drawing down to the digitizing tablet, it takes only a few moments to calibrate it so the computer can determine the number of square feet of groundcover or the area of an intricate paving design.

Jim Lancaster is a CAD specialist with the Environmental Design Group (Atlanta). Lancaster cites quick revisions as the No. 1 reason for the recent addition of CAD to his design office. In addition, "So much of our work is being provided to us by the engineers and architects on disk, it just makes sense to continue the process with CAD," he says. In fact, according to Lancaster, disks often are left out of the picture altogether--drawing files are simply transferred back and forth via e-mail.

Ken White, who directs irrigation operations for Grassland Irrigation in upstate New York, has two full-time CAD operators who generate between 50 and 70 golf-irrigation designs each year along with about the same number of commercial-irrigation designs. White doesn't believe that CAD is necessarily any faster than hand drafting, at least until the revision stage of a project. According to White, "There's no doubt that revising drawings is cleaner and quicker with CAD." White cautions that, with or without CAD, the design process takes plenty of irrigation knowledge. "It is important to have irrigation specialists operating CAD, not just draftspeople who lack irrigation expertise. The designer is ultimately totally responsible--you can't simply leave it to the computer."

CAD basics CAD software programs permit the end user to complete a plan, profile or three-dimensional view of a site. CAD differs from imaging-software packages, which permit the end-user to photograph a site and paste in images to provide a photo-realistic representation of the finished product. When evaluating CAD programs, you should be familiar with a number of basic features (see table, page 36).

Most CAD programs provide the opportunity to draw in "real-world units" at a scale of 1 to 1. That is, if a property line measures 150 feet long, it's actually drawn as 150 feet long. It's necessary, then, to be able to adjust the "size" of your drawing screen--or what's sometimes referred to as "limits." You essentially complete drawings without a scale until you produce a hard copy, at which time you can assign a scale depending on the size of the paper you use. Thus, you can produce a single drawing at any number of different scales.

A CAD program also should provide the opportunity to draw on "layers." Drawing with layers is like completing a drawing on a stack of clear overhead-projector sheets, with each individual sheet containing key information. You then can make each layer visible or invisible. For example, a single drawing could contain an irrigation design, landscape-lighting design, a planting plan and hardscape features. If you draw them on separate layers, you can plot any one or all of these components together or separately. You can effectively show multi-year projects, for instance, by keeping years one, two and three on different layers. Then you can plot separate drawings from a common original to show year one, years one and two, and finally all three years. Some CAD programs provide a feature that allows plant symbols to "grow." Instead of drawing new plant material at mature sizes, you can show plant material at planting size, after several years and then at maturity.

One of the most powerful aspects of CAD technology is the ability to develop symbol libraries. You can turn plant symbols, paving materials, garden furniture and virtually anything else into a "block" and keep it as a symbol that you can repeatedly insert into different drawings, saving tremendous amounts of time. You can modify individual symbols slightly through scaling and rotating to prevent them from looking like you produced them using cookie cutters. Software vendors routinely sell symbol libraries as part of the software package and often sell additional symbols so end users can build their symbol collections. Many manufacturers of irrigation products and hardscape components provide equipment and construction details on disk so you can easily insert them into drawings. You can save individual symbols or portions of drawings and then reuse them by inserting them into new drawings. Assigning characteristics or "attributes" to these symbols allows you to use them later for take-offs and estimates. For example, you can assign names to plant symbols ('Emerald Queen' Norway maple) and planting sizes (2-21/2", B&B) so that when the design is complete, you can produce a take-off with a click of the mouse. You can then insert these attributes directly into a spreadsheet for cost estimating.

Designers can modify drawings quickly and efficiently with CAD. Thus, getting back to clients with clean revisions is possible without excessive time and effort. As-builts and drawings of record are less cumbersome when you can make changes to the original and then save it, and drawings on a disc or disc drive--instead of paper--save precious office space. In addition, all elements of a plan-view drawing can include 3-D values. Thus, you can generate endless perspective views from the single, original drawing.

CAD programs specific to a particular discipline, such as irrigation, should not only have the ability to perform the necessary irrigation functions but be able to offer full CAD capabilities as well. Simply using the computer to draw irrigation designs with basic drawing functions saves vast amounts of time. However, incorporating a program that also permits you to set basic parameters, such as pipe type, head symbols and velocities, is even better. These programs also should be capable of providing hydraulic computations for friction loss and automatic pipe sizing. Look for an extensive database with a variety of manufacturer's products that you can edit and update. When evaluating discipline-specific programs, make sure that beneath the glitter of all of the gadgets lies a powerful CAD engine driving the program.

What the future holds CAD technology provides architects the opportunity to simulate a walk-through of a building that has yet to be constructed. This same technology makes it possible for a landscape designer to take a 3-D CAD drawing and provide a client with a video that will "walk" them through the new landscape they're considering. Landscape-maintenance companies will be able to link the CAD drawings of individual properties they maintain with data files to assist with property record keeping and cost tracking. Irrigation companies will be able to keep accurate drawings of the irrigation systems they install and maintain so they can provide service teams a "map" of the site before leaving the shop.

Certain aspects of hand drafting are, by their nature, extremely time-consuming and therefore expensive. While CAD may not be the answer for everything you do, chances are you will find some aspect of it that will help you become more efficient.

Finding the right personnel to run your CAD system may be as important as the system itself, because learning any CAD program can be a time-consuming process. It is often more efficient to hire a recent landscape graduate with CAD training than it is to try to train a current employee. As with any tool, evaluate carefully how you will use CAD before investing in a system. Careful planning now may prevent a "computer-aided disaster" down the road.

George Crosby is associate professor in the Plant Science Department of the State University of New York (Cobleskill, N.Y.). For information about CAD training for industry professionals at Cobleskill, you can call him at (518) 234-5279 or e-mail him at

As you can see from this table, design-software capabilities vary widely and different packages emphasize different aspects. Therefore, your choice is not merely a matter of getting the best value. It's a process of finding software that fits your specific needs. For example, some emphasize irrigation but include a full array of features, while others do not include irrigation at all. Will you use the output as a sales tool? Then you should consider software with good grow-in and "photo-realistic" capabilities. How important are material take-offs and estimates? Does the manufacturer offer companion software that integrates with your package to expand functions?

Most packages offer a range of features, but their options and versatility vary a great deal. When a manufacturer claims a plant library of 2,000 "plants," does that mean 2,000 species or just 2,000 images (perhaps of different sizes)? Does the grow-in function simply show all the same images at a larger size, or does it discriminate between plants that may grow a lot in 5 years and plants that grow slowly? To make an intelligent choice, you need to examine these kinds of differences between software options.

Irrigation-only CAD programs are not shown in this table. However, Eagle Point offers a stand-alone irrigation-design program (Irrigation Designer), as well as an AutoCAD version (irrigation Design). Software Republic also offers an irrigation-only CAD program (RainCAD). Each of these includes extensive manufacturer-specific product files. Zurn Industries, Wilkins Division (Paso Robles, Calif.), offers an irrigation-design package as well.

Only one AutoCAD-based software package (Eagle Point's Landscape Design) is included in the table above. AutoCAD and other CAD engines allow designers to integrate multiple site aspects in a way not possible with stand-alone landscape-design packages. For instance, with AutoCAD you can create a site plan that includes designs for buildings, irrigation, landscaping, drainage and contouring, and many other aspects. Thus, AutoCAD-type packages are fairly sophisticated and best suited for architects and engineers. Most stand-alone packages, by contrast, are relatively simple but adequate for most landscape designers.

Most packages require typical computer-operating systems and capacities. Faster processor speeds are important, of course, but all the packages listed here should function adequately with a Pentium or equivalent processor. The minimum RAM requirements listed in the table are supplied by the manufacturers but do not necessarily reflect what's required for the software to run well. For your computer to efficiently run the software, you may need twice the listed minimum RAM. This is something about which you should definitely check with the manufacturer before purchase. A RAM upgrade may be in order for the software you want.

Software upgrades can be expensive. Find out from the manufacturer about how often it issues upgrades and whether they are required. You don't want to get stuck having to continually purchase upgrades. All the manufacturers listed here initially provide free technical support of their products. However, some charge a fee for continued support after a certain length of time. This can be an important factor if you are not very "computer literate."

Check into these and other factors that are important to you before purchasing any software. Some manufacturers provide demo software on disc or on their web sites. A "test drive" is the best way to learn how well software fits your needs. Web sites also tell you how or where to purchase software and may even allow you to do so on-line.

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