Turf Design Build Magazine - November, 2012
From Virtual to Reality
Computer tools help contractors bring designs to life
With 80 percent of his hardscape business tied to 3-D modeling, Josh Milne, owner of Absolutely Outdoors of Tomball, Texas, says competing in the greater Houston landscape hardscape market without it is something he'd rather not consider.
Part of a $5.5 million expansion of the Poplar Creek Country Club, this project consisted of a pagoda located next to a pool of water fed by a small waterfall.
His employees have used computer-aided design (CAD) software for the last five to six years. That makes his firm's use of 3-D modeling a seamless addition to the computer expertise already in-house.
In business for 12 years, Milne has 55 employees and focuses on landscapes, hardscapes, pools, outdoor kitchens, lawn work and iron work projects. The company tackles projects of all sizes on commercial and residential properties. Computer modeling is part of the package on almost every project Absolutely Outdoors takes on.
Milne and others who use modeling software say it's not as difficult to learn or as burdensome on the checkbook as many landscape contractors fear.
Getting into 3-D modeling won't cost nearly as much as a CAD system. Part of the reason is the necessary skill set to run the software. The only skill necessary for 3-D modeling is being a competent graphic designer, comfortable with computer tools.
Gary Buczkowski used 3-D models in concert with a GPS system to plot the exact location for each of the Rosetta stones on the project. Workers then marked stone positions on the plastic liners so they could be placed quickly and accurately.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE HOFFMAN ESTATES PARK DISTRICT UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
"You don't have to be an architect or an engineer to use this software," says Gary Buczkowski, Hoffman Estates (Ill.) Park District director of planning and development.
Hiring a designer who is also a modeler will be less costly than hiring an architect who can use a CAD system. "It's the difference between spending $40,000 to $48,000 for a graphic designer and spending $50,000 to $70,000 for skilled landscape architects," says Milne.
Milne has only one 3-D modeler at his operation, even though the task is mission critical to the jobs they do. "Our pool, kitchen and structures business absolutely depends on our ability to create 3-D images of our projects," he says.
Though inexperienced at this kind of work, the county crew laid 96 tons of stone, completing the site assembly in about seven hours.
He hires only experienced staff because his firm is too busy to wait while people learn the software. Unlike CAD design systems, which take up to six months to learn, 3-D modeling programs can be mastered by experienced designers in less than half the time.
Milne figures that while just 15 to 20 percent of his landscape business is tied to the 3-D modeling, somewhere around 80 percent of his hardscape business is dependent on its use. Add it all up, and he is more than happy with the program package's ROI. Absolutely Outdoors uses the Pool Studio program from Structure Studio, LLC, based in Henderson, Nev.
Humans can be added to the 3-D models to provide useful scale comparisons for customers to see when viewing plans.
IMAGE COURTESY OF ROSETTA.
Milne pays $100 per month to use the Web-based program. He pays an additional $50 for the VizTerra add-on, a plant palette application. For about $1,800 a year, he gets to add a lot of high-quality technology to his designs and presentations.
Handy sales tool
What Milne appreciates the most about the program is its speed. "Hand drawings would take 10 times the time necessary to complete the job than 3-D modeling does," he says.
For Milne, the 3-D presentations are more effective than hand drawings. He says many of his customers simply cannot envision what the project will look like once it's finished. "It's like watching a movie. They need to see how tall the structure is on their property, how high the waterfall will be, and what the water will look like," he explains.
Gary Buczkowski created the site plan using AutoCAD, and then created a 3-D model from that.
"For swimming pools and kitchens," he says, "it's the only way to sell in this market."
From the design production perspective, it's all about speed. Once the basic information is in the program, the designer can play with angles, elevations and viewpoints.
"Within 30 seconds with 3-D modeling we can show views from 10 different angles," says Milne.
Buczkowski says the software isn't just a design tool. "It is both a planning tool and a presentation tool," he says. "When I present designs to stakeholders, it is very easy for me to say, 'Let me pan around and show you what you can see.'"
An experienced landscape architect who works in local government, Buczkowski does show-and-tells for his immediate superiors and constantly presents plans to area residents to gain their support.
He says the ease of use presenting plans to stakeholder and citizen groups is a lot less complex. "We spend a good deal of time seeking and getting input from these people. We can tweak our design with the program and show people what their suggestions will look like within the project plan."
One of the features 3-D modeling programs offer that sketches don't is the ability to offer moving panoramic views of designs from various elevations.
This 3-D model of the project at the Poplar Creek banquet facility was used as a sales tool to show the venue before construction was complete.
Once a user has mastered 3-D modeling software, even the more complex tasks can be completed within hours.
The 3-D presentation of the Hoffman Estates west side off-leash dog park took Buczkowski less than an hour to construct. A much larger, more complex Tropicana Park Preview took between four and five hours to complete.
Where on Earth?
Buczkowski uses a program called Google Sketchup Pro. Priced around $500, the program was created by Trimble of Sunnyvale, Calif.
It is a location-based 3-D modeling program. Using Google Earth, the program not only models projects, but can also place design objects in their exact locations on the work site.
Buczkowski's most memorable 3-D modeling experience was the creation of an outdoor water environment for weddings. Part of a $5.5 million expansion of the Poplar Creek Country Club, the project consisted of a pagoda located next to a pool of water fed by a small waterfall.
He and his self-described "light construction crew," all of them first-timers, put the site together in six to seven hours. Using a light crane, they placed 96 tons of Rosetta's Outcropping Collection, a weathered stone product made of architectural-grade wet-cast concrete.
Poplar Creek's pool and waterfall sidewalls were constructed using Rosetta's Outcropping Collection, made of architectural-grade, wet-cast concrete.
He initially used AutoCAD to create a site design, and then he transferred the data to Sketchup Pro to create 3-D models of the design. Buczkowski says that while construction proceeded, the club used the 3-D site models to market the venue to weddings scheduled well after the projected completion date.
In anticipation of the construction phase, he loaded the site plan back into AutoCAD. "Just like a surveyor, we identified each corner of each block, according to its longitude and latitude, using GPS. From there, we were able to plot a location for each stone."
Buczkowski says that always knowing where they were in the project allowed them to speed material delivery from off-loading areas to the construction site. "The program helped us to determine exactly where everything went, down to the last brick," he says.
In businesses where the bottom line counts, 3-D modeling pays off. It offers a great return on investment for private contractors, and it allows planners of public spaces to create impressive packages on limited budgets.
Dr. David Weinstock is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Tyler. He earned his Mass Media Ph.D. at Michigan State University. Curt Harler, who has a bachelor's degree from Penn State University and a master's degree from The Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.