An Efficient Workflow Set in Stone

Growing up, I always knew I wanted a career that would get me outside and thinking creatively. So, when I found landscape architecture in high school, I knew I had found a way to piece my passions together to create a fulfilling career.  

While attending Penn State, I developed a passion for the natural environment and began exploring how a landscape designer can pull the existing, natural surroundings into his or her designs. I learned how to explore and understand the context of the areas where I was working and designing in order to accomplish the design intent, while using elements from the surrounding native ecosystem, such as locally sourced stone products, to highlight those features. 

Years later, I am the residential landscape manager at Live Green Landscape Associates, LLC, a full-service design-build landscape contractor firm. Recently, we have taken on several natural stone projects, and with the help of Vectorworks Landmark software, we have been able to fit the pieces together to create truly beautiful work. 

From Concept to Completion 

Initially, when we meet with a client for a natural stone project, we conduct a site visit and look at the existing conditions to assess the conditions of the house and existing stone or masonry feature. That way, the final design is seamlessly integrated and cohesive with the rest of the environment in the area, ensuring it doesn’t look out of place. 

If there is no context available, or if no other natural stone is onsite, we typically advise our clients to go with something native to their local area. For example, if we are working in Northern Maryland, we will suggest selecting a type of stone from a local quarry. 

Then, in terms of the design itself, we look at how to tie in the architectural features from the house so at the completion of the project the stone looks as if it were there all along; it shouldn’t look like an afterthought or a retrofit. With these considerations in mind, we then create a presentation board comprised of images, example photos of our past work on similar projects, and drawings of the proposed design. After we have presented it to the client and they have approved the plan, we move onto the final phase: construction.  

The Stevenson, Md. residence patio project (view of larger seating area and fireplace) 

The Tools in our Toolbox 

When we are working on the design side of a project, we use a laser level to capture several elevations and then create a topographic map of the site. This helps determine calculations, such as the height of walls and number of steps, needed when working with masonry and stone features like patios and walls.  

When using a laser level, we take a lot of photographs and measurements by hand. Then, we typically pull up the site on Google Earth, overlay an image, and conduct our field measurements on top of that. This helps us to verify the dimensions of each layer and make sure we have an accurate orientation of the site for our drawings.  

2D plan and elevations of the Reisterstown, Md. residence patio Live Green designed. 

From there, we start doing a 2D sketch in Vectorworks, using field measurements and elevations to create a base map so we can conceptually add in the proposed features. And then, after we have the proposed base map design done, this same application enables us to start creating elevation drawings and construction details to finish the project.  

After we create a plan in Vectorworks, we often put it into Photoshop and tweak the rendering here and there to give it more of a hand-finished appearance. It’s extremely easy to import the exported image or PDF files into Photoshop to help us create a cleaner presentation for the clients. This is the point where we start to see our initial vision come to life.  

The Reisterstown, Md. residence patio project (view of outdoor kitchen space) 

Features in Vectorworks   

One of the many features that we find most useful in Vectorworks is the ability to create custom hatches and tiles for stone layouts. We can take some of the existing hatches in Vectorworks and modify them to look a little more like the finished materials we’re using. For example, if it’s a bluestone patio, we just adapted some of the existing hatches to look like the pattern of the stone that we are using.  

We’ve created some hatches and stamps that look like the different type of stone, such as a dry, stacked stone, a stone with a brick accent, or a field stone with a mortar joint. This feature allows us to use certain hatches repeatedly.  

What we love most about the software is the efficiency, accuracy, and detail, as well as the ability to replicate aspects of a design. We can put a landscape plan together in Vectorworks, and with the help of pre-made hatches, we are ready to copy and paste. This saves a ton of time, versus doing it the old-fashioned way and recreating hatches from scratch for each design. 

On the estimating side, you can easily get square footages, exact measurements, and details of the drawings in Vectorworks, which is also a huge efficiency and time saver from a calculation standpoint. We can pull off the dimensions of a wall down to a fraction of an inch, which makes estimations easy for us to calculate.  

As far as collaboration with other software programs, using Vectorworks is great. At Live Green, we also use Asset, a business management software for landscape professionals that allows you to manage communications, emails, sales, purchasing, payroll, analytics, and more. Vectorworks makes it very easy for us to get takeoffs and measurements of our designs, which we then input into the assemblies we have built within Asset for cost-estimating purposes. Having the ability to quickly transition between our design software and business management software saves time and creates accurate, detailed information that our team relies on. Accurate numbers mean more efficiency and less wasted time through the whole cycle of a project, from cost estimates to ordering materials in the field to tracking labor hours and billing at the end of the project.  

From One Landscape Design Professional to Another  

My advice to those using technology to design natural stone products is this: demo as many different products as you can. Get a feel for what works for you. And look not only at what you need in terms of capabilities right now, but think about the future as you expand.  

In my opinion, Vectorworks can do so much more than other design software programs I have seen and experimented with. Don’t look at your current workflow and think of what you just need today or this year, but instead look at how much more a software can do as your technology ability increases. Also, think about the amount of detail the program can allow you to produce, whether it is taking 2D plans and turning them into 3D models, or creating slides through videos. Then, look at what else your software can do once you’ve mastered those basic features.   

One benefit of Vectorworks is that the company frequently releases new capabilities for its users. Our team is very excited about all that Vectorworks 2019 has to offer, and we are looking forward to trying out some of the new tools and features, such as the advancements in the Hardscape tool. This tool gives you the ability to quantify automatically with your volumes and takeoffs, which makes it much easier for us than before.  

Material layers added to Vectorworks 2019 Hardscape tool. 

In the end, you and your firm will want a software that will allow you to take your project from concept to completion, while still maintaining the integrity and creativity of the design. I firmly believe that Vectorworks holds this power for us and for any landscape professionals who are willing to try it out.  

Words & Photos: Aaron Raines