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Communicating design, vision and scope with SketchUp

When asked, why SketchUp, Director of Bedfordshire based Solutions4Gardens Mark Woodman’s answer was emphatic; using SketchUp drives efficiency, provides flexibility, and enables the company to communicate a vision and scope of work achieving a common understanding of a project. With a supporting cast including SU Podium and Mind.Sight.Studios’ Profile Builder, Quantifier and Bool Tools, we talked to Mark about subscriptions, plug-ins and his company’s projects and design processes.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your company Solutions4Gardens

Landscape gardening is my second career. I’m fortunate enough to have a good sized garden, so gardening and landscaping started for me as a necessity which turned into a passion, and then into a career. 

We have three small teams that work on a variety of projects from small patios to complete garden redesigns. 

Although a much over-quoted phrase, quality is really our number one motivator. If we wouldn’t be content having something in our garden, we wouldn’t be happy to deliver it to a client. That extends to the products we use, the suppliers we work with, the work we do and the people who work for us. We’re proud to have been recognised for the quality of our installations by a number of trade organisations. 

It is a huge privilege to be asked to design and build a complete space in someone’s house, but one that gives me a great sense of satisfaction.

Why SketchUp?

Initially we were looking for a piece of software that could help us with garden design. We evaluated several, but whilst some were more focused on landscaping than SketchUp, SketchUp provided a basic set of tools that (with investment) gave us the complete flexibility to do what we wanted to do.

Your company provides a huge range of professional services and this many projects must present all sorts of challenges when working with clients. Does SketchUp help you solve any of these?

We use SketchUp to help us with two main aspects of our work. The first is to help us communicate a design with clients. Some of our clients know broadly what they want to achieve with their outdoor space, and others come to us with a much more open brief. For each, we are able to produce designs that enable us to communicate a vision and scope of work that helps the client visualise the outcome and for us both to achieve a common understanding of the project. 

The second significant benefit we gain from using SketchUp is purely internal. We now digitise every site survey, regardless of whether we are producing a client design. Doing so gives us three benefits. One, we have an easily readable digital version of the site survey for future reference (even allowing us to digitally measure parts of the site we perhaps didn’t capture during the actual visit). Two, we can produce really accurate material quantity calculations, and third, we can produce detailed build plans that we can take to site or share with suppliers. The second two of these allow us to be more efficient with materials, and to collaborate with suppliers, which in turn means we are more effective when we are on site (saving the client time and money). 

Is there any specific feature or functionality that really stands out?

There are loads, but I suppose what I lean on the most is the “Object Inspector”, or perhaps more specifically the ability to compose elements within the model into a hierarchy. We use that to divide the model into many logical units, such as areas of the space (Terrace, Water Feature, etc), or build layer (Groundworks, sub base, finished surface). Using the object model we can keep all the relevant pieces of the model grouped together, work on individual pieces, or show / hide elements.

What’s your workflow look like and how do you keep it streamlined?

We start with a site survey. We measure every aspect of the existing garden, and we take lots of pictures. As quickly as possible on returning to the office, we digitise that data in SketchUp, even if we’re not planning on working on the design for a while. The sketched elements of that initial outline goes into its own group in the Object Hierarchy and is locked. We can then copy it to create the future design iterations. 

Depending on the complexity of the brief, we’ll then add additional details from the existing space which will show the garden “as is”. We then send that model to Layout, and use it to create a “Customer Brief”. This is used to play back and confirm with the client that we have understood what they want to achieve from the design project. Again, depending on complexity we may create one or more lower fidelity design treatments for the client, building each as a separate set of objects and creating separate views. We then again send that to Layout to share with the client. We’ll then take the chosen design, create a new file (to keep the model size manageable) and work up the final design, produce several client views / renders and send to the customer for final approval. Once we have settled on a design, we then switch gears and work up any construction plans and quantity models based on that design, again, creating views and sending the results to Layout for use on site. We use the data from SketchUp to build our quotes (more on that below)

Over the years we’ve definitely gotten much more efficient at this process. Big “step ups” for us were (probably in order), making our own object / component library, material library, leveraging the object inspector / model, using Layout for output, creating our own SketchUp / Layout document templates, and finally using the Mind.Sight.Studios components.

Now an annual subscription, what are thoughts as a commercial user? 

I like the subscription model and it is what we use. The success or otherwise of the subscription model needs to be based on good service and regular, meaningful product updates. A software company that understands its users and is committed to delivering and developing the best product they can is a good candidate for a subscription service. A software company that believes it can move an existing business based on static or legacy products, and sees the model as a cash-cow will not succeed. The model gives me the option to move products if I don’t feel as though my subscription £ is getting value.

What extensions do you use and why those particular plug-ins? 3D models of plants, cost control plug-ins, renderers?

We use the Mind.Sight.Studios plugins extensively. Most of our constructions (decking, fencing, etc) are modelled in ProfileBuilder. Before, if I needed to draw a fence line I’d need to have a set of components that I would construct into a fence. With ProfileBuilder, I just draw the fence line and it puts all the posts, rails and panels in. We also use BoolTools, which helps us cut components into shapes, for example when modelling a terrace that isn’t an exact number of paving slabs. Finally, we use Quantifier. Once we’ve built our model we click a button and SketchUp / Quantifier will export for us all our materials, equipment and labour requirements. We can then import that into our quoting software. This last component has significantly improved our material ordering accuracy.

We have also recently moved to SUPodium for rendering. We produce renders for some of our design work to help client visualisation and to help sell the proposition. We are by no means experts at this, and so the attraction of SUPodium over our previous render engine is that it makes a “passable” image possible without a massive investment in time. I also like the fact that version 2.6 now ships with their extensive object and material library.

Are there any other extensions you have your eye on and would like to try in the future?

As a Landscape designer I’m always on the lookout for a great plant library. One gap with SketchUp is that I haven’t figured out a way to easily produce useful planting plans. When we use planting in our models the plants are “representative” of what we might plant, but mostly the plants we use are a selection of the best (least polygon intensive) ones available on the SketchUp Library. A great plant library with a good selection of UK species, along with 2D and 3D representations would be great. I’m looking forward to trying the plant library that ships with SUPodium v2.6.

Is there a project that you’re particularly proud of? A project that just came together perfectly? 

Corny, but true, I am proud of everything we’ve done, just ask my family. They have to sit through the endless pictures. But to single something out, would be the design I’ve shared with you for this article. It’s a few years ago, so our SketchUp skills have improved and we’ve changed our presentation style, but this really captures what SketchUp does for us. We completely ripped out an existing garden and completely changed the layout. There were challenging levels and entry / exit requirements, as well as material mixes. SketchUp allowed us to communicate and sell the design, and provided us with the accurate build and material plan. The client loves the garden, we enjoyed building it, and the end result is just as we planned it.

And finally, thanks for talking to us about your work and projects. You’ve been a valued Cadsoft Solutions Limited customer for a while and we’ve never asked the question, what brought you to us? 

We started by trying SketchUp through the “free” version along with other products. When we decided to go with SketchUp I looked for resellers, and found you guys in Cambridge. As a small business owner, I know the value of supporting similar businesses, so I reached out. I like your question, but perhaps the most interesting one for you and potential new clients is what keeps me with you when I could easily buy my renewal  licenses from a nameless website. That would be support. I know I can email or call you and you will respond, and be able to offer me sensible advice. I appreciate you may not always be able to instantly fix issues in third party products, but you don’t dodge issues and recognise that, like any tool in our business, we rely on our software to be successful.

Thank you, Mark for a fantastic customer case study. We’re pleased that you’re happy with the service we provide and appreciate the comments. 

Customer satisfaction is important. We recognise that when you purchase software customers are making an investment, and investments require support and even an honest appraisal of the ongoing suitability of that product or application, particularly if circumstances or business focus shifts over time. 

If you’d like to learn more about Solutions4Gardens or contact them about their services and portfolio, visit their website: https://www.solutions4gardens.com/

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“I bumped into SketchUp at version 5!”

Paul Hensey is a specialist in design, horticulture and construction techniques. He is the Principal at Green Zone Garden and Landscape Design, Midhurst, West Sussex. Paul is a Fellow of the Society of Garden Designers and former Vice Chair, Member Chartered Institute Horticulture, Member Garden Media Guild & a Technical Journalist and Author specialising in Construction techniques, materials and Computer Aided Design. A landscape & garden designer since 1999, with numerous awards, inc Gold & Best in show and Most Innovative Garden at RHS Tatton, Hampton Court and Chelsea and an SGD Award winner 2019. A frequent lecturer on construction detailing and an educator and trainer in SketchUp, he enjoys sharing his extensive knowledge of the world’s favourite 3D modeller and we’re delighted that he’s guest written an article for our Blog. You’ll also be able to come and see Paul in person at our upcoming SketchUp event at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge where he’ll be sharing valuable insights into his use of SketchUp, particularly LayOut.

His new book “Construction Detailing for Landscape and Garden Design Volume 2 – Water Features” is out now.

I bumped into SketchUp at version 5, shortly before Google acquired it. I was returning from living in Scandinavia and needed a cheap and simple software solution to support my new business as a landscape and garden designer. I had been used to high end 3D CAD systems, working as an industrial designer and I was struggling to make anything fit the way I worked, whilst being on a scale that I could manage as a one-man operation.

SketchUp was somewhat simplistic at that time, but then so were my designs, it was a good fit. I have been a loyal user, perhaps even an evangelist ever since.

I am now based in West Sussex, designing landscapes and garden schemes throughout the South of England. I work on intimate back yards, roof terraces through to large country estates. Because of my engineering background I have a passion for solving three dimensional problems and construction detailing is where I am happiest. Whilst I can visualise how everything fits, I need to communicate it to those who will actually do the work, so everything gets modelled. If two or more things come together then the has to be a drawing and for there to be a drawing there has to be a model. I do it well enough that I am employed by many other designers to do the detailing and problem solving on their projects and it now forms a significant portion of my business. Encountering so many aspects of construction inspired me to record the solutions to typical situations and I have two books published on construction, all of the illustrations were of course created in SketchUp.

I work almost exclusively in SketchUp and where I do step outside the software to develop images or presentations in particular; I am working on geometry that has been exported from SketchUp.

I have a pretty robust workflow. At the start of a project, data can arrive in several ways: whether as a .dwg plan of the site from an architect or surveyor, through to a doodle on a scrap of paper indicating a designer’s vision; many designers use CAD to capture their idea but have no wish or interest in driving the software to work out the details and anticipate problems. Its important to get an accurate representation of the existing site or space and so I always create a reference model of the space or terrain.

Early stage design work can be on paper or directly in SketchUp. I use whichever tool best facilitates quick exploration of ideas. Communication with clients and contractors is always through SketchUp models, even if they sometimes take a trip through Photoshop or one of the filter software plugins.  In the early stages these are always mass models, developing the space and helping visualise scale, proportion and positioning. Good quality textures help enormously. The design process is iterative, and I have found that going in too early with realistic images can close down design options and manoeuvrability as compromises and changes have to be considered and introduced as reality and budgets kick in. Once a design is approved the fun really begins. Whilst I thoroughly enjoy the creativity and development of concepts, I love the problem solving and detailing that comes with resolving the constructability of a design.

This requires new models. Each element, junction and assembled item is modelled from its constituent parts These are saved as separate models both within the project but also within a separate parts library. They now become an asset for future projects. Whilst the 3D models are created in SketchUp, Layout is the window through which I present images and drawings to clients and contractors. So long as a model has a logical layer structure then Layout will readily allow the composition of 2D and 3D diagrams. I add all dimensions and drawing labels here as well as importing reference images. So long as the project file structure is set up correctly, any changes made to the model are reflected across all associated drawings. This saves a lot of time and head scratching. I keep the Layout files updated and referenced to the parent SketchUp model and save out each up-issue as a PDF, giving me a record of the issue history.

Planting plan created in Layout

I learnt pretty early on that you need to name and store files in a consistent and methodical manor: A naming convention like: “Mr & Mrs Smith final site plan” is going to lead to problems when the approved plan ceases to have the finality you had hoped.

Layout isn’t just a subservient tool to SketchUp. I create a lot of original content within it (it’s a vector based drawing tool after all) from electrical and irrigation symbols, plant and tree icons to entire drawings of common details. The library within Layout (called Scrapbooks) is customisable and I add an ever-expanding collection of drawings that are immediately accessible and can be dragged onto project specific sheets. Layout is a seriously underused aspect of SketchUp. You can read about it, but nothing beats being shown. Professional looking drawings take practice but if your SketchUp model is good then you are almost there.

Top tips for Layout:

Save your layout file as soon as you create it, in the folder location you want. This will save references becoming “detached” later on.

Set up a range of templates (i.e. drawing sheets) to your design and with your logo etc. A3, A2, A1 etc

Create a custom Scrapbook of the symbols and graphics that you use all the time: plants, trees, scale bars, north etc. It will make creating drawings so much quicker and you will have a consistent style.  You can import “Cad-blocks” for a lot of line work (e.g. vehicles)

Before I start any detailed design, I story board what I want on each output sheet and how many sheets I want. This keeps me focussed and helps a lot when quoting for work.

Set up your Scenes in SketchUp to give you the best view/ representation. You can add graphics such as cross section hatching as an overlay in Layout if required.

Be consistent in your Layout style. Look at other people’s drawings. For example, I mostly use iso views for “engineering” drawings as perspective can be visually jarring sometimes.

When you have “sent to Layout”, set up your view with your preferred scene and scale. Copy and pasting the viewport means that you can add multiple views per page, even across pages and change to different scenes without having to go back and send each scene to Layout. This was a revelation to me when I first found it!

Come and see Paul and other esteemed SketchUp experts at Kettle’s Yard on Thursday 20th June. Space is limited and tickets are going fast, so don’t wait too long to get yours. Get your FREE ticket(s) here