Computer Aided Landscape Design

The use of modern computer software has revolutionized the way in which landscape plans can be developed and interpreted. Not only is it possible to deliver a classic design plan with a border, title block, north point, scale bar plotted to a scale just like you would do if drafting by hand, but if Computer Aided Design (CAD) software is used, much additional non-graphic information can be included in the design. For example:

  • Site location data, perhaps using Google Maps or other similar services
  • Images (photos) illustrating species used or 'hardscape' elements such as seating that have been specified in the design
  • Details of construction techniques
  • Contour information
  • Sections and elevations
  • Irrigation and lighting information
  • Setout data points for the use of construction teams
  • Costing and quantity information for planting and paving
  • Extended entity information such as the contact details of the manufacturer of a piece of furniture
  • Designs for artwork for a laser cutting service etc.


These can all be recorded in the CAD design file. Many layout sheets of different sizes can be printed from the one CAD design model of the site. Importantly, the whole design series can be emailed to a client as a Portable Document File (PDF) who may well be located some distance away from your design office.

Tip: CAD is not the only software used by modern landscaper designers. All types of software applications can assist designers - plant databases can be called on to aid plant selection, project management software can be used to schedule construction work, and spreadsheets can be used for many purposes such as analyzing designs in terms of sustainability and for preparing accurate costing/quotation.

In this module, we provide a general overview of some of the different ways in which computer software can help a landscape designer work more efficiently. The aim is to spend less time on routine drafting chores and more for the thing you most enjoy - designing.

What are landscape plans?

A plan is a communication device that gives the client an accurate rendition of what changes to proposed changes for a landscape space. It should be sufficiently detailed such that the design can be built by any competent construction team without too much referral to the designer. Typically, the plan will include some or all of the following;

  •  Location of hardscape elements - paths, decking, ponds, drainage network, water storage, lighting etc.
  • Soft landscape elements - location of planting, a plant species schedule with number of each species required, a corresponding ground cover schedule
  • Site location, north point, scale indicator or (dimensions), general notes etc.


The figure below shows a typical landscape plan for a fairly small site as it might be presented to a client. This type of plan could be drafted either by hand or with CAD software. However, it's our belief that where projects become relatively complex, and clients demand a number of sheets with more information than can be supplied in a single sheet, then CAD drafting is far more efficient than hand drafting. Click on the image to view the plan as a PDF file. Use the zoom tool in your PDF viewer (usually Adobe Acrobat Reader) to zoom in and check on the level of detail in this plan. Dimensions for the construction team are part of this design but are not shown here. They have been placed on a separate layer and that layer turned off when this layout view was printed.

Typical plan

When CAD is used, much additional information can be presented to the client without additional drafting effort. Examples of additional information might include section and elevation details, irrigation layouts,  details of water storage, pond construction, how to plant advanced trees and shrubs, ground cover planting, species detail, photographs of artwork to be installed and so on; all from the same base drawing. Some of these (not necessarily from the plan above) are shown in the figures below. Being able to quickly produce this type of information adds a great deal to the communication between designer and client.


SectionA Section view

Artwork Installed art work


Tree planting detail Tree planting detail

Hand drawn feel

With a small amount of extra effort, these CAD drawings can have an organic 'hand drawn' feel.

Hand drawn

Image filtered

Work remotely - save paper and postage

Producing plans with CAD software has the very real benefit that a version of the design can be sent as an attachment to an email to a client who can open the attachment and view your work. We know designers who carry out the whole design process while on site. They then email the drawing to the client while on their journey back to base. The process is fully digital, with concomitant saving of time, energy and paper. The figure below shows an example of a design in Acrobat Reader.

PDF example

Cut and paste

Software also provides an opportunity to leverage past design work. The design shown below was developed in CAD software and Images of the final result were included in CAD layout sheets as examples of the sort of finish that a construction team can deliver (image courtesy StatelyPaving). It is easy for a client to visualize the type of planting and paving proposed for her design from an image such as this. A picture alongside a plan is certainly worth a thousand words. 


Similarly, a client can be shown a finished design for a rooftop garden as a  guide.


Images such as the above can be combined with the CAD plan and details such as dimensions, plant schedules, and the coordinates of set out points can be included as an aid to construction teams. Click the image to load the PDF file from this drawing.

Example set out points 

Work in metric or Imperial units

In CAD software, designers can work in either the metric or Imperial unit system using the same tools, so it is possible to offer services around the world. Here is a design for a front entrance for a house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida USA developed by  'The GreenMan Landscape Designers' with decimal feet as the base drawing unit.



Landscape designers can make 3D computer models

If warranted, interaction with the client can be taken further. Instead of designers meeting with clients over hand drawn plans and struggling to help the client interpret the design, it is now possible to deliver three dimensional computer models that allow the client to “walk though” the newly designed space. The process might start with a 2D plan such as the one shown below -


The digital drawing file from a 2D CAD application (gCADPlus) would then pass to another 3D application SketchUp and a 3D model created.


The SketchUp model might then be passed into another application for rendering and lighting.

3D model


This 3-D model building and rendering ability of modern CAD software certainly helps clients interpret plans much more easily than previously. Communication between client and designer improves as both gain valuable insights into how the constructed design will look. This approach is certainly much faster than preparing hand drawn perspective views.

More examples of rendered 3D landscape models are shown below.

3D 2


CAD designing is rapid

Not only does the client benefit from the use of modern rendering and presentation software, but standrd working drawings are produced much more efficiently. From a single CAD design drawing, different details can be given to the client and various members of a construction team - a dimensioned 'hardscape' drawing, irrigation design, a lighting design and a colored version for the client.

Dimensions for construction teams

Designs can be accurately dimensioned. The two figures below illustrate this and show some plans for a remembrance section in a cemetery. The first figure (not a 3D view, but a rapidly produced 2D CAD plan) shows a view that the cemetery management committee saw while the second shows a print given to the construction team. [Click on either image to expand the view.] Note that these views come from the same CAD design drawing (often referred to as the model).



CAD drawings can show some panache

One of the common criticisms of computer generated plans is that they cannot be 'organic' and lack the sort of character shown in the hand drawn plan shown below.

Typical plan

That does not have to be the case. With just a little effort, a CAD drawings can be given character and personality by the use of hand lettered fonts, images of plants and construction details and careful use of color. As shown earlier, it is possible to add texture to these drawings.

Sample print

RV Park

Green man

To reiterate, the same computer model is typically used to present the design on several sheets - there are lots of possibilities - sheets might hold

  • A story board concept,
  • The first detailed conceptual plan,
  • A colored 2D presentation plan for the client,
  • A detailed species list with information about supplier,
  • A 3D model,
  • A construction plan complete with dimensions,
  • Irrigation and
  • Lighting plan


All layouts can be generated from the same file and without the need for any redrawing - a far cry from hand drafting.



Designers can work on large sites

CAD software is not only used for small scale landscape plans, it can also be used used in large survey work. The figure below shows data from field work in a wetland brought into a CAD drawing. This particular site is several hundreds of meters wide and the health of trees in a wetland is automatically color coded as GPS data is loaded.

Tree health

The figure below comes from a study where a reserve was mapped with a hand help GPS devices.

GPS mapping

You might even use CAD software if you were charged with the responsibility of managing an arboretum or botanic gardens.

Geographic Information Systems are designed to manage large stores of information and to tie maps to external databases. The figure below shows an example of GIS output (Hawaiian Islands) being viewed in gCADPlus software.  Landscape designers can take advantage of the large amount of maps and other large scale material available online.

GIS data

Aerial photographs can also be used. Again, some are available free of charge. The figure below shows a photo showing an area of the city of Vancouver displayed in the landscape design environment.

[To come - extended entity data, costing, Archeological, tag photos, way points. W beach, usefulness of layers, measure areas, automate plant schedules, ground cover schedules]

Simple, personal plant databases such as that shown in the figure below can be used to aid plant selection while drafting with CAD. Designers often populate a personal plant database such as this with species of plants with which they are familiar and the tool shown below enables retrieval of lists of plants for particular applications. For example, a designer might ask for a list of all small trees, suitable for frost prone areas which have pink flowers in winter. Even though a designer may indeed know the plant once their memory is jogged, most designers find it difficult to quickly recall this type of information from their own ‘memory’ bank. Once located, the image can be imported onto a layout sheet to show the client something about the particular species..

Banksia spinulosa

If more detailed information is required, databases holding the details and photographs of thousands more species can be used by landscape designers.

DeepRoot Interface

Plant schedules can be extracted to spreadsheets for costing.


These are just some of the ways in which computer applications can help the work of landscape designers.