These days, most of my clients expect computer-generated drawings—including 3D renderings—to help them to visualize their project. As a professional deck builder, I need tools that help me to quickly and easily create these presentations. The ability to generate images that “tell a story” and create a concept within a reasonable time frame adds value to the services I offer to my clients, and that’s just as true now as it was in 2010, when three colleagues and I teamed up to test several different CAD programs that could serve the specific needs of deck builders (see “Deck Design Software,” PDB, November 2010). What we found then is also still true—most CAD programs are either too simple or too complicated.

Plan view mode in Realtime Landscaping Architect (indicated in the bottom left corner of the screen) includes all the information shown in the screen shot above, such as the menu bar, object category tabs, and object creation tools. On the left side of the screen are icons for editing tools, view tools, and grid/snap on and off. On the right-hand side of the screen, all the information about a highlighted object is shown.
In the 3D rendering of the project (shown here is the Perspective view), shadows and other realistic environmental details are added. Some of the information contained on the Plan view screen (at left) does not show up on the 3D renderings in either Perspective or Walkthrough views.

The exception then, and now, was a program targeted for landscape designers called Realtime Landscaping Architect ( More than a decade later, I’m still using RTL to create all my renderings for outdoor projects like porches, gazebos, pavilions, pergolas, and more. There are other options, but I haven’t yet had a design challenge this software couldn’t handle, no matter how complicated.

Don’t let the name of the software fool you. Sure, it’s loaded with an extensive library of landscaping features, such as climate zone–specific plantings and trees, and water features, such as ponds, pools, and hot tubs, and the library of deck options is limited compared with what more deck-specific software offers. But it’s also capable of producing amazingly lifelike 3D renderings of decks, houses, patios, gardens, and other outdoor living features to create a realistic view of your design. In addition, you can do the following:

  • Illuminate the design with post lights, stair lights, and many other features
  • Produce foundation plans and construction drawings, including elevations
  • Create roof plans for gazebos, porches, and pavilions
  • Import CAD models
  • Import plot plans and add your structure in scale for permitting
  • Create videos, adding 3D text and dimensions

Three Versions

Realtime Landscaping comes in Plus ($100) and Pro ($150) versions but best for deck builders is the Architect version ($400), which gives you the ability to create landscape plans and CAD drawings with the powerful Plan Detail tool. More of a drafting tool than a 3D rendering tool, this feature allows me to create almost anything as a 2D design, including construction plans, elevation views, roof plans, cross sections, HOA forms for my clients, and draft plot plans—pretty much anything I would need for a permit application (for an overview of the process, click on the slide show 'Creating a Deck Design in Realtime Landscaping Architect' at left).

Then, when I’ve completed my design in Plan view, I have several options. If I want to send my client a Top view plan showing square footage, field measurements, material info, and other details, I can capture what is displayed on the screen by clicking on the “Export Viewport to File” option in the File menu. Here, the quality of the image can be adjusted by choosing a higher or lower resolution.

Designs can be created in either Plan view or Perspective view, and you can easily toggle between the two modes—by selecting the desired tab at the bottom left of the screen—to add details and see how they affect the overall look of the design.

Renderings in 3D can be created in either Perspective view or Walkthrough view. In Perspective view (as in Plan view), an image can be captured by going to the File menu and clicking on “Export Viewport to File”.

RTLA allows the user to import actual photos of the house, which the author can use to develop a design and prepare different proposals for his clients.
Realistic 3D renderings can be made in either Perspective or Walkthrough views (shown above is a proposed design for the house shown in the photo at left), allowing clients to visualize multiple design possibilities and finish options.

In Walkthrough view, the environment can be activated by choosing the time of day and adding a skyline and other features. In this dynamic view, you will see trees and shrubs blowing in the wind, light fixtures that are turned on or off, and even a flickering fire pit. ❖

Photo and renderings by the author.