Digitising Landscape Architecture - From CAD to BIM and Everything in Between

The built environment professions are more in demand than ever – but are landscape architects adopting new technologies at the same pace as our contemporaries?

When working in the public arena, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) professionals, including landscape architects, continue to jostle for position in large multidisciplinary projects. As landscape architects, we may need to be willing to break from the standard training of particular software packages and embrace new technologies and workflows, as well as rethink how we collaborate with other professionals and participate in project teams, if we are to significantly affect project outcomes.

Land8 is pleased to present Digitising Landscape Architecture, a weekly series that aims to raise awareness and stimulate discussion on the types of software available to landscape architects, from computer aided design (2D and 3D CAD) to Building Information Modelling (BIM). In doing so, we hope that the series will encourage Land8 members to reflect on their own experiences and share these with the community.

Modelling and presentation in 3D | Corkery Consulting

As a practicing landscape architect, I have grappled with figuring out the most effective way to use different kinds of design and drafting software available. The challenge is that what we ‘do’ can vary so significantly that finding one particular program to suit all of our needs is all but impossible. There is no escape from the need for at least a minor understanding of 2D CAD, however, beyond this entry-level understanding lies a big, wide (and sometimes scary) world of software that provides an abundance of automated functions relating to analysis, site and design modelling, scheduling and so on.

Then there is the BIM revolution. The AEC industry has been working with BIM for quite some time, and much of what we see around the world now is the result of BIM workflows. If you've got the time, check out this article for a brief history of BIM and its application within the AEC industry. The UK Government, for instance, is now requiring collaborative 3D BIM on all public sector construction projects by 2016. Until now, the profession of landscape architecture has been slow to engage with BIM. This is due, in part, to the poor definition of the concept of BIM and its potential application to landscape architecture, as well as a lack of landscape-specific BIM functions provided in some of the mainstream software packages.

The current state of mainstream software for the AEC industry

There is a variety of packages available to landscape architects. On one hand, we have the programs that appear dedicated for architecture, such as Revit or ArchiCAD, that are often used when working in close collaboration with architects or on urban sites with hardscapes. On the other hand, we have software that is also dedicated for civil engineering, such as Civil 3D or GEOPAK, that offer the landscape architect tools for site analysis, planning and design--although these are generally more tailored towards our engineering colleagues.

In addition to the more CAD-centric software packages, there is also a suite of programs that provide quick and easy tools for conceptual and detailed modelling, such as Trimble SketchUp or Autodesk InfraWorks, both of which can form an integrated part of the design process. SketchUp offers an easy 3D modelling environment where usability isn't sacrificed for functionality. SkechUp's 2014 release incorporates BIM capabilities including IFC Export,  a 'Classifier' tool, and editable 'Component Options'.

We do, however, have a small selection of programs that have been designed specifically with the landscape architect in mind, such as Vectorworks Landmark and Land F/X. These programs offer functions that more specifically relate to landscape design, such as planting and irrigation specific tool palettes and scheduling functions.

Data-rich virtual environments allow comprehensive analysis and exploration of proposals | Corkery Consulting

Whichever your inclination, a number of considerations needs to be taken into account when reviewing your software needs against the variety of choices available in the market. Is collaboration with other consultants something you do often? If so, then drawing and information exchange and interoperability are important considerations. Who are you collaborating with? And what software environments do they work in?

You'll also need to consider your desired workflows. Would you like to proceed from sketch plan to rendered concept plan for client approval, then to detailed construction documentation, all within a single program? The ease of amendments, rendering capabilities or scheduling functionality might also become a priority here. 3D modeling and presentation has also become an important communication tool; will you need a program that can quickly generate 3D views, or better yet, a model that can be rendered in real time during project meetings?

In short, the options are many and finding the right one for the job can seem like a complicated endeavor. In the end, however, the choice is an entirely personal one. Some people are hesitant to venture away from the Autodesk environment they have been trained in and have operated within their entire careers. Others, finding comfort in knowing that there are developers out there engaging more directly with landscape architects, excitedly jump into new software packages with tools tailored to their work.

In the coming weeks, the Digitising Landscape Architecture series will explore some of the software options available to landscape architects. Although the aim is not to be an exhaustive account of each and every program available nor an all-encompassing tutorial of their uses, the series will provide basic introductions to help spark greater dialogue about what works for each of us and why.

Jason Packenham is a Landscape Architect at Corkery Consulting and design studio tutor in the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program at the University of New South Wales.

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Comment by Jason Packenham on May 20, 2014 at 4:47am

Hi Andrew,

“Well rendered shrub” seems to suggest that you’re talking more about 3D modelling for rendering images or animations? Your PhD candidate’s suggestion that there is “too much to discuss here” I think highlights the complexity of the issues surrounding poly counts and the associated quality/performance considerations, although this discussion tends to be more related with rendering programs such as 3Ds Max, Maya, etc.

My thoughts? If a ‘BIM workflow’ is what you’re after, then there’s less of a concern for the quality of a render and more for the information attached to individual modelled elements - more on BIM in the next article of the series.

I, as well as other Land8 members I’m sure, would appreciate hearing more from your PhD candidate about some of the issues they encounter - perhaps elaborating on ‘scalability’ as a workaround...?

Comment by Andrew MacKenzie on May 18, 2014 at 3:45am

Hi Jason 

as program director of LA at Uni of Canberra I find this discussion timely- I showed your article to a PhD candidate who is interested in this field and part of his response is a follows (thanks Cam) 

"There's (sic) the issue of technical complexity. Too much to discuss here, but suffice to say that there are more polygons in a well rendered shrub than there are in a whole block of building exteriors. Scalability can be achieved to avoid overloading computers while working and that's something I've focused on in developing the workflows I use, but it's all user generated, there's no innate capacity for the software to do it."

I would be interested in your thoughts around this?


Comment by Laura Powell on May 16, 2014 at 10:06am

This is an excellent series and I'm looking forward to future articles.  It comes at the right time for me since I'm in the market to expand my horizons in the software world.  Snce my husband is the architect and he usually designs all of the plans in Arichicad and then turns them over to me, I have been using it for many years.    My problem is that Archicad although an excellent BIM software, is not really geared towards Landscape Architecture.  I'm thinking of switching to Vectorworks Landmarks which is the same maker as Archicad (Nemetscheck).   I also incorporate Photoshop into my work.  It's kind of like cheating but whatever works right? 

Comment by Goustan BODIN on May 16, 2014 at 7:16am

cool, can't wait for more ! 

Comment by Frode Saetre on May 15, 2014 at 2:51pm
Spot on!
Comment by Knut Hallgeir Wik on May 15, 2014 at 1:58pm

Great article with a good introduction to the topic. I look forward to reading the rest from this series!

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