Designing Habitats with Technology – Part II

Grading checking and as-built documentation conducted with handheld and 4-wheeler attached RTK gear image: Wildlands, Inc.
Grading checking and as-built documentation conducted with handheld and 4-wheeler attached RTK gear
image: Wildlands, Inc.

A collaborative effort between the Digital Technology PPN and Ecology and Restoration PPN.

Ecological restoration and habitat creation are benefiting tremendously from the variety of software available to help analyze, design, visualize and construct complex systems and subtle topographies. While landscape architecture is embracing 3D drafting and illustrative modeling, habitat restoration can especially benefit from the use of many of these software options.

In Denver, Mark, Dave, and Allegra presented an overview of a variety of software that are used in this facet of landscape architecture. In Part I, published on July 14, 2015, we summarized our presentation by including how technology is used in Site Analysis and Design Development within restoration design. Below, in Part II, we will summarize technology used for visualization, construction documentation, and construction.

Visualization through rendering and animation

Why should landscape architects create 3D visualizations?
• Landscape architects can visualize plans, but most policy planners, politicians, and citizens have a harder time visualizing
• Decisions are often made without fully understanding how a project will change spatial     environments
• 3D visualization should be integral to the design process
• We need more landscape architects in the software marketplace in order for more specific and useful tools to be developed
• Exterior environments are becoming more controlled by those who utilize the best software tools         (architects, engineers, and graphic artists)
• Small businesses without 3D capabilities will be disadvantaged against larger firms having vast computing resources

Choosing the appropriate visualization software will depend on several factors. They include your budget, schedule, resources (software, hardware, staff, etc.), and client expectations. Team collaboration is recommended from the onset of the project. Allowing your 3D modeling team to provide inputs on your bid to the client may save you from overcommitting to your client.

ArcScene is the most rudimentary of the visualization software described herein, but may often be all that is required for the project. With its ability to integrate GIS and CAD 2D and 3D data, generate and render 3D landforms, and place and render 3D objects from SketchUp and other software, most projects can be visualized and presented to others in an easily understandable manner. Current limitations include cast shadows, light reflectivity, realistic plant material, and other higher end visualization functions. Many of these may become more readily available with the release of ArcGIS Pro.

Visual Nature Studio (VNS) provides some of the strongest capabilities for landscape designers and planners to depict the natural environment with a limited built environment. This program is GIS based facilitating accuracy, and as your concepts are refined updates can be reflected automatically in your model. Key features include: incorporation and rendering of SketchUp objects; photos of project-site plants can be used to generate realistic ecosystems rather than crude object models; rules of nature can be applied to further refine land covers; water, atmospheres, and ecological succession can be animated; and all components generated can be saved for use in other models. Stored components that may have taken considerable time to perfect can be reapplied to the next project data set instantly.

Dynamically updated habitat visualization created with GIS data in Visual Nature Studio to depict current conditions and those with sea level rise image: KTU+A
Dynamically updated habitat visualization created with GIS data in Visual Nature Studio to depict current conditions and those with sea level rise
image: KTU+A

Vue is capable of creating photorealistic Digital Nature environments, which can be stand alone or fully immersed within 3ds Max, Maya, Softimage, Lightwave and Cinema 4D. The software is incredibly user friendly employing a graphical user interface (GUI) and a preview screen to avoid unnecessary test rendering.

The power for landscape architects resides in ability to limit the repetition of vegetation in visualizations. This is achieved through procedural vegetation via their SolidGrowth™ technology. The premise is that each plant is generated based on a set of parameters so that no two plants are identical. Numbers of variations can be limited to increase rendering time. Much like VNS, these plants can be grouped and stored into ecosystems for quick application based on a series of rules of nature. Some other unique features include 360° population of objects. This allows for the creation of green walls and planting of arbors.

Plant Factory was developed as a vegetation creation software to support Vue. This software allows the users to define the parameters for botanically accurate procedural plant creation. Such parameters include minimum and maximum thresholds for size, shape, flexibility (wind and gravity), gnarl (twist), growth on objects, and even tropism. The creator also can define global characteristics such as health, age, and season.

Platunus racemes created in E-on softwares Plant Factory Image: KTU+A
Platunus racemes created in E-on softwares Plant Factory
Image: KTU+A

Auto-populating habitats in photorealistic 3D models based on GIS terrains can be achieved through a variety of methods. Typically referred to as the rules of nature, habitat placement can be driven by slope and azimuth. However, the simplest form of population is to use elevation breaks to determine habitat boundaries, such as within coastal wetlands. This is achieved by working with local biologists to determine inundation levels. Once these levels are determined, minimum and maximum elevations bind the representational vegetation.

Dynamically updating models is one of the most powerful methods to visualize concepts with the least amount of effort. Simply put, you swap the data source by relinking the file and get new models instantly. For example, when designing a coastal wetland and you have three concepts for terrain; by relinking the file to a new elevational data source you have an instant visualization for a new concept.

Another way to achieve instant alternatives would be to relink the habitat polygon data source rather than, or in addition to, the terrain. If you are designing a park and have a second alternative that has a different terrain, as well as a different planting scheme, you can relink the data sources and render to visualize the alternative. This saves many hours over the traditional method of drafting additional alternatives directly into the visualization software.

Habitats as determined by inundation thresholds for current conditions and those projected with a sea level rise image: KTU+A
Habitats as determined by inundation thresholds for current conditions and those projected with a sea level rise
image: KTU+A

Modeling temporal impacts such as inundation and vegetation growth can be achieved just as easily as modeling the dynamic updates. This technique involves setting key frames within the animation to represent elevation thresholds. First, set the elevation threshold for a water level or habitat elevation at the starting keyframe of the animation. Next, set the end keyframe for the desired elevations. The software will then interpolate the migration of the landcover/water. There are more complex techniques that can be applied when using GIS files that store attribute data, but we will save that discussion for another time.

Fractal patterns can be used to create realistic habitats. The first hard lesson all of us learn when trying to emulate a natural landscape is that there is no uniformity. But, how do you achieve the seemingly random pattern? First, it’s not random – all of nature follows patterns. These patterns can be driven by many factors such as elevation, slope, soil conditions, sunlight, etc. Of course, most landscape architects don’t have time to plugin every rule of nature to create the perfect simulation. After all, you are simply trying to convey a concept.

Fractal patterns will help you achieve these simple concepts. These are patterns of nature that typically represent your materials or plant placement in 3D modeling. Examples include speckled, marbled, and dendritic patterns. The best advice we can give is simply study these patterns when you are immersed in nature. After awhile you won’t even see the plants, you will only see patterns; similar to the computer code in the movie “The Matrix.” You can achieve your desired result by layering these fractal patterns with various transparencies and scales; much like nature, there are patterns within patterns.

Construction Documentation

Construction drawings are critical for project permitting and construction bidding. Most often, construction drawings show contours or key breaklines. If you have been building the project in GIS, CAD, or other programs as a surface model, you can easily extract the contours for both existing and proposed conditions along with breaklines in either GIS or CAD to develop your construction drawings. Existing elements that will be preserved or referenced should also have been digitized, and therefore easily included in the drawings.

Construction and Beyond

RTK enabled construction equipment can make construction of complex designs with subtle topographies relatively easy to accurately construct. From CAD, one can export the 3D surface model and key project elements as a dxf for use in RTK equipped construction equipment. The construction equipment will have antennas (sometimes called receivers or rovers) attached in key locations and calibrated to the exact blade or bucket elevation. The equipment dash-integral data screens allow them to toggle through plan and elevation views of the site, where their equipment and blade are placed, and where the grade changes are proposed.

With an onsite base station, this can result in extremely accurate grade construction. Don’t worry if your contractor doesn’t have this setup, as many contractors are very accurate with GPS and laser level equipment. GPS enabled tractors are also frequently used for post grading planting with programmed planting hole and/or row locations.

RTK gear for grade checking and as-built documentation is becoming easy to use and incredibly accurate. Handheld RTK gear can be carried by hand, attached to 4-wheelers, carts, and/or cars to collect data on grade breaks and elevations. The gear can quickly tell you how close the elevation is to the designed grade. The collected data can also be imported into CAD or GIS to create updated 3D surface models to document as-built conditions. From the RTK point derived surface, contours and breaklines can be extracted in CAD for accurate as-built documentation required for agency approval and/or long term monitoring reference.

by Allegra Bukojemsky, PLA, ASLA, LEED AP, with Wildlands; Mark Carpenter, ASLA, GISP, with KTU+A Planning and Landscape Architecture; David Leonard, ASLA, AICP, GISP, LEED GA, with Parsons PGS—a collaborative effort between the Digital Technology PPN and Ecology and Restoration PPN. Part I of this post was published on July 14, 2015.

2 thoughts on “Designing Habitats with Technology – Part II

  1. Kevin December 5, 2015 / 1:22 am

    This is a very informative article. A lot of thoughts behind designing habitats.

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