Information Modeling… “Are we there yet?”

View of a Revit model with limited landscape features image: Matthew Wilkins
View of a Revit model with limited landscape features
image: Matthew Wilkins

Imagine a design and documentation process where you make changes and the plans, sections, cost estimates, details, and 3d visuals get automatically updated and are instantly communicated with the project team.

Let me introduce you to information modeling or, most notably, building information modeling (BIM). According to the Landscape Institute:

“BIM is an integrated process built on coordinated, reliable information about a project from design through construction and into operations. It will help improve coordination, enhance accuracy, reduce waste, and enable better-informed decisions earlier in the process.”

It is key to note that information modeling (IM) is a process. In theory this is not related to any specific program and may be expanded to include various workflows and tools to leverage information and foster greater collaboration in the design and documentation process. BIM is currently the working norm for architects who have proven that the information modeling process can help better inform design, communicate with the design and construction team, and be used throughout the life of a building.

To date, landscape architects have had little involvement in the IM process and have yet to embrace it. However, is it because of the software, process, or something else? I guess the main question is, are we as a profession there yet?

Growing Trends

It wasn’t too long ago when it was routine to get out the drafting tools and hand draw your details. In fact, many can recall the rapid change when CAD programs became the mandatory norm. We are at the beginning of another major industry shift, one that has taken place within the last decade. For instance, a majority of architectural offices have made the shift to BIM and with growing market demand for this transition, many are continuing to do so. It won’t be long until BIM dominates the building design market and frankly, with the exception of some offices, they are pretty much there.

BIM adoption statistics image: Courtesy of The Business Value of BIM in North America
BIM adoption statistics
image: Courtesy of The Business Value of BIM in North America

Many landscape architectural offices on the other hand have been practicing the same design and documentation method for nearly two decades. In some cases we’ve managed to become more efficient by developing sophisticated workflows and plugins to produce quicker results. LandFX, which works as a plugin to AutoCAD, is an example of this workflow bundled into a robust suite of tools. To date this has been the closest thing to providing an information based 2D drafting interface that allows the seamless interoperability via CAD format that is required in most team oriented projects.

Vectorworks by Nemetschek has integrated many landscape-oriented information-modeling tools into their Landmark platform. Although many users state that integration into the industry leading Autodesk Revit and Civil 3D is not completely fluid, this is the first major platform move into IM for landscape architects.

With BIM workflows consultant teams, contractors, and owners can now all collaborate using a central model throughout the design and documentation processes and even into operations and maintenance. For example, contractors are able to utilize this model throughout the construction phase to better understand the design intent and develop project phasing and material quantities. Owners utilize it as a way to identify cost factors and visualize design features to best understand their investment. This collaboration has revolutionized the building industry and is becoming a requirement for many projects.

Outside Factors

The UK recently made it mandatory, as a minimum target, for everybody participating on public sector contracts in 2016 to use what they refer to as ‘BIM Level 2’ as a project management platform. BIM Level 2 is focused on collaboration, meaning that the project team must interact via a common file format. This allows the project team and agencies to utilize one model for quicker and more efficient review and record keeping.

This is typically focused at combining all information using IFC (Industry Foundation Class) or COBie (Construction Operations Building Information Exchange) format; in other words a BIM input file. Some believe that this favors architects and engineers who already have their hands in BIM programs to beat out landscape architects. None-the-less it puts the heat on landscape architects in the UK to become more proficient in the BIM workflow, even if that means adopting a BIM software.

These trends are naturally taking their course here as well. Many projects are demanding that information be shared using BIM software. This is especially the case for large projects where collaboration is the key. As these programs become ubiquitous in architecture workflows, the demand for the project team to also collaborate within a BIM platform will increase. Many even speculate further requirements similar to what has been mandated in the UK may arise in various agencies, counties, and cities. It only seems like a matter of time before we are faced with the inevitable reality that IM is the pervasive market norm of the building industry.

The Design Scale Continuum image: By Matthew Wilkins, diagrams courtesy of Carl Steinitz
The Design Scale Continuum
image: Matthew Wilkins, diagrams courtesy of Carl Steinitz

Defining the Appropriate Scale

We are a very diverse profession that works in a variety of scales. This is further illustrated by the various Professional Practice Networks (PPN) groups that ASLA supports which also translate to market areas in many firms. For example, at KTU+A I may find myself working on a detail for a trellis while also considering how the design character helps integrate the 40-acre project into the surrounding community. Or, on a project-to-project basis, I may find myself jumping from a small 1-acre site to a countywide parks master plan.

Any IM platform for landscape architects should be adaptable to the various scales but will have its limits at very large scales (1:25,000 and above) where a more robust information system is more appropriate and precise drawing and modeling tools become less needed. This is where tools like GIS come into play but the information should be shared amongst the various programs.

Is BIM the Right Platform?

As the name implies, BIM applications are primarily oriented towards building design (for example, visit The One World Trade Center designed by using Revit – video credit: The B1M). Based on market dominance, Autodesk Revit has positioned itself to being the leader in BIM. One major hurdle in using Revit however is that it is lacking many of the components (called families) for landscape design.

Although there are some site design capabilities in Revit, it is lacking many in depth tools needed for proper site design and landscape design processes. In my experience in working with Revit, I find that the use of this application in landscape architecture drops significantly as you move away from the building. Many of the tools that help in identifying conflicts, calculating loads, and coordinating with the building disciplines are less required for our practice when working on site related items such as grading, hardscape, planting, irrigation, etc.

With that said, a site or landscape IM platform might be the best application for our industry and other site design oriented disciplines. Ideally there would be cross platform collaboration between a landscape or site information modeling platform and BIM applications to help coordinate the interface between site and building.

These tools currently exist in the IM world; for instance, you can take Autodesk Civil 3d information and integrate it into Revit or visa-versa. The issue with most mainstream site information modeling applications is that these are mainly optimized for civil and utility engineers still leaving minimal tools for our industry.

Information Modeling Graph image: Courtesy of The Business Value of BIM in North America
Information Modeling Graph
image: Courtesy of The Business Value of BIM in North America

Why Information Modeling is Needed

Information modeling will allow us as a profession to spend more time on critical front-end design challenges. This will enable us to spend more time on the critical design aspects of a project ensuring that we have made the best design decisions early in the process instead of spending more time on the documentation. Furthermore, powerful tools will allow us to assess our designs and calculate critical features.

Imagine a workflow that would allow you to assess your design quickly, develop shadow analysis maps, detect spacial and environmental conflicts with site and building engineers, efficiently design irrigation systems, illustrate design intentions on the fly,  and allow for automatic path creation from a line and on-and-on. There are many benefits and opportunities on this exciting horizon.

Growing global awareness for environmental preservation, healthier communities, and carbon reductions has put our profession in a major role in the decades to come. We are in a position like never before to design smarter, healthier, and more environmentally responsible, and any platform or workflow that allows us to best design for the health, safety, and welfare of our built and natural environments should be pursued.

Site shade analysis tools using a combined workflow and modeling in SketchUp image: Matthew Wilkins
Site shade analysis tools using a combined workflow and modeling in SketchUp
image: Matthew Wilkins

Call to action

1.    Every practicing individual should follow this conversation and be actively involved in the political atmosphere surrounding this topic. This will allow us to have a say in any drafted legislation similar to those being proposed in the UK and ensure our profession is not underrepresented amongst the AE realm.

2.    Offices and individual should consider one or more of the latest programs/workflows that allow for some of these current tools to be utilized. These firms/individuals may consider consulting with industry leaders and/or leading firms to help utilize integrated workflows or information modeling platforms to become more proficient in the processes.

3.    As a profession we should be adaptive and receptive to the information-modeling wave, as it will help our industry design for the health, safety, and welfare of our built and natural environments.

By Matthew J. Wilkins, Associate ASLA, Digital Technology PPN Co-Chair

Scan the above QR code for more about this topic. image: Matthew Wilkins
Scan the above QR code for more about this topic.
image: Matthew Wilkins

One thought on “Information Modeling… “Are we there yet?”

Leave a Reply