When is Good - Good Enough -Image1
When is "Good" Good Enough
by Joe Blalock
Over the last several months I have asked a couple of questions of our members through the listserv. The purpose was to get a healthy discussion going and to learn more about how we were using computing in the profession and project, even a little, into the future.

The first set of questions was:

1. I am curious to know what tools you use in your workflow? What steps do you do? And where do you stop?

Here is a sample of what I am thinking:

Step 1 - 2D Cad: AutoCAD / Vectorworks base maps.
Step 2 - 3D Cad: Land development desktop / Vectorworks Landmark for grading and road alignment
Step 3 - Modeling and Visualization: VIS / Form Z and photoshop renderings
Step 4 - Animation: Viz / MAX / Maya / Blender??
Step 5 - Presentation: Powerpoint / Final Cut Pro / Imovie

2. What software are people using for modeling and animation? Max / Viz / Maya / Lightwave / Blender / etc.

The next set of questions was:

3. If the technology is available, why don’t we use it? Cost, client, or comfort?

4. What do you want to do and can’t?

5. What will it take to get there?

The first set of questions was aimed at identifying how technology was being used. I received a good response form the group...but not too many surprises. The typical workflow seems to be AutoCAD for 2D work, SketchUp for 3D work, PhotoShop for renderings and corrections, and PowerPoint for presentations. Most respondents did not extend into full fledged animations or flythroughs, but stoped at 3d models rendered as still images. There were of course a few who also integrated GIS, Vectorworks Landmark, or Land Development Desktop and animated flythroughs into their workflow.

The second set of questions was oriented more to learning about the limitations and acceptance of the technology in the office and by the client. This set of responses surprised me the most. The general feeling was that the software was acceptable. It was still perhaps a bit clunky, priced too high, difficult to learn, and generally suffered from integration issues between various software packages. But the piece that surprised me the most is that the hesitation or resistance to the technology comes from within our own offices and not from the client. Several people mentioned that they are working with sophisticated clients who are expecting visually rich presentations. It is their current office environment—whether existing senior level staff who don’t understand, or support technology, or cost/time issues—that limit the full integration of technology.

So, what will it take to get to a point of better integration and a better product? If we can do what we are doing now and get by why should we change? When is good “good enough”? It seems that there are several trends that may direct our conversation.

One, our clients are becoming more sophisticated and are going to require a more sophisticated product. If the client is used to seeing Hollywood graphics and special effects, should they not expect to see what their project will look like? If the client’s eleven year old child can create a movie about skateboarding, should he expect more from you, the card carrying, acronymed professional?

Two, requirements are changing. Many places have required for some time that CAD drawings and files be submitted for inclusion into GIS databases. As of 2007, the General Services Administration has required Building Information Modeling (BIM) for all major projects. How are we progressing in the BIM arena? This is a big area in architecture, a profession that seems to be trying to expand its market. Do we want to lose ground?

Three, we need to become more streamlined/marketable (and, perhaps, profitable). I am not suggesting that we become production houses for site drawings, but if we can streamline the workflow, find the right software and hardware solutions, or work toward writing our own software solutions, we could spend more time on design and less on production. Isn’t that the point? This of course was the rallying cry for CAD years ago, and to a greater degree it has proven to be true (God bless XREF!). But how do we go about this?

Let me offer a couple of observations and suggestions. LA’s are typically in smaller offices, sorely lacking in the aid of a technology specialist or department. What we are able to do is learned either on the job, in a special  class at a community college, or from colleagues (such as this group). What skills we do have beyond basic CAD is varied and learned out of personal interest and on our own time (sick nerdy people) or out of necessity. (Remember setting up that network?) It seems that we could either pool our resources and our talents, or direct our focus and encourage vendors who suit our needs (or listen to our needs...).

As I write this in OpenOffice, an open source alternative to Microsoft Office, there are aspects to the open source movement that could apply to us. One of the strengths of Open Source is that it uses a large, diverse group to evaluate and write code to improve the project. I know that we are not all programmers, including myself, but there are pieces that we have made or found, software we have used, and tricks we have learned that others would benefit from. How could we share these so that we collectively raise the bar? Another great aspect to the open source model is that the rate at which change occurs is quicker. As someone improves code it is then given out to the community to use, evaluate, and improve upon. Your peers help and intern grow and expand the body of knowledge.

Another aspect of open source projects is the group’s reluctance to create a parallel “fork”. Projects are encouraged to develop and support the main path and not branch. Choice is important in selecting software and hardware solutions, but we also should encourage and support those projects that are aiding us and our goals. Without promoting one software over another, there is a reason why SketchUp appears to be so widely used while Form.Z is not. Modeling software has not had a “king” or a “gorilla” to dominate the field and has been more open to a wider selection. The CAD market, on the other hand, has been more one-sided. If we are interested in the things we mentioned (cost, usability, integration, and BIM) then we need to look at projects such as Vectorworks as a viable solution. Who will listen to our needs and be willing to create solutions that will lead us into the future? Are we settling for good?

Joe Blalock, ASLA, is Co-chair of the Computing PPN and Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Ball State University. He can be reached at jblalock@bsu.edu.

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David Leonard, ASLA, Chair
(619) 294-4477, ext.130