More than Toys

When it comes to new technologies, small investments can lead to big returns.

By Daniel Tal, ASLA

As at many small firms, five years ago, the technology in THK Associates’s office mainly consisted of hand-drawn plans, some 3-D modeling, Photoshop, and CAD. Now, the firm is incorporating drones, 3-D printing, and virtual reality into many of its projects. Thanks in large part to Jon Altschuld, ASLA, a landscape architect and project manager at the Denver-based firm, THK is an example of how small firms can integrate new technologies into practice with little overhead.

On a number of recent projects, the firm used drones to collect 3-D terrain data and turn it into high-resolution aerials. Using an application called Maps Made Easy, Altschuld can automate the flight path of the firm’s Phantom 4 drone in as little as 15 minutes. The drone snaps a series of photographs that are then uploaded to Maps Made Easy’s cloud server, where they are processed into a 3-D model. The app does all the work and provides a 3-D file that can be used in typical CAD and 3-D modeling programs. The firm pays to process the images, but the cost is as low as $15. The total investment, including the drone and the software, is around $1,500, including a pilot’s license and registration to fly the vehicle. “We plan on using it in as many of our local projects as possible,” Altschuld says of the drone. “The cost is super low to obtain the data, and the imagery is highly accurate.”

Early experiments with virtual reality and 3-D printing too have been promising. For a highway interchange project in Colorado Springs, THK designed custom form-liner panels to adorn hundreds of linear feet of retaining wall along a regional trail. The landscape architects created 3-D models of the form liner and then used 3-D-printed mock-ups of those concepts to refine the design. The final molds, developed by Scott System, were built with clay and plywood carved by a CNC (computer numerical control) machine.

Recently, THK began using virtual reality to present designs to clients. Altschuld exports virtual-ready images from a program called Lumion. The 360-degree images can be exported from rendering software and then imported into several types of virtual reality viewers, including the Samsung Gear VR, Altschuld’s preferred device. THK brings the technology to meetings so that clients can “experience the design in a first-person format where they can look at elements from any angle,” Altschuld says. Internally, THK also uses virtual reality to help teach younger designers how 2-D plan drawings translate to physical space.

Not everything in the firm’s box of toys is digital. Inspired by Ian McHarg, for a recent design charrette for Big Dry Creek in Thornton, Colorado, THK printed out various layers of map information—such as hydraulic, environmental, and recreational considerations—on acetate. The acetate prints were then overlaid onto a plan, allowing for markups while easily rearranging the various layers. The client loved it. “Using clear overlays on the Big Dry Creek corridor created a process that made it easy to bring all participants up to speed,” Paula Schulte, a project manager for the City of Thornton, wrote in an e-mail.

Altschuld says the firm is “just starting to scratch the surface” with these newer technologies. “Besides being fun,” he says, “the value we are getting on our investment is immense.”

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