One practitioner defies the handicaps of building Information modeling for landscape, determined not to remain an exception.
By Brian Barth
Meghen Quinn, ASLA, has a secret. BIM—an acronym that puts moonbeams in the eyes of architects, but makes some landscape architects cringe—is her software of choice. BIM, shorthand for building information modeling, is the 3-D, data-rich software platform embodied by Revit, a product launched in 2000 by Charles River Software and acquired by Autodesk two years later. By 2012, 70 percent of architecture firms in North America reported using BIM, and in 2016 the American Institute of Architects reported that BIM was used for nearly 100 percent of projects at large firms.
It seems that so few landscape architects use BIM, however, that no one has ever bothered to collect the data. Its reputation in the field is as a clunky, building-centric, overly complex tool that has put up yet another barrier between landscape designers and architects.
Yet Quinn, who merged her San Francisco practice with the Office of Cheryl Barton in January, is all moonbeams. Well, mostly. “I never want to use CAD again,” she says. “Moving to BIM is like entering a 3-D world from a 2-D world…though the limitations for landscape architects are a bit frustrating.” Despite the software’s limitations, Quinn has used Revit from start to finish for her past several projects: a drought-tolerant landscape at the University of San Francisco and a series of rooftop and courtyard gardens at the University of California, Berkeley, among them.
The advantages are legion. Whereas most landscape architects compose their designs in a combination of plan views, sections, and 2-D details, and must create additional 3-D renderings for illustration purposes, with BIM, everything is modeled in 3-D from the start—a huge aid for envisioning how the design will translate from paper to a park or plaza. Every object in the design is linked to its own database, which might include information such as dimensions, weight, carbon footprint, and cost. As a result, chores such as material takeoffs and scheduling, not to mention revisions, are a breeze.
Another innovation: BIM software is typically cloud-based, allowing all members of a design team to work from a single model that updates in real time. On one recent project, Quinn was designing a bench for a patio space. The architects wanted to site an identical bench inside an adjacent glass wall, with the goal of uniting the interior and exterior spaces by drawing the eye along this seamless line. “I don’t see how we could’ve done that if we weren’t both working in the same platform,” Quinn says. “Every little thing I drew had to be fully coordinated with both the architects and the structural engineer. I think we may have given up on some of those inside–outside elements had we not been able to communicate so effectively.”
BIM is more time consuming up front than 2-D drafting, Quinn says, but as the project progresses, that initial investment more than pays for itself. “It is vastly more efficient. You design in 3-D, and then the program creates the 2-D construction documents more or less automatically. With a 2-D program like AutoCAD, you have to constantly export and import information to a program like SketchUp to do three-dimensional studies. You end up redrawing a lot of things, so it’s like you are doing it twice. In Revit, you just model it once, and then you can cut as many sections and elevations as you want, with basically the click of a button.”
As I’ve reported previously (see “The Limits of BIM,” LAM, February 2016), a number of landscape architecture firms have dabbled in BIM over the past decade, but I’ve struggled to find even one that incorporates it into daily work flow. Before I was introduced to Quinn, I’d found three, worldwide, who were using it on at least some of their projects.
Besides the steep learning curve to master the tool, and the steep price (a Revit subscription costs $2,000 per year), landscape architects’ chief complaint is that BIM programs are ill-designed for modeling complex topographic surfaces. The other big drawback is that the “I” in BIM—information—isn’t available for landscape components the way it is for architectural features. Almost everything in a building, from piping to flooring to office chairs, now has a library of BIM-compatible data available for it, typically supplied by the manufacturer, which adds untold richness to the “model.” BIM enthusiasts often speak of working not in three, but seven, dimensions: time/scheduling (4); cost/estimation (5); sustainability/energy use (6); and life cycle/facilities management (7).
Without the necessary data, however, these capabilities aren’t much help to landscape architects, who deal more in irrigation, drainage, mulch, and shrubs than in drywall and linoleum. But Quinn has found ways to work around these limitations—and she believes that landscape architecture, as a profession, has no choice but to do the same.
Quinn’s initiation into the cult of BIM began in 2011 when she was working for Sasaki Associates in the company’s San Francisco office. The architects in the interdisciplinary firm had been working exclusively in Revit for several years, and were constantly egging on the landscape architects to “take the plunge,” Quinn says. The ribbing aside, the shift in software preferences was opening a gulf between the two professions, even as they worked side by side on the same project. Sasaki architects had always held the landscape components of a project in great esteem, Quinn says, encouraging their counterparts’ input “on how buildings were sited, and the overall look and feel of the project. But when they became fully committed to Revit, that collaboration started to break apart because they were working on another platform.”
The architects in the office literally began to speak another language—clash rendition (preventing constructability errors), data drop (an information deliverable), federated model (multiple BIM models combined into one)—which further alienated their peers. Quinn’s dread only grew when things started going wrong at job sites. In one instance, the waterproofing lines on a new building didn’t match the landforms designed by the landscape architects in the office because the architects hadn’t properly translated the landscape CAD drawings into the Revit model. The landscape architects ended up having to reconfigure the topography on the fly during construction.
“They stopped looking at our grading plans as much, and were modeling sites very rudimentarily on their own,” Quinn recalls. “That’s when the lightbulb started to go off for me. I don’t want architects designing my scope. I want to have a seat at the table and be a collaborative design partner. So I started using Revit.”
Fortunately, she had plenty of architects around to teach her. Landscape architects have long clamored for a SIM (site information modeling) or LIM (landscape information modeling) tool, but Quinn has found she can co-opt the building-based tools of Revit for landscape purposes. The “floor” tool, she says, works just fine for designing the biofiltration planters that are a signature feature in her work. California regulations require on-site treatment of all stormwater on sites above a certain size, which, on tight sites, Quinn likes to take care of in raised beds that hold layers of gravel, engineered soil, mulch, reeds, and other water-loving plants. Different jurisdictions in the state have different requirements for the size of gravel, depth of mulch, and other parameters, which she can quickly alter in a Revit model to suit the circumstances.
“Architecturally, a floor assembly might include things like decking, joists, carpet, some kind of subfloor,” Quinn explains. “The floor feature that comes out of the box with Revit allows you to have all those layers, each with its own dimensions and materiality, and gives you the ability to apply rendering treatments to them. It’s perfect for biofiltration planters—you might have three inches of mulch over 18 inches of soil mix over 12 inches of drain rock, and you can use the floor tool to make those layers. Then you just draw the planter, set the elevations that you want the top of your soil to be, and the program turns it into a 3-D model.”
BIM is most applicable, and easiest to adapt, on landscape projects that are highly integrated with a building, Quinn says. Laying out the hills, dales, and undulating pathways of a park are trickier, but not impossible. Revit’s three-dimensional surface modeling tools are quite elementary, so she recommends modeling complex, organically shaped features in Rhino, a program with files that are readily imported into Revit models.
Quinn reports that BIM data is increasingly available for certain landscape components, such as light fixtures, benches, bollards, and other manufactured site furnishings. For everything else, especially in the plant department, she’s slowly building her own data libraries. “In the early days of Revit, architects did the same thing,” she says. “They would build data sets for whatever they happened to need on a project and then put it out on the Internet for others to use. Then the suppliers jumped on board and started doing it themselves. So I’m convinced that landscape architects can take this on. Sometimes you just have to get creative and improvise.”
When Sasaki closed its San Francisco office in early 2012, Quinn decided to begin practicing on her own. She figured her BIM chops would be one way to set herself apart and “build a reputation.” They have definitely drawn the attention of the architects who have hired her as a subcontractor in recent years.
Jeffrey Galbraith, an associate architect at Solomon Cordwell Buenz who collaborated with Quinn on the Bancroft Residence Hall, a 775-bed dorm currently under construction at UC Berkeley, says she’s the only landscape architect he’s worked with who is fluent in BIM. One of the more complex features of the site is a pair of terraces off the second and third floors, where landscape features climb over and around an armature of sloped and stepped rooflines and appear as extensions of interior elements, visible through large glazed surfaces.
“It’s a design that couldn’t really be conceived of just in plan, because you’re dealing with at least three elevations, and not all things are orthogonal,” Galbraith says. “In this type of project, where the landscape is a part of the building—which seems to be becoming more and more common—a BIM model allows you to take the design further, to really understand how the landscape features meet and relate to the architectural and structural components, so they can marry and become more seamless.”
One reason that the construction industry has tilted wholesale toward BIM is that building owners find tremendous value in having a detailed model of every inch of their building postconstruction, an asset when carrying out repairs, maintenance, and renovation, which certainly has its merits in the context of landscape, as well. Increasingly, Galbraith says, RFPs require BIM as the project platform. If the landscape architect works only in CAD, this means the project prime must translate the landscape drawings to the model—not a position either party wants to be in.
Galbraith is surprised that Autodesk hasn’t made more of an effort to cater to landscape architects, given that a central promise of BIM is improved coordination among trades. Plumbing, electrical, mechanical, and structural engineers have all made the switch, he says, noting that civil engineers are the one other holdout. Quinn once contacted Autodesk to offer herself as a guinea pig should the company want to work on any new landscape-oriented BIM tools, an offer it declined. I’ve spoken with other landscape architects who were similarly rebuffed by the company.
Seeking answers, I requested an interview with an Autodesk representative. The company demurred, offering only written responses to my questions instead. Some answers were quite blunt: “What it comes down to is a willingness of landscape architects to embrace disruption and creatively engage with new technologies and work flows.” Others, more of an olive branch: “Landscape architects who want more services or plug-ins for Revit should let us know what they need, and we will explore what the art of the possible is.”
Quinn says she’s never come up against a Revit challenge that she couldn’t resolve by studying the many online forums and tutorials for the BIM community. Autodesk offers two free tutorials on using Revit in landscape architecture, and landarchbim.com offers a 33-part video series on the subject for $230. The Autodesk representative also pointed me to the company’s Site Designer Extension plug-in (previously known as Siteworks), which Quinn says that, despite being “trashed in customer reviews…bridges the gap in Revit’s site design deficiencies by adding more parametric and algorithmic modeling capability to the topographic features. It shows that Autodesk is taking a step in the right direction and investing in site design—but there is a long way to go.”
She’s not complaining, though. Success is the best revenge. In Quinn’s case, she’s too busy figuring out how to make LIM out of BIM to be annoyed by architecture’s dominance with the software industry. “I think it is paramount that landscape architects take this on. Otherwise we’re going to be relegated to planting and irrigation, and that’s not the only scope that I am interested in having.”
Brian Barth is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a background in landscape design and urban planning.