BIM isn’t just for buildings. The same automation, visualization, and analysis benefits that the software delivers to building projects can be brought to bear in landscape architecture.

Think back, way back, to when you were five or 10 years old. If you’ve always had a passion for the built environment, you probably had toys that allowed you to build things — Lincoln Logs, Legos, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, and basic building blocks. All the other toys — the action figures, cars, and stuffed animals — were mere accessories to the houses, skyscrapers, bridges, and cities you built. And if you’re like me, you didn’t worry too much about plants, earth berms, embankments, or other elements of landscape architecture. I didn’t think about these things, in large part, because the toys I had at my disposal didn’t lend themselves to being used for these aspects of the built environment.

Today, you’re probably using building information modeling (BIM) tools, data, and processes for your day-to-day tasks of planning, defining, and designing. The tools allow you to visualize, simulate, and analyze 3-D spaces as small as a kitchen cabinet and as large as a city. Using BIM increases the productivity of mundane tasks while enabling us to communicate and provide levels and types of service that were cost prohibitive just a few years ago with traditional tools. And yet, just like when we were kids, the new tools tend to be used primarily for houses, skyscrapers, bridges, and cities. Using BIM tools in landscape architecture is often perceived as a mismatch.

Case studies do exist in which BIM was used successfully in landscape architecture, but the number of projects pales in comparison to those in which BIM is used for buildings. In many of the examples of BIM for landscape architecture, BIM benefits are fewer and the uses of BIM are more often first-generation compared to the mature use of BIM for buildings. In addition, the perception exists that there are fewer business benefits in BIM for landscape than for buildings, which results in an interesting dichotomy between the potential value and the perception of lower value.

The reasons for this contrast in perceptions are various, including impressions about the maturity of software tools, the availability of intelligent landscape content, and technical issues related to data exchange between the disparate applications. In addition, many people believe that BIM is for large projects only or for orthogonal design but not well suited to the organic and fluid lines of landscape architecture. For the most part, these are myths that are ready to be debunked.

Myth: It’s Immature

There exists a belief that BIM software is immature or simply not applicable to the field of landscape architecture. This is the leading barrier to adoption of BIM for landscape. The leading BIM software companies have a strong association with building construction and a much weaker history of serving the landscape community. The companies that come to mind for BIM are typically the same ones we’ve been discussing for the past two decades in our 2-D CAD-centric conversations: Autodesk, Bentley, and Graphisoft. These companies have dominated the conversation about buildings and CAD for years. They have adapted, adopted, and acquired tools that have allowed them to remain leaders across the building and construction industry (with a relatively lower level of dominance in the landscape design industry).

Autodesk and Bentley have extended their flagship platforms to deliver solutions for the landscape architect whose projects involve a large degree of urban design, roads and rails, or large-scale site modeling. Autodesk’s AutoCAD Civil 3D application is a BIM solution that works well with other BIM software and can be an integral part of BIM workflows. Similarly, many of the GEOPAK and InRoads applications from Bentley are critical tools for hybrid (typically larger scale) urban, infrastructure, and property development landscape projects. Autodesk and Bentley products are great for the landscape architect whose tasks creep into the domain of the civil engineer (or for the civil engineer whose work infiltrates that of the landscape architect). Both companies promote their products as powerful and easy solutions for modeling site objects in 2-D or 3-D with strong capabilities for survey data management, digital terrain modeling, quantity calculations, and more. And while neither is marketing to the landscape architect or specifically tailoring their products for landscape architecture, both are worth considering for site, survey, and large-scale urban design work.

However, landscape architecture is much more than roads and urban layout, and these tools are not adequate for many of the other tasks that landscape architects must perform such as property development and planting layout and design.

To address these areas of landscape architecture, Autodesk and Graphisoft have BIM applications that, while not focused on landscape architecture, have been used for years to deliver productivity for exterior design tasks. Autodesk’s Revit platform and Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD are being used by landscape architects with quite a bit of success, albeit often with some workarounds. Ideas are moving from the landscape architect’s mind’s eye into a virtual environment that can be viewed, shared, and understood in a collaborative environment. Using these BIM-for-building tools, landscape and site concepts are being explored, developed, and documented in similar workflows and in similar processes to those being used for the steel, concrete, or wood-framed buildings on the site.

BIM applications can be successfully applied to landscape because at its core, BIM is not about walls, doors, and windows; it is about intelligent objects that work on a database foundation. In BIM (buildings or landscape), you don’t just draw lines, arcs, and circles; you draw irrigation pipes, curbs, and place plants. You expose notes, annotations, and dimensions associated with the objects you have just placed in the design. You don’t place a symbol of a hedge with some hidden attributes; you place an object that has 2-D, 3-D, and data views representing a specific plant that can be counted, analyzed, referenced, or easily replaced singularly or en masse. You don’t manually add up plants, bollards, tree grates, or parking spaces; you design and layout these landscape features using the objects that are provided with the BIM software, and you leverage the software database underpinnings to associated specifications, details, manufacturer data, and more.

Using these BIM tools, landscape architects can develop designs and solve detailing issues without worrying about the association between the macro and the micro. They can work on the 3-D layout of a complex paver stone stair and get an accurate estimate of materials automatically. They work on a project as an entire site model, knowing the plans, details, 3-D views, walkthroughs, renderings, and all sheets will be coordinated. They create phasing scenarios beginning with existing conditions, evolving into permitting, exposing the new design, and presenting construction sequencing. And while the landscape architect using a BIM application might not find all the content and landscape specific components on day one, the hedgerows, curbs, cuts, and complex curved walls are all easily created (or acquired) and integrated to deliver simulation, visualization, and analysis benefits.

However, a discussion of software applications that truly serve BIM for landscape architecture must include additional applications beyond those mentioned above. The landscape architect looking for a complete offering must seek applications that complement the foundation software. There are numerous applications that deliver value by focusing on the specific needs of landscape architects. Applications such as LandCADD and SiteWorks from EaglePoint, ArchiTerra from Cigraph, and LandF/X from LandF/X extend the base application by delivering functionality and objects to workflows for planting materials, site and hardscaping, and site planning.

These additional applications help project participants visualize and understand the design by employing domain-specific functions such as plant growth simulation and 2-D and 3-D layout tools. The software typically allows designers to assign organic-shaped regions to be defined as ground cover, flowerbeds, turf, or green roofs. Once these regions are defined, designers can generate a full takeoff of the planting material and create a plant maintenance booklet with the attributes of the plants in the design.

The use of landscape industry add-ons improves the process of defining and designing site and hardscaping. These solutions extend base BIM functionality by including tools for assigning patios, walkways, and paving conditions to regions, from which area, volume, and edging materials are quantified and presented in detailed reports. Parking lot layout tools, with much more detail and design flexibility than the base software, allow the designer to place bumpers, islands, and standard or ADA-compliant parking spaces with ease. Site furniture and entourage components are included, enabling the landscape architect to be as productive as the building architect in terms of placing these critical design elements along the paths or parks of the project.

When landscaping walls and fences are required, they are easily placed with 3-D accuracy, ensuring that these hardscape elements follow the terrain of the associated site model. Terrain modeling tools in the BIM software (directly and through add-ons) empower landscape architects to create complete virtual models of the site pads, streets, sidewalks, berms, swales, retaining walls, steps, and parking lots, all while maintaining accurate toposurfaces.

A recent addition to the list of BIM workflows with great benefit for landscaping is the growth of LiDAR (laser scanning) for the creation of the site model with accurate existing topography. LiDAR is used for site model capturing and the creation of exterior point clouds. A point cloud is a highly accurate collection of geo-referenced points in 3-D space with little more than 3-D coordinates for each point. At least that’s how a CAD or BIM program would read them. Landscape architects not only read the points, but they interact with them as meshes, solids, terrains, and site conditions that can be poked, prodded, and virtually cut-and-filled with mathematical accuracy, leading to unique designs and optimized for cost, sustainability, or constructability.

These tools, when used in model-based workflows, deliver a wide range of significant BIM-derived productivity enhancements. The combination of general design functionality, landscape-specific tools, and some rich offerings of exterior content delivers great value for the BIM-enabled landscape architect. One thing that needs to take place is the inclusion of more landscape-specific families and components. This will increase the level of productivity as users will be able to stop making content themselves. This brings us to our next myth.


Myth: Not Enough Content

All BIM applications suffer from the lack of a complete library of building product and construction material content. There is not a single BIM application that can be described as providing 100 percent of the content required for planning, designing, or documentation purposes. All BIM applications require customized content for some (if not many) of the construction domains the software serves. And while there are a number of sources for content that complement and build on the functionality of the base software, there is not a single source of content that delivers 100 percent of the building products or construction materials.

Luckily, though, all BIM software includes functionality for customizing and creating new content. Some applications are easier than others, and in most cases in landscape architecture, users must find workarounds to accommodate their needs, which were not considered when programmers created the software based on walls, doors, and windows. Content can be created when needed by the user, and in most cases, very specific content can be found that meets the needs of the landscape domain.

BIM-specific content sources for landscape architecture include third-party content providers and information aggregators such as Turbo-squid, CAD Details, Revit City, ObjectsOnline, and many more. These independent companies work with industry associations and product manufacturers as well as directly with designers and modelers. They create, distribute, and promote the use of their content in virtually all industry segments, including landscape architecture. From these sites, as well as from suppliers’ Web sites, landscape architects can find content that includes planters, bollards, railings, fencing, lighting, site furnishings, bike racks, and playground structures. In some cases, the content has been created by the manufacturer, who sees BIM content as a sales and marketing channel. In some cases, the content has been developed by a national or local association that recognizes BIM content as an opportunity for the association to be on the leading edge of innovation while serving its constituency in a valuable and productive way. And in some cases, the content has been created by the end user for a project, which is then uploaded and shared for all to use.

Content for landscape is available in all expected formats (2-D, 3-D, raster, parametric, etc.) in the native format (or easily converted) for the leading BIM applications. And content can be found for nearly every CSI category associated with landscape architecture (masonry, specialties, lighting, exterior improvements, etc).

Given the variety of creators of content, the various channels through which content is distributed, and the many uses for landscape BIM content (design, visualization, documentation, estimation), it is no surprise the content offering fails to deliver 100 percent, and thus there is a myth that content availability is a barrier to productive BIM use by landscape architects.

The fault of missing content is not completely that of the software provider, nor is it completely the fault of content providers. In fact, there is no one to blame. The current issue of not enough content is pervasive across all segments, and it is a myth that there will ever be a complete library of content. This is due in part to the (albeit slow) fluid nature of the design and building industries combined with the various needs and formats of BIM data at various stages of the building project. As long as there is evolution of building products and the means and methods of construction, there will be an ongoing challenge to deliver content for all products for all construction domains.

Myth: Poor Data Exchange

Related to the issue of content availability are the complex issues of content sharing, data formats, information exchange, interoperability, and project collaboration. Numerous workflow solutions that improve collaboration are beginning to hit the market. Project teams are combining tools from various solution providers, changing the way entire project teams are collaborating and sharing data. The data shared ranges from proprietary application formats to internationally recognized schemas and structures.

BIM data is capable of structure and exchange that will potentially remove some of the issues of exchange and interoperability. But today it requires an aggregation of various solutions and well thought-through BIM implementation plans. There is not yet a single workflow solution that allows for a single database of all building product to be leveraged and used across an entire building lifecycle. Technology underpinnings are in place, industry standards are being adopted, and data is flowing in ways that have deep and significant effects across the entire building, design, and construction industry. Landscape architects can benefit from the lessons learned by the building industry.

BIM workflow adoption and maturity in landscape is certainly behind that of other building domains. Segments where productivity gains can be realized — pre-fabrication, warranty documentation, and life-safety issues — are ahead of the landscape segment. These segments have easily computable returns on investment related to automation, business economics, and reduction of risk. Landscape architecture does not have the clear benefits seen in some of these segments. However, landscape architecture can benefit from more accurate estimates from concept design to buy-out; landscape architecture can benefit from delivering better owner and maintenance data at turnover. And landscape architects can take a leadership position by gaining expertise in BIM.

BIM by its very nature is a team effort, and winning companies are adopting BIM processes in landscape architecture. Successful design and construction companies are BIM-ready and BIM-centric. These companies and teams have been forced to evolve or sometimes create new methods and workflow as BIM for landscape architecture is finding best practices on-the-fly. Recognizing there is still a lack of standards in many areas of BIM, some teams have developed best practices and work processes that address the shortcomings of BIM data exchange and interoperability or BIM workflows and collaboration.

BIM workflows introduce speed and accuracy of design and pre-construction tasks. Automation, visualization, and immediate analysis allow the landscape architect to think about design rather than worry about coordination of data. The BIM-centric landscape architect and the client have more visibility into the project, resulting in a well-informed and hopefully long-term relationship. BIM-centric workflows are helping the landscape architect weather the economic crisis and perhaps even grow while other firms are failing.

BIM-strong firms and teams have impressive metrics and statistics, which they present at industry events and publish in industry publications. Some of these teams are those you’ve seen in top 100 lists; others are companies you hadn’t heard of until this year. Regardless of your familiarity with the company, these are the organizations that have positioned themselves for the future, and they are the teams your players want to work with, work for, spin off, and emulate. If your goal includes keeping your landscape architecture company, division, or team viable and profitable in the long term, consider the positive impact BIM can have on your teams today.

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Marc Goldman has a 20-year history in the A/E/C industries, having launched and managed technology based product and services businesses globally. Most recently, Goldman led the global BIM business efforts for Pinnacle InfoTech Inc. and Satellier Inc. He is currently guiding The Blue Book Building and Construction Network in its development of Web-based information and applications for the A/E/C community.