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Better Landscape Architecture Tools Make For Better Buildings

The landscaping profession may be small, but its impact on the urban environment is outsized. “Our profession is evolving, and it is time for us to pursue innovative partnerships and approaches to our work that provide greater opportunities for landscape architects, students, and educators who are focused on designing positive change in the world,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, the American Society of Landscape Architects Chief Executive Officer. They announced a new partnership with Land8 Media and the LABash Conference to highlight landscape architects’ critical roles in urban design this year.

The discipline of landscape architecture may be rooted in architecture, but they have diverged into entirely separate fields. Architects are focused on designing buildings, while landscape architects look at how projects fit into the larger context of their natural and urban environment. As we push buildings to become healthier and more sustainable, we will have to the impact their surroundings have on how they perform. “Landscaping and greenspaces are becoming so integral to a building,” said Chris Gentile, design technology manager at landscape architecture firm TBG Partners. “Architects realize they work in a bubble. The building envelope is their scope. They start from a white paper. For us, there’s never white paper. There’s always something already there.”

The problem at the heart of the disconnect between architects and landscape architects comes down to documentation. Deliverables are in 2D, plans get passed through and signed off by stakeholders based on blueprint documents in two dimensions, but the design process is increasingly happening in three. 

That modeling conflict is tricky to bridge every time the gap needs to be crossed, requiring time and new tools. That’s because practically every iteration of design software is aimed at architects. Landscape design is still relatively niche within the larger architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries despite its growing importance. Programs like Revit, Sketchup, and Rhino are designed to create operational plans, not make things look pretty. But making things looks pretty is one of the chief goals of landscape design. These days there’s more to designing green space than “shrubbing it up.” There are layers of topography, flora, material sourcing, and sustainability in every well-designed green space. That takes finesse most of these tools simply don’t have. The architecture tools conflict with the artistry of landscape design. Modeling something isn’t the same as designing it.

“Context is so important, how a building blends into the neighborhood and the surrounding connectivity,” Gentile explained. “The success of the building is how it sits on the site. A lot of our clients are realizing that the success s of the buildings is how it is placed and how it integrates.”

He now spends most of his time helping to revamp his firm’s design tool by creating software with new workflows. Tools like AutoCAD, Plating F/X, Revit, Twinmotion, Bluebeam, and complex drone mapping must work together, going back and forth from 3D to 2D by the time a plan is finished. 

Computer-aided drafting (CAD) is now simply a part of building information modeling (BIM). Think of CAD as a tool and BIM as a collaborative process. The building information modeling process may be costly upfront, requiring investment in new software and training, but experts estimate BIM reduces projects cost by fifteen to twenty percent, improving the delivery rate and lowering lifetime operating costs by as much as 30 percent. Much of the landscape architecture world has been excluded from those workflow enhancements, left to build out their own tools and plug-ins to fit in where they can. 

Better tools create a more holistic approach, breaking down the silos between building, landscape, and infrastructure design. That will lead to better decisions, more successful projects, and lower costs no matter the type of work. Even a perfectly designed building still needs the surrounding landscape to create a good experience. “People are realizing, after being locked inside for two years, how important outside spaces are,” Gentile said. “More budget is being allocated to outside amenity space, breaking downs walls to seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor spaces.”

Integrating the landscape into the building design process isn’t just about making things look nicer or function better, it’s crucial for low-impact, sustainable development. The right landscaping can be used for everything from a tenant amenity to a carbon sink and can do everything from recycling wastewater to lowering the outside air temperature. How a building ties into its surroundings can impact the site’s traffic, utilities, and walkability. All factors impact how successful a building and site can be. Understanding each in the design process before major mistakes are solidified in concrete is invaluable. 

The surrounding landscape’s impact on a project’s sustainability was firmly established long ago, but that relationship can now be modeled and understood throughout the design process. Landscaping can be incredibly costly to building operations and the environment when done incorrectly, so it’s all the more important to get it right. Positive change in the built environment is a collaborative effort between all building sectors. Aligning the workflow of the architecture, engineering, and landscape industries is critical to aligning their mission. As tools are built out in each discipline, bringing them together is the only way to achieve a holistic understanding of site design.

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