A World of Color

July 10, 2017
Using 3-D modeling to visualize residential developments

About the author: Joseph Viscuso, P.E., PLS, ENV SP, is senior vice president for Pennoni. Viscuso can be reached at [email protected].

When television broadcasting stations and networks upgraded from black and white to color in the 1960s and 1970s, history was made. Three-dimensional technology is having the same effect on engineering and architecture that color had on television. The invention of color television changed the way people watched and felt about movies and TV shows. 3-D modeling brings similar evolution to our profession.

After 44 years in this industry, I know firsthand that the approval and entitlement process for projects can be frustrating. In the past, it has been a challenge to show clients what their project will look like when completed. Traditionally, the process involved the use of two-dimensional plans and exhibits, only sometimes rendered and colored into detail to demonstrate an idea of the final product.

Changing Their Minds

Like many assignments over the years, a recent project I worked on was taking a great amount of time because of public involvement and fear of what the project would mean to the affected neighborhoods. The public was having a difficult time with the idea of a townhouse development project infringing on the community. It was, understandably, an overwhelming concept to them. They insisted the townhouses would all be “in a row,” as they could not comprehend how the horizontal and vertical curvature of the road and building placement would affect the project.

These feelings changed when we brought 3-D visualization into the mix. The community could see what the homes would actually look like. This made residents more comfortable, which allowed the project to move forward. The introduction of a visual can ease people’s minds on the unknowns of a project. In this case, residents were able to grasp how the townhouses would fit into the context of the existing neighborhood—it was a win-win.

Now, with 3-D visualization software and modeling, stacks of paper, plans and reports can be replaced. Today, engineers and architects can use software to create three-dimensional, lifelike scaled images of the final product, superimposed on Google Earth images, with actual elevation changes, to demonstrate exactly how the final product will look once constructed. We can show videos of the project, people and animals walking on the site and into the buildings, people swimming in pools, day and night scenes, the change of seasons, and the maturing of plants and trees over time. With new and evolving technology, just like a 3-D movie, we can don glasses and see the finished project at any stage without leaving our offices. The project can be around the corner or on the other side of the world.

3-D modeling can demonstrate how wildlife, vegetation and people will interact with the site. 

A New Dimension

New software applications are developed almost every day. These applications are introduced into our businesses, our buying experiences and our recreational activities. In the engineering, architectural and construction industries, there is a different effect: Technology has brought to life the previously hidden third dimension. With the introduction of products such as building information modeling, bridge information modeling, Civil 3D, site optimization (SiteOps), drones, and 3-D laser scanning, we are now not only living but also working in all three dimensions.

This added dimension is an advantage to the designer, but it has even more advantages for building partners, clients and project stakeholders. It has always been difficult getting a “non-technical” person to see the third dimension of our two-dimensional drawings. That is part of the reason the public and clients may be hesitant to commit to our ideas. They need to see things to believe them, and this dimension allows the best possible visual. The possibilities for better understanding of our concepts are incredible.

Traditional surveying has always included three dimensions. When locating points on a site, the latitude, longitude and elevation were always recorded. This information was then taken back to the office and placed on a 2-D plan. The third dimension was on our plans in the form of spot elevations and contour lines, visible to the engineer but not to stakeholders.

We have the ability today to use a 3-D laser that “scans” millions of data points in a relatively short period of time. This information then is brought into the office and recorded in a 3-D format. Once recorded, it can be presented to the client with all three dimensions visible as if he or she were looking at a photo. The difference is that all points in the “photo” are measurable in CAD format so the designs can be prepared working side by side with the client. Conflict avoidance during construction is greatly reduced with no chance of missing information because the laser records 100% of data in its scanning path. This scan then can be utilized to overlay proposed concepts so all stakeholders can visualize a truly scalable final concept.

Site optimization software, such as SiteOps, allows the designer to move a building around a site in all three dimensions, “optimizing” the site grading. The cost of cut and fill in grading a site has long been a major expense in the construction industry. Imagine the clients’ ability to sit side-by-side with the designer to find the optimum location for a house, apartment, retail center, park or athletic field, wherein earthmoving is reduced to an absolute minimum and planned in a fraction of the time it would take with a pen and paper. From the perspective of the designer, these are exciting tools that offer us the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with both our clients and the public to better understand how the finished product will affect the community. From the contractor’s perspective, understanding these technologies goes a long way in determining how they can be utilized to better construct and deliver products while minimizing costs.

Using these tools, engineers are helping developers and clients overcome the public perception obstacles that usually bog down the long and tedious approval process, like what happened with the disapproving town and the new townhomes. The ability to see how a project will look in relation to the existing topography can alleviate the fears of project stakeholders in trying to use their imagination. The old adage of “perception is reality” no longer applies, as designers can now use this valuable third dimension in depicting projects. 

3-D models can help developers earn the trust of stakeholders and the general public by showing them exactly what a finished project will look like.

About the Author

Joseph Viscuso