I've always been old school when it comes to creating the art used to communicate design ideas to our clients. When studying landscape architecture at Kansas State University, I was taught how to draw by hand. It's a skill that I believe resides at the heart of the design process — at least it does for our team here at Lorax Design Group.

Today, as our staff has become more and more sophisticated in how we use technology to design and communicate — including 3-D printing, which I'll discuss below — the process remains rooted in knowing how to put pen and pencil to paper. It may even sound cliché, but there's just something about being able to be in the presence of another human being, sketching out ideas in the moment to solve problems.

I'm among those who steadfastly believe hand drawing adds a human touch that you can't achieve using a computer. There's a softness and spontaneity to the lines, and everyone's drawing style is different. The irony is, by working with the most fundamental form of visual communication in the early stages, we're better prepared to make use of cutting-edge technology later on.

WITH PEN IN HAND

Rather than starting with a program like Pool Studio or SketchUp, our process begins with hand renderings. We take those initial brainstorming sketches and then develop a more formal "sketch plan," which is still all done freehand, but in greater detail. The purpose is to reflect the initial project direction and how some of those first ideas might work together.

Why do we stick to hand renderings at this point rather than immediately jump into digital formats?

When you print off a CAD file, it's this cold object that, in a sense, feels as though you've already committed to something. By comparison, hand drawings say that we're engaged in a more open-ended creative process. It's not completely baked yet and the client feels they still have input.

During this phase, we're already thinking about the major facets of the project: how the work will harmonize with the home's architecture, how the traffic will flow and different areas will function. We're also considering the drainage, elevations and the major features, such as the pool, spa, patio, hardscape and plantings.

The next step is the master plan, a more detailed version rendered digitally in overhead and perspective views. Even at that point, however, we're still using the hand-drawn sketches as source material. Rather than line them out in a CAD program, for example, we take the sketches, make high-resolution scans and load them into Photoshop, where we add the color, more or less rendering them like a watercolor painting.

In that sense, we're able to move into the digital side of the process while still retaining the warmth and spontaneity of hand-drawn lines. It's all very tactile and artistic, and I'm proud to say the process been incredibly well received. Many of our clients keep their master plans as framed artwork, but more importantly, they hold onto them during the design process to keep the end results in mind.

INTO THE MACHINE

Before we start to generate the construction docs, which are all done in CAD programs, we take one more creative step with the client with a technology that is overtaking the world of design: 3-D printing.

For a long time we relied on SketchUp to show the clients what the design will look like in three dimensions. While SketchUp and the popular Pool Studio have come a long way and are excellent design tools, you're ultimately still looking at a flat computer screen, which in truth can only ever be two dimensional. We wanted to take the 3-D aspect to a greater, more tangible level.

Our goal is to give the clients a model that reveals what the design looks like in a tactile or even sculptural way — something they could set on their coffee table and live with, discuss and share with family and friends.

That's why we turned to 3-D printing. As anyone who follows technology knows, 3-D printing technology is used across a rapidly expanding spectrum of applications, from making auto parts to printing entire buildings out of concrete and almost all forms of modeling. I think someday, everyone will have a 3-D printer in their home. There will come a time we'll be able to send a file to a client, who in turn will be able to make their own 3-D model the way you print out a document now.

So it only made sense to get ahead of the curve and start making use of it now.

We did our research and found software and a printer we liked, knowing that the technology is rapidly changing. A friend of mine took a 3-D printing class at K-State offered by MIT and shared the information in great detail. One of the comments the instructor made was that any system we purchase would be obsolete in a few months.

With that in mind, we chose a relatively small-format printer from Ultimaker, which models up to 12-inches, knowing we'll be upgrading in the relatively near future. We also had to spend about three months figuring out to import a SketchUp file into the software so it could transform it into a printable format. Truth be told, we're learning more and more about the technology almost every time we use it.

One of the key decisions we made early on was to make our models monochromatic. We use an off-white or eggshell material that is completely absent of any other color. That's because we don't want to get locked into a particular exact color palette, and we don't want the model to misrepresent the work, should we change directions on color or finish materials. We have projects where the materials might change four or five times. If you represent travertine in the model, but later the clients change to blue stone, the model is inaccurate.

At this stage we're still looking at bigger issues, the spatial relationships, movement and flow through the property, how the elevations work together. We chose the off-white specifically because it's similar to material we used in college to hand-build architectural models. To my eyes, it has a museum quality to it, sort of the way a marble statue invites you to fill in the colors in your mind's eye.

WHAT WE SEE

From the clients' perspective, it's hard to overstate the emotional and intellectual impact of a model. Just as a hand rendering has a powerful quality that's tough to define, so too does 3-D. Why? It's the same reason sculpture can be so compelling: It's permanent and exists physically in time and space. You can look at it from all angles, up close or at a distance. And above all, the model can become part of your life.

As the project moves forward, clients become attached to the models, using them as a frequent point of reference compared to the work they see unfolding on their property. Because the construction process can appear chaotic and even destructive at points, giving the clients a way to constantly visualize the end product helps them stay excited and tolerate the often-inconvenient construction process. The model gives them a sense of comfort by constantly reminding them of where the work is headed.

On our end, the models have become extremely valuable as a design tool. By seeing the spaces in true three-dimensions, issues with elevations, focal points, movement, scale and proportion become far more apparent than on a flat screen or printed page. We often make corrections both large and small after we've made the model.

For both the homeowner and us as professionals, the 3-D models serve as a wonderful extension of the design process. On both sides of the equation, we're better for seeing and appreciate the work as it progresses. And when it's all said and done, the clients have a lovely artifact they can keep forever, a conversation piece that is expression of their creativity and vision for their home.

Yes, I may be old school in my appreciation for traditional rendering, but it's also vividly obvious that 3-D printing technology is here to stay.

 

The Residential Connection

Growing up, I always wanted to be an architect. That was my dream until high school, when a friend at Kansas State who was studying landscape architecture asked me to pay a visit and see what he was doing in the studio.

I didn't even know what landscape architecture was at the time, but when I learned that it was basically designing the land, I was quickly inspired. That meant organizing the land, programing it, doing the site drainage, defining all the details and basically imagining the entire outside. It was incredible!

During my time at K-State, I wondered why there weren't more landscape architects doing residential work. The industry has traditionally been overwhelmingly focused on commercial, civic and institutional work.

Yet the irony is that if you look at the history of both architects and landscape architects, almost all of the greats started out and/or stayed in the residential world, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Church, Frank Gehry, Lawrence Halprin, Greene and Greene, among many others all came to prominence in the confines of people's personal properties.

Whether you're working on a corporate or college campus, or a small backyard with a pool, the same principles apply in many ways. We're problem solvers: looking at the needs of the client and the second client: the land itself. We immerse ourselves in the challenge and work to address all the needs of the client and space in terms of functionality, aesthetics, sustainability and cost.

Over time, we started to realize that residential projects are far more personal and far more fun. These days, some of our residential projects have even bigger budgets than the commercial ones. When working for a developer, for example, the landscape stuff often gets scrapped at the tail end of the project. That doesn't happen on high-end residential projects where homeowners are shooting for an ideal environment for themselves, family and friends. They look out at their backyard, visualize what they want and go after it.

They see the pool, water features, spa, decks, landscaping, hardscape details and other features. It's a lot more exciting because of the level of details and the level of interest and care on the part of the clients. The materials you use is a whole different ballpark than when it's commercial.

Certainly many of the design principles that apply on larger scales remain in play in residential work. Nonetheless, working with homeowners chasing their dreams and helping those visions become reality — to my mind, that's what architecture, landscape architecture and pool building are all about!

 

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail eric@aquamagazine.com.