Interview with Daniel Tal, RNL Design, on technology for landscape architects

A few decades ago landscape architects weren’t working with complex software. Now that a lot of software choices are available to landscape architects, how do these new technologies change what landscape architects do? What functions are now solely done through technology?  

It has completely changed the way the profession functions.  The expectation now is that anyone out of school or entry-level has to have some level of proficiency with AutoCAD or Photoshop, Adobe Suite products. If they know additional software, those applications are a bonus, because now they’re bringing something new to the table.

Also, the workflow has changed. The deadlines, the nature of deadlines, have changed because we’re so dependent now on technology. AutoCAD is an amazing program for what it does. The ability for us to assess design, and create revisions to design is remarkable.  On the other side, expectations for how much we can change, and how much we can incorporate, have increased, whether it’s from a client overseas, or a municipality in the United States.   

Are clients driving the use of these new technologies or landscape architects? Where is the demand for these new technologies coming from?

I think the profession gets driven by the clients. The owners of offices are also recognizing the benefit of being more competitive by having specialties in different software.  For a specific example, and since a lot of people are starting to do more work overseas, it’s almost a requirement that you have an understanding of creating computer generated graphics of some sort, and can actually create using these rendering programs and purvey them to the client.  And the expectation is you have to do it, and you have to do it in a short amount of time.  A lot of owners are realizing, and most of them are older, that they in some way need to incorporate these technologies into their practices. 

How do new technologies support the inclusion of sustainability requirements and development of sustainable landscapes? Do they ease the process of design and implementation?

In some cases they do. A lot of environmental assessment or modeling companies are starting to consult with urban design companies, landscape architects, architects, or they have an energy modeler in-house.  Something like Revit – Revit allows for the quantification of materials, space, volume and energy use – can help an energy modeler understand the levels of impact a building or structure might have on a landscape.  And we’re seeing, and pushing new technologies, where we measure flows and water for sustainability.

You’re authoring a book on Google SketchUp for Wiley & Sons.  What do you see as the principal benefits and tal boardwalkdrawbacks of SketchUp?

The principal benefit with SketchUp is the ability to equalize the playing field – now anybody can learn how to use the program to evaluate, or display their design ideas.  And no matter how that functions, it’s no longer only someone with the ability to do hand sketching who can show a design. 

As far as drawbacks, the general fear is that people are going to put down their pencils and markers and not design in 2-D. If people are using SketchUp correctly, they’re actually going to be more inclined to hand draw and do their sketches and designs in 2-D.

Google SketchUp and other technologies enabled you to design at large scale.  What is the relationship between these new technologies and various design philosophies? Are technologists drawn to certain design and urban planning philosophies?

You know, that’s a very good question because there’s been a dialogue in my firm that perhaps we’re too quick to go create something visually in 3-D, or in some program, without actually going in and assessing the design aspect, or the impact. 

What’s happening, through this process in our firm, and it’s almost a growing pain in a very positive way, is that we’re starting to shake hands, and you can assess what you’re doing without going for the final design product, which might not possess everything you need, especially when it comes to sustainability, and make clients aware of long-term impacts on the environment.

So, there is a bit of a lag because the excitement has been that "we can convey anything," but at the same time, you need to make sure that what you’re conveying is responsible, and correct for the community and resource management.

Open source software is getting better at meeting the needs of design professionals. Some key CAD software for landscape architects include: ArchimedesQ-CADBlenderBRL-CAD. Can you discuss some of the pro’s and con’s with these?

One example is Free Mind, which has added levels for me, and other people, in being able to manage projects.  I love Free Mind because of the way it allows you to organize in flow charts and actually get everyone on board, and add as things go along. 

Having free, open source software I think is important, obviously. For me personally, there’s the spirit of just having something available that’s free for everyone. We’re finding that people are going out and exploring these things by themselves. They don’t have to have a budget of several thousand dollars to buy software. They’re picking up new skills to better represent their ideas. And we’re actually seeing that more and more, because within our office, there are different people trying out different software, coming to the table in a forum and saying, “This is what I got, and by the way, it’s free, and this is how you use it.” 

What are some basic practical steps every landscape architect can take to better incorporate technology into their design and implementation process?

I think people need to make sure they’re familiar with what’s out there, and at least have a basic understanding of how they’re affecting the profession and who is using them.

There is so much new technology it’s hard to keep up with. It used to be that you just had to know your lessons about how things come together in construction, how people design. I think every office now needs somebody that’s technologically savvy, and knows how computers work, how computer hardware works, what programs are out there, and how they can be integrated, if they want to be competitive. It’s about making sure that you’ve got the edge.   

You talked about this a little bit earlier, but what do these programs mean for hand drawing skills, and  engineering and technical skills?

I’m gonna give a plug to an architect I work with, a good friend of mine named Jim Leggitt, who is an FAIA, and he’s actually working on his book called “Tradigital Drawing” which was published, but he’s updating it, and incorporating new technologies. He’s saying it’s our responsibility to maintain the ability to hand draw and hand sketch, and it can work and shake hands and work well with new technologies and I’m gonna show you how to do that and I’m gonna show you other people’s examples. 

I don’t think that it’s the end of hand drawing.  I think with the technologies we have we now have better ways to design for people that might not be interested, or be able to hand draw.  But, I still that the ability to think in 3-D, which is what hand drawing really represents if you’re good at it, drives the ability to create good designs, and is essential. It’s essential.  

Daniel Tal, ASLA, is a landscape architect at BrightmanTal.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.  




Karen T. Grajales
Manager, Public Relations 
tel: 1-202-216-2371

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