Analysis

Comment: Claire Thirlwall - A landscape that needs BIM

15 March 2015 | By Claire Thirlwall

Claire Thirlwall, director of landscape architecture practice Thirlwall Associates, on why BIM has been slow to take root in the landscape sector.

As a landscape architect it would be very easy for me to assume that BIM doesn’t apply to me. The word landscape doesn’t appear in any of the guidance, and I’ve attended numerous BIM events but I have yet to hear my sector mentioned in any presentations. I’ve never met another landscape architect at a BIM event, apart from the BIM Masterclass run specifically for landscape architects by the Landscape Institute.

This is frustrating – I am convinced that the benefits of BIM relate just as much to me as they do to architects or project managers, but it seems that as a profession we are not involved in the conversation.

I started my career using drawing boards. Taking off areas was a tedious process, involving planimeters or graph paper to laboriously measure the area of a planting bed. The techniques were so inaccurate that you needed to check at least three times to get an average and then you’d carefully write the totals on the plan, adding a bit extra just in case. 

Modern drafting software was a revelation – with just a few clicks you could find an exact area. However, despite the huge leap forward amending the drawing still had no impact on the spreadsheet you had created, so you had to remember to recheck after each amendment. For me a major revelation of BIM is that it removes the need to manually generate a schedule as the software knows what each element is,  making scheduling a far less painful process.

BIM is really a global house standard – if we all use the same conventions we can save hours translating our colleagues’ quirky systems. We’d never consider using a non-standard paper size so why would we all create our own drawing or model standards? The best summary of BIM that I’ve heard is that it is simply the construction sector getting its house-keeping in order. By standardising how we share information we free up more time for the design process, which for me is the part I really enjoy. 

If landscape is excluded from the process, for whatever reason, then we are not getting the full benefits of BIM in construction as every member of the project team needs to be included. 

I wonder if one of the reasons the landscape sector has been slow to take up BIM is that many of the presentations and articles about BIM focus on the stunning 3D visuals or the complex databases that support the process, rather than the day-to-day practicalities. Talking about layers and drawing name conventions doesn't make for an exciting PowerPoint talk but in my work those are the features that I really appreciate.

A few years ago a friend took the time to explain BIM in a way that related to me as a landscape architect. I was totally sold on the concept. That conversation started me towards using BIM in my practice – I’ve learnt a huge amount in the intervening time but I’m still working towards finding the ideal set up for my business.

I suspect that given that landscape architecture is such a small profession the software companies don’t see us as an important market to focus on. In the UK there are 3,300 chartered landscape architects; in the US there are 16,000 licensed landscape architects. This compares with 27,000 UK architects, and over 107,000 architects in the US. In other words, landscape is not the major focus when the software is designed and then used. Also, many landscape architects are small businesses so we run into many of the issues with cost faced by other SMEs.

However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be as involved as our other colleagues in the construction sector. I really think BIM allows us to work far more closely with our design colleagues and that working collaboratively will result in far better integration of buildings and landscape. It is important that landscape architects are brought more into the BIM discussion, to insure the whole build process is as efficient as possible.

I’ve heard numerous arguments advocating BIM but the best argument I’ve ever heard was given by a builder-developer who used BIM in-house for his building refurbishment projects. When asked by a sceptical workshop audience member “Why would I use BIM?” his answer was simply: “Why wouldn’t you?”