Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's the Buzz?

The built environment is emerging as an amalgam of land forms, existing and historic structures, freeform interventions in urban landscapes, and an immense variety of spatial experiences that are responsive not only in form and space, but in energy applications as well as land and water conservation. These complexities and problem-solving exercises that were formerly too difficult to document, understand and develop have now become more accessible with the emerging tool of laser scanning. This technology is impacting all kinds of human interface with the environment, opening up avenues of design that were formerly too complex to carry out within mid-range budgets.

The technique of using laser scanning to capture very detailed data about existing landscapes and urban forms is relatively simple, generally using available laser scanning equipment in conjunction with aerial mapping data. This creates very accurate documentation of existing forms, but at the same time generates tremendously large files of point clouds that need to be imported into a 3D CAD (BIM) program with the use of extraction software. These are really, really gargantuan amounts of data that have to be manipulated in discrete portions with high-end computers and servers by experienced people in order to generate accurate digital models and specifications.

It's very time-consuming; however the technology is advancing to the point where its cost is coming into line with the detailed surveying and 3D documentation that has traditionally been used with existing structures. For major structures this cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but expending the time (months) and money to produce accurate 3D documentation of historic structures, especially, gives the designers and engineers an extremely accurate documentation of an existing site and its structures and landscapes. This allows for very fine-tuned design.

The implications of this kind of technology are that very accurate design analysis and engineering is possible at the beginning of the project, which leads to the sort of project concepts that let the structures and landscape integrate seamlessly into the ecosystem and potentially repair ineffective energy and water use issues. The reduction in cost of construction and the lifecycle expense to run and maintain an environment is the ultimate payoff in the new way of viewing the true costs of all structures. The effective, small interventions into the energy flows of a place are now much easier to comprehend, study and respond to with forms that do most of the work in a relatively passive way, capturing the sun, wind and water of its place. The effective miniaturization of the power and water systems can enhance the basic approach established by form and be expressed as small, quiet components of the form itself. People can then interact very flexibly with their public and private spaces; it becomes about choices and things that create positive experiences.

Miniaturization and life cycle strategies are the direction of the future, and this technology, applied in the early research of a place, can bring human habitation back into concert with its ecosystem. It can assist the natural energy and water flows instead of fighting them, and return the natural cycles of place to functional ecosystems. Intelligently applied, it can heal the wounds of earlier, clumsy development that didn't understand the world that existed around it. The flat Cartesian grid and the rigid boundaries can give way to gentler and more sympathetic scale and better engineering that responds to the dynamic forces on a site. The use of technology to increase our understanding and leverage intelligent use of tremendous amounts of data can lead the way to a regenerative process in our human habitats.