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Virtual Architecture

Jessica Groach

Licata-Hansen Architecture had communication problems.

Try as they might to explain their vision for the Tahoe Sands Redevelopment at Lake Tahoe, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency just didn’t get it.

“Architects can look at a two-dimensional representation on a piece of paper and do a reasonable approximation of how it will appear in 3-D.

But it’s wrong for us to assume others can do that move along with us,” says Matt Hansen, co-owner and residential designer at Licata-Hansen.

Now, thanks to increasingly powerful technology such as design programs, project management software and the Internet, the lines of communication have opened up.

Computer specialists and the power of media help architects express their ideas.

They’re working smarter and faster, while allowing clients to have more input than ever before.

A wide variety of 3-D programs for architects such as 3D Studio Viz, Sketchup, and Rev It, among others, help turn two-dimensional pictures and measurements from AutoCAD into 3-D pictures that appear real.

Licata-Hansen blends new technology with older methods to translate its ideas.

For example, after constructing a wooden model of a Tahoe building design, the architects then created a computerized version of it with 3-D Studio Viz.

Hansen then took digital photos of the actual site.A computer visualization specialist helped him create before-and-after photos by dropping the 3-D computer model into the actual backdrop.

The computer model allowed the client to see the design in its actual setting and to determine how the building fit with the overall look of the neighborhood.”This tool is what really moved the project forward,” says Hansen.

Ken Bartlett thinks the tremendous growth of his firm, Bartlett Architecture, is a result of its commitment to having up-to-date technology.

Bartlett uses Sketchup to showcase designs in their actual topographical settings.

Bartlett can make changes in real time, while clients watch on the firm’s new widescreen monitor.

“As a visual tool, I don’t think anything beats [3-D visualization],” says Bartlett.

“You can build physical models, but I can’t send a model through the Internet.With this, I can save it as a PDF file and e-mail to the client, or save it on a CD for them to watch at their leisure.”

With Sketchup, clients can even use their mouse to “walk” through a building.

As chair of the American Institute of Architects’ annual Home Tour, Bartlett and a computer consultant created an animated “virtual tour” of one of the firm’s home designs.Details included wall textures, indoor lighting and window reflections, all choreographed to music.

It took them three months, and they don’t do it for everybody.

But with technology like this available, Bartlett thinks models are outdated.

“I can put drawings up on the screen,we’ll talk about them,make design changes, all at once,” Bartlett says.

3-D visualization isn’t the only innovation.

Project management is getting easier, too.

Bartlett Architecture and other firms use FTP sites passwordcontrolled sites that can be accessed by any computer.

Contractors and clients can view designs from their own computers and make notations on the site to request architectural changes.

Firms may also maintain a project Web site that allows similar access.

Cathexes Architecture in Reno uses project management software called Buzz Saw to communicate with those involved on a project.As principal architect James Molder explains, Buzz Saw creates a computer “conference room.”With its white board feature, anyone from the architect to the construction engineers can mark on the design and discuss changes, all in real time on their respective computer screens.

Cathexes also uses Rev It, another 3-D program.

But Molder warns against overusing the technology.

“It may cut down on time, but it seems like we’re providing more information, because with a computer it’s so easy to make changes,”Molder says.”It’s a great tool, but how much are we supposed to show the client? If I keep making changes, I’m adding to their budget.”

It’s not just the clients who are asking for more.”There’s so much information that’s required from us by law now,” says Matt Hansen.”Ten years ago, plans for a house took six sheets of paper.

Today, that same house is 16-20 sheets.

Because we can do it,we must.” However, there are things no technology can replace.”The creative process is still a pencil and paper,” says Molder.”Nothing will replace that.

Drafting is still an art, and the idea comes first.”