Converting 2-D designs into 3-D models
Geosyntec Consultants, Atlanta;
McKim & Creed, Wilmington, N.C.; and
Vision Land Consultants, Golden, Colo.
Rapid 3-D renderings help engineers fine-tune designs and communicate project impacts to clients and communities.
Firms use 3-D visualization technology to improve client and public understanding of projects.
While civil engineers might easily envision a finished project by looking at a 2-D CAD drawing, laymen likely will see only squiggles and lines. It can be a long, uphill battle to convince a client that the community park being developed on a landfill will soon be swathed in green grass, dotted with trees and flowers, and crisscrossed by pretty pathways. Two-dimensional designs likewise are a foreign language to the little old lady who lives across the street from the site of a planned wastewater treatment plant. Where engineers see an attractive, one-story building fronted by a 1960s style ranch house that will serve as the operations center, she envisions a massive, noisy, concrete monster secreting offensive odors throughout her attractive neighborhood.
To break through the communication barrier, civil engineering firms may have outsourced 2-D designs to visualization bureaus or multimedia professionals to translate them into AVI files. Days—or perhaps weeks—later, they are rewarded with costly and heavy products to screen for clients. But such 3-D visualizations lack flexibility for design revisions—which are inevitable in any project-review process—and portability. They probably are too heavy to send to an outside interested party or make available to a wider audience. Until recently, integrating 3-D modeling and simulation with proposed project designs has been an overwhelming obstacle for many engineering firms.
Senior Project Engineer Jim Audette at Vision Land Consultants in Golden, Colo., said that in the past, his company chose the second option. "Sending our designs for 3-D rendering on CAD was a cumbersome process, and the result was far from dynamic," he said. "When we found it difficult to translate 2-D drawings into 3-D visualizations for our clients, we sought a solution that would allow us to illustrate our designs so that they would be clear not only to the engineers who design the projects, but to all concerned parties—developers and contractors, as well as their clientele."
Project Engineer Yiwen Cao at Geosyntec Consultants in Atlanta recalls a major project his company undertook recently. "The client asked to see a flyby animation of the finished product. We tried to prepare something using AutoCAD but found it to be a very time-consuming process. Our deadline was approaching and this wasn’t working for us, especially since we were working within a limited budget for the project. Finally the project team prepared an AVI presentation; however, the movie file was very large with a fixed flying path and viewing angle and of medium resolution."
Today, many engineering companies have discovered the ease of using Rapid Design Visualization software installed on AutoCAD platforms. The new software, developed in Israel by RDV Systems, provides a representation of the end product that can be viewed from any angle, including a virtual walk-through, drive-through, or even flyover of the planned project. Most important, any client, board member, decision-maker, contractor, or developer, with or without an engineering degree, can understand the plans and picture the final product.
"Rapid Design Visualization streamlines the public approval and review processes," said Randall Mattingly, civil designer at McKim & Creed in North Carolina. "It does all the things we have to do, but much faster, and makes it easier to sell the project." For example, the firm’s wastewater design team was challenged when they had to prove to a community that the wastewater treatment plant being constructed in their town would not detract from their neighborhood. The developer expected many major concerns. Showing them 2-D designs would not convince anyone.
"Using data that we supplied, RDV helped our team apply the new software to present the proposed plant area, with a flyover and drive-through," said Mattingly. "The presentation clearly demonstrated that the waste treatment plant’s buildings were lower than the surrounding houses. It illustrated the eye-pleasing landscaping around the plant and showed the odor-control features."
Geosyntec used RDV technology to illustrate how an old landfill area could be redeveloped into a public recreational park. "It is hard for many clients to envision the end product, particularly when trying to revitalize an area," Cao said. "That is why it was very important for us to deliver the image of the final product, including landscaping and using animation. We invited key members of the project team to our office. First we walked through and discussed the design drawings. Then, when they were somewhat familiar with the project, we showed them an animation produced with Rapid Design Visualization [software]. Their eyes were popping with amazement and we got a lot of ’Wows!’ as we screened the 3-D plans. They were amazed to see how quickly we could turn engineering drawings into a colorful virtual world with multiple flying and walking paths and full control of viewing angle. That’s an immediate sell."
The demonstration file was small enough to be portable and could be copied onto project team members’ memory sticks and posted on their website to show other interested parties.
McKim & Creed, whose environmental engineers work with clients to protect against flooding, improve runoff water quality, and effectively manage stormwater, use Rapid Design Visualization’s interactive floodplain analysis capability during project design. "A client asked to see what impact our project would have on the surrounding area," said Mattingly. "Using data that we supplied, RDV once again assisted the project team in applying the new software to create an interactive floodplain analysis, which demonstrated that the site design could handle heavy storm conditions with no significant impact to the site. The software clearly augments the existing knowledge and expertise of our CAD department."
The Geosyntec design team discovered added value while working on a proposed municipal solid waste landfill. The landfill was to be located close to an interstate highway, and the design criteria specified that it should not be visible from the interstate. "This was a tough challenge," said Cao. "The highway has variable grades, and the elevations vary for the landfill cover, its perimeter road, and the ground of the buffer zone between the landfill and the interstate. To make this challenge even tougher, a forest of trees of varying heights covers the buffer zone and a row of trees of varying heights also stands along the highway. Any civil engineer can imagine the design challenge involved using a very time-consuming, traditional method of creating dozens, if not hundreds, of line-of-sight cross sections.
"Using RDV software, it took a few hours to create an interactive drive-by along the highway," said Cao. "All we had to do was to get in the virtual car we created and start driving. By turning the viewing angle toward the landfill cover while ’driving,’ we could clearly determine if the landfill cover was visible. Checking the landfill cover grading took about 10 minutes. Within two days, we optimized the cover grading design, and the project was completed on time and within budget."
In a recent project, Vision Land Consultants was laying out high-end lots on a ridge. "We didn’t want to scar the ridge with a roadway that would be visible to the town of Gypsum, Colo., or from the highway," Audette said. "We did some sketches, graded in a road, and showed them to our clients. They said they still couldn’t picture what it was going to look like. That’s when we looked for software that could provide a 3-D representation of the corridor we were building up to the residential lawns. The clients were very impressed and decided they could go ahead with the project without visible scarring."
In another project, Vision Land Consultants designed a golf course community for a developer who wanted to be absolutely sure the two lakes in the community would be visible from the residences. "We had a grading plan—long cul-de-sacs between the lakes," said Audette. "We made a model to demonstrate what would be visible to someone walking or sitting on the ground or on a patio. Using Rapid Design Visualization, we could have the viewer look left, right, or forward and see exactly what would be visible from each and every lot. Then we did the same thing from the second floor. On this model, we could judge whether we needed to cut banks or in any other way increase visibility. This was a quick and easy way to view corridors and let our client know what we were doing and how. Being able to give developers access to the design gives us that little extra something that sets us apart."
Adapting to the new software took a relatively short time, according to Audette. "You just have to get your mind to make the change from 2-D flat drawings to 3-D representations," he said.
Three-dimensional modeling can help break through communication barriers between professional engineers and their clients, as well as save firms time and money and give them a competitive edge in the civil engineering market. "We are already doing the design work, and the software works with what we’ve prepared," said Mattingly. "Everyone benefits. The engineering company that wins proposals saves time and money, developers present their customers with the end product right at the beginning, and the customers get the products they had envisioned."