Visualizing Outdoor Amenities

By Brad Haigh, PLA, and Jared Carlon, PLA

Technology now offers us a variety of methods to show builder clients and the design team a clear view of their future projects. During the design process, this offers the ability to:

  • present options to clearly see opportunities and challenges,
  • provide a clearer understanding of different choices and their impacts, and
  • develop detailed marketing materials early in the development process to generate market interest.

The quality, clarity and detail of early visualization brings a project alive for clients, and helps them make better-informed decisions, more efficiently. It also plays a critical role in project approvals and entitlements. Professional visualizations can help tell the story during presentations to elected officials, who typically don’t have design backgrounds.

Finally, the vision often gets lost or diluted as the project moves through the marketing and building phases toward completion. Strong visualizations help keep the design concepts intact through final implementation.

Making the vision real

One example of this is the Gables Cherry Creek project in Denver. To begin the process, Norris Design used 3D graphics as a design tool to determine how to soften the eighth-floor rooftop pool deck by adding more plant material and authentic finishes, such as natural stone, metal, and exposed aggregate concrete. The relationship between the fire feature and the pool/spa as they frame western views of the Front Range and Denver skyline needed to be explored.

We examined what residents would see as they walked onto the rooftop. Where exactly are the key views and sight lines? It’s important to put ourselves in the end user’s shoes to make the experience powerful. To do that on high-rise projects like this, we use drones to capture what residents will see on future rooftop decks.

Norris Design also works closely with the architect to build an extremely accurate computer model showing the proposed design. This not only helps the design team understand the space better, but also gives our clients the ability to shape the spaces and select materials that work the best for them.

While this wasn’t a controversial project, or a difficult one to get approved, the client used these graphics in meetings with the city to help officials get on board. Gables/Smith|Jones Partners also used the graphics on its website and sales center to pre-lease units for the community. When the project was completed, we took a photo from a similar viewpoint as one of the visualizations.

This comparison helped solidify the developer’s reputation by showing local jurisdictions and potential tenants that the developer will follow through with its promises. The Gables Cherry Creek project has future phases planned: Now the community, stakeholders, and future residents will know that those design concepts will be carried out consistently through implementation.

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Collaborative design

The 3D visualization process usually starts with massing diagrams, developed using either SketchUp or 3D Studio Max. Regardless of project scale, these massing diagrams help us and our clients begin to understand the scale and potential programming.

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Once our clients and the design team are comfortable with the massing study, the Studio Max software makes it easy and efficient to bring in the detailed materials, finishes, and amenities that make the graphics (and projects) come to life. The 3D massing study is usually completed early in design development. The final 3D visualization is completed toward the end of the construction document process to help finalize all the materials and amenities.

It is important to note that we always work very closely with our project architects on these graphics. They supply us with their 3D models of the buildings and we make sure we represent the building architecture accurately, down to the color of the brick mortar.

In the public eye, the use of 3D visualization can help paint a picture to jurisdictions and help them understand the project impacts and potential early on. The Aurora Highlands is a 2,900-acre community in Aurora, Colorado, that we helped model to gain city approval. This visualization also helped in early funding discussions for the project.

This 3D visual of The Aurora Highlands proposed project helped gain city approval.

Material boards are another very helpful tool we use during the design process. As landscape architects, we create our own materials boards that build off the architectural design palette. Our materials boards include every material and amenity we select on a project, shown side by side with the overall architectural palette of the project.

These material boards are developed late in the design development process. They help us and our clients explore the finishes that bring projects to life. Our Colorado Station project in Denver has a significant indoor/outdoor space called an Aqua Room. We worked closely with the architect and the interior designer to create a strong indoor/outdoor connection. Once we were generally comfortable with the materials selection, we brought the materials into the final 3D model, which shows what this unique space will look like.

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Marketing that makes a difference

We are seeing clients competing for the best new thing to differentiate from the competition. People want to see where they are going to call home, but until a project is built, limited visuals exist to help sell or lease units. We have utilized virtual reality in multiple ways as an interactive marketing tool.

Technology is the newest trend we see in our communities, from the use of virtual reality in the sales process, such as selecting finishes in 3D, to built systems, such as real-time water-use dashboards, motion lighting and all-home central lighting and speaker controller. This tool is one high-impact way to differentiate a project.

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From the initial vision to the built product, realistic visualizations make projects come alive and help the full design team and the client imagine the possibilities in a more tangible way. Clients can make more informed decisions when they see how different choices will look and feel fully realized, not just in their imaginations or in plan form. The visualization experience makes vision come to life, so real that you feel as if you can step right into the space itself. That sense of reality is priceless when it comes to making decisions, whether as a builder client or as a home buyer.


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