Natural elements are an essential part of the built environment. However, BIM tools offer almost no support to landscape architecture. Plehat is introducing a new solution that helps architects and decision-makers to understand the dynamics of nature and make smart design choices.
Plehat used photogrammetric 3D models of Uunisaari islands, to the south of Helsinki. The experimenters modeled the buildings and the plants on the island and used game engine software to create a virtual reality (VR) experience. They called the app the “Landscape Time Machine”. The technology solution they developed paved the way for new software that the company will launch later this year.
In 2018, Plehat, a landscape design startup, received funding from the Finnish national KIRA-digi digitalization project to carry out a test. The experimentation demonstrated how seasonal changes and weather conditions affect plants, and how the environment can be visualized and analyzed virtually.
From Gaming to Landscaping
Lauri Lemmenlehti, the CEO of Plehat, is a video game enthusiast. During his studies, he was fascinated by the way computer game developers model environments. Grand Theft Auto 5, a six-year-old game, is a great example of this. It includes an urban environment, a mixture of San Francisco and Los Angeles and a pseudo-California, in an area of roughly 100 square kilometers of natural environments.
The developer in charge of modeling those natural environments told Lemmenlehti that it took around three years for 25–30 people to complete their task. There are few environmental projects in the physical world with as much design power.
Inspired by video games that could handle such large-scale natural environments, game engines were a logical platform of choice for Lemmenlehti.
Landscape Design Needs a Digital Boost
“There’s a real danger that in digitalization our profession is going to be left behind the rest of the construction industry,” says Lemmenlehti. “To make things worse, there’s no international consensus on what to model of the natural environment, or how.”
Lemmenlehti and Mikko Vekkeli founded Plehat in early 2017. Nine people now work at the company, which offers consulting services and develops its own software. Their first product will be a plant library for designers.
Lemmenlehti emphasizes the difference between design for construction and for landscape design. Building projects produce a physical product that usually stays the same or nearly the same for a long time. Construction has a starting point and a completion date.
Unlike buildings, landscapes are never “finished”. Plants grow, change their shape, and often look very different in mid-summer and mid-winter. Environmental conditions — wind, rain, the light and the soil — affect plant growth a great deal. A pine on a windy coast looks quite different than in the mainland. It takes 30 to 40 years before an environment is fully developed. A landscape design application must be able to handle the dynamics of natural environments.
A Practical Tool for Architects
Many clients don’t hire a professional to do the landscape design. Instead, the architect of the building designs its surrounding areas. Therein lies the problem, as Lemmenlehti describes: “Architects struggle to choose plants for a particular site. They don’t know if the environment is suitable for the plant. Instead, they make choices based on looks. What they have at their disposal is a catalog of plants with small photos and codes that indicate various requirements.”
Plehat wants to make plant selection simple for the architect. You click on a map and the app suggests plants that thrive in that environment. In addition, the app can tell if the plant is available at nursery gardens. With VR glasses, you can also see how a tree looks in real life, at various ages and in any season. This helps both the client and the designer to make better decisions and to avoid selecting plants that will not flourish.
Landscape architects typically work as sub-consultants to architects. That’s why they use the same design tools as architects. The leading BIM software packages are Revit and Archicad, but a few landscape designers also use MicroStation.
Plehat’s plant app will be an extension to Revit and Archicad, which will enable them to sell it to both architects and landscape designers. The VR features will require a PC sufficiently powerful to run a game engine, the platform on which the app is built. A Mac version is also in the pipeline.
Aiming at an International Market
The challenge in developing intelligent tools for landscape architects and designers is the small market size. In Finland there is just a handful of firms: 300 landscape architects, and a few hundred landscape designers. The International Federation of Landscape Architects represents around 25,000 individuals across the world. In contrast, there are around 2.7 million architects worldwide.
After launching its app in Finland, Plehat will start selling in other Nordic countries, and then move into larger markets. The eventual goal is a global plant library of all relevant species.
The app’s planned release date is in September 2019. Customers will get a 30-day free trial, and after that they will make a monthly payment for the service. Consumers will be given a light, freemium version.
Lemmelehti believes that their app will not only help designers and decision-makers. It will also benefit urban environments at large. “Green areas are essential to insects and the whole ecosystem. We can fill up the city with buildings provided we take the green environment into account, well in advance,” he concludes.
For more information, visit plehat.com (in Finnish) or contact Lauri Lemmenlehti at lauri.lemmenlehti(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)plehat.com.
Update: Meet Lauri Lemmenlehti at WDBE 2019 in Helsinki on September 24, 2019, where he’s giving a presentation.