3D modeling for landscape architecture with Ramboll

Today we chat with landscape architect Anders Hus Folkedal at Ramboll, a large multidisciplinary engineering firm headquartered in Denmark. With over 15,500 employees spread across 300 offices in 35 countries, Ramboll combines local experience with a global knowledge base to deliver inspiring projects across Buildings, Transport, Planning & Urban Design, Water, Environment & Health, Energy and Management Consulting.

Let’s dive in and learn how 3D modeling in SketchUp has transformed the way he works.

Photo of Anders Hus Folkedal, Senior Landscape Architect at Ramboll

How do you fit within Ramboll’s global team?

I’ve been with Ramboll’s landscape architecture team for nearly two years working out of Drammen, our third-largest office in Norway. In addition to the eleven-person landscape design team, the office houses a mix of engineers and specialists, such as architects, city planners, road and traffic planners, building and water engineers amongst many others. This multidisciplinary mix is typical of most Ramboll offices. My specialist team extends to two other locations, Fredrikstad and Oslo but we are closely connected and regularly share knowledge and resources.

Representatives from all landscape architecture teams in Norway meet regularly to discuss recent developments and new approaches within 3D and BIM. We also connect with other colleagues in international offices to resolve challenges and explore workflows. 

How did you get started in SketchUp?

Twelve years ago, during my studies, I was taught to develop my project first in Civil 3D. To date, this is how I believe the majority of my colleagues work on a daily basis. Some aren’t using tools like Sketchup and struggle with more rigid terrain modeling methods. Until about five years ago, I was doing all my terrain modelling in Civil 3D and was struggling too. That all changed when working on a complicated housing project with a 26-meter elevation span that I couldn’t really develop in Civil 3D without a more intuitive way to view the 3D space.

SketchUp city model of Hønefoss viewed in Lumion. Collaboration between Rambøll and DRMA architects.
SketchUp city model of Hønefoss viewed in Lumion. Collaboration between Rambøll and DRMA architects.

For me, the solution was to switch the entire project development to SketchUp. I was then able to interact with the existing terrain and the architect’s geometry in a meaningful way. I could do much more in a single program; shape the terrain, create construction details and work with green volumes. I would always start in SketchUp and later bring terrain features into Civil 3D to generate 2D drawings.

“I discovered that SketchUp is more than just 3D modelling software, it is a means of communication.”

How has this impacted your work?

I discovered that SketchUp is more than just 3D modelling software, it is a means of communication. It’s been a game-changer, providing the ability to communicate visually and create better, aesthetically pleasing architecture by developing it in a 3D space. Collaboration with contractors and clients has dramatically improved and I enjoy everything ten times more.

We solve complex and difficult building issues by introducing all stakeholders to a 3D model. At every meeting, the SketchUp model takes centre stage, projected on the wall, making it easy to pitch new ideas and get buy-in.

“Being able to show them in 3D really speeds up the design and approval process.”

As an example, for one project, a client was concerned that a series of concrete walls would be too imposing. With 3D visualization, we were able to show how the inclusion of trees would augment the space, relieving apprehension over the stark concrete. Typically, this would be a difficult discussion to have with only 2D drawings or sections to make the case. Being able to show clients a 3D model really speeds up the design and approval process.

I have since refined my workflow setting aside other platforms completely. I am able to use SketchUp as a tool for dialogue and collaboration on projects as small as a planter construction and schoolyards, through to the planning of train stations and even large-scale cities.

See examples of five Ramboll projects in this article.

SketchUp city model of Hønefoss viewed in Lumion. Collaboration between Rambøll and DRMA architects.
SketchUp city model of Hønefoss viewed in Lumion. Collaboration between Rambøll and DRMA architects.

How does 3D modeling impact your field

The field of landscape architecture, at least in Norway, is struggling to move from traditional 2D drawing production and rigid 3D technical terrain modelling to a full creative 3D workflow. While other professions have defined and standardized their geometry, and have tailored software to meet their needs, landscape architecture has been a bit stuck. Software programs tailored just for landscaping are few and far between, and only recently have we been able to define a classification system for BIM models.

Norwegian BIM classification system created for landscape professionals
Norwegian BIM classification system created for landscape professionals

It is relatively straightforward to tailor a program for architects as, save for a handful of pioneering organic designers, many conform to the use of solids, with square corners and vertical/horizontal planes. An engineers’ work is mostly rule-based with standardized materials. It seems to be more difficult to tailor software for landscape professionals as designs don’t run orthogonally and are never really flat. 

Many use Autodesk with a Focus software plugin which means modeling 3D terrain in a 2D or 3D parallel projected wireframe view. The highly mathematical approach and non-intuitive interface reduces fluidity and creativity. For every project, BIM standards require that complex geometry mirror the structure of indoor specifications. The end result is often an oversimplified top surface and 2D plan, not an ideal outcome. This is where I see SketchUp’s potential for landscape design, it can deliver complex top surface geometry, as well as staircases and outdoor furnishings. There are some tasks not native to SketchUp, such as UV mapping and subdivision but it is the program I know and love, and there are extensions to meet this need.

Anders spends time fine tuning his rendering skills in Unreal Engine. Above: A test scene built and textured in Sketchup. Below: Light baked and rendered in Unreal.
Anders spends time fine tuning his rendering skills in Unreal Engine. Above: A test scene built and textured in Sketchup. Below: Light baked and rendered in Unreal.

Additionally, working with third-parties means that there is almost always a need to import externally generated geometry. Thankfully, most professionals in this field exchange IFC files, which can be used in SketchUp. Openness and affordability will always be the winning recipe for any software.

How do you communicate your designs?

It is extremely beneficial to present a model in-person to the client, especially when it’s projected onto a large screen to navigate and discuss in real-time. Using this method, it’s even possible to make quick changes on-the-fly, with more complex changes to be refined back at the office. Clients now specifically request 3D images instead of plans when seeking project updates. Generating renders using Lumion’s live link to SketchUp is highly beneficial for client requests. Adding annotations to screengrabs of the SketchUp model proves an effective way to communicate with other professionals during project development.

Example of a Sketchup model rendered in Lumion. Project collaboration between Rambøll landscape and DRMA architects.
Example of a Sketchup model rendered in Lumion. Project collaboration between Rambøll landscape and DRMA architects.

Virtual Reality (VR) is still a field of exploration for us. We’ve used Pimax 4k Head-Mounted Displays on several occasions in combination with 360-degree rendered images from Lumion. This “low-end” approach is preferred because we can bring the headset to the client without the need for tracking sensors, controllers, and lengthy explanations of setup and navigation. The client says where they wish to ‘stand’ and the view is rendered for review. We’re always seeking ways to better leverage VR as it is unparalleled for understanding complex spatial issues.

Anders Hus Folkedal and Ramboll architect, Anders Ruud show a client a 360-degree panorama rendering using a VR Head Mounted Display device.
Anders Hus Folkedal and Ramboll architect, Anders Ruud show a client a 360-degree panorama rendering using a VR Head Mounted Display device.

Does your love for technology and gaming make VR more appealing to you?

Of course! Give any regular person a headset and a computer, and I'm betting some wouldn't know where to begin. Many people haven’t heard of Steam, and don’t understand that it is a major portal into VR. I suspect there is an unfortunate perception that VR is complex and highly specialized or that it belongs to high tech types. I would encourage those who are curious but hesitant to see it as a monitor and have a go. Firms could demystify VR by purchasing a few headsets and putting it in-office social areas for everyone to try.

Veiavangen middle school, Mjøndalen, Norway. An all-Rambøll project where several BIM models from different programs were combined in Sketchup.
Veiavangen middle school, Mjøndalen, Norway. An all-Rambøll project where several BIM models from different programs were combined in Sketchup.

I have dreamt of combining (landscape) architecture and gaming for a long time, and believe this is finally happening now. The gaming industry has been driving innovation, staying lightyears ahead of the AEC industry in some respects.

Anders reimagines Mies Van de Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion in a forest. Using SketchUp and Unreal Engine, he can bring in high-quality, real-world assets, model his own vegetation using Speedtree, define ecosystems, draw creeper plants, paths, and rivers using spline systems.
Anders reimagines Mies Van de Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion in a forest. Using SketchUp + Unreal Engine, he can bring in high-quality, real-world assets, model his own vegetation using Speedtree, define ecosystems, draw creeper plants and paths using splines

This changes with Epic Games’ acquisition of Twinmotion and the release of the Datasmith exporter for SketchUp to Unreal Engine. I predict that startups like Quixel will revolutionise our workflow, providing an ever-growing library of photo-scanned assets. I predict that still-image rendering will eventually become a thing of the past. Being able to export models into Unreal Engine easily means we can fly around in VR with an Xbox controller in just a few clicks. We will finally be able to game our designs!