Spatial Technologies-GIS in the Design Professions

31 Aug, 2006 By: James L. Sipes

Designers use GIS for landscape design and historic preservation.

GIS has long been the digital tool of choice for planners, geographers and others who use geospatial data. Design professionals have been slower to incorporate GIS into their practices, but that is changing as landscape architects, architects and interior designers find applications for geospatial data in their design processes.

Landscape Architecture

Of the design professionals, landscape architects use GIS the most. Landscape architects often are involved with large site design projects that can encompass thousands of acres. GIS can help them analyze the site and develop an understanding of surrounding conditions. Landscape architects are also involved with regional planning, corridor studies, urban design, natural resource management and other types of projects that include geospatial data. A large portion of the profession focuses on smaller residential and commercial projects, and these landscape architects typically don't use GIS.

For a current project, landscape architects with my firm, EDAW, are using GIS to help define buildable areas for a 3,000-acre site. These buildable areas are based on slope, proximity to streams and wetlands, soils and existing cultural resources, just to name a few variables. After buildable areas are defined, my colleagues and I lay out roads and sidewalks and define building lots. GIS helps ensure that the project's landscape architects make decisions based on accurate information. This information minimizes the extent of design changes later in the planning process. After completion of the initial layout plan, architects help make sure the resulting neighborhood character is consistent with the project's goal. The architects then develop prototype architectural structures for each of the neighborhoods.

Architecture and Interior Design

CAD, 3D modeling and raster imaging programs are the digital tools of choice for architects and interior designers. Both professions have been slow to adopt GIS because their focus is on buildings and their interiors. Traditionally, they haven't seen a need to work with geospatial data, but that is changing. Architects, landscape architects and interior designers are finding innovative ways to use GIS technology.

GIS tools for generating 3D imagery have improved significantly in recent years, and designers are exploring how to incorporate this capability into their practices. Architects use GIS primarily for analyzing and understanding the context for a building. A common use of GIS is to analyze sight lines to determine what can be seen from a proposed building and locations where the building will be seen.

Interior designers are involved in the design and planning of environments where we live and work. This profession makes extensive use of digital technology, but the primary digital tools used are 3D CAD, photographic simulations and Internet-based technologies.

Urban design focuses on factors that influence the livability of our cities. Urban environments are complex, and many issues must be addressed to make the best decisions. The starting point for an urban design project is an understanding of existing conditions, and GIS is a much better tool for this than CAD. An architect designing a skyscraper, for example, needs to address the traffic that will be generated by the project as well as other potential effects on neighboring communities.

It's important to note that architects do more than simply design buildings. They also actively shape the cities in which we live. The AIA (American Institute of Architects) New York chapter worked with the APA (American Planning Association) Metro chapter, the Environmental Simulation Center Laboratory and the Citizens Housing and Planning Council to explore alternative zoning approaches in New York City. Their goal was to provide New York's Department of City Planning with progressive regulatory and administrative approaches. The group also explored how technologies such as GIS, 3D GIS and visual simulations can help ensure good design.

Architects, landscape architects and interior designers all must address a range of security issues. These include fire safety, home security, safety in public places and safety from terrorist attacks. GIS is serving as the foundation for many of the new security techniques that designers are using. For example, designers can use GIS to determine how crowds typically move through a space, what parts of a site are visible from surrounding aread and potential vehicular and pedestrian acess points. They even can study air-flow patterns and the movement of surface and underground water to detect biohazards.


Design professionals are searching for ways to incorporate digital technology, including GIS, into their practices. The AIA TAP (Technology in Architectural Practice) Knowledge Community focuses on the use of computer technology in the architecture profession. TAP is interested in how technology can be applied throughout the entire life of a building, including design, construction and facility management. One area of interest is BIM (building information modeling), which involves the integration of model-based technology with a project database.

The basic idea behind BIM is to integrate all aspects of the building design. In essence, it's a repository for digital data generated during design and construction. This data model can be used throughout a building's life to reduce risks, minimize maintenance issues and help maintain quality control.

BIM is becoming commonplace in the architecture office. According to AIA, more than three-quarters of architecture firms in this country use 3D modeling and/or BIM in their practice. BIM presents new opportunities for architects, and it may also encourage them to adapt GIS more closely, because the two technologies both focus on some type of data management.

Historic Preservation

Other areas in which GIS and GPS technology is being used by architects and landscape architects are historic preservation and cultural resource management projects. Architectural survey and documentation is the foundation for most historic preservation efforts. These surveys are typically conducted in coordination with state and tribal historic preservation offices, federal preservation offices, certified local governments and federal agencies. They primarily involve collecting data through site reconnaissance. The CRGIS (Cultural Resources Geographic Information Services) program, part of the National Park Service, uses GPS and GIS to conduct architectural surveys and to better manage and protect resources within park boundaries.

GPS is used extensively in architectural surveys because it's critical that information collected in the field be as accurate as possible. For a structure, an architect will use GPS data to create floor plans, elevations, sections, site plans and location maps. GPS also can be used to document where photographs were taken. This helps to accurately document conditions at a given point in time. GPS and GIS also are being integrated with 3D modeling to document features. For example, architectural preservationists are using 3D scanners to document historical landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty.

Green Scene

Designers are finding that it may also be beneficial to use GIS in creating green buildings. This concept has gained in popularity during the past couple of years, and many clients are demanding that new buildings meet standards established by the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System. LEED was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in an effort to help encourage the construction of environmentally friendly buildings. The LEED rating system provides measurable standards that can be used to determine how green a project is.

Achieving LEED certification requires multidisciplinary collaboration, and all of the design and construction professions are involved in the process. LEED standards encompass both the interior and exterior of the building, and there's a push to develop LEED-type standards for outdoor settings.

The push toward LEED accreditation reflects increased environmental awareness. When the Hearst Tower in Manhattan was designed, the owners made the decision to meet LEED certification requirements. They did this in part because of this environmental awareness, but also because it made economic sense. The building uses approximately 85% of the material from the original headquarters, which was built in the late 1920s.

Scaling Up

Design professionals will continue to explore different ways to help produce quality designs. For example, there's a push in the geospatial world toward using multiscale datasets, so the same data can be used for both planning and site design projects. This approach is perfect for architects and landscape architects whose work involves a variety of scales, and it may encourage more design professionals to use GIS in their practices.

James L. Sipes is a senior associate with EDAW in Atlanta, Georgia, and the founding principal of Sand County Studios in Seattle, Washington. Reach him at

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