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How advanced visualization helps projects get approved

August 05, 2020

Stantec’s advanced visualization specialists are using new techniques to better show stakeholders what planned projects will look like after construction is completed

After an intense week of work, you decide to spend a morning in the countryside, traveling to a landscape you’ve not visited in years. Your memories of this place are of its natural beauty and the way it would let you escape from the hectic pace of daily life. Watching the scenery pass by, many features appear familiar . . . the river crossing, the groves of trees. But, as you emerge from a mountain pass and look up at a high ridgetop you knew well, all is not as you remember.

Above the tree line, backdropped by open sky, a dozen wind turbines slowly turn in unison.  

How does the presence of those turbines impact you?

Stantec senior planner Josh Hohn (San Francisco, California) has spent his career helping Environmental Services clients understand similar questions as they plan and develop large infrastructure, including power generation and transmission, transportation, and water projects.  Recently, Josh implemented powerful advanced visualization technology that supports his clients’ public engagement efforts in exciting new ways.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Most proposed infrastructure projects must go through a rigorous environmental review process that identifies—and, when necessary, mitigates—impacts from the proposed work. Often—especially when designated scenic areas, national parks, or areas of clear aesthetic importance are involved—the visual landscape is considered in this process. Yet, until recently, the opportunity to predict and share these impacts with the public were limited.

The traditional process for evaluating impacts to the visual landscape typically involves preparation of “before” and “after” imagery. These images use models overlaid onto photography. The images are then included in documents and shared on posters at public meetings.

“Visual specialists take photos, build models, and use graphics software to combine the two,” Josh explains. “Those images are intended to give an idea of contrast in visibility, scale, and form. They’re used as the basis for evaluation of impacts.”

The problem with this approach? It provides a one-dimensional perspective of how viewers would experience the project.

The standard approach to visual impact assessments relies on the comparison of static images showing existing conditions (left) with a simulated view of the project (right).

“Technology has progressed rapidly since I entered this field 15 years ago,” Josh says. “It became increasingly clear to me that we could help our clients adopt digital advances to shift from the long-established norms. Adding active and interactive elements helps stakeholders better understand the work being proposed.”

The benefit of the new approach? It helps get everyone on the same page in terms of what, precisely, is being proposed. The visual merits of the project can then be discussed from a point of shared understanding.

So, what does Stantec’s new approach look like and how does it work?

A well-rounded vantage point provides perspective

A few years ago, Josh’s colleague and Stantec senior biologist Tom Davis (San Francisco, California), was helping a client who needed to make design decisions for a pipeline project. But the client didn’t have imagery beyond what was available in Google Street View. Recognizing the limitations of that tool, and the risks in making decisions based solely on what was shown in Street View, Tom bought an action camera and headed to the site. He went off road and quickly captured a 360-degree photo. Then he returned to the office, augmented it with notes about environmental constraints, and sent it to the client. This all happened in the span of a few hours. The client was grateful and Josh felt inspired.

“I saw what Tom did and realized how similar the context was to what I do each day,” Josh says.

“When communicating with stakeholders about a potential project’s visual impacts, it’s vital to at least show what the project might look like as early and efficiently as possible,” Josh says. “If the public is aware of a proposal but doesn’t have good information about what it might look like until months later, when a document with simulations is released, that lag time can allow imaginations to run wild and worst-case scenarios to take hold. Helping our clients get and share solid information quickly can ground the conversation. It also defines the terms for further discussion over visual effects.”

Seeing a common interest, Josh and Tom applied for funding from Stantec’s Innovation Office to help expand their ideas to support other clients.

Advanced visualization makes the unseen seen

As Josh and Tom worked with our Design Visualization Services team to develop the tools, a Stantec project in Sacramento provided the first opportunity to test the technology. A proposed underground water storage project included the re-design of a city park atop the site. Stantec landscape architect Dalton LaVoie (Sacramento, California) developed a landscape design model that was incorporated into 360-degree photos taken by Josh. The result was a set of animations, loaded to the City’s project website, that helped community members understand how the project would improve the park. People liked what they saw . . . and our client won support for the project. 

Advanced Visualization: Interactive, 360-degree simulations allow viewers to understand a project site’s broader context NS toggle between existing and proposed conditions from multiple views.

Similarly, Josh worked with a client proposing a wind energy project in West Virginia. Wind projects were already common in the area. But the 360-degree simulations, and a folded set of cardboard virtual reality (VR) goggles inserted into the formal permit application, helped decision makers experience the broader context surrounding the project site.

In both cases, we gave users a better, richer experience of what the project would look like at completion.

“We live in a three-dimensional world, so it makes sense to make big decisions using three-dimensional data rather than flat imagery,” Josh says. “This approach enhances peoples’ understanding of scale, appearance, and context.”

Technology paves the way for the future of public discourse

Technology is changing the way we capture and present project imagery. It’s also changing the face of public engagement. That’s because it’s not always practical—or even possible, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic—to get people together in a room.

The adoption of virtual reality solutions for public engagement—which started well before the coronavirus began spreading—requires special considerations from a regulatory perspective, but also creates huge opportunities for organizations.

“Even in pre-pandemic times, the face-to-face format of public meetings and open houses inherently limited an organization’s ability to reach a wide cross-section of stakeholders,” Josh says. “Municipalities and other organizations have, over time, adopted websites, online surveys, and other tools to combat that challenge. Now, we’re seeing the next steps toward virtual public meetings.”

With the tools available, we can deliver better information to more people, provide meaningful opportunities for community input, and prompt robust discussion. That process supports our promise to design with community in mind and results in better outcomes for everyone.

About this article

This article is part of an ongoing series that features projects funded by Stantec’s Innovation Office, which celebrates and supports employee ideas that benefit our clients, communities, and company. Check back soon for another story in the series.

  • Josh Hohn

    To address community opposition to proposed development, senior planner Josh helps clients and stakeholders achieve a shared visual understanding of projects—conducting studies for solar, wind, geothermal, battery storage, and transmission projects.

    Contact Josh
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