Computer Aided Design (CAD) has revolutionised the way golf courses are designed and most golf architecture firms now use a CAD system. Standard systems such as AutoCAD and MicroStation – my firm uses the latter – have proved their worth.
Geographical Information Systems (GIS) such as ArcInfo and MapInfo can also be useful, but are less common.
Why do architects use CAD systems? The benefits are well-known, but essentially come under three headings, time, ease of construction and marketing.
From a time perspective, it's easy to see the advantages: using CAD allows the mass reproduction of plans, easier modifications, is labour efficient, provides traceability, standardisation and flexibility.
When it comes to construction, computerising means that multiple copies of plans can be produced to service the needs of the client, such as marketing and updates to the board or committee, the contractors, including suppliers, shapers and consultants, irrigation contractors and other members of the design team such as planners and ecologists. CAD can also be used to identify where steep slopes and shade problems may occur.
CAD plans of courses currently under construction can also be used for marketing purposes, such as virtual tours of the golf course on websites to encourage membership or real estate sales.
3D modelling is an exciting addition to the standard CAD proposition. Most CAD systems have either an in-built or add-on 3D visualisation component, which can be used for computer modelling. 3D computer visualisations are a more modern method of sketching which would have also been used by earlier architects. They give a client who cannot easily interpret contours or 2D plans, an impression of what the architect has in mind and can be used as an excellent marketing tool.
As the saying goes 'a picture is worth a thousand words' and 3D computer models allow quick and accurate depictions – artist's impressions if you like – of what is to become a reality once the heavy plant and machinery commence the works. But like everything else they have their limitations, and they are relatively costly.
The argument heard against CAD systems is that their use is harmful to the architect's creativity, and that use of detailed plans makes it harder for designers to build features in the field. Do computers make for better golf design and more efficient builds? Well, creativity should not be stifled by using CAD and in my practice, the architect's plans always begin life through a combination of initial site visits and paper and pencil creations. Once the architect is happy with his or her conceptual plans they are incorporated into CAD by either scanning or digitising. Once inputted they can be easily modified.
In our experience, 'in the field' architecture is no longer possible, with planning authorities and other regulatory bodies demanding to know in advance where earthworks will take place, how much material is planned to be moved, the height of proposed tees and greens.
After planning has been received and during construction there will always be a certain amount of latitude for the architect to improvise on the design. Most deviations however from the plans submitted as part of planning should be the result of unforeseen on-site, schedule or cost implications and not because the architect did not know the site sufficiently well enough to incorporate the site's unique elements into the overall design.
'In the field' architecture probably has the greater potential to overrun in terms of cost and schedule unless the client has commissioned an architect who is capable of exercising tremendous self control when given the opportunity to design a course on the fly.
Who's right? In short, no one camp is correct to say one method is better than the other. They both together can help the architect achieve the best possible golf course the site will allow.
In truth computers do not make for better design. But CAD must be acknowledged as a tool which adds value and saves time. Used correctly it is a very powerful instrument which enhances the final product. CAD is capable of quicker and more accurate measurement of cut and fill requirements, the overall length of drainage and irrigation piping thus helping with budgeting forecasts. So, yes, it should result in more efficient builds.
CAD can also be a very successful aid in securing business, but it will never replace the experience of the architect.
It should be made clear that any detailed plans produced by an architect are only as good as the architect is at drawing what they know works in practice through their experience in maintenance, construction and design, be they CAD or hand-drawn.
A good example is a recent project we carried out at the Tom Simpson-designed Carlow Golf Club in Ireland. We were asked to design a nine hole extension, and our brief was to create holes similar in style to the old course. In order to persuade the members to proceed with the extension, the development committee suggested we present a 3D fly-through showing how the course would look.
Well, of course, we won the contract, and reports after the pitch were that the graphical representation had been the clincher. The movie style fly-through left no one in any doubt as to what was proposed and the board members were more confident voting in favour of a proposal they could see without the need to interpret contour drawings.
Members conceded once the trees matured they probably would be hard pressed to see the difference between the virtual course and the constructed one.