The new wave of design software

Sean Dudley

A new software development could transform the way architects design, says Wayne Branthwaite.

CAD has made the process of designing golf courses easier and more accurate. Changing designs became simpler, and having the computer calculate earthworks made the process more accurate. However, actually drawing contour lines by hand to create the design has been the same since the year dot. It was a dry process that looked as flat as the paper it was drawn on – until now.

Overseeing plans for a design firm in Florida, Eric Oranen realised that the way to improve the process was to eliminate the pencil and paper drawing process and to create a graphical design environment. Eric went to work on his own in 2002 providing CAD support to several designers, and met a terrain software developer, which led to a partnership that could change the way we design golf courses.

Eric came to us and described what he was creating, but because of our lack of technical knowledge, we could not grasp the enormity of his innovations. When he took us through the demo, we were stunned: it could make design as much fun as building a golf course, be more efficient and accurate and we would be able to deliver more value to clients. But could we learn the software and would it interfere with our work? To test Eric's Terrain Tek Golf Course Design software, he asked us to design our next project using it alone. It was a big step.

Warren Henderson, our lead architect, is no more than an average computer user – he had never used CAD or Photoshop before.

We were just about to start design work on a project in Playa del Carmen in Mexico named Grand Coral Riviera Maya so the timing was perfect.

Warren loaded the software on his laptop and spent about six hours with Eric and another four or five online. "I would take on the raise and dig tools, master those and then move on," he says. "I could go back over what I had created and refine it using the new tools. And so eventually I created a full set of plans without drawing a contour by hand. I learnt the program much quicker than I thought I would, and it's even easier now, as Eric has created on screen tutorials.

"After we laid out centrelines and golf course corridors, we outlined tees, fairways, bunkers, greens and lakes. Then the fun starts. You set your virtual sight to be at eye level or higher, and place yourself at any point on the property. The software splits the screen in two, on the left a view, lets say, looking down a hole.

"On the right are the existing contours of that area. The design process is virtually building or moulding the holes as you go. You stand on the tee, and using a few clicks, 'dig' the low points to drain water around tees. As you move up the hole you simply lower the left side of the fairway to tie in to the trees on the left. Move to the landing area and you realise you can't see the green. So using the mouse you gently lower the ridge line until – voila! – you can see the green. Dig the greenside bunker to two feet deep – click! Stand back at the landing area and look at the bunker – perfect. Back up to the green and with another click smooth the slope to tie-in to the edge of the putting surface.

"Soon you are clicking away, raising the dirt behind the green, creating runoffs and instantly checking your slope percentage to make sure it's not too steep.

"Remember the split screen? Every time you move anything the contours are redrawn on the right screen. Cut and fill quantities are recalculated and displayed in real time. Each area is designed and refined as you go onto the next area.

"Nick and I would discuss concepts for a hole, he would watch as I created and refined it until we were happy. It is a more creative environment, and you can involve others more easily too. Before we start construction, we create very accurate plans and bill of quantities and a design that I have confidence will work in the field. We can show contractors and shapers exactly what we are looking for."

All designers have the problem of conveying what they have designed. Most developers, even the most sophisticated, can't interpret a 2D topographical plan. By creating the design in 3D and having the ability to fly a camera through the course, the designer can capture the images as it flies through. This video is not some other company's interpretation of contours but depicts the actual design. The video is made up of thousands of images and, again, those images are not concepts or an artistic interpretation, but an accurate look at exactly what was designed.

Some designers pride themselves in the details of their plans; other prefer the proverbial 'sketch on a napkin.' Warren has worked both ways and in between – he designed and built the highly recognised Arcadia Bluffs from a basic routing plan. This software gives designers the choice: they can use it to the degree of detail they wish. They can use it to create big picture concepts or revel in minutiae.

So we designed a golf course in a virtual world, drawing no contours by hand. Since then, we have completed plans for the TPC Cancun in Mexico. There is no substitute for being on site but when you can't get there you can sit at your desk and still see it from any perspective in 3D. And the design process has become a lot easier.

"Using the software has been a breath of fresh air," says Warren. "For 17 years I have drawn thousands of contours. After using this software, dare I say it? I will never go back to the old way. It would be like throwing out the computer and dusting off the typewriter."

Wayne Branthwaite is vice president of Nick Price Golf Design.

This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.