Posts by Cristhian Barajas

Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

It’s ‘Back to School’ season, an opportune time to upgrade and improve your computer workstation for optimal productivity and highest quality graphics and CAD documents. Which system should you purchase? That all depends upon three major factors: your discipline, your role, and your workflow.

The most important components worth considering:

GPU – Graphics/Video Card
CPU – Processor
RAM – Memory
HD – Hard Drive
Other ports

Storage Capacity: Solid State Disk (SSD) vs. Serial Advance Technology Attachment (SATA)
Let’s begin from the bottom to the top. Nowadays, when it comes to hard drives you can choose from two options: SSDs and SATAs. SSDs are the newer, faster, and better performing option. On the other hand, platter-based SATAs are the standard, cheaper and more commonly available. A 1TB SATA drive costs around $50, while a 1TB SSD may cost around $300. Obviously price is a major drawback with an SSD drive, but they’re also noticeably faster. Please note SSDs are only faster when it comes to reading files from the hard drive; they are not directly responsible in the execution of programs or rendering faster per se (though they will launch faster), since these tasks are handled by the CPU and the GPU. Therefore, the hard drive’s role in executing production tasks is only minor.

Cloud-oriented users (e.g. Google Photos, Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, etc.) may not even need a large capacity hard drive; with constant and reliable connection via wi-fi or Ethernet, the extra local storage space may be actually unnecessary. If your workflow relies upon cloud storage, a moderate capacity SSD somewhere in the range of 256 GB minimum and 500 GB might be more than sufficient. Even if you prefer to carry most of your stuff on a separate portable HD – let’s say a 1 TB USB 3.0 external hard drive – you may want to stick to a moderate capacity SSD.

It’s a different story if you work from a desktop workstation, where files are primarily kept locally, with little or no cloud integration (sometimes necessary for security purposes). In this case I’d recommend at least 1 TB of storage. The choice between a SATA or SSD drive may be determined by your budget, but upgrading capacity on a desktop is much easier than with a laptop. And this doesn’t mean that you have to dispense the use of cloud or external hard drives if the option is open; you can still use these online-accessible services to sync files remotely. It’s the best of both worlds and helps in practicing the recommended habit of backing up files.

Modern desktop machines like the Alienware Area-51 are outfitted with Gigabit Ethernet Ports, USB 3.1, and media card readers.

Other things to consider
Depending upon your workflow and work environment, there’s a multitude of options worth considering when purchasing a computer: a fast network network card, Ethernet port, USB ports (3.0+ preferably), Bluetooth, HDMI port, CD/DVD optical drive, audio/mic jacks, SD card, and a 3½-inch floppy drive (just kidding!).

Apple Mac users might also require a Mini DisplayPort (MiniDP or mDP) and Thunderbolt ports. But if you’re like me – terrible with Apple products – you won’t likely need to worry about either. In my next follow-up I’ll explore further details about Mac-oriented workflows and solutions.

How much RAM do I need?
As a rule of thumb, your system should have at least 8 GB. Minimum. Adobe Photoshop and Sketchup recommend 8 GB, but in reality I’d recommend 12 GB as a starting off point for serious work. If your work revolves around graphic production tasks, bump up to 16 GB of system memory. Computers use RAM to buffer files into the software, so it plays a central part in handling large files, whether they’re 2D or 3D. However, the role of RAM memory in conventional projects is relatively less important than the CPU and the GPU. Nonetheless, let’s not underestimate RAM’s role. Because you can have the best CPU available and the most killer graphic card in the entire world, but if you are trying to open a 300MB, high-poly 3D model of Downtown Manhattan with only 1 GB of RAM, your system will crash before even opening the file.

Which processor should I get?
This is where things start to get tricky. Some programs operate noticeably better with specific CPUs, while other programs simply aren’t as affected. That said, if graphic design is a large component of the workflow, the Intel Core i7 processor is highly recommended. But recommending the Intel Core i7 processor isn’t really specific enough, as there are numerous iterations of this CPU with the “i7” moniker available today. That said, I’d recommend an Intel i7 processor at 3.0 GHz+ or the AMD equivalent; go Xeon if your workflow requires it (a topic we’ll go into detail in a future follow-up).

The ASUS ROG Rampage IV Black Edition X79 Motherboard

A note about upgrading: it’s worth spending the time to research about hardware compatibility. I’ll share a little story illustrating this point. I recently upgraded my Alienware Area-51’s motherboard to an Asus Rampage IV Black Edition. The system was originally powered by a factory-installed Intel Core 980x processor (pretty decent at the time when I purchased the machine). Only while attempting to install the new CPU onto the new motherboard did I realize they weren’t compatible! I had to buy a newer CPU (an Intel i7-3960x) to fit onto the new X79 motherboard’s socket (LGA Intel 2011). The moral of this story is parts evolve and change. The killer CPU of today may be an incompatible part for the computer of tomorrow. So be sure to invest in relatively recent components that can be easily replaced and repaired, if necessary.

In next month’s follow-up, I’ll investigate the topic of choosing the right processor and video card, and answer questions like, “When to choose a Xeon CPU over i7?”, “What’s multi-core and hyper-threading?”, “NVIDIA or ATI?”, “Quadro or GeForce?”, “What about Mac workflows?”, and the best workstations optimized for specific software. Stay tuned!

It’s amazing how much you can learn from mapping an area – even more so after mapping an entire state. The concept of a dry lake was a previously foreign concept before my mapping project began, so I set out to investigate this type of landscape common to the Southwest, where climate, weather, and development can reshape when and where bodies of water appear/disappear. Considering the framework of drought and global warming today, perhaps we should start considering the following dry bodies of water as proto-touristic locations that in time may become famous:

Bristol Lake

Image: Google Earth; Chuck Coker

The Mojave Desert and San Bernardino County host one of the most interesting dry water bodies in California. With a shore length of 43 miles, Bristol Lake has unique salt and mineral formations that give the impression there was a layer of snow in some parts of the lakebed. The formations were possibly formed out of magma chambers below the crust. The dry lake bed is best known for its salt-edged, crystal clear bright light blue water ponds and channels (present in the Salt Evaporation Plan).

Location: The site can be accessed through the National Trails Highway from Amboy Road. A trip out there from Los Angeles can take up to 4 hours (200 miles).

“National Chloride produces 20,000 tons of calcium chloride each year. They sell it to Hill Brothers Chemical Company which processes it into the finished product. It sells for about $270/ton. The Bristol Lake chloride works is one of the largest in the world.”Image by Chuck Coker; (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Soda Lake

Image: Google Earth & Wikimedia Commons

Located north, in San Luis Obispo County, this bright white micro-desert is actually an alkali lake formed from the remnants of a prehistoric sea. With its ephemeral condition Soda Lake supports a habitat for migratory birds, some shrimp species, and the saltbush. In order to protect this ecosystem, a boardwalk with an overlook has been built along the shore, providing raised panoramic views of the entire lake for visitors.

Location: The lake covers an area of 4.6 sq. miles and can be accessed via State Route 58 and Soda Lake Rd, about a 165 miles/3 hour drive from Los Angeles.

Searles Lake

Image: Google Earth & Wikimedia Commons

Famous for the Trona Pinnacles, the massive dry lake known as Searles Lake is located out in the Mojave Desert, with a shore length of 31 miles. Due its sediments, it has become a vital resource of regional industry, containing almost 30 different types of minerals. The site can be accessed via Trona Rd (State Route 178) and Pinnacle Rd.

San Bernardino County’s Trona Pinnacles, some as tall as 140 ft., are rocky spires that resemble sci-fi scenery from another planet. The Pinnacles belong to the California Desert National Conservation Area and are in an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). In the past, the site was known as Cathedral City, which is not to be confused with the actual city in Riverside County.

Location: About a 3-hour drive from Los Angeles (177 miles)

Rogers Dry Lake

Image: Google Earth & Wikimedia Commons

With a shore length of 38 miles and an area of 43 sq. miles, this dry lake was formerly known as the Muroc Dry Lake. Rogers Lake now houses the Edwards Air Force Base. The United States Airforce and the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center use both the Rogers and Rosamond lake beds as landing pads and runways for aircraft operations.

The Rogers Lake in Kern County also houses the world’s largest compass rose, is painted onto the lakebed. This iconic place became a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

Location: About 2.5 hour drive from Los Angeles (109 miles)

El Mirage Lake

Images: Google Earth and CleftClips

If you own a gyrocopter, light aircraft, cool car, quad, or just something you want to photograph, then you might find El Mirage an attractive destination. With a minimum entry fee, the Off-Highway Recreation Area offers OHV trails for visitors who are looking for a place to enjoy some off-roading. People who are into ultralight aircraft piloting are even permitted to land on the lakebed. This space is also a favorite location for photo shoots for cars, models, and even furniture due the artistic desert setting.

Location: Access to the place can be found through Palmdale’s Pearblossom Hwy (State Route 14 & 138) and Old El Mirage Rd, about a 2 hour drive from Los Angeles (85-95 miles). The shore length is about 16 miles long; it’s important to note the temperatures can increase drastically during summer.

Images: Google Earth and Cristhian Barajas

Owens Lake
Drained alive by the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Owens Lake is located in the Inyo County, to the east of Sierra Nevada. This once pristine land with an approximate area of 108 sq. miles began its decay in 1913, when the uncontainable urban sprawl of Los Angeles began channelized the lake’s water, pumping the lake’s content all the way across the Southern California landscape. By 1926 Owens Lake was no more.

Some of the flow has been restore. However, there are serious concerns regarding air pollution originated from the dry portions of the basin known as alkali dust. AHBE Landscape Architects and other landscape architecture firms had the opportunity to intervene at the site through poetic sculptural elements, interpretive educational trails to raise environmental awareness and to mitigate, and control the noxious alkali dust.

The Lake has been featured in many documentaries and short films rooted in water, drought, urbanization and global warming. Out of these efforts, Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark documentary provides a unique look of the situation from the environmental photography point of view. Many institutions and professionals, including myself, have been involved in envisioning plan work at the site.

Location: Access to the Owens Lake can be found via the 395 N Highway, about 200 miles or 3.5 hours from Los Angeles.

Landscape architects are often challenged to add “context” to our design projects, to show the existing road network and buildings surrounding the site. And in 3D. Yet often we lack the time, budget, or knowledge to integrate the modeling process as an efficient and accurate task. In this post we will discuss three different tools that can help professionals achieve quality results with nominal investment and effort.

Urban planning and major landscape architecture projects often include the necessity to show realistic scenarios, creating a context for the proposed solution within an existing environment. Thus, depending upon the project, variations will occur from time to time in terms of scale and level of detail. The following workflows have the ability to cover massive schematic-looking surroundings, from 2-3 blocks, to an entire district or town.

The first tool is ESRI City Engine, a program that allows users to generate or download entire 3D cities out of 2D GIS datasets. Depending on the level of detail and flexibility desired, CityEngine ranges from $500 (Basic) to $4,000 (Advanced), and the export formats range widely (not to mention that it is also compatible with Lumion).

However, if quick and simple solutions are desired, then Lumion’s newest version is recommended. Using data from OpenStreetMaps, Lumion offers an option that allows users to place a model into any context. This operation is practically the inverse of Google Earth’s KMZ exports, where models are loaded into Google Earth. Here the context comes to the user, plus it can be rendered. Since this is only a beta version, there are currently some limitations regarding the site’s footprint and its appearance in relation to the context. Nonetheless, we can be sure that this tool carries promise, and it will continue evolving into the near future. Lumion Pro costs about $3,400, and only the Pro version offers the features noted above.

A good balance between the last two options with an economic price tag is the Sketchup plug-in, SU Placemaker. Sketchup’s user-friendly interface, alongside this plug-in can facilitate the integration of 3D environments into the site without requiring a lot of file formatting conversions. Without the need for extra software, SU Placemaker can be acquired for the affordable price of $200, and the software developers recommend users to try before they buy!.

All of the above-mentioned options can be combined with other technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D printing, helping harken in a new era where architectural projects can be transformed into different and innovative experiences for both designer and clients.

This is the second part of Experimenting with Concepts Related to Theoria and Praxis, focusing this week upon the definition of Praxis System. See part one with an emphasis upon Theoria definitions here

A set of connected things, or parts forming a complex whole in particular. Sometimes these sets will be comprised of other subsystems.

Examples of systems: This praxis diagram is a system. A SWOT analysis is a system. A bubble diagram is a system.

A method is a process of doing something systematically through an orderly arrangement of specific techniques. Each method has a process. They are concerned with the “how”, defining “when” things happen, and describe the desired order. Design methods, research methods, and planning methods may have little or nothing to do with each other due to their very distinct natures.

Examples of methods: Interviews, Direct Behavior Rating (DBR), Geospatial Analysis, Visual Preference Surveys (VPS), Cluster Analysis, Post Occupancy Evaluations / Case Studies, Community Facilitation, Focus Groups, SWOT Analysis.

“A course or principle of action”, but usually one officially approved by a consensus or a body in charge or influential to the decision-making process. Policies are usually externally imposed over the project either by the firm, a client or a reviewing agency. Unlike design and planning guidelines, these are mandatory in the design practice, and must be met in order for the project to move on.

Examples of policies: All construction documents will be subject to a QA/QC review by the project manager and lead designer. All streetscape vegetation should be maintenance-free in terms of watering and pruning.

A proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief, behavior, or a chain of reasoning. Principles are self-imposed “policies” derived from research, and the approach that the project is taking. Principles are helpful to establish because they help during the decision-making process towards better results.

Examples of principles: Use clear and culturally-inclusive graphic design. Maintain neutral and objective stance language while composing of the document.

A naturally occurring or designed sequence of operations or events over time which produce desired outcomes. Processes contain a series of actions, events, mechanism, or steps containing methods. Processes are everywhere before, during, and after the development of the project, but they become primarily important during the execution of a task. A process is influenced by principles,  techniques, and by technology.

Examples of processes: Rendering, post-production, modeling, data-building.

An established or official way of doing something. Procedures are external imposition, rigid with little flexibility.

Examples of procedures: Submitting documents to project box in proper format to a specific folder, using special log-in credentials. Reviewing and redlining plans digitally using Adobe Acrobat, sending them via e-mail, always cc’ing project managers.

A plan formulated towards the achievement of a major end, directly related and subordinated to the approach. It is usually written in the form of particular actions.

Examples of strategies: Obtain public approval and a positive perception of the project from the community. Treat the project as a regional pilot case by documenting research and design decisions.

A carefully planned action to achieve a specific end. Altogether, these clear and realistic activities help to accomplish goals, objectives, and strategies.

Examples of tactics: Incorporate input from key stakeholders during the schematic design phases through in-person interviews. Compile design guidelines from pertinent literature such as books, journals, articles and other professional works.

The assumed function or part played by a person/thing in relation to a particular situation.

Examples of roles: Drafter, community facilitator, plan checker, designer, visual artist.

A piece of work to be done or undertaken, usually in the form an activity.

Examples of tasks: Uploading a file, prepare meeting materials, draft a conceptual plan.

A device or implement used to carry out a particular function. Tools take a neutral stance in the project and they do not necessarily aim to be a key element during its development. A tool can just be a means to complete a task, whereas the method is a mean to fulfill a goal or strategy. These are subordinated to the task, varying in their nature: objects, media, computer programs, etc.

Examples of tools: Markers, websites, social media, presentation slides, boards, posters, invitations, tables, diagrams.

The knowledge of techniques, processes, and the like or the embed of such in machines

Examples of technologies: Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Real-Time Rendering, Building Information Modeling, Geo-positioning, a total station, a drone, a 3d printer.

A way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution/performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure. Sometimes research and design techniques can be adopted from previous experiments or projects, adopting and/or adapting such workflow into the process.

Examples of techniques: A very ‘visual’ presentation, hand-drawn sketches instead of computer diagrams, parametric modeling, a macro-based workflow as in PowerPoint or Photoshop.

A manner of doing something. Design or make in a particular form.

Examples of styles: Formal formatting, minimalistic graphics, ‘sketchy’ finishing, photo filters and effects, photorealism, themes, color palettes, imitation of artistic currents.

Not being a native English speaker, I find it difficult sometimes to differentiate concepts that in our day to day conversations we use interchangeably. Most of the time I do so myself without even noticing it. However, recently I recognized a need to seek the true and appropriate meaning of some concepts that we often use in the landscape architecture field when writing documents, or preparing presentations, lectures, etc.

I think the main application of these concepts at their objective denotative meanings takes place at the philosophical intersection of a project’s theory and practice. Many times I find it difficult to describe how to deal with a situation in a structured way, one which requires hierarchy in the deliverance of ideas. In this work-in-progress exercise I made sort of a compilation – a personal glossary of sorts – to understand myself better, determining the main difference between these concepts and what do they entail. Of course, this is just an idea and has no validity as formal classification. But I sure found the process helpful as a self-reflection exercise, especially when planning future projects.

“A way of dealing with something or arriving at some destination”. It denotes manner and answers the ‘how’. These approaches in our field work better when being pre-formulated; approaches already out there adopted, perhaps modified to suit our needs. A solid and well-defined approach in a project is the best – a safer and smoother way to transition from the theory to the practice.

Examples of theoretical approaches: multidisciplinary, advocacy planning, inclusive urbanism, civic-pedagogy, public engagement.

The philosophy is the link between the entity and the product. If a firm has goals and ideals reflected in their code of ethics, mission, vision, and statement,  then the project’s philosophy has ability to infuse those motivations and expectations into the project itself. That’s why both need to be aligned. It also must represent realistically the intention of the project. It is a broader umbrella term, a sphere that encloses all the mentioned: values, mission, vision, history, area of expertise, trending currents, and so on. It is complex to identify or define because it happens to be the very ethos of the firm’s culture, subject to space and time, and sometimes even reinforced by art movements, individual mindsets, or currents of thinking. While the philosophy is the internal spirit behind a project, the approach is the way external spirit visibly manifested outwards to others.

Example of philosophies: Sustainability, Identity, Aesthetics, Health, Holism, Spirituality.

Line of Action
The elements of a broader field or discipline. It denotes category and answers the ‘which’. Disciplines are fields of study, and their sub-categories are ‘lines’ of study. If a philosophy is a reality, then the lines of action are the dimensions in which that reality takes place. Lines of action define the character of the general goal and the amount of specific goals to achieve, separating them by areas.

Examples of lines of action: Social, economic, ecological, individual, communal, private, public.

General Goals
Derived from the intention of the project, a good general goal would synthetize the overall purpose of the project, and perhaps also the purpose of all of its areas (see line of action) if they all demand equiparable priorities. The definition of goal is “the result of achievement toward which effort is directed”. Serves as an aspiration statement for the project.

Example of a general goal: The conception of a quality recreational space that brings the community together through diverse program elements and activities.

Specific Goals
Purposely isolated goals that will aid the general goal in terms of opportunities. A more specific level are SMART goals, which help even more to determine future strategies and tactics. But some people argue that SMART goals are more of a blend of goals and objectives, for they are not as abstract as conventional goals might be.

Examples of specific goals: The provision of a new urban landmark to the city. The regional recognition of the firm in alike projects.

General Objectives
The measurable and quantifiable steps required to reach a general goal.

Example of general objective: To design and build a neighborhood park in the City of XXXXX with the help of the non-profits and local government over the next six months.

Specific Objectives
Answers in form of actions to particular challenges, chances, or concerns. Each specific goal could have many specific objectives.

Example of specific objectives: To design and build a large-size iconic sculpture in the entrance of the park ensuring clear visibility from the main streets. To achieve certification from a leading sustainability entity during the management phase.

The study of how research is done, how we find out about things, and how knowledge is gained. Methodology is about the principles that guide the research practices, and it explains the methods or tools utilized.

When applied to non-research projects, methodology is the connection between the goals and the approach. Methodology diagnoses why we are doing things in the way we are doing them, and how these actions are going to lead us towards the goal. Methodology is not a statement, a phrase, a slogan nor a word; it is a narrative in which you communicate why and how you are planning to carry out the project. But it goes far beyond a justification, since it also talks about the tools and the philosophy being adhering to.

Example of a methodology narrative fragment: “[…] Previous cited works and articles have shown how projects using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) design principles are lacking the community participation and engagement elements, since the experts rarely show an interest in delegating planning tasks to the residents. The crime rates in this community seem to suggest to us that in order to deter further criminal activity it is also important to give the community quality infrastructure that they truly own. Just as the ‘Parques-Bibliotecas’ case study we discussed in the previous section, we also consider vital for this project to reinforce the sense of identity and ownership in the community. Thus, we would like to inject into our CPTED design principles the Placemaking approach and we pretend to implement design charrettes, visual preference surveys, joint site visits, and other participatory activities.”

The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories about such application or use. It is a process, an activity and a goal that encompasses many other diverse sub-processes and sub-activities to ultimate achieve its very form as goal. Confusing enough? Of course. It’s hard to put in perfect words a practice into a theory in the same way it’s hard to put into perfect words a theory into practice. But practices constitute those activities that projects, fields of work or fields of study involve.

Examples of practices: planning, research, design, communication, construction, management.

Please note the definitions above have been heavily adapted and are only proposed, still undergoing development. I find a need in our field to properly define, classify, and most importantly, exemplify these concepts with tangible scenarios so we can improve familiarity. If you have comments or suggestions to enrich these, I welcome any submissions about your understanding or resources that could further help clarify their meaning. A future second part in this series will aim to discuss the Praxis System diagram, defining concepts like policy, strategies, tactics, roles, methods, tools, techniques, technologies, systems, tasks, processes, procedures, and more.