Laser-accurate Topography

For my “Warming to Data” Studio Project on data centers, we sited the project on a rimrock escarpment outside of rural Prineville, Oregon. The large, sensitive site. My building responds directly to the earth, touching down on two well-heads to control the flow of hot water being pumped into an aquifer for thermal storage. As such, the siting and dimensions of the landscape intervention needed to be exacting.

An initial step in an architectural project is a thorough site analysis and survey. Using LIDAR data culled from the State of Oregon survey. GIS-type data is always an adventure to source; in this case, the lack of super municipal data led to Open Topography, an NSF survey project.

Using LIDAR data can be a difficult project to begin.  Point clouds are not common to native architectural software, clunky in Rhino and GIS. The best way to use the classifications and manipulate to a useful result came from LAStools, free windows suite for crunching the gigabytes of data for a modest square mile of landscape.

LAS survey data includes a tight grid of points and classifies them as ground, landscape, and building, based on type of results. In order to process this, you must crop, clean, cull, re-classify, then convert the data files to get useful geometry.


In the case of Prineville, I used the point cloud to then generate a mesh (using the excellent open source Meshlab software to infer mesh from points). This became the base file to all my 3d design models. I used grasshopper to cut topographic lines of this surface, including topo contours at variable intervals, and section tracings for all relevant drawings.


Additionally, I imported the points that represented vegetation, in this case the endemic Juniper Trees on site.


I was able to model exactly the thousands of trees on our large plot. I used their centers and diameters to generate a simplified representation that was then 3D-fabricated with a CNC router into a physical model base.


LIDAR, point clouds, and LAS are a field of accurate surveying and recording that will continue to make waves in design and architecture.  Having accurate surveys of existing forms gives site and context greater depth, and allows a most accurate modelling basis for design.