On Solid Grounds

Christian Hanley, director of technology at landscape architecture firm OLIN, connects some dots

Christian Hanley is a partner and the director of technology at OLIN, one of the country’s most prominent landscape architecture firms. OLIN has designed some of the most iconic parks and grounds of the last few decades, including New York’s Bryant Park, the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles and the new United States Embassy in London. In addition to their project work, the studio has recently launched OLIN Labs, an in-house research, development and education practice.

Hanley evaluates, oversees and implements emergent design technologies and digital design processes. He has more than 18 years’ experience in both landscape architecture and the technology sector, enabling him to identify solutions that continually evolve OLIN’s digital capabilities used to represent and communicate the studio’s design acumen. He is a past member of an advisory board at Gehry Technologies, a strategic alliance of design professionals dedicated to transforming the effectiveness of the building industry through the use of technology.

Prior to joining OLIN, Hanley held positions as a land planner, landscape designer, AutoCAD manager, project manager, as well as an information technology consultant and senior systems administrator. He holds a Bachelor of Science in landscape architecture from Temple University, as well as post-graduate studies in digital design, information systems, and network engineering. Current areas of focus include information modeling/BIM for landscapes, digital fabrication technologies, and researching/developing applicable uses for experimental sensing technologies in the landscape.

Built Blog: Tell me about your background. How did you get interested in landscape architecture?

Hanley: I was always drawn to the outdoors. I grew up spending a lot of time on various camping/rock climbing trips. This was where my interest started. When it was time to start thinking about university, I searched for a program that had a focus on my interest—that’s when I found the Landscape Architecture program at Temple University. The bachelor’s program there was a BSLA (Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture). It was during one of our studios that I discovered my first introduction to how CADD was used in the documentation process.

Built Blog: And technology?

Hanley: After completing my undergraduate program, I worked at a small office that was just getting into CADD and needing a small computer network. I was very interested in both of these things and was given the opportunity to attend training sessions. Over time, I was “loaned” out to other offices to assist with similar needs, (ACAD Training, Network Setup, etc.). That was my first professional introduction to technology in relation to my field of practice. Shortly after, I decided to take a short divergence from landscape architecture and pursued post-graduate studies in internal technology and digital design. I then pursued a series of technology-related certifications that led me towards a career working for a large software company.

Built Blog: Was there a moment when you realized you could marry these two passions?

Hanley: A friend from undergraduate called me and said that his landscape architecture studio was in need of a technology director. I had been with the aforementioned software company for a few years and was realizing that I was missing landscape architecture. The timing of the call couldn’t have been better. It was then that I realized I could combine my passion for digital design/technology and landscape architecture. I joined OLIN in August of 2001, was named Partner in 2008, and have been here ever since!

Built Blog: What were some of the challenges you worked on at Gehry Technologies?

Hanley: We (OLIN) were invited to participate on the Advisory Board for Gehry Technologies, specifically the development of a product called GTeam. This was a great honor for us, as all the other members were architects. The challenges we worked on were primarily focused on discussing methods to reduce cost overruns due to the numerous “data silos” that don’t always get shared/accessed by the right people at the right time. Our goal was to help find ways to make those silos more transparent and available to the client. The project focused on developing a 3D modeling web-based platform to help do just that. The first version of the product launched in 2012. It was a fantastic experience. The Advisory Board’s participation ended around the same time. That product later went on to become acquired by Trimble.

Built Blog: What are some of your favorite projects?

Hanley: I love projects that let us explore new methodologies, both in “drawing production” and design/form finding. One project typology that forces these explorations are the complicated landscape over structure projects that we work on. As a specific example, we were working on a project that was going to have around 30 acres of green roof. We had to design, document and collaborate in Revit. It forced our design technology group to come up with new approaches to model things. We ended up creating a series of custom tools/workflows from ACAD/Rhino into Revit.

Built Blog: What are some of the technologies you’re most excited about? And technologies that you think can be the most transformational?

Hanley: Currently, we are most excited about a variety of custom tools/plugins we are developing and using with Revit. Today most of our projects are being done in Revit. Around 8-10 years ago, we saw this coming and made a deliberate decision to incorporate Revit into our workflow. We did that so if a project came along that was required to be done in Revit (and, of course, it was a project that we wanted to pursue), the Revit requirement wouldn’t be an issue. Some folks are quick to say that Revit isn’t a tool for landscape architects. We decided that software should always support design, and if it didn’t do that out of the box, then we would invest in figuring out to make it work for us. I don’t particularly care for the “that tool doesn’t work for us” reply. I strongly believe that you can’t let technology dictate design. Design always comes first, and technology should support that. If the technology doesn’t do what you want, figure out how to do it or collaborate with someone who can help you.

The other tool is Bluebeam. We were introduced to this a few years ago by one of our collaborators and it has been wildly successful for us. Our PMs have quickly adopted this and love the markup sessions.

Built Blog: What are some of the technologies you rely on most?

Hanley: Currently, I would say Revit, ACAD, Rhino/GH and GIS. On the development side, I rely on Visual Studio for our custom Revit tools, and for our Rhino/Grasshopper tools, we work mostly in Python.

Built Blog: Can you name one or two projects at OLIN in which you feel technology has made a marked difference in the quality of the final product?

Hanley: Over the years that I have been here, I think technology has made a marked difference on almost all our projects. With that said, I do think the London Embassy was a major milestone for design technology at OLIN. It was our first Revit project. That team laid the technological foundation for so many of our current projects. We started that project in 2010 and partly because of the technology we used to design/document, we were able to communicate our design to all the relevant team members/contractors, all the way through to construction.

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