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Computer Models Give Shape to Ideas

June 12, 1988|MICHAEL MILSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

When Moises Pinero asked the Bradbury Planning Commission to exempt his plans for a two-story dream home from the city's stringent height restrictions, commission members tried to imagine what the proposed 7,000-square-foot house on a hill would look like and whether it would infringe on other residents' views.

But then, adding some homemade technical flourish to the intimate setting, Al Cocking--a longtime Bradbury homeowner who was wary of "unmanaged and uneducated" growth--stepped up and showed them.

With a realistic model of Bradbury and its environs programmed into a $1-million computer at his business, Cocking--on his own time--generated a scale image of the proposed 26-foot-high Tudor-style home and barn. Rotating the replica on the computer screen, he then photographed the structures as they would appear from a dozen locations in town.

After Cocking showed those pictures at the Planning Commission meeting and after many Bradbury homeowners complained that the house would obscure their commanding vistas, Pinero's request to exceed Bradbury's 18-foot height limit was turned down unanimously. He said he would appeal the decision to the City Council.

Commissioners and city officials say vocal opposition at the meeting played more of a role in the rejection than did Cocking's independent computer model, but they acknowledge the three-dimensional image was a useful tool in separating fact from fiction. Even Pinero said he thought the model helped by preventing commissioners from exaggerating the results of his plan.

"If you do it right, it can be fantastic," said Commissioner Lew Pearce, who was "very impressed" by the projection but would not say whether it affected his vote. "It's not a perfect indicator, but it gives you a good gut feeling whether you're making the right or wrong decision."

Like Bradbury, a tiny, exclusive foothill community, most area cities trying to make decisions about growth and development are becoming defensive and possessive of their precious landscape and scenery.

Limited Assessments

In the past, the visual impact of such development has been hard to determine, often being limited to an engineer's written assessment.

Now computers can accurately picture how structures like Pinero's proposed home and barn, or even a new freeway, would appear to neighbors--long before ground is broken.

"If the architect wants to show people realistically what something will look like, this is the perfect medium," Cocking said. His Irwindale firm, Advanced Digital Maps, has done similar mapping projects for clients as varied as Hughes Aircraft Co., the California Department of Transportation and the French government.

'Something Real'

"It's obviously much easier to have something real to look at," Cocking said, "especially for a lay person sitting on a planning commission who doesn't know much about engineering and architecture."

A customer would normally pay about $2,000 to have an area like Bradbury mapped, Cocking said. But once the information is processed by the computer into a basic model, prototypes of new projects can be made for about $200.

To make a detailed computer model of an area, mappers first take aerial photographs, make ground surveys and gather existing topographical charts. They feed that information into computers that are capable of storing and processing huge amounts of data to compile a basic map, which can be either two- or three-dimensional.

Variety of Views

Technicians can add to the maps, drawing proposed highways or housing developments that can be built and arranged, according to architectural plans, on the computer screen. The three-dimensional computerized images--called terrain models--can be viewed from any direction, in animation or from a point within the image itself. For example, a computer could display the view from one building on the map to another.

A model could even be examined with a computerized sun shining on it from any direction.

Such images are especially useful in preparing environmental impact reports for construction proposals, planners say, to meet increasing public concern about the preservation of scenery and open space.

"You can easily show people what something will look like from any direction," said Joe Mori, Caltrans' photogrammetry chief. "You can actually put your plans in the computer and then look at the completed project from all directions and see how it affects the skyline."

Planning Models

Caltrans maps all of its new projects on computers, Mori said, using foundation plots developed by Cocking's company. Most designs are drawn only in two dimensions, providing a basis for planning and designing roadways, but some--such as a proposed bridge over the Yuba River--are also done in three dimensions to test a project visually.

Eventually, Mori said, Caltrans will make and distribute terrain models of all new projects.

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