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The business of beautiful: Gardens in the sky

As landscape architect Fred Hann put the finishing touches on a suburban home garden project, his well-heeled client admired his work. 
"Can I ask you a question, Fred?"
She looked askance down the street at the other houses. "Why is it," she wondered, "that the front yards and the front gardens of new homes in those sub-divisions, are so bloody ugly? Without any kind of presence or life or reflection of the people that live in these homes?" Hann was at a loss. "Every house up and down the street all look the same."
Hann began thinking about different ways to envision gardens on preexisting and new property developments. With Toronto at the cusp of an extraordinary boom in condominium development, Hann knew intuitively that there would an increasing demand to beautify these homes—to differentiate the seemingly endless series of identical boxes in the sky and make them unique. Urban gardens help promote proper drainage, help mitigate extreme temperatures and improve air quality. They resonate with people on an emotional level – living, growing plants have a calming effect.
At that time, he didn't know of any system that would allow people to see a fully modeled garden plan without involving an actual physical overhaul of the building or tediously rendered architectural drawings and plans. He wondered if there was a way he could demonstrate to developers (and their clients) how their new home or condo would look complete with rooftop, terrace and balcony gardens—before implementation. 
Having worked as a consulting landscape architect for 25 years (on everything from waterfront development plans to tank farms for the oil industry to national park projects), he was well acquainted with the business side of things. After involving the National Research Council and querying across various sectors, he saw the problem. 
"There was a fundamental disconnect between what the building industry was providing their consumers and what consumers actually wanted." The industry could make the building structure, but buyers needed to feel something toward this structure in order to consider it a place they would live in. Seeing the space, fully detailed with a completed garden, could hold huge sway in their purchasing decisions.
The result was Garden Connections, a Toronto-based company that shows potential buyers a fully articulated 3-dimensional view of their dream garden. Allowing people to imagine what their gardens would look like before they buy establishes a significant emotional appeal for potential buyers.
 "Our vision is a beautiful garden for every home," Hann says. To actualize this vision, he first had to tackle the technological aspect. To be successful, the technology needed to shift away from a conventional "detached" auto-cad environment and toward 3-D renderings so clients could see exactly what the space—complete with exquisitely landscaped gardens—would look like.
It's a value-added implement that can considerably influence why people would buy one condo over another. "For the consumer," says Hann, "we're in the dream fulfillment business. For the developer on our B2B side, we're using balconies as a lead generation object. It connects the consumer with the condominium space—and with the developer."
Hann teamed up with Venturelab, a business accelerator program, through MaRS and was directed to George Brown College's Architectural Technology program. The college has been pairing companies with students to help solve industry problems through its innovation lab. Dante Casasanta, an Architectural Technologist and instructor at GBC, selected a handful of exceptional students from the program to work with Garden Connections. 
The students, including Kyle Nhan and Barbara Fulton, were hired to work on a pilot project over the summer. The project was to construct a virtual model of the Shangri-La condominium using a Building Information Modeling (BIM) called Revit. The model would then be customizable to show buyers garden design options for each unit.
The BIM technology is a "3D modeling program where you can design a whole building in 2D but at the same time it becomes 3D. So you would draw walls in a 2D floor plan, and it will build it up for you. When you draw a wall, it will be a line – but in 3D mode, it will show a 3D wall," says Nhan. These virtual models allow developers to make adjustments throughout the design, construction and management stages.
"Revit allows multiple people to work on that same file simultaneously. "So if I was working on a file, and someone drew a wall, I would see that wall at the same time on my file," says Nhan.
The Garden Connections project involved the creation of a 3-dimensional rendering of the Shangri-La condominium, complete with interchangeable garden designs that Hann designed. This could then be later used as a marketing tool for Garden Connections.
"First we had to design the entire condominium," says Nhan. "We needed a foundation to design the balconies. With a team of four, we designed the entire condo together. After we had the foundation, we started taking into account the visual factors. At first we got a tour of the Shangri-La, we got to see all the rooms and how the balconies were designed. And then we got floor plans, and from those floor plans we designed the entire building. That took around three weeks to a month. From then we started designing the actual layouts of the balconies. We had to then curate assets—furniture, tiles—everything from scratch. Once we had a catalog of those assets, everything went from there."
The students were able to quickly manifest Hann's vision, which ordinarily would have to be hand-drawn or painstakingly produced on AutoCAD. "When you're designing landscaping it's more emotional, you have to design to make it affect people," says Nhan. "That was my first experience with that." The project also quickly schooled him in time-management and business skills. "There's a lot of deadlines. And working with more than one designer at the same time, working with more than one client is a lot to manage. You have to get it done. If you don't get it done, you lose clients."
Barbara Fulton's skills were also refined through the Garden Connections project; "I learned a lot in Revit," she said. "In the beginning of the year I wasn't 100 per cent with the program. After that, I can say that I'm very advanced in that."
The GBC program has a remarkable post-grad employment record; Fulton has a full-time job lined up at another architectural firm and Garden Connections has hired two people from the program as a result of the project.
Hann was extremely pleased with the outcome, and found working with the students to be extremely rewarding for him, as well as beneficial to his company. 
Hann is now poised to launch something big. "We've got a very robust platform now to take any building and model that building, and be able to deal with the exterior spaces – be it the balconies, terraces, or rooftop gardens. Our goal is to create a global enterprise, and we're going to be the best in the world in visualization, simulation and personalization and interaction in creating beautiful balconies in luxury condominium properties."

Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator who lives in Toronto. She is drawn to the quirky and eclectic stories of those that live and work here. 
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