26 January 2013

The Most Useful Maps for Architects

Online map services like Google Earth and Streetview have revolutionised the way architects collect information on development sites. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. This article looks at how internet giants like Google and Bing have created the ‘virtual site visit’, while smaller, niche services provide other vital information, like flood risk zones, post codes and relevant planning policies.

The virtual site visit – aerial photography
Thanks to aerial photography, architects can learn a lot about a development site at a moment's notice. Google Maps is most architects’ first choice for a quick aerial view, but worthy competitors include Bing Maps, Nokia Maps and Yell. Competing map providers usually have their own aerial views. Checking photography from a number of sites can build up a fuller picture by including images from different seasons and different eras. It is not uncommon to see a vacant plot on one photo, a building site on another and a finished building on a third. The most recent view isn’t always the most helpful.

Google’s Streetview, below, literally adds another dimension to aerial photography by allowing architects to see roads at near eye-level and view buildings from a variety of angles. Bing Maps offer a similar service known as 'Streetside'

View Big Building / Little Building in a larger map

Axonometric and 45 degree views
Bing, on the other hand is known for its axonometric aerial views that allow you to circle development sites by 90 degree increments. This feature is invaluable to architects when producing massing models, either by hand or using Sketchup. At the time of writing, Google also offer a limited Bing style axonometric view, which they call ‘45°’.

3D models and draped maps
Nokia's draped Map 3D WebGL (aka here.com) allows you to rotate your view vertically and horizontally, offering a far greater degree of control compared to Bing's axonometric view.  The downside, however, is that without knowing what the survey information is based on, you cannot be sure how accurate the 3D imagery is. Yellow Pages used to offer a similar function, branded as 3D City, but this seems to have now disappeared.

Google offers a much simpler type of 3D urban model, which shows fairly basic representations of landmark buildings.

Historic aerial photography
There is a great deal of overlap between Google Maps and Google Earth. However, one major advantage of Google Earth is the ability to turn back time and view a range of historic aerial views. This can be particularly useful for architects when responding to a Planning Contravention  and Enforcement Notices as historic maps can demonstrate that certain uses or structures were on site four or ten years ago. The historic images can be accessed by moving the sliding scale bar within the Google Earth interface.

The niche stuff – relevant planning policies and history
Most local authorities now have their recent planning archives available online. Many, however, go one step further and present planning history through navigable maps. Have a look at the Policies Map for Elmbridge in Surrey and Wandsworth in South West London to get an idea of what’s possible. While the user-friendliness of some planning maps can be mixed, it is always worth checking a development site's own history, as well as that of its neighbours. If you can find your way through the council's maze of planning policy and jargon, you should also seek out the Proposals Map or Policies Map for the borough, which will identify what specific policies, if any, apply to your development site.

The Environment Agency’s Flood Risk Map
Flood risk or perceived flood risk can massively impact the viability of development sites. The Environment Agency’s map of “Risk of Flooding from Rivers and Sea” lets you check the flood risk for a given area. Checking the flood risk map early can inform your design from a feasibility stage. We’ve also successfully referred to the flood risk map to avoid supplying costly Flood Risk Assessments to overly enthusiastic planning registration officers.

Finding a post code or Easting and Northing
How often do you find yourself starting an application on the Planning Portal, only to realise you don’t know the post code or the list of recognised addresses doesn't properly describe the site? Gridreferencefinder.com can quickly tell you the post code or Easting and Northing co-ordinates, without the need to register or limits on your daily queries.

OS Data
All planning applications in England and Wales include an Ordnance Survey map of the development site. These are available from a number of providers, many of which can be found via the Planning Portal's 'Site Location Plan Creator'. If you are a student or are working on an academic proposal, you should ask your university, school or college if you are eligible for a Digimap account, as they provide the same information to students at no local cost.

Finally, any article on maps for architects should mention ArchitectMap.net. This can be used to find local contractors and building product suppliers, as well as network with fellow professionals, co-consultants and graduates.