Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 2 (Feb 2000)

Reviews: RapidSite

By Jerry Laiserin

Mark Twain said, "I like progress. It's change I hate." This sentiment fits current urban/suburban development projects, where one group's "progress" all too often is perceived as someone else's unacceptable change. One concern shared by all is what the new development will look like. Will it overpower the existing neighborhood? How will it blend with the character of the community? Very few people can visualize answers to these questions from architects' 2D plans. And traditional artist's renderings typically accentuate a project's best features while masking its flaws.

All participants would benefit from a program that can quickly and affordably generate navigable, interactive, photorealistic, 3D visualizations that accurately represent the project site and its surroundings, the existing buildings, and the proposed development. RapidSite from Evans & Sutherland (E&S) has been designed to fill that need.
A RapidSite model for a historic preservation project at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City (top) offers users a heightened sense of realism during walkthroughs.

At rest, a RapidSite model presents an impressive tradeoff between easy creation and photorealistic presentation, but it has tough competition from still images created with inexpensive architectural renderers such as Lightscape or Accurender. Start navigating through a Rapid Site model with a mouse, however, and the heritage of E&S's history in aviation and combat simulators shines through. You control where you move, how quickly you get there, and what you look at along the way.

RapidSite is an integrated suite of tools designed for laying out a fully modeled and textured primary site up to 500 meters on a side; a less-detailed but still textured surrounding perimeter site up to 2000 meters on a side; and a photo-based panoramic surround that includes blending into a sky dome. The result is a fully navigable environment that concentrates on detailed terrain in close-up areas (via RapidSite's Terrain Modeler) and tapers off to a photographic background (edited from on-site photos in the Panorama Modeler). Supplied texture libraries, such as grass, concrete, asphalt, and so on, can be applied to the primary site with the Site Texture Tool, and a Perimeter Texture Tool enables the colorizing of grayscale aerial photography of the perimeter site.

The Site Layout Tool integrates CAD site-plan data (in DWG format) and site contours (as a single layer of lightweight polylines) for the proposed construction area of the primary site with data imported from US Geological Survey Digital Orthophoto Quads, in Geo-TIFF format, and USGS Digital Elevation Models for the perimeter site.

Rather than model existing buildings with CAD drawings, which could take weeks in a multibuilding complex, RapidSite relies on an included photogrammetric Picture Modeler to derive 3D models from perspective photos that have been calibrated with at least two measured lengths and three monument points.

For models of proposed construction, Rap id Site's Building Modeler starts with the architect's CAD floor plans, roof plans, and elevation drawings, imported in 2D DWG format. Facades are extruded from the floor-plan footprint, and groups of facade planes-say, all the planes facing south-are linked to the corresponding CAD elevations. The process is analogous to building physical models by cutting, folding, and assembling paper drawings of the floor, walls, and roof.

E&S optimized RapidSite for a target market of engineers, planners, architects, landscape architects, and developers who need persuasive interactive models quickly and inexpensively. Comparable models generated in CAD would take longer and involve integrating separate tools, such as Photoshop. Assembling realistic environments around CAD models ranges from problematic to impossible. High-end architectural renderers, such as 3D Studio Viz, solve many of the texture, terrain, and environment problems of CAD, but CAD-like rendering times limit these applications to still images and fixed-path animations.

RapidSite thus occupies a unique niche in design communication for the built environment. Anyone involved in designing, reviewing, or analyzing building development projects should give RapidSite serious consideration.

Jerry Laiserin consults, lectures, and writes about the impact of technology on architecture, engineering, and construction. He can be reached at

Price: RapidSite Creator (allows model creation), $5990; RapidSite Explorer, $1995
Minimum system requirements: Windows NT 4.0; Pentium II or compatible CPU; 128MB of RAM; 500MB of hard-disk space and 500MB paging file; OpenGL graphics accelerator with 32MB of texture RAM; three-button mouse.
Evans & Sutherland
Salt Lake City, UT