A Utah State University professor and his students used drones and a virtual reality program to develop a new resort concept for Powder Mountain, a popular skiing destination that straddles Cache and Weber counties.
Over the last year, Benjamin George, assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, plus three graduate students used products from Intel and Puget Systems to create the conceptual resort in a way many design firms might not risk.
“It’s definitely experimental,” George said. “If I’m a firm, do I want to put four of my employees for a year on developing this workflow? Financially, that’s just not going to fly.”
George said Powder Mountain approached USU last year with the idea to design a new resort after it was purchased by Summit Mountain Holding Group.
“They asked us to assist in developing ideas for what that development up at the top of the mountain should look like,” he said.
Sam Arthur, director of design for Powder Mountain, said the goal is to “create a forward-thinking alpine town that helps people to be able to recreate more than just in the winter.”
“We have plans for our village center, and essentially, we delivered those to the students and to Ben and the whole team and said, ‘Hey, take a critical look at this and see if there are any other ideas or problems you could solve,’” Arthur said. “It’s not like they started from green fields and are helping to brainstorm the thing; they’re taking another look at it.”
Even before Powder Mountain officials approached George, he was contacted by Intel to see if he was interested in collaborating with the company.
“Of course, I was thrilled,” he said. “They asked me, then, if I thought there was a suitable project to do the collaboration with and … that Powder Mountain Project seemed like a real ideal opportunity.”
George said architects typically did designs using paper to make a 2D rendering or a computer program to make a 3D one.
“They would finish their design and then they would put their finished design into virtual reality, and then they’d share that with a client,” he said. “They’d been using virtual reality at the end of the process.”
But using virtual reality throughout the process of landscape architecture can be beneficial, according to George.
“Virtual reality gives you this sense of being somewhere; it immerses you, and you have this really good spacial awareness of everything,” George said. “We said, ‘It doesn’t make sense to wait until the very end until you’ve made all of your design decisions. We need to be making design decisions when we’re actually in virtual reality.’”
To create the conceptual Powder Mountain resort, George and his team of students flew a drone over 600 acres of the mountainside.
“It gave us really accurate terrain data,” George said. “We could see little bumps in the terrain. You could actually identify different plants. Being able to have really accurate contours and really detailed aerial imagery made it possible to get a lot more accurate design.”
According to LAEP student Drew Hill, the high-resolution 3D terrain from the drone was then put into a virtual reality program for site analysis and concept design so the LAEP students could design right on top of the model in 3D. Several high-powered computers from Puget Systems also helped.
“The final design our team decided on reduced the footprint of Powder Mountain’s previous design, created open space corridors within the village, retained the density that Powder Mountain is looking for,” Hill wrote in an email to The Herald Journal. “And proposed a conservation easement in which the development rights of important habitat areas would be transferred to a land trust in order to ensure long-term preservation.”
Now that the Powder Mountain project is behind them, George and his LAEP students are turning their attention to other projects, like a charter school in Providence, using the same methods as before.
“We’re going to take what we learned,” said George, referring to the Powder Mountain project. “And make revisions to try to refine things better and do it on a smaller scale — because we were looking at very large scale with Powder Mountain.”