The Sudoku of Site Design

Grading plan and sudoku comparison by Kristina Zalite

Grading plan and sudoku comparison by Kristina Zalite

A friend posted a grading plan on facebook and commented: “If you love sudoku and you are wanting a creative career, consider landscape architecture because site grading is real-life sudoku (with real life consequences).”

If you’ve played sudoku (or created grading plans), that’s about the best comparison I’ve seen. It also underlies how reliant on three dimensional problem solving landscape architecture is. You know where you’re starting (bottom of a hill), you know your destination (top of a hill), and you either brute force your way through solutions (trying different combinations until it works) or you have developed strategies that reduce (but don’t eliminate) the variations that you use.

This will resonate with anyone who has ever done a grading plan, and even more-so for those grading plans where you have multiple starting and ending points and you need to connect them to meet accessibility needs. For those of you that haven’t done this exercise… imagine a three dimensional sudoku game. It’s not a 3×3 grid, but a 3x3x3 grid. That’s what we’re solving on a complicated site. [ED: I’m also hoping you take a bit of pity on us… this stuff can boggle the mind.]

You also have to keep track of your solution iterations, and make tough choices on which ones are better than others as you assemble them into a cohesive plan. Balancing access, constructability, cost, aesthetics and client opinion… and what the architect is pushing for to blend with their thoughts, and the civil engineer is pushing for in their approach. Imagine playing sudoku where you have the pen, but it’s a bunch of people around you telling you how to do it.

So… landscape architecture is about aesthetics and design, but it also involves us trying to find the simplest and most graceful solution to complex puzzles under the pressure of countless variables that should be considered. When most people think of what we do, they think of planting plans. The reality is that math and strategic problem solving and client/team management are likely closer to our reality.

[ED: I love brilliant flashes of the obvious and things that help me understand (and describe) my world better. Thank you Kristina for this lovely revelation.]


About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: