AEC

Tech Trends:Digital Practice

1 Nov, 2004 By: Arnie Williams

A NEW PARADIGM FOR ARCHITECTURE, ENGINEERING, AND CONSTRUCTION


With the launch of its Digital Project suite of applications in October, Gehry Technologies (www.gehrytechnologies.com) caps a multiyear effort to bring engineering, fabrication, and procurement management to the forefront of AEC projects.

 Figure 1. The intricate, form-defying design and complex engineering of the $274-million Walt Disney Concert Hall posed a challenge to all team members. Use of CATIA and Gehry Partner advisors helped ensure the project's success.
Figure 1. The intricate, form-defying design and complex engineering of the $274-million Walt Disney Concert Hall posed a challenge to all team members. Use of CATIA and Gehry Partner advisors helped ensure the project's success.

When you hear the acronym PLM (product lifecycle management) bandied about these days, you can be forgiven if you automatically think only of the complex web of engineering and data management that goes into a multiyear megaproject carried out by large automotive and aerospace design and manufacturing firms. Their big-bucks megaprojects have been the traditional focus of software manufacturers, such as Dassault Systèmes (www.3ds.com), that have created powerful modeling software and heavyweight databases that can help an extended international team—such as those involved in the Boeing 7E7 project—stay connected and on track from project startup to launch and subsequent maintenance.

You won't easily find a similar process model among the architecture, engineering, and construction disciplines. On the contrary, because of liability considerations and the long-held tradition that separates architectural design from the actual construction processes at building sites, architects can be reluctant to communicate with engineers and fabricators after handing off construction documentation. Many engineering contractors and subcontractors won't allow architects onsite once their work is underway for fear that an architect might introduce expensive changes into the later stages of the project.

This is not to say that the AEC industry has no multiyear megaprojects of its own to contend with. Take the $274-million Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opened last year and whose design and construction spanned 15 years (figure 1). Or, as another example, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, more than five years in the making and viewed by many as one of the finest examples of nontraditional, form-defying architecture and construction to date (figure 2,).

Figure 2. Stone masons and steel workers from Bilbao, Spain, worked with Gehry Partner R&D team members to apply their traditional craftsmanship to the Guggenheim Museum project in nontraditional ways.
Figure 2. Stone masons and steel workers from Bilbao, Spain, worked with Gehry Partner R&D team members to apply their traditional craftsmanship to the Guggenheim Museum project in nontraditional ways.

These examples haven't been chosen at random. They have something in common that's crucial to the establishment of Gehry Technologies and the launch of its Digital Project applications. Famed architect Frank O. Gehry was the lead architect on both projects. As he pushed to break out of the traditional boundaries of shoebox design on these projects, he also encouraged his extended team to do the same with the entire process of building and construction—especially in the areas of procurement and fabrication. So they did.

A BIG FISH TO FRY

One of the first R&D projects taken on by Gehry's partner Jim Glymph when he joined the firm in 1989 was to study the automotive and aerospace industries. Glymph, who is now CEO of two-year-old Gehry Technologies, noted that the automotive and aerospace manufacturers did a much better job of engineering and procurement in their process of design and construction compared with their AEC counterparts.

To explore how the AEC industry could reap similar benefits, the R&D wing of Gehry Partners began working with CATIA, Dassault Systèmes' powerful modeling software, on internal experimental projects.

Figure 3. The Barcelona Fish, an engineering marvel presented to the people of Barcelona, Spain, to display on the waterfront for the 1992 Olympics, was an early proof-of-concept experiment for how CATIA technology could help integrate engineering and design more seamlessly.
Figure 3. The Barcelona Fish, an engineering marvel presented to the people of Barcelona, Spain, to display on the waterfront for the 1992 Olympics, was an early proof-of-concept experiment for how CATIA technology could help integrate engineering and design more seamlessly.

One of the first public displays to come out of the R&D team's efforts was the Barcelona Fish—the now-famous large fish sculpture placed on the Barcelona waterfront for the 1992 Olympics (figure 3). The sculpture was modeled completely in 3D in CATIA and handed directly to its fabricators as a 3D model, while the traditional paper trail followed behind.

The approach reached maturity with the design and execution of the Guggenheim Museum project in Bilbao, notes Dennis Shelden, chief technology officer for Gehry Technologies.

"The team wanted to use this technology to describe the building to steel workers and stone masons who had a history in the Bilbao area," says Shelden. "These were people who had lost jobs because of the decline in manufacturing in the area and were excited about applying their craftsmanship in a new way."

Figure 4. Digital Project allows project managers and contractors to better gauge project requirements through 3D views of project descriptions.
Figure 4. Digital Project allows project managers and contractors to better gauge project requirements through 3D views of project descriptions.

Though the technology can be daunting at first to the uninitiated, Gehry team members worked with the masons and steelworkers to help prove the concept.

The R&D team learned a great deal on the Bilbao project—something that Shelden describes as a common theme on the team and a new paradigm for architecture: they were concentrating on ways to bring technology to bear in re-emphasizing craft and fabrication. They also brought many of their discoveries into the later stages of the Walt Disney Concert Hall project to document the ambitious design and provide more efficient data models to fabricators. Almost all of the major players on the Disney Concert Hall project had used CATIA by the project's end, including contractors for the $9.5-million millwork for the theater's Douglas fir paneling and contractors for the metal stud framing.

Gehry R&D team members were also discovering ways that the right technology could successfully move engineering and fabrication from its traditional end-of-the-line position in the AEC process further upstream to anticipate and work out fabrication problems during design planning. The idea was to achieve cost reductions and building efficiencies similiar to those long enjoyed by the aerospace and automotive industries through their use of technology.

Figure 5. Engineering and fabrication documentation can be developed directly in the Digital Project environment or imported from third-party applications in 2D and 3D formats.
Figure 5. Engineering and fabrication documentation can be developed directly in the Digital Project environment or imported from third-party applications in 2D and 3D formats.

ALL SYSTEMS ARE GO

The need for training and consulting to help bring engineering and procurement upstream in AEC project planning shouldn't be underestimated. Two years ago, Gehry Partners spun off Gehry Technologies as a consulting company. In addition to providing engineering consulting on large, complex building projects, Gehry Technologies became a reseller for Dassault Systèmes' CATIA software. The company also took a major step forward a year into its formation by beginning development of its own line of software applications built on the CATIA V5 engine.

The October launch of Digital Project is the culmination of this decade-long history of R&D. The suite has three main applications aimed at various members of the extended AEC project team (figures 4-6).

Its most basic product, the Viewer ($2,000), provides construction personnel, estimators, and project managers with a project portal to view and measure geometry, edit attributes, and do takeoffs.

Figure 6. The errors that stem from doing cost-estimating takeoffs from paper drawings are eliminated with Digital Project. The accuracy of the model removes all ambiguity and potential disagreements regarding project quantities.
Figure 6. The errors that stem from doing cost-estimating takeoffs from paper drawings are eliminated with Digital Project. The accuracy of the model removes all ambiguity and potential disagreements regarding project quantities.

The next level up is the Foundation application ($9,000) for architectural production staff to do light geometric modeling, attribute modeling, information extraction, drawing production, and data coordination. Foundation also includes the Viewer.

Designer ($14,500) includes the Viewer and Foundation and offers fully functional modeling capabilities for advanced architects and engineers.

Add-on products for the suite include engineering specialty modules such as the Structural Steel and Systems Routing Engineering Workbenches, STL and STEP translators, and a Knowledge Template and Knowledge Advisor as part of its Standards Development add-on.

Figure 7. Architect Hariri Pontarini of Toronto, Canada, and consulting engineers Carruthers & Wallace are using Gehry Technologies Digital Project technology for the design and fabrication of the Baha i Temple in Santiago, Chile.
Figure 7. Architect Hariri Pontarini of Toronto, Canada, and consulting engineers Carruthers & Wallace are using Gehry Technologies Digital Project technology for the design and fabrication of the Baha i Temple in Santiago, Chile.

Digital Project can import and export 2D and other architectural data from Autodesk and Bentley Systems applications and also works with the CATIA product line and SMARTEAM data management and team collaboration software.

NEXT STEPS

The Digital Project launch and the role of Gehry Technologies as a consulting enterprise are ambitious steps to reconfigure the approach to design, building, and construction processes, says Shelden, especially with large construction projects. He notes that major players in the industry are showing a growing interest in better coordination and integration of architecture with engineering.

Other architectural software manufacturers may not hold this perspective that brings building procurement, fabrication, and the supply chain to the front of project planning, but Shelden says that's understandable given that this isn't their core area.

Figure 8. This view of the SCL Glass Headquarters & Showroom in Melbourne, Australia, shows some of the initial design and engineering studies undertaken with Digital Project by the architecture and engineering company Front of New York.
Figure 8. This view of the SCL Glass Headquarters & Showroom in Melbourne, Australia, shows some of the initial design and engineering studies undertaken with Digital Project by the architecture and engineering company Front of New York.

"We have a small startup with backing under Dassault," he says. "So we have some flexibility to rethink the whole process. We're looking at the executive architect, the building engineer, structural, and mechanical. We're examining what building owners do and what information contractors need. This has become an explosive amount of information for an owner and other financial managers to sign off on."

Of course, with the Digital Project barely a month old, it's too early to tell whether this model will be powerful enough to dislodge entrenched, largely sequential AEC processes. Because the model's impact is already documented on such high-profile projects as the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, you can be sure the industry will be watching Gehry Technologies, its products, and its customer base closely.

The company's current projects include the Ray & Maria Stata Center at MIT by Gehry Partners; the Baha'i Temple in Santiago, Chile, with Hariri Pontarini of Toronto, Canada, as architect and Carruthers & Wallace, Ltd., as consulting structural engineers; and the SCL Glass Headquarters & Showroom in Melbourne, Australia, with architecture and engineering by Front of New York, New York (figures 7 and 8).

Arnie Williams, former editor-in-chief of Cadence magazine, is a freelance author specializing in the CAD industry. E-mail Arnie at awilliams@grandecom.net.


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