Building Design

Designed after Our Own Image (Tech Trends)

1 Nov, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

Biomorphic tower of the future builds on BIM to unite technology, antiquity, and community.


It's nearly impossible to describe in words the enormous structure that currently occupies a place of honor in Anderson Anderson Architecture's downtown San Francisco office. From a distance, it appears to be a human figure, reaching out for something. Close up, it's a collection of hundreds of 3D paper objects — among them, several squid, a high-heel shoe, and a dangling angel — folded, glued, and pinned to a wire frame. Upon inspection, what seem like crude, origami objects turn out to be image-printed card stock that is laser-cut and folded into complex geometric shapes.

The conceptual model represents what the firm's founding principals — brothers Peter and Mark Anderson — envision as a new kind of superstructure where San Franciscans would live, work, and play in 2108 A.D. (figure 1). In fact, they imagine one in every neighborhood, each stamped with the color and character of its locale. Some might view Anderson Anderson's towering giant as biomimicry, an emerging science that seeks design and engineering inspiration from nature. Others might call it a radical social and design experiment. The Anderson brothers call it their entry for the History Channel's City of the Future Competition (www.history.com/minisites/cityofthefuture). If they turn out to be the architectural prophets of the City by the Bay, the project could usher in a new building practice — best described as communal building information modeling (BIM).

Figure 1. Peter and Mark Anderson, founding principals of the San Francisco–based Anderson Anderson Architecture, imagine a tower in the shape of a human figure as a possible solution to population growth in 2108 a.d. A closeup of the model reveals intricate, geometric shapes created from laser-cut surfaces that are folded to form iconic symbols associated with the city.
Figure 1. Peter and Mark Anderson, founding principals of the San Francisco–based Anderson Anderson Architecture, imagine a tower in the shape of a human figure as a possible solution to population growth in 2108 a.d. A closeup of the model reveals intricate, geometric shapes created from laser-cut surfaces that are folded to form iconic symbols associated with the city.

Reconstructing the City's Dichotomy

"San Francisco has two opposing forces," observed Peter Anderson. "One is the collective consciousness, a shared sense of social, cultural, responsibility. The other is the fierce individuality, not just in people but also in its neighborhoods."

One of the civic challenges Anderson was trying to address with this concept was population density. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, every square mile of San Francisco currently is inhabited by roughly 16,000 residents. By contrast, every square mile of Cincinnati, Ohio, houses only 4,200. Because most San Franciscans currently live in low-rise structures, Anderson anticipates some high rises will inevitably become part of the solution to the city's future housing problems.

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"So our proposal," he said, "is to leave the individual neighborhoods relatively untouched, but add vertical structures, a type of mixed-use communities." The final shape of these humanoid towers would be determined not by the architect but by the residents who will move in, by the services they need, and by the microclimate of the region.

"The armature [base skeleton frame] would be the support infrastructure, producing its own energy, plumbing, and water-filtration mechanism. Not only is it self-sufficient, it also supports the surrounding community," said Anderson. "Certain components, such as elevators, would be communal. And the community would build on the base structure, adding to it whatever substructures they need — libraries, restaurants, gardens."

In other words, the architect provides the foundation, which, in this case, happens to be vertical, to which the end users can plug in whatever they might need. Anderson expects the ad hoc nature of the project, which seemingly contradicts the precision requirements of BIM, will force builders to rethink how they use BIM. In Anderson's vision, perhaps best described as open-ended BIM, the architect is encouraged to leave enough room in his basic design for unforeseen growth — yet-to-be-defined units that residents will design and add on to the central structure. Whereas current BIM workflow lets owners, architects, and contractors collaborate in the early phase of the design, Anderson's open-ended BIM will require a workflow that could accommodate subsequent collaborations, long after the architect has signed off on the design.

Plug in Your BIM Here

The use of Revit was important to this project, Anderson revealed, "The concepts of BIM were applied through the use of Revit for the overall modeling of the structure and systems. . . .You can then [design] the individual add-on units as BIM objects, tagged with the requirements," such as access to power and water. "You can even program its reaction to solar axis. So if you place the unit on the south side, it would have very different solar-thermal considerations as opposed to the northern side," he imagined.

The proposed building paradigm, he expects, could give rise to the idea of BIM objects as formula-driven components rather than rigid parts already fixed in space. For example, an octagonal residential unit might be designed as an independent BIM object with embedded formulas but not as a part of the main structure. Such a BIM object would be able to recompute the energy, lighting, and thermal requirements based on the future occupant's placement preference. For energy analysis, Anderson Anderson uses VE from Integrated Environmental Solutions, commonly referred to as IES VE (see product review), and Ecotect, recently acquired by Autodesk.

Sketching up the Giant

The superstructure was brought to life in Google SketchUp by one Anderson Anderson staff member. Another used Rhino, the NURBS-based modeling program from McNeel North America, to model the ground-plane data along with nearby structures at the intended site using publicly available data from Google Earth and other digital-mapping applications. Later, the same SketchUp model was easily imported into Google Earth to study its effect on the neighborhood — for example, where the superstructure's shadow would fall during different times of the day (figure 2).

Figure 2. The staff at Anderson Anderson used Google SketchUp to study the prophetic project, dubbed "Bay Towers of Babel-On." The neighboring structures were drawn in Rhino.
Figure 2. The staff at Anderson Anderson used Google SketchUp to study the prophetic project, dubbed "Bay Towers of Babel-On." The neighboring structures were drawn in Rhino.

The human-like shape was chosen not only because it was aesthetically interesting, but because it offers certain inherent advantages in San Francisco's relatively unchanging climate, Anderson noted. "It has a curved shape," he said, "so it shields itself during summer; in winter, you gain more access to the low-angle sun."

Unfolding Geometric Mysteries

To create the pine cones and sea stars that would become part of the wire skeleton, the Anderson Anderson staff modeled the objects as solids in Windows-based Rhino, then used a command to unroll each solid into a 2D pattern. The staff refined the pattern in AutoCAD by adding corner tabs to hold the card stock patterns together when folded (figure 3). Finally, the firm used a GCC LaserPro Explorer — a laser engraving machine with a work area spanning roughly 39" x 20" — to cut the CAD patterns.

Figure 3. Rhino allows the architects to model whimsical geometric shapes first as solid objects, then unroll them into 2D surfaces. The pattern here represents a shoe.
Figure 3. Rhino allows the architects to model whimsical geometric shapes first as solid objects, then unroll them into 2D surfaces. The pattern here represents a shoe.

Tower of Babel

One of the inspirations for Anderson Anderson's superstructure was the biblical reference to the Tower of Babel, an enormous tower where the ancient Babylonians dwelled (Genesis 11). Its inhabitants were said to speak a single language until the rise of multiple languages caused them to scatter. The common languages at Anderson Anderson's multiple-software office are DWG, DWF, and PDF (for people who do not use CAD). "Here, in our office, it's a bit like Babel," mused Anderson. "Some of us speak Revit. Others speak SketchUp. Then there are those who speak Rhino. But if we need to communicate with each other, there's always someone who can connect one program to the other."

In describing the project, currently dubbed "Bay Towers of Babel-On," Anderson Anderson wrote, "San Francisco blossoms as diverse communities of imagination, good health, and global contribution, exporting invention, food, energy; powering worldwide renewal in art, industry, health, happiness, individual liberty, ecological rationality, and communal good will. Architecture intertwines with all aspects of life, seamlessly providing infrastructure, energy, sustainable wealth, and inspiration into the lives of its citizen builders."


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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