Conducting an Architectural Orchestra

22 Feb, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

James Dayton Design uses Digital Project to reshape MacPhail Center for Music

James Dayton, founding principal of the Minneapolis architecture firm James Dayton Design, once sat in a kindergarten class to take notes, unperturbed by the 20-odd pairs of incredulous eyes staring at him and wondering why a full-grown person was lounging in one of their tiny plastic chairs. He was there to better understand the needs of his client, the Blake School, a private, coed school with students in prekindergarten to 12th grade.

For Dayton, architecture is "a first-person, empirical experience. It is about making thoughtful, well-crafted spaces that serve clients well and contribute positively to the built environment in a creative and innovative way." He had an easier time on another project, the MacPhail Center for Music, which he began designing 14 months ago. Here, site research meant eavesdropping on choral recitals and jazz performances.

The Invisible Gehry Touch
Its portfolio already bursting with more than 40 projects in its first eight years, Dayton's private firm is the culmination of a series of professional engagements, beginning with his apprenticeship at Frank O. Gehry & Associates. "My work is reminiscent of [Gehry's]," says Dayton. "I trained under him and I admire his work." However, Dayton makes a concerted effort to avoid forms that are too Gehry-like, because, he says, "I don't want to be accused of copying Frank."

But there is one area where Dayton has wholeheartedly adopted Gehry's approach: Digital Projects, a CATIA-based architectural software platform from Gehry Technologies.

"The MacPhail building is fairly sophisticated," says Dayton, "with a lot of acoustic isolation and a dynamic metal-clad structure." While visiting his mentors at Frank O. Gehry & Associates, he told them he thought of this project as an appropriate way to explore the horsepower of Digital Project. To his surprise, they told him Digital Project was not meant exclusively for technologically sophisticated buildings; it should be deployable even for a carpenter building a cabin.

Tuning the Construction Symphony
The MacPhail Center for Music is a $14-million project involving nearly 60,000 sq. ft. of real estate and a dozen or so subconsultants in the areas of HVAC; structural, acoustical and civil engineering; and contracting. A carpenter's private cabin it is not.

Having listened to his client's wishes (and to a fair amount of chamber music), Dayton established the program: "We now know we have 58,000 sq. ft. for classrooms, the auditorium and the administrative space. The classes are in various categories -- for strings, jazz, rock and so on. Slowly, the square footages start to take shape. That's when we introduce the technological model and the physical model. In our office, it's done first in paper models, then in AutoCAD, and then in CATIA [the modeling engine behind Digital Project]."

"Once we get the structure built in CATIA," Dayton continues, "we have the sizes of the columns, the slabs, the column drop heads, so we know exactly the amount of concrete being used. We can tell the contractor exactly the amount they are bidding on." Because some team members are not equipped with CATIA -- such as those responsible for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) and ductwork -- Dayton's staff has to incorporate the structural data from those parties to update the virtual model. "Now we're in the design development phase, and we can see that duct is going to interfere with this beam right here. We can see that there'll be conflicts in these, say, ten areas, so we sit down as a team and solve them. We have the ability to coordinate all the things going into that building," Dayton explains.

Digital Project, according to Gehry Technologies, is a new software platform for building teams to realize ambitious building projects working through digital technologies. Its product suite supports the lifecycle of construction projects in a common digital environment, from design and engineering to fabrication, construction project management and onsite construction activities.

Frank's World vs. Dayton's World
"In Frank's world," Dayton says, reflecting on his old workplace at Frank O. Gehry & Associates, "the engineers he works with have CATIA, so they import the model directly. In our case, we have to build the structure on our end, using the information the engineers send in AutoCAD."

Architecture is an empirical experience not just for Dayton but also for most of his clients. "The physical model in paper and foam core is still the primary design tool," says Dayton. "This music school, for instance -- [these clients] don't necessarily use computers every day. We don't show them computer screens. They don't easily understand floor plans. But they do the physical model, so in every discussion, we have interior models, exterior models and light study models at various scales. They respond to being able to look into the space and understand what it is."

As the project moves forward, the physical model and the CATIA model enter a race, not running in parallel with each other but alternately overtaking each other. "There are moments when the physical model is in the lead," Dayton says. "Then, as we learn things about adjacencies and layout, the computer model gets updated, so for a while the CATIA model is in the lead."

James Dayton Design uses a physical model (top) and a CATIA model (bottom) concurrently to synchronize the structural data received from subcontractors in the field. The firm deploys Digital Project, an architectural software platform from Gehry Technologies.

"In Frank's office," he says, "there is a more direct link between the physical model and the virtual model." Dayton is referring to laser scanning and rapid prototyping technologies, which allow easier synchronization between the physical model and the virtual model. (For more on the use of rapid prototyping in architecture, see Cadalyst's GIS Tech News #14: "A Marriage of Inconvenience"; click here for archives.)

The Age of the Master Builders
Dayton anticipates a future when architects are restored to their former roles as master builders, as they were in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. "[Those in the field] sometimes ignore the redlines," he points out. "So it's up to me to change what they've already put in. We spend an exorbitant amount of time designing and laboring over every single detail, only to let it fall into the hands of the people in the field who may or may not be on the same page as we are." For this reason he is an advocate of the BIM (building information model) concept, consolidating all building data into one master model.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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