Going to Work at 20,000 Leagues

21 Mar, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

A Design-Build Firm Uses BIM Technology to Create a Custom Fantasy Workplace.

A tabletop Christmas tree, a foldable table inspired by roaring flames, a surfboard-shaped acrylic bar counter with droplet patterns -- they're just a few of the fanciful items produced by Because We Can, a design and fabrication shop owned and operated by Jeffrey McGrew and Jillian Northrup. Looking at the objects' asymmetrical shapes, spiraling contours and ornate edges, you might think Jeffrey and Jillian primarily use a vector drawing program like Adobe Illustrator or a Nurbs modeler like form.Z or Rhino. People are often surprised to learn that the creative pair at Because We Can uses Autodesk Revit, a parametric BIM (building information modeling) product -- not just because they can, but because it's the most suitable program for what they do, they say.

Reconstructing Jules Verne's Nautilus

Three Rings, a startup computer game developer that has hit the treasure trove with Puzzle Pirates, gave Jeffrey and Jillian an irresistible challenge: design and fabricate their office space into a whimsical environment inspired by Jules Verne's fictional underwater vessel Nautilus. In addition to the elaborate separation screens and arches, the ambitious project called for each workspace to be customized for the artist moving into it. While one might choose an octopus with outstretched tentacles as the outlines of the back and side panels, another might opt for a ghostly galleon thrashing about in the waves.

Jeffrey and Jillian designed the basic individual workspace in 3D in Revit, then broke it into Adobe Illustrator templates. The 2D vector templates defined the spatial confines of the desk's back, sides and legs. They then gave the templates to the Three Rings artists and told them, "As long as you stay within these boundaries, you can go to town." They did, by importing the drawings into Flash and tracing whatever narrative scenes or symbolic objects they liked. Afterward, Jeffery and Jillian cleaned up the drawing files and fed them into the CNC software ArtCAM Insignia.

Because We Can, a design-build firm in Oakland, California, uses Autodesk Revit's BIM features to devise a workflow that accommodates last-minute changes and custom-designed decorative elements (copyright Because We Can, LLC).

No two workstations are alike. In his blog about the project, Jeffrey observed, "It was a great collaborative process, and made the totally custom desks inexpensive enough to be affordable. They cost a little more than a nice desk from Ikea, and way less than office cubes."

What Color is Your Ship?

One of the benefits of BIM is the ability to do cost estimation. In the Three Rings project, this feature came in handy. "We hired a contractor to paint the space," Jeffrey recalled. "We did color study in Revit, then we were able to automatically generate schedules that show how much paint we needed." In the final version, the walls were painted alternating blocks of blue and green, and a small back room was painted red. "We used the schedules on all the decorative arches and separation screens too, so we knew how much paint we would need for those," said Jillian. Because of their unorthodox geometric shapes, estimating the amount of paint required for these interior elements would have been next to impossible without a program like Revit.

Using a combination of Revit modeling, Adobe Illustrator templates and CNC production methods, Because We Can was able to let the computer game artists from Three Rings design their own cubicle enclosures (copyright Because We Can, LLC).

The other time this feature became useful was during the production of the custom desks. "We set Revit up in a way so that, when we're modeling, the software can tell us the area of wood required to make these items," Jillian said, "So basically, if we divide that area by the size of a sheet of plywood, we can guess how many sheets we're going to need."

Just-in-Time Design

When they started the project, Jeffrey said, the clients weren't sure what they wanted. "We gave them lots of ideas -- just rough models in Revit." In the intimate atmosphere around a lunchroom, the designer and the Three Rings artists met. "Everybody told us what they wanted, and we were modeling the space live, right in front of them." Using the Design Options feature in Revit, Jeffrey and Jillian were able to discuss the possible variations with those present at the meeting.

Having artistic people for end users put extra demands on Because We Can. Often, struck by a burst of imagination, the Three Rings staff would propose design modifications. "I like to call what we do 'just-in-time design,' " mused Jeffrey. "We're literally just a few steps ahead of the client."

A Revit 3D view of the bar counter for Three Rings' lounge area and the final product, manufactured using CNC (copyright Because We Can, LLC).

Two days before a party was scheduled to take place at Three Rings' office, which was also when the design delivery was due, Jeffrey and Jillian were still accommodating design changes. "Jillian was spray-painting some of the pieces. A friend of ours was cutting the others. Upstairs, I was still frantically drawing in Illustrator and swapping emails with one of the artists," Jeffrey recalled.

Confronting Real-World Imperfections

On delivery day, Jeffrey and Jillian arrived at the site, an old building in downtown San Francisco. "We found out nothing was straight," Jillian chuckled. "When we were doing our Revit model, we weren't really thinking about this. And of course, when the computer draws something, it's perfectly straight." The physical world's imperfect terrain didn't exactly undermine the design vision; Jeffrey and Jillian were able to do some field adjustment -- a few cuts here and there -- to make the installation possible. "We learned the hard way that things are perfect in Revit, in our CNC software," said Jillian, "but the real world isn't perfect."

"Nobody is really doing what we're doing right now," Jeffrey said, referring to combining Revit and CNC into the same workflow. "Don't think CNC is as easy as hitting the print button on your laser printer," he warned. "It took us about two years to be where we are now," Jillian said.

Impressed with what they'd been able to accomplish with Revit, Autodesk invited Jeffrey to present at 2006 Autodesk University. Jillian is behind the lens of her favorite Canon Rebel XT camera when she's not cutting plywood. She chronicled the Three Rings project and her trip to last year's Autodesk University on her photography site.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!